Nothing can be more exciting and fulfilling than buying a trail horse. However, such a purchase comes with risks. Will the horse become your reliable trail mount and partner in many safe, adventurous trail miles? Or, will he have a starring role in Terror on the Trail?
We’ve discovered that the best way to reduce risk in purchasing a horse is to do your homework. Think about what you need in a trail horse, then plan a good testing strategy to ensure you’re achieving your goals.
The Fear Factor
When shopping for a trail horse, evaluate how he reacts to fear. This reaction plays an important part in trail safety. Here are examples of undesirable and desirable fear reactions.
Charlene and I were once riding a narrow, steep, side-hill trail next to a pond. A beaver suddenly shot out of the pond and into the air. It startled all of us, but my horse did a rearing, 180-degree turn.
Now, I was facing Charlene who’d been behind me. Neither one of us could turn around safely. Fortunately, Charlene was able to back
her horse up until the trail widened, then I was able to turn around. Not a safe situation.
A few years later, I was checking out a horse to purchase. I noticed he seemed a bit nervous, but I continued to test ride him down the trail.
The horse stepped on an empty aluminum can.
Disaster struck! His reaction to the crackling can was a bucking run that sent me over a 10-foot cliff. I was black-and-blue from head to knee. A longer drop, and my days in the saddle would’ve come to a screeching halt.
A horse with a solid, calm temperament would react differently. For example, a few summers ago I was riding a solid trail horse, leading a pack string in a Montana wilderness.
We came around a bend, not knowing a deer carcass was several feet off the trail. A golden eagle rose off the carcass. It was so close that the force of air from its six-foot wingspan ruffled my hat and my horse’s mane.
My horse never missed a beat. This happened on a side-hill trail where a bad reaction could’ve sent us over the edge and into a steep canyon.
Another outstanding reaction to fear was demonstrated by our veteran pack horse, Freddy, when we were packing into the Canadian Rockies. We were crossing a rushing, milk-colored, glacial river. I lost Freddy’s lead rope. Because of the current and the floating waterproof packs, he was swept into a partial log jam.
A flighty horse could’ve gone into hysterics, resulting in lost gear, possible injury, and maybe even the horse’s death. This solid fellow calmly waited until I retrieved him, and we continued the river crossing.
There are many factors to consider when looking for a new trail horse. Here, we’ll include only what we consider to be the most important features when searching for and testing a new trail mount.
7 Trail-Horse Criteria
Here are seven criteria to keep in mind when shopping for your next trail horse.
Good temperament. A good temperament is most important. The horse should be emotionally and mentally suited for trails.
Alertness. Find a horse that’s alert and observant to his surroundings. One that just goes blindly forward without thinking isn’t desirable, because he can stumble into difficult or dangerous situations.
Calmness. A solid, calm-minded horse can be a lifesaver when unexpected situations arise on the trail. Your worst prospect for a trail horse is one with a nervous, flighty temperament. It’s been our experience that most flighty horses don’t improve to the point of being trustworthy and calm on the trail.
Courage. A good test for temperament is reaction to fear. All horses, as well as humans, can be startled by fearful events. The key is their reaction to fear. Does the horse stand and face the fearful object, or does he take off on a running, bucking spree? (For our personal experiences with "the fear factor," see page 24.)
Good in groups. Find a horse that goes calmly in groups. You don’t want a horse that always has to be up front. Nothing is more aggravating than holding a horse back! Also, you don’t want a horse that falls behind, then trots to catch up. The horse should have no problem being in the front, middle, or back of a group.
Good conformation. Look for good conformation and good-sized bone for mountain riding. Good conformation gives the horse a smooth, ground-covering walk, and the strength needed to go up and down mountains.
Trail experience. If you plan on embarking on difficult trail rides and/or wilderness pack trips, your prospective horse needs trail experience. There’s no substitute for "wet blanket" time on the trail. Buying a young, green horse and doing your own training is probably not a good idea for beginning or novice riders. It would be safer to start with an older, established trail horse. As clinician Craig Cameron says, "Green on green makes black and blue!"
8 Horse-Buying Tips
Now that you know what to look for, here are eight buying tips to help you find a solid trail partner.
Check references. If you’re purchasing a young horse from a breeder, check out a number of references. Also, find out the farm’s return or trade policy. Many breeders will allow you to return a horse and try another.
Ask questions. If you’re purchasing a horse from an individual, find out why the person is selling the horse. If someone has eight horses and he’s selling only one, chances are, the horse for sale isn’t the best in the herd.
Two of the finest horses we ever owned resulted from a good reason for their sale. In both cases, the owners were selling all their horses. One owner was quitting the outfitting business; the other, going into mules. We were able to purchase the best horse for our needs from each group.
Watch the pre-ride routine. Watch how easily the owner can catch the horse. Then check out the horse’s reaction to being saddled. Is he nervous, moving around, eyes rolling? See how he takes the bit. Is it an easy process, or is the horse tossing his head?
Be suspicious if the horse is saddled and waiting for you upon your arrival. You want to see the owner saddle and bridle the horse. One time, a horse we were considering buying was already saddled, bridled, and tied to a fence. Under saddle, the horse crow-hopped and tried to knock me off by racing under tree branches. When I declined the horse, the owner said, "It’s probably too much horse for you." I said, "You’re probably right!"
Watch the owner ride. To avoid such scenarios, ask the owner to ride the horse first. Watch how the horse moves. Is he relaxed? Does he seem to enjoy being ridden, or is the owner struggling with him and trying to keep him going in one direction?
Watch transitions. Ask the owner to put the horse through the various gaits: walk, trot, and lope/canter. Are transitions smooth, and is the horse responsive to cues?
Go for a ride. Now it’s time for you to test ride the horse. Ideally, you’ll have an opportunity and time to put the horse through a number of trail tests and obstacles.
Ask for a test period. One great way to further evaluate the horse is if the owner lets you take the horse home for a period of time. One of the best horses we ever purchased resulted from the owner letting us take the horse home for a two-week try-out.
Test ride the horse in all kinds of situations. Ride him alone and in groups. Ride him across rushing creeks, by traffic, on trails, and over obstacles, such as logs. Finally, ride him past a variety of animals — including, of course, the ever-present barking dogs!
See how the horse reacts to objects (such as lead ropes and raincoats) fluttering around and over his head. Also, how well does the horse trailer?
Get a prepurchase exam. Lastly, schedule a prepurchase exam with an impartial veterinarian to make sure the horse has no underlying health problems. (For more on the prepurchase exam, see "Prepurchase Exam FAQs," June ’09, or visit MyHorse.com.)
Follow these steps, and you’ll most likely find a great trail mount. Now comes the most important part: Have fun! Enjoy many years of memorable trail miles with your equine partner!
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type "Kent and Charlene Krone" in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at email@example.com.
Ready to look for the right horse for you? Go to Equine.com, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, to search for the perfect horse!