When it's time to buy your next trail horse, it's tempting to start by looking at print and online ads or driving around to see horses. After all, that's the fun part. But do your homework first.
"Write down exactly what you're looking for," advises Tim Doud, an award-winning outfitter in Cody, Wyoming, who also breeds show-quality saddle mules. "Then look for the animal. Don't look at horses first and then try to figure out what you need."
When you're ready to start your search, consider these six sources: (1) word-of-mouth; (2) rescue organizations; (3) reputable breeders; (4) specialized trainers; (5) auctions and sales; and (6) trail-horse outfitters. Here, we give you a rundown of each source, plus critical questions to ask the seller, savvy buying tips, and a handy resource guide.
One of the best ways to find a good horse is through someone you already know: your veterinarian, farrier, trainer, barn buddy, or horse-savvy neighbor.
That's exactly how Gwen Randle of Morriston, Florida, ended up with the best trail horse she'd ever owned. When Gwen's husband, Charlie, was searching for a horse, a trainer friend suggested he look at a Quarter Horse gelding, Quarter Note Hank. The trainer knew the gelding was a nice reined cow horse and a good trail horse.
Charlie bought Hank, but when the horseman decided get into cutting, Hank became Gwen's horse. Gwen says Hank, now 11 years old, is tops out of all the horses she's owned.
Gwen's advice to other horse-hunters? "Talk to people you trust to see if they know of any good trail horses for sale," she says. "We didn't know the people we bought Hank from, but we knew the trainer well and trusted him, so we felt confident buying Hank."
A big plus was that the sellers allowed the Randles to try out Hank before finalizing the purchase. "Before buying, try the horse out on new trails, out of his usual territory," says Randle. "If possible, take the horse home, and ride him on trails he's not used to."
Years ago, Randle learned this lesson the hard way when she bought an Anglo-Arabian gelding. The gelding was calm and quiet when she rode him at the seller's, but after she brought him home, she discovered her "quiet" new horse spooked at anything unfamiliar.
2. Rescue Organizations
Don't overlook horse rescue organizations in your quest for a trail horse, especially in these uncertain economic times in which owners are being forced to give up top-quality horses.
"At our rescue, anywhere from 85 to 90 percent end up being able to be good trail horses," notes Hilary Wood, president and founder of Front Range Equine Rescue in Larkspur, Colorado. "We rescue, rehabilitate, and put the horses through training assessment."
Not all rescue operations rehabilitate and retrain horses, so look for one that does. When you contact an organization, ask what type of horses it rescues and what its adoption policies are. Specify that you're looking for a sound animal you plan to use as a trail/recreational mount.
Then visit the facility. In fact, Wood suggests visiting it more than once. While there, watch the horse being ridden before you ride him, and query the rider. Request all of the horse's available health and training history, and ask questions just as you would when buying from a private party.
Ask for and contact references, such as past adopters, and local veterinarians and farriers who work with the rescue facility. Read the adoption contract closely. Some specify that the horse can't be resold or must be returned to the organization if you can no longer keep him.
When you find a horse you think you'd like to buy, arrange for a pre-purchase exam.
Be prepared to pay a reasonable fee for the horse. Front Range Equine Rescue bases adoption fees on the horse's age and abilities. It looks for quality homes over market value, typically charging adoption fees of $500 to $1,000 for horses suitable for trail/recreational riding.
When you find a horse you think is "the one," it's tempting to let your heart rule your head. Follow these buyer-savvy guidelines to avoid common horse-hunting pitfalls.
• Watch, then ride. Watch while the seller handles and rides the horse, then ride him yourself.
• Head for unfamiliar trails. Ride the horse on unfamiliar trails to see how reliable he actually is when not on his friendly home turf.
• Ride the horse alone. See how the horse reacts when he's away from other horses.
• Go back. Give yourself several visits with the horse to spend time with him and get a sense of whether he's right for you. A horse can be exceptional, but still not be the
• Ask for a trial period. If possible, put down a deposit, and arrange for a trial period allowing you to take the horse home. Put this agreement in writing to avoid legal issues should the horse become ill or injured during this time. If you take the horse to your facility, he should be insured, either by the seller or by you, as a precaution.
If the seller won't agree to a trial period, don't feel pressured to make a decision immediately. But keep in mind that unless you put a deposit on the horse and the seller agrees to hold him for a specific time period, the might be sold to another buyer.
• Ask for references. When buying from a breeder or "horse trader," request names of people who've bought horses from him or her, then call these people for references and feedback
• Check the papers. Look over registration and any brand/health papers carefully to make sure they're up-to-date and match the horse being sold.
• Use your own veterinarian. Arrange for a pre-purchase exam by your own vet. If you're buying out of your area, consult a recommended third-party vet; avoid using the seller's vet.
• Don't rush it. Buying a horse should never be a hurried, overnight decision. You're opening your heart and home to a feeling, emotional creature with a long lifespan. Take the time and effort to make the right decision, and you'll reap the rewards for many years to come.
3. Reputable Breeders
Buying directly from a breeder allows you to see the dam (and often the sire) of the horse you're eyeing, as well as observe the type of horses the breeder produces.
"One big plus of buying from a breeder is that they know the horse's whole history from the day it was born," says Mel Kuhlman, who owns Stride Right Farms with his wife, Debbie. "We know exactly what we're selling, as opposed to someone selling a horse they've bought from someone else."
Stride Right, which breeds and sells Rocky Mountain Horses, has farms in both Washington and Kentucky. The farm has produced a number of regional and world champion horses in addition to in-demand trail horses. The farm's trail-trained and certified Rockies start at $5,000.
"Our show champions are trained in exactly the same manner as our trail horses; a majority of their training is done on mountain trails," notes Mel, who finds that about 90 percent of would-be buyers are searching for a solid, reliable trail horse.
"People are looking for a calm, uncomplicated horse that doesn't have a high flight instinct," he continues. "That's what we breed for; not only our farm, but all responsible Rocky Mountain breeders breed to maintain this disposition the breed is known for. Disposition will often play into whether or not a horse will be a good, solid trail horse."
Mel stresses the importance of purchasing a "certified" horse when buying certain gaited-horse breeds. This means the horse has been examined under saddle by a panel of examiners to certify that the horse has the proper temperament, gait, and conformation required by that breed. This applies to such breeds as the Rocky Mountain Horse, Spotted Mountain Horse, Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse, and the Mountain Pleasure Horse. Certification is noted on the horse's registration papers.
Mel says people shopping for a horse routinely ask for 7- to 10-year-old horses, because they assume a horse won't settle down and have the experience unless it's at least that old. However, that's not necessarily the case.
"I am a very firm believer that it's not how old the horse is, but what its disposition is like and how much experience the horse has," he notes. "Don't be afraid of buying a younger horse, one that's 3 or 4 years old, providing they've been given the experience. This will show when you ride them. Many times, a younger horse will bond with its new owner quicker and more completely than an older horse will."
Stride Right has created a "lease/lesson" program that helps would-be owners find the right horse, and allows those who aren't ready to own a horse to still have the joy of riding and caring for one.
In the program, which runs on a month-to-month basis, each client is first matched with a well-trained horse so the Kuhlmans can assess skill level. From there, the client is moved on to different horses as they progress through the program.
Beyond lessons, clients essentially have unlimited access to practice on, groom, and spend time with "their" horses, including trail riding, if skilled enough.
4. Specialized Trainers
Some trainers actually specialize in fine trail horses. Over the past 30 years, the Wil Howe Ranch, owned by Wil and Beverly Howe, has developed a reputation for turning out versatile, all-around performance horses and "Cadillac" trail horses.
"We really have a special niche as we're trainers, ride only our own horses, and sell our finished projects," says Beverly. "We only handle about dozen at a time and stay a small husband-and-wife team. We know our horses well, as we're the ones training them. They go through our rigorous program and have to meet our specs.
"We start with handpicked, good-minded individuals," Beverly continues. "Our horses mountain trail ride, handle ranch work, work cattle, and handle in the arena like a broke show horse, English or Western. We don't sell them until they're neck reining and in a finished curb with romal reins, California style."
Although the Howes have trained more than 24 different breeds, they've always preferred stock horses, and now specialize in Quarter Horses and Paint Horses. They sell only geldings, age 5 to 14 years; prices generally range from $15,000 to $27,000. The majority of their clients are trail/backcountry riders.
"Some folks think just because they only need a trail horse that they don't need 'all that fancy training,' but much more is required of a safe trail horse than many realize," Beverly explains."A well-trained horse that yields and responds willingly in all situations is critical. This exposure training takes time and effort, and is combined with responsive reining and leg cues necessary to navigate rough terrain and unusual circumstances."
The Howes emphasize the importance of horse and rider having the right "chemistry" and personality match. They make sure each buyer ends up with the right horse so the horse/rider relationship can be both safe and fun.
"Horses are a lot like vehicles - you get what you pay for in quality, reliability, safety, and looks," says Beverly. "We take pride in suiting the buyer with the right horse for their needs."
The Howes split their time between northeastern Oregon (May through November) and southeastern Arizona (December through April). They also offer week-long horsemanship courses at their ranches; about 90 percent of their buyers take a course before heading home with their new horses.
5. Auctions and Sales
If you want a reliable horse that has proved his ability, look into a ranch-horse auction. Typically held in Western states, such auctions are great sources for people eager to take home a well-trained working horse.
"Buyers may be looking for a good trail horse or a ranch horse they can do everything on. These are going to be the most broke horses you can find," says Dale Segraves, co-owner of Segraves & Associates, the auction company that handles the San Antonio Ranch Gelding Show and Sale each year. Fifty-eight geldings were consigned to this year's sale, which was held in February.
Buyers appreciate the fact that all geldings entered in the sale are judged on their ability to perform general ranch work. This ranch horse competition takes place the morning of the auction, so buyers can see how the horses perform prior to bidding.
While last year's sale topper brought $25,000, Segraves says the average price is about $8,000. Most geldings are in the 10-and-under age range, although a few may be 11 or 12. The majority are Quarter Horses, but buyers will also find some Paints.
Another popular ranch gelding sale is the Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale, held in Red Bluff, California. The sale was established in 1942 by area ranchers and now attracts about 50,000 people each year. In addition to quality ranch-broke geldings, the sale also offers saddle mules and features a trade show.
The Lazy K Ranch's 26th annual Pick-A-Colt Day Sale will be held on June 6, 2009. Approximately 80 Quarter Horse and Paint Horse foals will be offered, including bloodlines of Colonel Freckles, Doc O' Lena, Gay Bar King, Hollywood Dun It, Peppy San Badger, and Shining Spark. Buyers will be able to view the horses' photos and breeding information online, then have the option of purchasing online on the day of the sale.
Another large sale, especially attractive to those in the market for a smooth-gaited trail horse, is the World Fox Trotting Horse Sale, owned and operated by Ralph VanKirk. There are two sales: One is held every March and October at the Boone County Fairgrounds in Columbia, Missouri; the other is held every June and September at the McNail Multipurpose Indoor Arena in Lebanon, Missouri.
The sales are open to all registered and grade breeds. Gaited breeds include Missouri Fox Trotters, Tennessee Walking Horses/Spotted Saddle Horses, and Racking Horses. The sale also includes Quarter Horses and mules.
Auction companies offer some soundness guarantees as specified in their respective catalogs, but be sure to get a prepurchase exam.
6. Trail-Horse Outfitters
Some of the finest trail horses literally earn their keep taking riders down the trail. Outfitters rely on solid trail horses to make a living, so finding outfitters willing to sell their best horses can be a challenge, but it is possible.
"If an outfitter has a good trail horse, he'll make more money taking people up and down the mountain than just cashing him out," says Tim Doud, owner of Bliss Creek Outfitters and Diamond Creek Mules in Cody, Wyoming. "If someone wants to buy a trail horse from me, there's no way I'm going to sell my best horse."
He feels strongly that once a horse has put in many years of work, it deserves a good retirement, instead of being sold late in life for a questionable future. He prefers to retire his old horses to pasture and feels it's his responsibility to care for them the rest of their natural lives.
That said, if you're interesting in a horse owned by an outfitting company, it doesn't hurt to ask if he's available for purchase.
Doud also breeds saddle mules, both for his own use and to sell to select clients. He says shoppers should be cautious of a seller who's urging them to make a decision. "Beware of someone who's pushing you to buy," says Doud. "Anyone who's a reputable seller or breeder won't try to sell you the animal. He'll show you the horse or mule and tell you about him, but won't try to make you buy on that first visit. I want people to think about it, because I want to make sure my animals go to a good place."
People routinely ask Doud if he has a 3- or 4-year-old "bombproof" trail horse for sale. He tells them no horse is ever 100 percent bombproof and even the really good ones need years of experience to get trail-savvy. That's where a reputable outfitter can help.
"I can make someone a good trail horse by putting that horse in my string and using him for a year or two," says Doud, noting that a number of outfitters offer this service for a fee. "I can put 100 miles on a horse every week. That can get a horse safe under saddle and advance him even further along just by the number of miles and the people I'm putting on him. It's like accelerated training without wearing the horse down."
If you go this route, get all details in writing, and deal only with a reputable, trustworthy outfitter who takes excellent care of his or her stock.
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.