Selecting a Trail Horse

Looking for a good trail horse? The good news is that trail horses come in all breeds, crossbreeds, sizes, shapes, and colors. Trail horses can be tall and lean or short and stocky. A good trail horse is simply any animal that safely takes you down all ty

Looking for a good trail horse? The good news is that trail horses come in all breeds, crossbreeds, sizes, shapes, and colors. Trail horses can be tall and lean or short and stocky. A good trail horse is simply any animal that safely takes you down all types of trails in all types of trail conditions.

On the other hand, this wide range of choices can make the final decision difficult. Here, I’ll tell you what to look for, where to find a trail horse, and questions to ask the seller. I’ll also tell you about my own recent trail-horse-buying experience.

What to Look For
Here are five key characteristics to keep in mind as you shop for your next trail horse.

  • Trail experience. Trail-horse prospects aren’t necessarily bred for trail riding; they’re “educated” to carry you safely in diverse trail situations. The more wet saddle blankets that have come off a prospect’s back, the better he’ll be on the trail. The less experienced you are, the more experienced your trail mount should be. He’ll likely get you through tough spots.
  • Conformation. Look for balance over beauty. Don’t rule out a Roman nose or an extra-thick neck if the horse’s disposition and attitude demonstrate his trail ability. There are thousands of trail horses that will never place in a conformation class, but that have proven their worth by safely carrying a rider along narrow trails and across flooding rivers. However, overall balance does affect trail ability. A short-backed horse will be able to carry more weight than a long-backed one. A short-coupled horse with long legs may tend to “scalp” his front heels. A horse with an exceptionally wide front chest and wide base (distance between hooves) will have power going uphill, but may stumble on narrow trails, due to his width.
  • Disposition. When you test your trail-horse prospect under saddle, look for a quiet, laid-back disposition. A quiet horse is one that will put up with a lot of distractions. He’s forgiving. He may suddenly throw up his head and snort at a plastic bag, but he won’t spook, spin, or take off to parts unknown. He’ll think first, then react. He’ll give you time to reassure him with a pat on the neck, a quiet word, or a nudge to keep moving. He won’t waste energy. Conversely a nervous horse that frets and worries doesn’t always make the best trail horse.
  • Attitude. Attitude dictates a horse’s momentum. A horse with a willing attitude will walk down the trail looking at the world around him. His ears will swivel to catch trail sounds. His whole body language says, “I just love being a trail horse.” Point his nose up a hill, and he’ll pick the best route through the rocks. He likes people and other horses. He just wants to please.
  • Gender. This is an individual decision. I like geldings for their even temperaments. Mares, which have heat cycles, can develop trail-kicking problems; others will whinny to every horse that goes by. Avoid stallions, which aren’t allowed in some public parks, trails, and horse camps, and need expert management.Trail-Horse Sources
    Now that you know what to look for, here are several places to start your search.
  • Local sources. Begin with your friends. Ask whether anyone has a good trail horse for sale. Find out whether there’s a seller in your area, and ask who he or she would recommend. Contact your state horse council for leads. Ask your farrier and veterinarian. Look in local equine publications and The Trail Rider. Put up a “horse wanted” notice in local barns, and tack and feed stores.
  • Horse breeders. Although most trail horses are made, not bred, there are breeders who specialize in producing good-minded, well-conformed, athletic trail horses. Gaited-horse breeders especially fall into this category. You can find such breeders through their respective breed associations, print advertising, and the Internet.
  • The Internet. Speaking of the Internet, this can be an excellent search tool, especially if you don’t mind traveling some miles to find just the right horse. You can search for Trail Horses For Saleon the premier classified site of the Equine Network, can search for Trail Horses For Sale on the premier classified site of the Equine Network, Just type “trail horse” into your favorite search engine, and countless sites will come up. Once you find a horse you like, go see him in the flesh to avoid surprises once the purchase is completed.

My Trail Horse Quest

I’d been looking for a gelding between the ages of 9 and 14, with no spook, no buck, and that was happy to just walk down a trail for over a year. He needed to have big bone, big hooves, and a big body following a willing disposition. He needed an attitude that seemed to glow from the eyes and it all had to be wrapped in horse hide about 15 hands high and 1,100-plus pounds.

The ad on Bay Area Equestrian Network ( simply stated. “trail horse gelding, ridden everywhere. He fit my age and height requirements, and he was being sold by the folks who’d bred him. I headed out in anticipation. This would be the 87th horse I’d gone to see.

I’d always known that when I found the right horse, we’d just “click, “I “clicked” with this horse the instant he looked at me. In the warm-up arena, he inched his way beside me and nuzzled my shoulder. In my mind, the sale was final, and I didn’t even know the asking price.

On the trail, the horse long-strided through ditch water, up the road, and right past a jackhammer without batting and eyelid. The price was right. I qualified as “a good home.” Now, a new Paint Horse gelding I call Joe stands in the barn.

I’d searched for more than a year for Joe. During that time I learned some important lessons. For one thing, I found out that my trail-horse vocabulary and that of mort sellers were different. Here’s what I mean.

  • “Big”. Mention “big” and people think “tall.” I meant big bone, big body, big hip line – tank type big, even if the horse is only 14 hand high. <
  • “Tall”. I looked at one prospect just because I’ve never seen a 24 hand horse. He was measured from ground to ear tips rather that withers
  • “Nice chrome”. Color doesn’t make the horse, but I found that eye-catching makings add a thousand dollars or more to the asking price. The horse might not accept the bridle, but he’s still “pretty enough to turn heads.”<
  • “Good feet.” One horse didn’t have shoes, because he had “good feet,” according to the seller. Finally, the seller admitted that the horse simply didn’t like ferries.
  • “Nervous.” I can understand a horse getting nervous when he’s walked up to a veterinarian. But I don’t expect him to flip over backwards during the pre-purchase exam. Another no sale. <
  • “Crosses water.” One seller told me his horse would” cross water regardless of the wind.” It turned out that the horse had never crossed real water’ he crossed blue traps held down with rocks in an arena.
  • “Trailers.”I found I had to specify that this included actually going into the trailer. Another horse loaded just fine, but if the trailer didn’t move immediately, he’d paw and kick the wall. Yet another had a problem unloading. As I drove away, the owner was standing behind the horse shaking a can of oats to lure the horse out.

On a more serious note, I also learned that you should never try to replace a memory. When I first started trail-horse shopping, I’d just put down Sig, my trail horse of 19 years. The first horses I inspected reminded me of him. One day, I realized a prospect looked a lot like Sig – but he wasn’t what I really wanted. Then it hit me; I was looking for sing again.

After this revelation, Joe (registered name, Diamonds Apprecio) was the third horse I saw. Everything just seemed to fall into place. He’ll be an excellent trail horse. He has the eye, disposition, attitude, and willingness to go where I point him. My year-long quest has ended.

  • Horse brokers. Contact three or four brokers who offer trail horses for sale. Tell them what you’re looking for in terms of age, price range, trail experience, etc. Once you find two or three horses and have viewed photos via mail or e-mail, drive to the respective ranches. Or, arrange to meet the broker to look at the horses together. This route can save you time and money.
  • Horse auctions. If you know what you’re doing, check out an auction. Today, there’s an increasing number of “trail horse” auctions where many buyers have found success. However, such an auction doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll find a good trail horse. A ranch-horse auction isn’t necessarily a trail-horse gold mine, either. I tried out two ranch horses that were great at moving cattle, working gates, and roping – but when it came to trails, they were both spooky and unsuitable. For a greater chance of success, read the horse’s catalog description and watch him work. Ask the seller why he’s selling the horse and whether the horse has been ridden on all types of trails.Questions to Ask
    Before looking at a trail-horse prospect, make a list of your needs and wants. Then write down all the questions you want to ask the seller. Be sure to include the following:
  • What’s the asking price? Decide in advance what you want to spend, and stick with it. Don’t be surprised if you say you want to spend $5,000, and every horse you’re shown is $5,000. If your budget is $5,000, keep the paying price “in the neighborhood of $4,500, maybe more,”especially at an auction, where prices – and emotions – can rise rapidly.
  • How old is the horse?As mentioned, a young horse won’t be as trailwise as an aged horse simply because the youngster hasn’t spent as much time on the trail. Plus, an older horse will be more settled than a young horse. But if you’re an experienced rider, you might prefer the vitality, challenges, and training opportunities a young horse offers.
  • What’s the horse’s trail experience? Again, look for a horse with more trail experience than you. Note that age doesn’t always dictate experience: Many aged horses from other horse occupations are sold as “trail horse” just because they’ve soured at their present occupation. Such horses can make excellent trail mounts, but know in advance what you’re getting into.
  • Who previously owned the horse? Ask about the prospect’s ownership history. If the horse has changed hands frequently, he may have undesirable trail manners, or behavioral problems related to trailer-loading, shoeing, stabling, etc.
  • Does the horse have good basic skills? A horse with basic skills is one with good ground manners; he’ll stand quietly when tied, and for saddling, mounting, hoof cleaning, and shoeing and veterinary work. He’s easy to bridle, he’ll trailer without a battle, and he gets along with other horses. He’ll go forward, stop, turn, and back on the lead and under saddle. Of course, you can likely work on minor problems, such as an objection to saddling or foot handling, if you feel the horse will otherwise make a good trail mount, and you’re willing and able to take on the task.
  • Can I take the horse for a trial run? Make sure you can take the prospect onto a trail before you buy. Plan a day for you and seller to trailer out and ride together. Saddle and bridle the horse yourself to get a feel of how the horse responds. Note how the horse trailers. If possible, pick a trail the horse has never before been on. On the trail, lead, follow, lag behind, and even split off from the other horse to see how the prospect behaves.
  • What’s the horse’s veterinary history? Ask whether the horse has tied-up (experienced cramped muscles) on a trail ride or has colicked when camping. Such a history might mean the horse is prone to these conditions. Ask whether the horse is taking (or has taken) any prescription or over-the-counter medications. Ask about any alternative treatments and herbal potions. And ask to see all veterinary records.
  • Is the horse sound? Scars and blemishes, such as old wire cuts, usually won’t affect the horse’s soundness. It’s hard to find an older horse without a couple scars. And a blemish doesn’t mean a horse is unsound. To check for soundness, have a reputable veterinarian perform a pre-purchase examination before the deal is sealed. (See “What’s Up, Doc?” on page 30.) You might decide a certain degree of manageable problems is acceptable to you. But bear in mind that it’s better to buy a sound horse than to try and make do with one that isn’t sound.

Now, Ride!
Once you’ve purchased your new trail horse, ride! At first, he may hesitate when you ask him to go down a bank and into dark water. But he’ll become more willing to take you where you ask once he learns that you’ll keep him out of danger.

And you’ll learn that when your horse stops or wants to take another route, he’s not refusing. Rather, he’s perceived that something isn’t quite right and is looking for a way to keep you both safe. This mutual trust will grow the more you saddle up and ride the trails.

Ready to look for the right horse for you? Go to, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, to search for the perfect horse!

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