A day on the trail is one of life's great joys, if you have the right horse for the job. And finding that horse isn't easy. Among the most debated questions in the horse-buying business is whether it's better to purchase a young horse and train it yourself, or buy an experienced more mature horse that will happily carry you over hill and dale without so much as a blink at life's distractions.
Here, we'll look at both sides of the debate, discussing the pros and cons of buying a young, mostly untrained horse, versus an older, trained prospect. We'll also discuss another top buying priority, the horse's mind, and address whether or not you should "breed your own."
The Young Horse
First, by young horse, we mean an unbroken 2- to 4-year-old, with little or no training. You may've always dreamed of raising and training your own horses, but let's face reality: Very few people have the time, energy, skill level, and patience to take a completely green horse and turn it into a reliable trail partner.
Training a youngster isn't for the novice - or even intermediate-level - horseperson. So it might be worth the extra couple of thousand dollars to purchase a horse with training and experience. You might end up spending that amount - and more - in training costs to mold a young horse to suit your needs.
Audrey Pavia, author of Trail Riding: A Complete Guide (Howell Equestrian Library) advocates experienced mounts. "You need to know how to train a horse in the arena first," she says. "When you're on the trail, you have a lot less control. You also need a lot of confidence to train a horse for trail riding. Many green horses are insecure when they're out on the trail. A confident rider helps instill confidence in a horse. If you're a nervous rider, you'll communicate your fear to the horse, and make it hard for him to relax and learn."
Fred Mau breeds Tennessee Walkers and trains trail horses in the mountains of northern New Mexico. He notes that even when you send a horse to a trainer for 30 days, you'll likely get 30 hours of training, not 30 five or six hour days. In a horse's overall education, that's not very much time, so you'll still have a lot of work to do at home.
You're also gambling on the kind of horse that youngster will grow into. "It's like hiring a child to be your employee when he grows up," says Mau. "You just don't know what you'll get when the horse matures."
That said, there are advantages to training your own youngster, especially if you have the requirements listed earlier. The partnership that develops between a horse and his trainer is one of the joys of horse ownership. Watching him develop into a confident partner is satisfying.
One of the primary reasons to purchase a young horse and then train him, say experts, is that you avoid encountering training problems others have created. Making your own from scratch means that you know the origin of every quirk your horse develops.
"A well-started young horse has his whole life ahead of him," says Cindy Smith of Circle B Stables, which trains and sells trail and family horses. "They generally have fewer health and leg problems and, in most cases, fewer bad habits. They aren't barn sour, herd-bound, or hard-mouthed. They're generally more of a blank slate, and they'll learn what you want of them quickly."
Jo Fanelli, an avid trail rider and endurance competitor from Albuquerque, New Mexico, sends her horses to be started by a professional, then works them at home. "I think the main problem I've had with already-trained horses is that they've spent time with riders who don't enforce manners," she says. "Getting a horse from a professional trainer is one thing, but getting a horse after he's spent a length of time with a rider who let the horse walk over him is another."
On the health front, a young horse might save a little money in veterinary bills, because he'll have less wear-and-tear on his joints, bones, and muscles, and will be less prone to arthritis than an older horse. On the other hand, a young, lively horse may be more likely to injure himself gallivanting around. And a horse of any age can develop expensive health problems.
The Made Horse
There's no shame in wanting a horse that does it all. After all, most of us trail ride for the enjoyment, and tackling all the bugaboos of trail riding on a young horse can be less than fun and even dangerous.
By "made" horse, we mean one that's 4 years old and up, with solid training. Training is key, not age. Don't assume a young, well-trained horse may be difficult to handle, says Mau. "[Many buyers] think, 'Oh, he's young, so I'll have problems.' They'll buy a lesser horse who's 9 or 10. But they shouldn't shy away from a young horse [that 's trained]."
An older horse will likely cost more than an young horse, but you can save money and time in the long run. "If you're purchasing a mature horse that's been trail ridden, then you have the benefit of years of experience," says Smith. "They've been there and done that. They've been exposed to creeks, bridges, banks, mud, ditches, traffic, etc.
"They should willingly go through all of it without making a fuss," she continues. "They should stand patiently during any part of the ride even if other horses are acting up. A good, mature trail horse would be my choice for any inexperienced rider. The rider can gain confidence without having to fight the horse and concentrate on their riding."
An exception is a mature horse trained for another discipline. Fanelli, for example, once purchased an ex-racehorse. "He never lost his desire to win," she says. "That can make for a very long day when there are other horses on the trail. If he spots a horse in front of him, he pulls and jigs until he passes the horse. This is great for endurance, but it's awful when I want to pleasure ride."
A gaited horse that was formerly a show horse could also be a poor choice for a trail prospect. The same is true for jumpers, hunters, and dressage horses. Great arena training doesn't necessarily mean the horse will be a calm, reliable trail mount.
"I've seen many people buy gaited show horses with the intention of trail riding them," Smith says. "These horses are often trained only to fly around the ring. They don't understand other horses passing them or how to stop and wait when a horse in front of them acts up. They don't stand to be mounted. They fight the rider the whole trail ride.
"Barrel racing horses have similar issues," she continues. "They generally know fly and stop, and they tend to be fractious when asked to wait."
Know what a horse's former job was, advises Smith. A ranch horse, for example, may have the exact traits you're looking for in a trail horse: patience, a work ethic, independence, tolerance, and a willingness to please.
A major drawback of purchasing a mature horse is that you know only what the seller discloses. Some soundness or behavioral issues crop up only after a period of time. And the older a horse is, the more likely he'll be prone to soundness problems.
"That's always the risk with an older horse," says Pavia. "Also, if a horse is older, you won't have him as long as you would if you bought a younger horse."
Price-wise, an experienced trail horse can cost around $3,000 to $5,000 and up. For the money, expect the horse to be trail-trained and ready. He should be sound, healthy, and confident in all situations. He should tie to the trailer, load and unload, and manage water and bridge crossings without a blink. He shouldn't stumble and he should be fairly versatile - that is, able to jump a log and walk-trot-lope in all kinds of situations.
A bit of dressage training is helpful, as well, because trail horses need to move laterally from time to time. And a good trail horse will drink and eat in any situation.
Young or old, perfect specimen or faulty, a love of the trail is the No. 1 criterion in picking out a trail partner, say trail riders. Some horses are just meant to be out on the trail. And if your new horse has a good mind, a work ethic, and a desire to please, he'll be as happy to be out and about as you are.
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!