Choosing a Trail Horse in 7 Steps

If you aren’t gifted with the Midas touch when it comes to horse shopping, Pat Parelli offers tips to ensure that your next purchase fits the bill.

Q My last horse-shopping experience didn’t go well. I made a hasty purchase, and wound up with a mount that didn’t suit my trail-riding needs. I learned my lesson the hard way. Can you offer advice for making my next horse-shopping experience a better one?

Horse shopping can be stressful. Be sure to try the horse under the conditions in which he’ll be used—on the trail for a recreational-riding horse, for example.

Suzie McCarthur, Utah

A Proper horse selection is one of the most important things we can teach riders. Some people have the Midas touch—they always find the best deal on a truck, meet the right friends, and stumble across the perfect horse. But for most of us, the picking of our horse is the easiest place to go wrong. Some people “pick their poison” over and over again. Luckily, with some education, we can learn to be better at picking the right mount.
Here, I’ll offer seven steps to selecting the right horse. In the big picture, these steps apply to all horse-purchase situations, but in this case, I’ll tailor my advice to a trail-riding horse.

Step 1: Be objective. 

Leave your emotions out of this, or at least do the best you can to manage them. It’s easier to do if you’re shopping for a trail horse on your laptop at home on a site like, but if you go to an auction or a rescue in search of a new mount, understand that the situation will evoke emotion. Do your best to keep your mind focused on what you want, or you’ll end up buying with your heart and feelings and not get what you need. Start with and maintain an objective mindset.

Be sure that you watch the horse as he’s caught and haltered to ensure that he’s not hard to catch.

Step 2: Bring an aid. 

You need an objective observer! Just in case those emotions start to get the best of you, you need your harshest, most blunt, knowledgeable horse friend by your side. And listen to what he or she has to say throughout the entire process. 

Ensure that he or she knows your perceived weaknesses when it comes to horse shopping, the better to look for your red flags and ensure that you don’t go there.

Step 3: Arrive early. 

It might be bad manners to show up to dinner 30 minutes early, but when you’re horse-shopping, arriving early means you’ll see things you might not be meant to see, such as how the horse catches and handles in everyday situations. 

If you arrive right on time, you might not get to see that the horse is difficult to catch, doesn’t stand tied for grooming, or other habits that could sway your decision.

Step 4: Watch the horse be ridden. 

Ask to see the horse being ridden before you ride it. First and foremost, this is for your own safety, especially in the late-winter and spring months when a horse might not have been ridden since last fall. Second, it ensures that the horse isn’t too fresh for you. 

Be sure to watch closely, observing the horse’s behaviors, and also to determine if your skills match up with what the horse is accustomed to.

Arrive early so that you can see the horse being groomed, saddled, and prepared to ride.

Step 5: Take a turn in the saddle. 

If you know you can ride the horse safely and confidently, it’s your turn to ride. But if you have any doubts, don’t ride, and call it a day. Your objective observer could play a key role in helping you decide what’s best at this point.

Step 6: Don’t make your decision—yet. 

The worst emotional mistake you can make is to make the deal now. You need to step away, think about it, and talk to your aid. 

Ideally, ask for a trial period of a couple weeks, even if you have to pay for it. Bringing the horse home and trying him is well worth the money—especially if you find out that you’re not a good fit for each other. 

You’ve probably heard horror stories about the horse that was great until he came home. If this happens to you, you want to be able to return the horse, say thanks, and move on in your search.

Observe the seller on the horse in different situations before you get on. Then try the horse in different situations, such as working a gate or riding with other horses.

During this trial period, ask other friends who ride to come observe your prospective new mount. Ask around about whether people have seen the horse out on the trail. 

Pay close attention to the horse’s behavior when catching, leading, tying, loading in the trailer, saddling, mounting. Test him in the arena and on the trail, if the seller will allow it. 

If the seller doesn’t allow you to take the horse to your place, ask if you can come back and ride the horse several more times.

Step 7: Conduct the veterinary check. 

A lot of people take a horse to the vet-check phase too quickly. Don’t jump in until you’ve had a trial period with the horse. By that point, your emotions aren’t going to overcome you. You’ve sought advice, you’ve tried the horse, and it’s put everything in perspective. You’ll be able to more objectively assess the results of the vet check. 

And realize there’s almost zero chance your veterinarian will come back and say, “He’s in perfect health! There’s nothing to watch for!” That just doesn’t happen. But with a better understanding of how the horse fits you and your needs, you can compare that to any possible problems the horse might be facing in terms of soundness and other concerns.

Pat Parelli and his wife, Linda, are the founders of Parelli Natural Horsemanship and present major seminars and demos around the world. Learn more about their philosophy and check their schedule of presentations at

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