Today’s horse-buying marketplace is filled with imagery to delight horse lovers of all kinds. Shining, fat horses in good light standing in conformation shots and snazzy music accompany perfected performances on video. It’s enough to blind a buyer from any flaw a horse may or may not have before buying. When riders consider buying a new horse, most people look at color, pedigree, sex, previous training, and health as top priorities. But rarely does the buyer investigate the general trainability or mental aptitude of their perspective partner. That’s a risky practice which can lead to mismatched people and horses, and frustration for them both.
Nothing beats putting hands on a horse before buying. Giving him a quick three-step test to gauge how responsive he is to you before deciding to open your pocketbook. Doing that, it doesn’t take long to sort out the ones willing to learn and those dead set in their ways.
One of the best pre-purchase practices a buyer can do is to assess the curiosity, confidence, and trainability of a horse. No one likes a new employee who comes to the new job unwilling to learn, is disrespectful, and only willing to do things their way. Same with horses. Like a job interview where an employer seeks to uncover the true personality of a candidate before offering a position regardless of education or work experience, horse people need to consider the mentality of the horse. Just because the horse is pretty, has had training, or is well-bred doesn’t mean they are eager to be your partner.
The number one thing potential buyers should investigate is how willing the horse is to learn something new. As well as how much respect he pays to people. How do you do it? These hands-on steps that help rate the horse’s response.
Test 1: Fight, Flight, or Friendly
When purchasing a horse in person, the opportunity to “meet” the horse, and gauge initial interaction and response is a huge benefit. Instead of having the horse saddled, if he’s of riding age, or already caught and tied, ask to catch the horse when you arrive.
By catching the horse in his pen or stall, you can see how curious he is to meet you. Some research exists that correlates curiosity with trainability in horses. Attempting to ascertain curiosity in a horse is important.
First, look for a horse that’s curious and softly walks toward you to say hello. Shy is perfectly acceptable provided that the horse warms quickly to your presence. To ascertain his curiosity, notice behavior as you enter the horse’s space. Does the horse look at you with both eyes, walking forward with ears pointed forward or does he turn and walk or trot away?
Some even walk forward with pinned ears—a sure sign of disrespect. This practice gives you a sense of how he initially responds to a new situation. A good rule of thumb is to make a mental note of how you feel when entering a new horse’s space. Some of the best horses make you want to say, “Hello friend,” while other sour-minded horses will give off a “Get out of my area” feeling.
Either way, a negative feeling or demonstration of zero curiosity doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad-minded horse, it just means the horse may be apprehensive with something new and you may not have the desire or skill set to work through any lack of confidence issues.
This test requires you to have patience when you enter the horse’s personal space, to see his reaction. However, if you’re moving in close, or the horse closes in on you, and threatens, be sure to keep yourself safe and have an escape plan through an open stall door or pen gate.
The end goal is to halter the horse. If he’s hard to halter, make note of the resistance. Haltering problems can be fixed, but I make a special note of this behavior because it’ll reveal itself every single interaction, including the second test.
Test 2: A-Plus Student
One of my favorite exercises to do while talking to the seller is to see if the horse is teachable—meaning is he confident enough to allow someone new to influence his body movement.
The quickest test that produces results but will also keep most people safe is to see how willingly a horse will move his shoulders away from a person when asked. This is a great way to see how agreeable a horse is to be your partner because the front feet are often planted in the ground and resistant to being moved.
If a horse will allow me to move his shoulders away from me with a light touch after a few tries, it’s a good indication he is willing to learn and please, which is everything a horse owner wants in any type of prospect.
Before moving into the how-to of ascertaining how teachable a prospective horse can be, I want to clarify that this is the technique I often use with domesticated horses; don’t try this with a wild or untouched horse. A horse that’s already been handled, started, or ridden, of any age, should have a level of understanding when you attempt to test his reaction.
Follow these steps to gain a better understanding of your prospective horse partner.
Begin to test trainability by standing at a 45-degree angle from the shoulder. This puts you close enough to touch the largest muscles of the shoulder. This a relatively safe position because it makes it harder for a horse to strike or to kick.
Hold your lead rope about 2 feet from the clip. This is so the horse can’t walk forward or turn away from you. Without letting him turn away from you, use the hand closest to the clip to watch for the occasional nip from the horse toward your hand or body.
Once in position, spread your fingers slightly in the hand closest to the shoulder. This will be in a form of a bear claw. While keeping your fingers soft, lightly press your fingertips against the skin on the shoulder muscles. Do this as if you’re barely suggesting he move away from you.
If he moves away, did he jump away as an overreactive, afraid motion? Or, was the horse moving away in a deliberate and thoughtful manner that was respectful of your presence?
Sometimes a horse won’t move away with the first touch. Give the first touch five or so seconds before pushing a little harder. Then another five seconds with the new stronger pressure. If he doesn’t move, apply more pressure and again and again until he takes a step sideways.
Once the horse moves away, softly pet the area you just touched, essentially rubbing away the pressure. Then, test him again using the same technique. Start softly and slightly increase pressure every five seconds until you get the desired results.
Highly trainable horses will get better each time you ask for the shoulders to move away. And horses that will be slower to train might get worse each time. I’ve even had horses reach back to nip! Being fast doesn’t mean he’s the perfect horse. Nor does being dull to pressure, but it does provide a better idea of what is to come in training.
Prospective purchasers need to remember to do this exercise on both sides of the horse. The results will likely be different. Some pushy or disrespectful horses on the left side might be more eager to please on the right.
The point of the exercise is to determine how much work or pressure it will take to train a desired result with the prospective horse. Ideally, I’d like to see a horse move away on the third or fourth increase in pressure. Then be more responsive to move away each additional time I ask. On the other hand, a horse that shies away quickly when I first touch them is likely more reactive than thoughtful in learning or in new situations.
Simple, right? It’s all in understanding both how to enact these easy testing steps and what the response will mean in the long run when the buyer begins training the horse. We as buyers want as much information as possible for the investment made. Hands-on and face-to-face interaction with the horse allows for a more confident purchase. And ultimately a better understanding of your soon-to-be equine partner.