I am going to teach you how to try out a prospective horse with knowledge of what to look for, and give you some valuable tips to help you to pick “the right one.” It is much easier to make the right choice the first time!
- Be very clear about what you want!
I see many people set their goals and be very clear about what they want. They will look for a while and when they don’t find their dream horse they get overly anxious and “fall in love” and buy a horse that really wasn’t right for them. So I encourage you to really give thought about exactly what you need and want. Stick with that goal as much as possible. Also, don’t get hung up on things that really aren’t super important, such as color [unless you are specifically showing at a color breed show]. I even recommend that you stay somewhat flexible about age [unless you are looking for a futurity horse] and that you stay open minded to slight imperfections on the vet check. I am not telling you to buy an unsound horse, but I have seen people be very rigid about the pre-purchase exam and miss a really great horse that was sound. He might have some minor radiographic changes or some other slight problem, I urge you to use caution and to trust your vet but I also know there is no perfect horse. With all of this said, I recommend you set your goals clearly and stick to them as closely as possible. Some of the things that you might not want to waver on are quality of the horse suitable for the show circuit that you want to show on, level of brokenness [especially if you are a green rider], personality type [which we will address later], and if the horse is safe for your level of riding. There are times that a person may choose to vary their decision on level of brokenness and that is, if a person is dead set on having a horse that is a world class horse for example and the only way their budget will be able to afford one, they may choose to buy a younger or greener horse that is less expensive. But do your best to not let your emotions or your impatience push you to make a wrong decision!
- Evaluate Your Personality Style
I definitely feel that certain people and certain horses are a fit, while others are a mismatch. All horses and people have individual personalities. Some are laid back and nothing much bothers them while others are high strung and easily rattled! Take a moment and honestly look at yourself and your personality style. Also, how much time do you have to invest in your time with your horse? If you work or are very busy, you would probably get along best with a horse that is low key and low energy. A high energy horse always takes more time because you will need to lunge or ride him longer. Some of them will also take longer to train, and you will need to allow more time at a show to prepare them because of their energy. When you look at your prospective horse, ask a lot of questions. For example, how long do you lunge or ride before you show and how long did they ride or lunge before you got there to try him. If you have a lot of time and are a patient, low key person, you may get along fine with a high energy horse. There is also a difference between a high energy horse and a sensitive horse. A sensitive horse may require a more experienced rider. The sensitive horse will need a rider very in control of their hands, legs, and seat. I do not consider myself a low key person; however I am very patient with most horses and have been able to get along with a lot of sensitive hot mares. I didn’t start out that way, but have learned certain techniques to help a horse like that learn and like their job!
- Evaluate the Horse’s Personality Style
In the ideal situation, you are dealing with a seller that you trust and when you ask questions you will get accurate answers. But you can find out a lot about the horse by watching his body language. A fast thinking, sensitive horse will usually show you signs of his personality. If you cue him does he quickly move off or do you need to keep asking him forward with your legs. Also watch his ears, eyes, and listen for movement in his tail. His body language tells you a lot about his personality. Also evaluate if he’s light in his sides to your leg cue but tough in the mouth or the bit. Horses can be sensitive in their sides but not in the face or vice versa. It may also have a lot to do with their training. Be extremely mindful and attentive while you are looking at perspective horses. Evaluate them constantly and honestly, and try to keep your emotions out of it. I know that can be difficult as I have many times really fallen for a horse that I have gone to look at!
- Check the Background of the Horse
If the horse has been shown at recognized breed shows, it’s easy to check the show record of the horse. Often the seller will tell you he has a certain number of points, but I like to go a step further and check out where he was shown and how many were in the class. Did he win or place? Different parts of the country have different levels of difficulty. I have looked at horses that had a lot of points, but with further checking found out that they were shown in a part of the country that had very little competition, but large classes. They would not have been competitive where I show. Also ask to see vet records if any they have on the horse. Ask them if he’s ever been lame or if they’ve ever injected him anywhere. I would also recommend that if you don’t know the sellers you ask around about their integrity and honesty. I show primarily American Quarter Horses and AQHA has an association called the Professional Horseman Association. You can see if the trainer representing the horse is a member of this association. They strive to promote honesty. Also, if you buy the horse and you have any concerns about the horse, have your vet draw blood and check for any drugs that could change the behavior or cover up unsoundness in the horse. Be aware that there are some long acting drugs that may not show up in a drug test. That is why I try to buy from very reputable sellers.
5. Try out the Horse
First of all, look at the bridle they are riding the horse in. Is it one that you could show in? If they have a martingale or some training gimmick, ask to see him without the gimmicks. They can cover up a lot and you need to see the horse at exactly where he is at. I also recommend you watch him ridden, and if you are still interested, ride him and see a video of yourself on him. That way you can check out your size on him and how you look on him. If at any time you feel unsafe or if he intimidates you I would get off of him, especially if you will be doing the training yourself. Is he smooth? If not, was that one of your requirements? Does he feel resistant or nervous? If he shows you any signs of balking or refusal [other than him just not understanding your cues] make a note of that. The sellers most likely did their best to have him ready and you are probably seeing him at his best! One of the traits that I look for, and they can have it at any level of training, is natural cadence. That ability to “lock in” [to hit a gait and want to stay there]. The other trait I like to see is natural lift and the ability to perform transitions easily. Whether the horse is finished or just started, some horses have more lift and talent than others. If you like him, stay on him long enough to put him to the test. Does he get agitated or want to quit after a short time or does he seem patient and enjoy his job. Watch his ears; does he seem to notice every sound? If he can see the barn does he keep looking toward it, or is he focused on you and doing his job. If he does lose his attention, this does not necessarily mean he’s a bad horse, just make a mental note of it. Also pay attention to if he’s dead to the world mentally, especially if his eyes are expressionless or sleepy, he may be drugged! Pay close attention to his body language. Excessive tail swishing shows agitation, which most of the time and can develop into a bad habit. Also is he chomping at the bit or opening his mouth? This can show irritation or fear or resistance. If I have a hold of my horse and he works his mouth a little, that is not a big deal to me, but if I drop the reins and leave him alone I’d like to see him keep his mouth quiet. One of the tests I put him through is to ask him to move his hindquarters over and see if he seems angry at my leg or if he accepts it. If he runs off of my leg, I may have a difficult horse. I see if he will let me push him around, drive him to his face in collection, take a little bit of pressure. If at any time you feel him about to explode get off! You don’t know his background and what he will do, so I caution you to be extremely careful! Remember a horse’s ears, tail, mouth, and breathing will really tell you what they are thinking. I have a saying, they tell you his heart. I also pay attention to his steps. If his steps change cadence or get “rushy”, that tells you something. It may also be reflective of how he was trained. If he was rushed or crammed he may have learned to respond out of fear, or hate his job. Especially if you buy an older horse, I recommend you buy a horse that was layered a good solid foundation. Horses can also learn to fight by bad riding and training.
I hope these tips help you in your selection of your new horse, and you end up with a wonderful partner that you enjoy for years.
By Dana Hokana