The qualities most people want in a trail horse are that he’s calm, well-mannered, responsive, polite and intelligent. The characteristics that make for a less-than-ideal trail horse are that he’s timid, nervous, strong, unresponsive, heavy in your hands or spooky.
The trick is evaluating these qualities, when you try a horse that you are considering to buy. The nine simple and safe on the ground and under saddle tests in this article may help you in your evaluating process.
Make the most of your chance to assess the horse you’re considering. When you set up the appointment to try him, explain that you’re going to trail-ride him, and that you’ll be doing your own care; so instead of finding him groomed and tacked up and ready to go when you arrive, you’d like to get a feel for his character by doing everything yourself, starting with going into his stall and putting on his halter.
Also ask if you or your trainer can provide another horse so that, after riding in the ring, you and she can go out for a 20 or 30 minute trail ride.
Throughout the trial, you’ll be looking for a strong overall sense that the horse is an honest tryer, with plenty of heart, who’s basically sensible and obedient. Even if he questions what you’re asking him to do and doesn’t pass every test with flying colors, he should give you the feeling that, given patience and time, he’ll accept your commands in a well-mannered fashion. If you don’t get that feeling — if you’re being slow and patient, but it’s getting worse not better — ask yourself, “Is he frightened because he’s green or inexperienced, or is this his disposition?” If he’s afraid (you may literally feel his heart pounding) but is at least making an effort to respond to your aids by putting one foot in front of the other, with continued training he’ll probably improve. But if the more you put your leg on, the duller and colder he gets, even to the point of backing up, kicking out, or rearing, that’s his temperament — and you’re kidding yourself if you think you can train it out of him.
Leave your emotions at home. It is your responsibility, before you write that check and take the horse home, to make sure he is going to suit you and safely do what you want him to do. If he flunks any of the nine tests, or if you can’t perform some of them, so you’re leaving doors unopened and questions unanswered — keep looking. There are lots of good horses for sale who’d love to share adventures on the trail.
As the first test, ask questions about what kind of preparation the horse needs to be well-mannered and quiet. Does he require turnout or lungeing before you ride, and are you prepared to do that? Of course, before you commit to buying, have a veterinary pre-purchase exam to determine whether he has nothing more than normal changes for an older horse or degenerative problems that will eventually interfere with his intended uses.
Get details like does he cross water; has he been around cattle; is he good with other horses on the trail?
The second test is looking at his eyes and ears as a tipoff to his temperament. A horse with a kind eye is usually a kind horse, whereas a pig or wall-eyed horse is sullen and difficult. If he pins his ears or nips, chances are his poor manners will make him an unsuitable companion on the often close-knit quarters of a trail.
For the third test, walk into his stall and lead him out. The horse should walk right over to you. He shouldn’t turn his back, stick his head in the corner, or raise a hind leg as if to kick. If you use a little push to ask him to move over, he should quietly step away and not lean or shove back. He should hold his head down while you put the halter on and buckle it. And when you lead him out, he should follow politely and not hang back, squish you against the doorjamb, or drag you down the aisle.
Test number four is your opportunity to groom him and tack him up. He should stand quietly in the crossties, not grinding his teeth, snapping at the crossties in irritation, or pinning his ears at you. When you pick out his back feet, it would be nice if he had them cocked and ready to offer to you, if he doesn’t, you should at least not have the feeling that he’s about to kick. He should confidently drop his head when you touch his face or rub his ears.
Number five is mount the horse from the ground. He should stand still and not fidget or swing away.
In test six, you ride him on the flat, asking him to trot and canter past a towel or cooler that keeps relocating — have the seller hang it on the arena fence, then throw it on the ground outside the ring, move it about 6 or 8 feet in from the rail — and ride between the towel and the rail. If he repeatedly spooks or bolts, you can expect to have pretty short trail rides. Walk him over a piece of plywood; back him through a dogleg made of ground poles; and trot a pile of ground poles set 3 or 4 feet apart. By now you should have a very strong indication of whether he’s got the heart and courage to handle a trail obstacle, and whether he’s going to be honestly frightened but, after 10 minutes of convincing and reassuring, willing to go, or whether he’s going to be stubborn and uncooperative no matter what.
Test seven consists of testing the horse’s cool. Find a gate you can try opening and closing from the horse’s back. Carefully take off your jacket and lay it on the fence. Pick it up and put it on again. Ask the owner or your trainer to hand you a crop.
At this point, if the horse has flunked any of these seven tests, thank the owner and stop. But if he’s passed them at least reasonably well, go to test eight.
This is the time for that short trail ride, where you can see how he does going up and down some little hills and, if possible, crossing a creek without refusing, running you into a low-hanging branch, or scraping you against a tree. Check his manners by both leading the way and following. If he goes well in the walk, try a little trot and canter on the grass, through the trees, up and down some slopes, and over some logs or telephone poles.
Test nine is to arrange a trial period. This is the best way to get a day in/day out feel for how the horse will behave away from his familiar surroundings. If the owner isn’t willing, ask if you can at least pay for her to ship him to a neighbor’s farm so you can evaluate him in an unfamiliar setting.
This could be an ideal time to see how he loads — because bad behavior loading is bad behavior that could show up somewhere else on the trail as well.