“Trust your first impressions about the horse and the seller,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. “Take note if anything doesn’t feel right or seems sketchy. It’s a big step to buy a new horse. You want to feel good about the process and your new trail partner.”
You’ve found your dream horse. He looks perfect from afar, but now it’s time to meet the horse to evaluate his suitability.
“When shopping for any horse, top factors to consider are training, temperament, experience, and conformation,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
As a trail rider and equestrian traveler, you also need a horse that will easily load into the trailer and travel calmly to your chosen destinations, Goodnight adds.
To help you make a purchase decision, Goodnight will walk you through seven horse-evaluation steps: (1) trust first impressions; (2) ask key questions; (3) evaluate conformation; (4) consider compatibility; (5) observe ground work; (6) go for a trial ride; and (7) make an offer.
In each of these steps, Goodnight will provide green flags and red flags in especially critical areas. Note that “red flags” are general guidelines only; evaluate each horse individually, and consider your own budget and riding needs.
Step 1. Trust First Impressions
“Trust your first impressions about the horse and the seller,” says Goodnight. “Take note if anything doesn’t feel right or seems sketchy. It’s a big step to buy a new horse. You want to feel good about the process and your new trail partner.”
Here’s how to get the most out of your first impressions.
Environment. Start observing the minute you step onto the property. While there can be great horses in less-than-stellar conditions, the overall environment can provide clues about how the horses are cared for. If the place is neat and tidy, it’s a good bet that the horses have a regimented routine and health-care plan, as well. Green flag: Clean, orderly grounds, pastures, stalls, and barn. Red flag: Poor footing, murky pens, ill-kept structures, and barn hazards.
Horse. On your first approach, how does the horse react? Does he seem well cared for? Green flag: A clean, happy horse that lifts his head to greet you. Bonus points if he walks over to say hello. Red flag: An ill-groomed, poorly kept horse that hangs his head, seems depressed, turns tail, and ignores you.
Step 2. Ask Key Questions
Ask how the horse has been trained and how many days of professional training he’s had. A well-trained horse is typically less costly in the long run than what you’ll likely pay in training fees.
As you inspect the environment and greet the horse, ask the seller the following key questions.
Why are you selling the horse? Listen closely to the answer. Green flag: The seller just doesn’t have time for the horse, has too many horses, or has new interests. These answers typically mean the horse just needs to find a new home. Red flag: The seller pauses, or seems to be covering up a health or behavior issue. Keep asking questions until you get at the truth.
What is the horse’s medical history? Ask specifically whether the horse has colicked. Colic is the number-one killer of horses. And horses that tend to colic tend to colic again. Ask also if the horse has taken time off for an injury; length of time can indicate severity. Green flag: The seller reports an unremarkable, colic-free, injury-free history. Red flag: Repeated colic issues, long periods of injury recovery, and signs of evasion.
Are medical records available? Ask to see the horse’s vaccination, deworming, and other medical records. If the seller is organized and has records available, you’ll have a sense of how the horse was treated. Green flag: The seller is open about the horse’s medical history. Red flag: No medical records are available or the records appear incomplete.
What’s the horse’s training history? Ask how the horse has been trained and how many days of professional training he’s had (for example, 30, 60, 90 days, or more). A well-trained horse is typically less costly in the long run than what you’ll likely pay in training fees. Green flag: Any professional training. Professional trainers are typically consistent and clear, leading to a willing, responsive horse. Red flag: A horse that’s been ridden by one rider or has no professional training.
What’s the horse’s current job? Find out what the horse has been used for in the past. Green flag: Trail-riding experience is ideal. But note that if the horse has been shown, that means he’s an experienced traveler and has been exposed to a variety of sights and sounds. Red flag: The horse’s experience doesn’t dovetail with your needs in any way.
When evaluating conformation, consider balance. Stand at the horse’s side and mentally draw lines from nose to withers, withers to croup, and croup to tail. These three sections should be as equal as possible. Shown is a well-balanced horse.
Step 3. Evaluate Conformation
Conformation is one thing you can’t change, so learn the basics before you check out the horse onsite. Here are a few general guidelines to get you started.
Balance. To determine balance, stand at the horse’s side and mentally draw lines from nose to withers, withers to croup, and croup to tail. These three sections should be as equal as possible. Then look at the horse’s shoulder angle. A horse with a straight shoulder may provide a bouncy ride.
Back. An optimal back length makes for a strong trail horse, especially on steep hills. Ideally, the horse’s topline (from base of withers to croup) should be half the length of his underline (from girth to stifle).
Hips. The length and turn of the horse’s hips are critical to his athletic ability. In general, larger hips provide more power to propel the horse forward. Each hip should be about the same length as the back. Hip slope should roughly match shoulder slope.
Legs. Look for a horse with straight legs, but note that few horses are perfect. A little crookedness can be acceptable. Consider how high in the leg any crooked angles appear. Green flag: The horse toes in a little bit. Red flag: The horse is crooked in the knees or hocks.
Hooves. Goodnight has found that black hooves are often tougher than white hooves, which can be more prone to stone bruises and chipped walls. Consider hoof quality. Ask to see the horse’s farrier records. Talk to the horse’s current farrier, if possible.
Overall conformation. Overall, weigh conformation pros and cons. Let’s say the horse has other favorable factors, but has a slightly long back. This slight fault may be acceptable, considering your purpose and budget. But if the horse has too many red flags, move on.
Step 4. Consider Compatibility
If the horse is well-conformed, determine whether he’s the right match for you, in terms of his age, temperament, and condition.
Age. Be wary of young horses unless you’re an experienced trainer. A young horse can seem well-trained, but he may not be consistent as he matures. He may need many more saddle hours
Facial shape can offer clues to a horse’s temperament. Through the ages, horsemen have found that a horse with large, wide-set eyes and a flat forehead is often kind and willing.
to become the reliable trail partner you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a reliable mount, find a horse 8 years old or older.
Temperament. Choose a horse whose personality and temperament match your own. If you’re laid back, look for a mellow mount. If you love to be on the go, look for a spirited, but not spooky, animal. Tip: Through the ages, horsemen have found that a horse with large, wide-set eyes and a flat forehead is often kind and willing. A forehead bulge can mean the horse is more ornery. Green flag: A horse with a steady, kind, generous personality. Red flag: A spooky, nervous horse.
Condition. If the horse is out of shape, you’ll need to condition him for long rides and rough terrain. If the horse is very thin, it’ll also take time to get him in top form. Consider how much time and patience you’ll have for this process. Green flag: A fit horse that looks like he can tackle the trails. Red flag: An obese horse that may have insulin resistance or a history of founder. Only a veterinarian can rule out these lingering effects.
Step 5. Observe Ground Work
You can tell a lot about a horse’s behavior, temperament, and training even before he’s saddled up. Here’s how to evaluate a horse on the ground.
Handler clues. The moment you drive up, watch the handler for clues to the horse’s basic behavior. Green flag: The handler invites you to watch as the horse is collected from the pasture or stall. Red flag: When you drive up, the horse is already tacked up and sweaty; this can mean the handler has worked off the horse’s excess energy for a calmer ride.
You can tell a lot about a horse’s behavior, temperament, and training even before he’s saddled up. Pay attention to how the horse reacts to being groomed, saddled, and led.
Ground manners. Watch the horse as he’s caught, led, groomed, saddled, and bridled. Observe the horse’s reactions to handler cues and willingness to stand still. Pay attention to how the horse reacts when the handler cleans the hooves. Ask the handler to tie the horse. Green flag: A horse that’s well-mannered on the ground and stands calmly when tied. Red flag: A horse that resists being handled, crowds your space, or is fidgety when tied. This behavior can be difficult to fix.
Tacking-up clues. Watch how the horse reacts when he’s saddled and cinched. If he pins his ears or fidgets, he could have back pain or saddling issues. Before the saddle pad is on, note any white marks on the horse’s back — white hairs or spots may indicate that the horse has had saddle-fit issues that could have led to soreness.
Trailer-loading ease. Ask the handler to show you how the horse loads in the trailer. Note that it’s not necessarily a red flag if the horse doesn’t load easily, especially if the handler’s body position or loading style stopped the horse from going in. If you feel you’d do anything differently, ask to work with the horse yourself.
Step 6. Go for a Trial Ride
The horse is tacked up and you’re ready to go for a ride. As you prepare to ride him, and while in the saddle, follow these guidelines.
Be cautious. “Never get on a strange horse that the owner isn’t willing to ride,” Goodnight advises. “It could be okay, but the seller could be scared of the horse. Gather more information before you mount up.” Be sure to wear an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified helmet and sturdy boots.
After you’ve tested the horse in a safe environment, find out how he acts when you ride off by yourself. You won’t have to go far to find out whether he’s barn sour or skittish on the trail.
Watch another rider. Ask to watch someone else ride the horse, first. Is the rider relaxed and riding with a loose rein? Or is the rider gripping on the reins and looking tense? If the rider is tense, how is the horse reacting? Notice the rider’s habits and decide what you’d do differently. Green flag: A horse that shows patience when a rider grips and pulls on his mouth. Red flag: A horse that reacts poorly to a tense rider, creating an escalating cycle of harsher cues and increased tension. Decide whether it’s safe for you to ride such a horse.
Stay close. When you first mount up, stay close to the barn, or ride in an arena, until you feel comfortable on him.
Become a passive rider. After you’ve ridden the horse a bit, find out what happens if you become a passive rider — that is, relax the reins, and still your seat and leg cues. Green flag: He continues in the direction you’ve asked of him. Red flag: He moves off on his own or pulls to the gate.
Become an active rider. Switch styles, and become an active rider — that is, pick up the reins (while being gentle on the horse’s mouth), and cue the horse with your seat and legs. Ask him to turn left and right; ride him as though he were yours. Is he responsive and willing?
Ride off. After you’ve tested the horse in a safe environment, find out how he acts when you ride off by yourself. You won’t have to go far to find out whether he’s barn sour or skittish on the trail.
Go back to the barn. If you’re at all concerned about the seller’s honesty — or if the horse was saddled and ready for you to ride — stop by unannounced to see whether the horse acts the same way as he did on your first visit. Ask the seller whether you can catch, groom, saddle, and ride the horse as though he were yours.
Step 7. Make an Offer
If the horse meets all your criteria and you think he’s a good match for you, take action right away. Good horses usually don’t last long on the market.
Ask for a trial period, but note that if the seller says no, that’s not necessarily a red flag, according to Goodnight. “It’s often a liability issue to allow someone else to handle a horse when the owner can’t be present,” she notes. “And if the owner knows he has a good horse, he knows others will be eager to make an offer.”
After you make an offer, but before the sale is considered final, make an appointment for a prepurchase veterinary examination with an objective veterinarian in the area. Book your own appointment, and be present for the exam. Obtain any needed documents before you hand over a check. Trust your instincts, and act fast when it feels right.
For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding , with bonus DVD, available from www.equinenetworkstore.com.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Melocco (www.wholepicture.org) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.