Smooth Operator

Here’s how to find a smooth-gaited trail horse that’s right for you.
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Here’s how to find a smooth-gaited trail horse that’s right for you.

A trusty trail horse will bring you years of enjoyable riding and camping adventures. A smoothgaited horse will carry you down the trail on a cloud of comfort. Such a horse is especially suited for aging baby boomers, as easy gaits are gentle on the back, knees, and hips. The right gaited horse will carry you to the tops of the mountains, deliver you safely to valleys below, and will even go boldly into the urban jungle. We’ve owned and ridden Missouri Fox Trotters for 15 years. We take our horses on the road for riding and camping adventures for up to eight months per year. Our surefooted mounts safely carry us over difficult, even treacherous terrain. Here, we’ll give you seven guidelines to buying a gaited horse: (1) Boost your buying savvy; (2) consider conformation and soundness; (3) consider personality and temperament; (4) consider safety; (5) consider gaits; (6) avoid pitfalls; and (7) train for the trail. We’ll share our own expertise, as well as top advice from three respected horse trainers: Ivan Archer of Indianola, Iowa; Dawn Johnson of Tetonia, Idaho; and Ralph Oliphant of Richmond, Missouri. 1Boost Your Buying Savvy As you start your search for a gaited trail horse, gather solid horse-buying information. This will help you avoid a purchase you might regret. Here are seven ways to boost your horse-buying savvy. • Take riding lessons. Riding a gaited horse feels different from riding a nongaited horse and requires a different technique. You might be an experienced rider, but if you’ve never before owned a gaited horse, take a couple of lessons from a certified riding instructor who’s familiar with gaited-horsemanship techniques. (For a list of certified riding instructors, contact the Certified Horsemanship Association, www.cha-ahse.org.) • Talk to gaited-horse owners. You might’ve become interested in gaited horses because of a gaited-horse owner you met at your barn or on the trail. Talk to this owner, as well as other gaited-horse owners. Ask where they got their horses, what they like about their mounts, and what challenges they might’ve had. Go online, and join horse forums. Read as much as you can about the gaited breeds in which you’re interested. • Make a list. “Write down all questions and possible concerns you might have about buying a gaited horse,” says Dawn Johnson, who’s professionally raised, shown, trained, and judged horses for more than 20 years. “Take this list with you when looking at prospective horses.” • Find out about the seller. “The seller’s reputation is important,” notes Ralph Oliphant, a longtime horseman and trainer. Find out anything you can about the seller in advance. • Trust your instincts. “Never talk yourself into a horse when your first reaction is negative,” says Johnson. “Go with your instincts. They’re more often right than wrong.” • Find out why the horse is for sale. Beware if the seller seems to be downplaying physical or behavioral problems and avoids giving you details about a particular concern. Use caution if the seller says, “It’s no big deal.” Johnson has discovered that often the “no big deal” problems are the reason the horse is being sold. • Avoid a fixer-upper. Unless you’re an experienced trainer, avoid horses that haven’t been ridden in years, those younger than 5 years old, buckers, and greenbroke horses, says Johnson. 2 Consider Conformation and Soundness A gaited horse’s conformation contributes to safe trail rides. You want a surefooted, balanced horse that offers overall riding enjoyment. Look for a strong, athletic body with matching shoulder and hindquarter angles, a short back, and a long underline. A balanced horse is proportional throughout his body. For example, his front end is proportional to his hind end, and his legs are proportional to his body. If you’re uncertain about the quality of the horse’s conformation, ask for an expert opinion. Hoof health can’t be overstated. Are the feet in proportion to the horse? A big horse with little feet will have more difficulty with balance and support. A horse with contracted heels (caused by a shift in the hoof walls that narrow the foot) is a candidate for unsoundness. Flat feet predispose a horse to bruising. Sufficiently thick hoof walls are crucial for horses traveling in rough terrain. To further evaluate hoof health, ask for an opinion from a reputable veterinarian or farrier in the area. A horse may have excellent conformation yet still have soundness issues. Years ago, we bought a beautifully conformed horse only to discover weeks later that he was going blind. Another horse we purchased had lameness issues that surfaced after a couple of hours of riding. We could’ve avoided both incidents if we’d arranged for a prepurchase veterinary examination. Fortunately, we were able to return both horses to the respective sellers. (For a prepurchase exam checklist, see page 6.) 3 Consider Personality and Temperament “Horses read people a lot quicker than people read horses,” Oliphant notes. Know your personality and temperament, then buy a compatible horse. This step will enhance your bond with your new horse, as well as your trail-riding enjoyment. Johnson agrees that matching your personality with a horse is a key to success. She also points out that what might be a great horse for one person can be a disaster for someone else. Ivan Archer, who’s sold and trained horses for more than 30 years, concurs. “Horses are a lot like people,” he says. “Each one is an individual. Horses learn at different rates, and have varied aptitudes and attitudes. But most learn quickly and have naturally pleasant dispositions.” To evaluate personality, watch the horse the moment you greet him. Does he seem friendly and eager to go for a ride? Observe his behavior on the ground and in the saddle. When you’re comfortable riding the horse, ask him to perform specific maneuvers, such as halting from the trot, backing, and turning. A bad-tempered horse might act up as you apply these cues. 4 Consider Safety As you look for a gaited horse, make safety a top priority. Of course, anyone who rides risks injury, but you can decrease this risk by choosing a horse wisely. Keep your age in mind, says Oliphant. As Roy Rogers once said, “When you’re young and you fall off a horse, you might break something. When you’re my age, you splatter.” Archer enjoys selling safe, gaited horses to older people so they can enjoy many more years in the saddle. If you’re a silver rider, look for a calm, well-trained horse with abundant trail experience. “There’s no such thing as a bombproof horse,” says Oliphant. “What’s important is the size of the bomb.” He says a horse should have a reasonable reaction to fear; that is, react without becoming unglued. To test the horse’s safety level, find out his reaction to “horse-eating monsters” with this simple monster test developed by Johnson. First, Johnson will ask the seller to ride the horse. As he or she does so, Johnson nonchalantly follows behind, kicking at gravel and scuffing her boots. She watches whether the horse reacts nervously or simply takes note and continues on, undisturbed by the commotion. Johnson suggests taking a friend along when going for a test ride. “During the ride, take turns leading and following,” she advises. “Does the horse exhibit nervousness when changing positions? Can the horse follow, as well as lead? What happens if the horse following crowds him from behind?” A horse that stumbles and falls isn’t safe. To evaluate surefootedness, Johnson suggests riding with loose reins over ditches, curbs, and uneven ground. Without rider guidance, does the horse stumble or pick up his feet? Does he pay attention to where he’s putting his feet or flop them down carelessly? 5 Consider Gaits Gaiting ability can be difficult to assess. Some horses are naturally smooth gaited, while others require training to get the gait. And some horses lose their smooth gait if they’re ridden incorrectly or aren’t offered sufficient opportunities to gait. When a horse is gaiting smoothly, you should see and hear four equally placed steps, says Johnson. Note the length and forwardness of the stride. For an optimal glide and a ground-covering gait, she prefers a long stride with a good overstride (the action of the back foot slipping over the front track). If the gaited horse naturally performs a flat-footed walk, watch for a camel walk, which is strung-out and sloppy. Johnson notes that you can often turn a camel walk into a smooth-strided movement by collecting and gathering the horse into a shorterstrided walk. We think an ideal gaited trail horse is one that can pick up a gait smoothly, on demand, without becoming overexcited. If you can control your horse’s speed, you’ll be able to ride with friends aboard both gaited and nongaited horses. 6 Avoid Pitfalls Here are four ways to avoid pitfalls when purchasing a gaited horse. • Be honest. Be honest with yourself about your riding ability, time, energy, and budget. Make sure you can ride the horse regularly. It’s unrealistic to keep a horse in a stall all week and expect him to be a great trail companion on the weekends. • Use your head. Don’t buy a horse based on emotions. Look at the horse with a clear lens. And never buy a horse simply because of his color. You might get lucky and get a good horse, but basing a purchase solely on color isn’t wise. • Observe the horse under saddle. Ask the seller to ride the horse first, while you observe. Pay attention to the horse’s response to cues, as well as his gaits and general obedience. • Ride the horse. Don’t buy a horse without riding him, unless you have him evaluated by a professional trainer. And don’t rush the process. “An honest seller will encourage a potential buyer to ride the horse a week or more before making the decision to buy,” notes Oliphant. That said, the seller may have legitimate reasons for wanting to sell the horse quickly. 7 Train for the Trail You’ve taken your new gaited horse home. Now what? To make a good trail horse, there’s no substitution for the wet-blanket treatment. That is, you have to get out and ride. Ride over varied terrain. Ride over logs and rocks and through rivers and streams. Climb mountains, and descend steep banks. For safety’s sake, expose your new horse to the sounds and smells of different kinds of animals. A few years ago, we were on a pack trip in Yellowstone Park in Wyoming. As we rounded a bend, we found ourselves faceto-face with a big, black llama. Our pack horse jumped skyward and moved with lightning speed. We were duly impressed with his acrobatics, but dismayed at the mess he made with our packs. If you plan to ride in the mountains and wilderness areas, you’ll likely come across deer, elk, moose, mountain goats, mountain sheep, and even bears and mountain lions. You can’t prepare your horse for all encounters, but if you’ve found a horse with a calm, stable temperament, he’ll likely react in an acceptable manner. Also accustom your new trail horse to suburban sights and sounds, such as cars, trucks, all-terrain vehicles, bicycles, and noisy children. Ride or trailer to a small town, tie up at the hitching rail, and wash down the trail dust while your horse soaks up the surrounding atmosphere. TTR Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “Kent and Charlene Krone” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at kentandcharlene@gmail.com.