The Test Ride
"Well, He's Never Done THAT Before!"
Nowadays, many horses are advertised online and aren't necessarily located just across town so it's very important to get as much information by phone as possible before spending all that time and money on a visit. Here are a few recent examples of things I've found while traveling to look at potential trail companions for clients.
A mule that was described as "extremely gentle" and "crawled all over and ridden by children" was so angry when we arrived that any touch to its body behind the hips resulted in some of the most violent kicking I've ever seen. The poor thing looked as though it had never seen a farrier in its life, and was very wormy-looking. Strangely, none of this had been mentioned on the phone when the potential buyer asked for information. The phrase "he had crazy eyes and nothing left to lose" came to mind as we drove away.
Another outing to a town an hour and a half away brought a friend and I face to face with another angry looking horse. This one had been described as gentle, well broke with some advanced training, sound and well bred. What we found was an angry horse with a swayed back (the horse was allegedly only four or five years old), and deep, wide splits from the ground all the way up to the coronet band on each front foot. How on earth did they think we wouldn't notice THOSE? "He's never been lame a day in his life!" the man snorted when my friend asked about them. The horse leapt to the side and looked wild-eyed as someone approached it from the right. Just for the sake of it, we asked to see it ridden, and predictably, the horse swished its tail and danced around, reluctant to do anything asked. "He's had advanced training and has been roped off of, that's why he's got a lot of go" the lady assured us as she jabbed him with her spur and tried to get him to go straight. They quickly cantered off, on the incorrect lead, and disappeared around the house for more than a few minutes. I was wondering if they'd ever come back when they finally came trotting sideways back to the barn. The owners genuinely seemed surprised when we didn't jump on the chance to try this fine roping horse out ourselves. A quick glance at their other horses for sale revealed more bad feet and swaybacks, watery, runny eyes and various blemishes, deep scars and swellings. "We breed good working ranch horses," they proudly informed us. Sadly, I think they honestly believed every word they said. We simply thanked them for their time and left.
On yet another occasion, someone drove a mule down from two hours away for another friend to test out on the trails. We had decided to make a day of it and the rest of us brought our own animals to ride. Unfortunately, we didn't bring an extra for the friend who was test riding the "extremely experienced and gentle" trail mule. This particular friend has a very bad back, and I was amazed when he managed to stay on the thing for a good hour. He then dismounted and asked if I'd try it out and give him my opinion. So, none the wiser, I gave him my mare and I hopped on the test mule. Within five minutes my back was killing me! It had to have been the most uncomfortable walk ever. Beyond that, it did in fact follow the mule in front of it, however if you tried to steer it in ANY other direction it would throw its nose out, pull against you and get so agitated that I wondered if it might do something drastic. I didn't have the heart to make my poor friend torture his back anymore and so I finished the ride in sheer misery. My back hurt for the rest of the week. The owner was shocked that we didn't just love the dreadful beast. "He's been to Colorado!" he stated, completely shocked and clearly annoyed. Based on how often I hear that particular selling point, apparently "Colorado" is some mystical land where all mules and trail horses are magically bestowed with incredible powers of Trail Perfection. Who knew?
Another friend (an experienced handler) was recently telling me how he has been thrown, kicked and bitten while looking at horses and mules for sale in just the past couple of years. "Well, he's never done that before!" is a common refrain heard all over the countryside.
I could go on and on, but I believe you get the point.
Some questions to ask before making the drive out
- Obviously, you should note breed, age, type of riding used for, length of time it has been trained, etc.
- Ask for pictures. Not a quickie shot with the horse trying to eat grass and hidden under a saddle and leg wraps. Ask to see it standing square or in an open-legged pose, with additional pictures taken from square in front and behind, taken from a low angle, that clearly show its feet and legs. You want to see both sides as well as front and back. If the owner is not willing to oblige, don't waste your time. They either have no clue, or possibly they know what they have and don't want you to see it. Now, if you are looking for a casual trail horse only, it does not have to be show quality or have perfectly straight legs or clean feet, but it should be sound. There are lots of issues that can be ruled out by a good, clear set of photographs.
- Is the horse an easy or hard keeper? I have one that I've hardly ever fed in the five years I've owned him. He lives on pasture and stays fat and sassy. I have another that requires ten pounds of grain a day, along with hay and pasture. She's prone to be lean regardless of feed, good dentistry and regular worming and vet care. Some horses are just easy keepers and some are not. Usually it's breed related, but sometimes it's not. It's up to you to know your budget and needs.
- Is the horse well trained? Who trained it? What is it currently being used for? How long has it been since it was ridden regularly? Be aware of what they say versus what they may mean. (More on that later.)
- How does it do with other horses on the trail? Can you ride it safely out by itself? Some horses and mules do fine with others, but ask them to go out alone and they have a nervous breakdown. A strong rider may be comfortable handling that, but know your limits. If the idea of a horse acting out when you are out alone with it scares you, avoid the horse that needs work in that department.
- Why are they selling it? If it's a breeder who raises horses to sell, that can be a good thing because they often know the horse really well. If that's the case, ask for a reference from others who've bought horses from them. If they seem eager to get rid of it, proceed cautiously. If they bought a horse to be their companion, and are now getting rid of it in a hurry, try to find out why. The fact is, most people who get into horses will get out within a year or two. They don't have the knowledge and experience to handle the problem horses they end up buying on impulse, and instead of learning the skills they need, often just get frustrated, throw the horse in a pasture, and eventually try to get someone else to take it. Sometimes, you can find a good horse in that situation, but more often than not, it's a bad deal. If you are considering a horse in that situation, find a reputable trainer you can trust to help you give the animal a tune-up (or the complete foundation it never got in the first place) before you blithely take it out on the trail and get into trouble.
- Who is the their vet? If they don't have one, or even worse, don't even know one, best to just leave it alone.
- Will they allow you to visit the horse or mule on more than one occasion? Can you spend some quality time with the animal? If they seem annoyed with the idea of you spending time getting to know the animal, be wary. Yes, it is easy to get frustrated with "Looky-Lou's" who enjoy wasting people's time in an effort to entertain themselves, but if you are trying to find a good home for a horse you care about, you will be willing to take steps to ensure the potential buyer and animal are a good match. Good sellers care about everyone involved, not just themselves. I don't want any animal of mine going to someone who will neglect it or get frustrated and pass it off onto someone else. I certainly don't want them ending up at some dreadful sale barn.
- If possible, will the owner bring it on a trail ride for you to try out away from their property? Many animals that are confident on their own territory will act out away from home. If it's never been out before, it's understandable that it may be nervous the first time, but does it calm down with time and handling and eventually allow you to ride it sensibly? Or does it work itself into a fit of lather and go straight to Crazy Town as soon as it gets away from home?
- Will the seller allow you to return the animal (in the same physical condition as you purchased it) if you get it home and it just isn't working out? Now, I know, that's a lot to ask considering how some people can be, but an owner owes it to that animal to ensure it's safety and well-being. An appropriate contract should be drawn up stating the fact that the seller will take the animal back, in same condition, within a certain amount of days. (Time being up to the seller and buyer to agree upon.) If the seller isn't willing to do that, consider the situation. With the current state of the horse market, the last thing most people need is to get stuck with an unmanageable beast that they'll never be able to resell, don't have the skills to handle, and don' t know (or can't afford) a trainer who can help.
- If the horse is allegedly registered, do they actually have the papers and are they in good order? It doesn't matter if the horse has the best pedigree in the world, if they don't have the papers and aren't willing (or able) to get a new, legitimate copy, then by all intents and purposes that horse IS NOT REGISTERED. Period. Now, what do papers have to do with how a horse trail rides? Not a darn thing. What it does affect, though, is the price they are charging and resale value. If they are charging $3,000 for a registered Quarter Horse with good bloodlines who is just average in every other way and isn't even well trained, and they don't even have the papers, then they are asking too much. "You can't ride the papers" is a good phrase to remember.
- Is the horse an actual trail horse? Or is it a prospective trail horse that's never been anywhere beyond the back yard? Buying a young or inexperienced prospect is a good way to get a nice horse for a lot less money if you have the time, skills and patience to make it into what you want, but otherwise, you'd could be better off buying one that is finished. Finished costs more. It took a lot of actual work over a long period of time for someone to get that horse to a level where it is trail ready and well conditioned, and that is worth more. Find out which case you're dealing with and expect to pay accordingly.
- By now you've seen pictures at least, so if they've advertised the horse as a finished trail horse, and it's been ridden regularly all over hill and dale, what does its condition look like? Do you really think a horse that is fat and has no muscle tone whatsoever has been ridden a lot lately? Make sure the horse's condition matches the workload it has purportedly been doing. Some easy keepers keep a good amount of fat covering their hide even when worked, but they will also have muscle. Know what working condition versus pasture condition looks like. If they say the horse has been ridden a lot, ask for details. When? Where? Recently, or two years ago? Does it look like it's been ridden lately, or like it spends day in and day out stuffing its face and lazing in the sun?
Once you have all the details established by phone, it's time to schedule a visit and meet the potential candidate face to face. It's a good idea to schedule your first meeting on a day when both you and the owners have plenty of time. Hopefully, by this point, you will have already asked the important questions on the phone and weeded out the animals handled by the uninformed, the misguided, and the less than honorable owners.
How do I actually test out the animal?
When you arrange to meet your prospective new mule or horse, let the owners know that you'd like for the animal to be at liberty in its normal enclosure. I never like to see a horse or mule tied, saddled and waiting for me when I arrive. I'd much rather go out and watch the owner catch it. Now, I realize some working animals are notoriously difficult to catch, and buyers should not automatically discount one with this problem, if everything else checks out okay. I've worked some really good horses that were a total pain in the backside until you got your hands on them, at which point they would turn into the most pleasant, kind and good performing mount imaginable. To some of them it was a game, to others a matter of sheer laziness. Either way, it's a problem that can be overcome and to me, is no reason to discount an otherwise good animal. If a seller tries to hide the fact by having it pre-caught and prepared that, to me, is a red flag. What else might they trying to hide?
When you arrive, note the condition of the animal. Is it overweight, underweight, fit or a good size but soft from lack of work? Is it in working condition or pasture condition? If they say it's been standing around in a pasture all year and it looks like it, that doesn't bother me. If they say it's been working regularly but you can clearly see it's soft and poorly muscled, then there is a discrepancy. Again, bear in mind that when they say "work", they may mean it's been ridden at a walk around the yard for a few minutes on weekends for the last month. Learn to ask what they actually mean and not just assume things based on what they say.
Does the animal have a healthy, shiny coat? Or is it matted and dull with a wormy appearance? Pasture condition horses won't necessarily look that good in the winter or early spring, but by mid-spring they should be getting shiny and filled out again. A horse kept in the barn all winter and fed well shouldn't be too thin or rough looking, but it can be hard to get an accurate idea of what is hiding under all that hair. Feet should be in good condition. A little overgrown for a pasture horse is acceptable, but very long, or broken up feet that look as though they've never seen a farrier should be avoided, or at least seen to by a good farrier before purchase. As long as you aren't buying a horse for performance or breeding, imperfect feet are no big deal as long as they are sound, but do bear in mind that for heavy trail use on rough terrain you will want a horse or mule with straight legs, good conformation and well-made feet. If you only ride for a couple hours on weekends only, a good gelding with minor conformation flaws is still a good choice assuming it meets all other criteria. If in doubt, you can always have a veterinarian to come out and look at the horse before you buy it. The responsibility for paying for a pre-purchase exam is almost always on the buyer. If in doubt, discuss it with the seller and see if any other options are available.
Have the owner lead the animal straight away from you and back towards you at a walk, then at a trot. Have the owner lead the horse at a walk and then trot from side to side in front of you. Watch to see if the animal's feet land in line with the foot in front of it, or off to the side. Watch to see if one foot goes higher, lower, wings out or hesitates in the flight pattern. If so, watch the horse's head. The head will rise up markedly when a sore leg hits the ground. If the horse seems off, always check the feet first and clean them out thoroughly with a hoof pick. It could just be a simple matter of a stone or other piece of debris stuck in the frog, a sore muscle in the shoulder, or it could be something much more serious. Watch the back feet hit the ground. Does it point the toe and have a strange landing angle? If so, there could be problems with its stifle. Some stifle problems are just temporary and the horse will outgrow them, but some can be quite serious. When in doubt, consult a vet before you buy.
Now have the owner saddle the animal. Does it stand quietly? Look fearful of the situation? Do they have to tie it up? If they do tie it, does it stand quietly or constantly wiggle around trying to get away. If it pulls back and acts really afraid or angry, you've seen enough and it's time to go. Unless you are experienced in dealing with that, it's not worth the trouble. People have gotten so used to animals not being trained properly that they'll overlook some fairly serious things in order to find a horse they like. Get picky. There's no good reason a horse that's been well started can't, or won't, stand still for saddling. If it does move around, is it just being silly in a relaxed manner, or is it anxious and upset? Pay attention to details. There's a big difference in behavior that is caused by playful silliness versus fearful avoidance.
Always have the owner ride it first. Always. I never climb on a horse until I have watched the owner ride it for at least 10 to 15 minutes. First off, I want to see how they handle it. Are they a good rider? Firm but gentle? Or are they the type that jump on and yell "Giddyup!", kicking and jerking the animal around? Do they handle the animal with respect and gentle firmness? Or do they act afraid or even bully the animal? Watch to see what kind of relationship they have. Pay attention to the horse or mule's body language. Do they seem relaxed and confident with their rider? Anxious? Mad? Or too dull to care? Ask the owner to ride at a walk, trot, and canter, or whatever gait is applicable if gaited. Ask them to back up. Ask them to ride it away from barn and other horses if there are any. Ask them to ride it back to the barn, stop it and have it stand still. Does it not want to leave the barn? Does it act afraid leaving? Does it fight, fidget or otherwise act nervous? Or does it quietly do as its rider asks?
When coming back, does it rush to get back? Will it stand still near the barn and wait patiently for more direction? Can the rider get off and on without a fuss? Sound picky? It's not. It's the least you can expect from a trained animal. Even a green-broke colt should do these things if it's been started properly. Of course, if it's been a long time since it was ridden, or it's a very green colt, a little nervousness or fussiness can be expected, but honestly, not much. Be particular. If the animal won't do any of these things calmly and sensibly, then you probably don't want it. Save yourself the time, money and heartache and walk away. If the owner knows he or she is going to need to sell an animal, it's their duty to get it ready and conditioned for whatever purpose for which they are advertising it.
If all of the above has gone well, you can now try him out for yourself. When you take the horse, lead it around for a minute. Does it stay with you by your side (be aware that some people teach mules to walk behind them instead of beside) and mind its manners? Or does it try to bully you, walk over you or drag behind? Don't just walk in a straight line, but turn left and right. Pick a spot to focus on and go there. See whether he'll hang with you or pull away and go his own way. If he does act out, abruptly change directions and walk off at a strong pace. Every time he starts to lag, change directions and march purposefully on. If he still acts obnoxious, he's got respect issues and probably has never been taught ground manners. Again, that alone is not a reason to pass him up if everything else is good, but combined with other issues, is a clue that it's going to take some work to turn this animal into a proper well-mannered gentleman or lady.
If the leading goes well, take a lead rope and flip it around while keeping your body relaxed. Does he look attentive or does he freak out? Hold on tightly and be prepared just in case it does scare him. See if you can get him to stand still while you let the rope touch him all over his body. Mind you don't bump his mouth with the bit. If you don't feel like he's responsive enough to do this safely, wait until you have the halter and a lead back on him. Hold one rein and ask him to disengage his hindquarters in each direction by walking towards his hip (see here). Use a rope or the end of the rein to swing at his hip if he doesn't respond. Once he gives quietly and softly, stop and rub him, then repeat the exercise from the other side. Ask him to give you each of his feet. Hold the hoof and make sure it's clean, then drop it and go on the next. If he's relaxed, focused and responsive at this point, check your cinch and mount.
Once mounted, don't allow him to walk off before you tell him to move. Have him stand quietly for a few moments and then ask him to walk on. Stop and start several times to make sure he's paying attention before you ask for a trot. Pay attention to his ears. If they both come back hard and flat against his neck, get off quickly but quietly. Contrary to popular opinion, horses and mules rarely go off without warning. If he throws you, chances are he's been telling you it was coming; you just weren't noticing.
Be sure to walk, trot and canter both directions. If you don't feel safe enough to canter, and never even plan on cantering him as long as you own him, at least make sure you see someone else canter him before you commit to buying. Some horses walk and trot nicely, but will buck like maniacs when asked to canter. Some just won't go into a canter to save their life. Usually this means they've never been taught to carry a rider at a canter and feel unbalanced and nervous. Riders who aren't balanced and fluid in their riding can upset some horses at faster speeds. Again, these are just some situations to be aware of. If the horse or mule hates to canter, and you hate to canter, and everything else about him is wonderful, then by all means go for it and buy him because you'll probably be completely content with each other. Just remember to take everything in consideration before handing over the money.
Ride him away from the other horses. Is he slightly concerned but otherwise listening to you? Or does he fall apart emotionally and try to go back to them? Can you get him focused on you and have him start and stop without argument, or does he freak out without regard for you? A horse that goes nuts when you leave the barn is not worth the trouble to most trail riders. Yes, it's a problem that can be fixed, but for the average rider just isn't worth it. If you believe he may be okay but is having a bad day (and that happens to all us occasionally, equines and humans alike) then give him the benefit of the doubt and try him out another day. If it happens again, pass on him.
When you stop riding, ask him to stand quietly for a few minutes while you chat with the owners. He should stand politely and wait for other instruction.
It may sound like a lot when reading about it, but honestly it doesn't take much to make these things a habit. Once you get into the habit of awareness, you'll be amazed at how many things you'll notice that you never have before. Little things like doing a pre-ride check can actually save you a lot of trouble and pain. I never get on a horse I don't know without thoroughly checking him out first and making sure he's focused, attentive, and acting sensible. The worst thing you can do is hop right on and go as soon as the owner throws a saddle on. Please, make your own safety a priority and take care of yourself. You are the only you you'll ever have. Aren't you worth it?