If you’re an avid trail rider, or want to be, you may spend more hours in the saddle than the majority of riders. It’s obviously important to find a horse that you can enjoy riding, be comfortable on, and one that will hold up to all the exercise. This calls for a special combination of brain and brawn.
An exam by your veterinarian prior to purchase is important, but it can only tell you if the horse was sound and free of any obvious health problems on the day of the exam. Vets can’t predict future soundness with any certainty, let alone how the horse will actually perform on the trail.
It’s important to ride the horse out on a trail before buying him. If someone rides out with you, ask them to hang back at some point to see how the horse reacts to being alone. But remember that how the horse acts in familiar surroundings may be different from how he acts when not around home.
The ideal trail horse is alert and interested, enjoys what he is doing, but is not hot or spooky. He should willingly go to the front, middle or back of a group, or alone if you sometimes ride alone. He should go forward freely without constant urging but not rush or need to be constantly rated. He should walk on a loose rein in a swinging, relaxed frame, but easily switch to trot/jog or canter/lope, and easily come back to a walk.
Ideal is pretty hard to find, though, so give some thought to the pros and cons of a less-than-perfect horse in the mind-set department.
Don’t select a hot-acting, flashy horse for the trail just because you think he’ll look impressive. If you’re a quiet, experienced rider and can keep him calm with little effort, that’s one thing. However, if you have to constantly battle the horse it will be tiring for both of you and disruptive to others. The horse is also not going to be paying attention to things he should pay attention to, like the footing, and there’s a good chance a horse like this will spook more easily. A horse that is a little on the quiet side is usually better suited for the trail.
If the horse is overweight, trimming down will increase energy levels. Make sure that the horse will move on when asked, and does not balk, buck or otherwise try to evade working more. He’ll also need a thorough physical and lameness exam to be sure there’s no physical cause him not being more enthusiastic.
It’s important to know how the horse acts around other horses. Mares, especially, can be irritable or downright nasty about other horses being in their personal space, leading to tense moments if a horse comes up too close behind or beside her. Be observant for signs like ear pinning or tail swishing when close to other horses in the barn or field. These are relatively harmless warning behaviors, but they can deteriorate rapidly into biting, striking or kicking if a horse gets too close. Specifically ask the current owner how the horse acts in groups if other horses get close and when tied on a picket line or high-line.
Feet: The condition of the feet is absolutely critical. The hoof should be an appropriate size overall for the size of the horse. Dainty feet under a bulky body take a real beating in terms of force per square inch. The ground surface of a healthy hoof is about as wide as it is long, has a generous frog and an equal amount of sole to either side of the frog.
The sole should have an arch to it. Avoid feet that are obviously much longer than they are wide (narrow, contracted feet) and horses with flat soles. Brittle, shelly walls are likely to cause problems with lost shoes. Horses wearing shoes with clips may have a history of easily losing their shoes.
Ride, or at the very least hand walk, the horse over a variety of surfaces including grass, a hard road or driveway, gravel or rocky ground, uneven natural surfaces, to check for hesitation or soreness.
Eyes: Obviously a trail horse has to have good vision. This is one of the most important parts of the prepurchase exam by your vet. One test you should be sure to perform yourself is to see if the horse walks without hesitation between dim and brightly lit areas. The upper edge of a horse’s pupil has little, round, ball-like structures on it that are extensions of the colored iris. When these are unusually large, they can make it difficult to see when the pupil contracts down in bright light.
Neck: The neck should not be overly long or short and should tie into the horse’s body so that the normal head carriage, when relaxed at a walk, has the horse’s nose sitting just above chest level with the appearance of equal weight distribution between the front and back legs.
Topline: The rump should be well-muscled and even from side to side when viewed from behind with the horse standing square. The degree of muscling will depend on breed and also the horse’s level of conditioning, but it should be symmetrical and proportionate to the rest of the body. In general, the back should be closely coupled rather than long, relaxed and with good muscling, without exaggerated sagging, rigidity or humps. The horse should not show any stiffening, ear pinning or other signs of discomfort when you run a hand down his back.
Chest and Barrel: There are wide breed variations with regard to how wide through the chest a horse is, and how rounded or ”sprung” the rib cage is. Both narrow and broad body types can accommodate normal heart and lung space, so it usually boils down to what type of conformation you find most comfortable as a rider. Either way, the horse should be deep through the chest — meaning, have a good distance between withers and elbow — to allow for good lung capacity.
Legs: Again, very few horses are perfect, and conformation defects don’t necessarily mean a horse will have problems, but they are a risk factor. The heavier the horse and rider, the more stress will be placed on the legs. Always take the horse’s prior history into consideration too when evaluating the legs. An active, seasoned trail horse with hundreds of miles logged and no evidence of lameness, heat or swelling is more of a known quantity than a lightly used or young horse.
Viewed from the side, the knee should be flat and flush with the cannon bone. The heels should line up with a line drawn through the middle of the cannon bone. The tendons and suspensory ligament should be visible as separate structures and free of swellings.
Short cannon bones, with considerably more length from elbow to knee than knee to fetlock, are desirable. From the front, a line that starts at the point of the shoulder should run directly through the center of the knee, cannon bone, fetlock (ankle), pastern and foot. The horse’s knees should face directly forward, not be turned out or in.
When viewed from behind, the plumb line should drop straight down from the point of the hip through the point of the hock, dividing the back of the fetlock and travel ing between the bulbs of the heels. The point of the hock should face directly back, not rotate outward or in. From the side, there should be good muscling above the stifle and in the gaskin. The upper leg should have a gentle backward and downward slope between stifle and hock, not be overly straight (”post legged”). The cannon bone should be perpendicular to the ground.
Putting It All Together
The first step is to be clear in your mind what you really want from the horse, how many miles per week you are likely to ride, how many hours you have to devote to the horse and keeping him fit. Be realistic and honest about your riding ability, and the type of horse you can safely handle.
Next, before going to see, ride and risk falling in love with a horse, have a detailed phone conversation with the seller. Let them know what you need and ask about the horse’s past and current level of use and conditioning, temperament, how the horse behaves in groups, past injuries and illnesses, conformation faults.
If the seller is a dealer or trainer, ask for contact information for three people who aren’t relatives, current boarders, students or otherwise directly involved with the seller at this time. Ask who their veterinarian is to avoid conflict of interest during prepurchase exams.
The next step is usually to go see and try the horse, usually with your trainer or another knowledgeable horseperson as another set of eyes. Try not to fall in love with the horse at this point. You still need to go to step 3, the vet exam.
During your vet’s examination, ask for specific findings regarding any conformation faults or old injuries and make sure your vet gets the benefit of knowing the horse’s full history. For example, a horse that has an obvious old tendon injury that is sound but hasn’t been doing much of anything except loaf in the pasture for a few years is a riskier purchase than one that has been working at or above the level that you require.
Once you’ve decided to buy the horse, negotiate taking the horse for a 30-day trial at your own barn. Not all sellers are willing to do this, however, but you may be able to reach a compromise, such as leasing the horse for a month at the owner’s stable. Quick decisions on horse sales can end up bad choices.