When it's time to buy your next trail horse, it's tempting to start by looking at print and online ads or driving around to see horses. After all, that's the fun part. But do your homework first.
"Write down exactly what you're looking for," advises Tim Doud, an award-winning outfitter in Cody, Wyoming, who also breeds show-quality saddle mules. "Then look for the animal. Don't look at horses first and then try to figure out what you need."
When you're ready to start your search, consider these six sources: (1) word-of-mouth; (2) rescue organizations; (3) reputable breeders; (4) specialized trainers; (5) auctions and sales; and (6) trail-horse outfitters. Here, we give you a rundown of each source, plus critical questions to ask the seller, savvy buying tips, and a handy resource guide.
One of the best ways to find a good horse is through someone you already know: your veterinarian, farrier, trainer, barn buddy, or horse-savvy neighbor.
That's exactly how Gwen Randle of Morriston, Florida, ended up with the best trail horse she'd ever owned. When Gwen's husband, Charlie, was searching for a horse, a trainer friend suggested he look at a Quarter Horse gelding, Quarter Note Hank. The trainer knew the gelding was a nice reined cow horse and a good trail horse.
Charlie bought Hank, but when the horseman decided get into cutting, Hank became Gwen's horse. Gwen says Hank, now 11 years old, is tops out of all the horses she's owned.
Gwen's advice to other horse-hunters? "Talk to people you trust to see if they know of any good trail horses for sale," she says. "We didn't know the people we bought Hank from, but we knew the trainer well and trusted him, so we felt confident buying Hank."
A big plus was that the sellers allowed the Randles to try out Hank before finalizing the purchase. "Before buying, try the horse out on new trails, out of his usual territory," says Randle. "If possible, take the horse home, and ride him on trails he's not used to."
Years ago, Randle learned this lesson the hard way when she bought an Anglo-Arabian gelding. The gelding was calm and quiet when she rode him at the seller's, but after she brought him home, she discovered her "quiet" new horse spooked at anything unfamiliar.
2. Rescue Organizations
Don't overlook horse rescue organizations in your quest for a trail horse, especially in these uncertain economic times in which owners are being forced to give up top-quality horses.
"At our rescue, anywhere from 85 to 90 percent end up being able to be good trail horses," notes Hilary Wood, president and founder of Front Range Equine Rescue in Larkspur, Colorado. "We rescue, rehabilitate, and put the horses through training assessment."
Not all rescue operations rehabilitate and retrain horses, so look for one that does. When you contact an organization, ask what type of horses it rescues and what its adoption policies are. Specify that you're looking for a sound animal you plan to use as a trail/recreational mount.
Then visit the facility. In fact, Wood suggests visiting it more than once. While there, watch the horse being ridden before you ride him, and query the rider. Request all of the horse's available health and training history, and ask questions just as you would when buying from a private party.
Ask for and contact references, such as past adopters, and local veterinarians and farriers who work with the rescue facility. Read the adoption contract closely. Some specify that the horse can't be resold or must be returned to the organization if you can no longer keep him.
When you find a horse you think you'd like to buy, arrange for a prepurchase exam. (For more on the prepurchase exam, see "Prepurchase Exam FAQs" on page 50.)
Be prepared to pay a reasonable fee for the horse. Front Range Equine Rescue bases adoption fees on the horse's age and abilities. It looks for quality homes over market value, typically charging adoption fees of $500 to $1,000 for horses suitable for trail/recreational riding.