You have the opportunity to ride your cousin's horse, or your neighbor has a new horse and wants you to try him. Or perhaps you're in the market for another horse and have found one you'd like to take for a test ride. You don't have a lot of experience riding different horses, so you find yourself wondering how to stay safe with this unfamiliar horse.
Messing around with horses is inherently dangerous. We all know that. But the dangers often increase with horses that we don't know. When you're thinking of riding a horse you're not familiar with, there are at least two concerns. First, should you get on him? And second, where should you ride?
The better a rider people think you are, the less careful they are about your safety. I'm often in that situation. People think that, because I start "unbroken" horses, I'm going to be safe on their horse. Often, it isn't until we're going through the process I'll describe below that the truth comes out about the horse.
The reality is that I get on unbroken horses only after I've worked with them enough that I know I'll have control. So the "unbroken" horse often is safer than the one that someone wants me to ride.
Getting to Know You
It's hard the first time or two that you tell someone you're not going to get on their horse. But it gets easier when you think about the possibility of getting hurt. I've talked with hundreds of people who've been injured, and often it happened because they got on a horse despite the fact that they didn't feel great about him. Perhaps they didn't want to disappoint the owner or they didn't want to appear chicken.
If I don't feel that I'm going to be safe, I don't ride. Other people can give you their opinion whether a horse is safe for you to ride, but you have to trust your own instincts.
When I'm presented with a horse that's unfamiliar to me, whether someone brought it to a clinic or I'm visiting at their place, I ask a few questions to get a general sense of the horse and his background. I ask the owner to tell me about the horse, and I listen carefully to what they say. If they use words that don't describe literally what the horse does, I ask them to explain further.
So for instance, if they say that the horse is "gentle," that could mean he smooches with them when they feed him carrots, but it might have nothing to do with how he rides or handles. If he's "fancy with his feet," that could mean anything from him being a well-balanced, athletic horse to one who can kick you accurately.
If he's "light on the front end," that could mean he gives to the bit beautifully, doesn't hang on your hands and has a lovely, floating trot. Or it could mean that the horse rears. We don't even want to know what the translation of "airs above the ground" or "advanced dressage" is, unless we're sure we're talking about a genuine dressage horse. And so it goes.
Ask the owner what he's done with the horse. If he says they've ridden him in the pasture, ask how long ago and under what conditions. Realize that most people will paint a more positive picture than you'll experience. That's not to say that people intentionally mislead you. It's just human nature to want your horse to look good, and most people underestimate the amount of consistent work that's necessary for a horse to be safe to ride.
Ask if the horse likes being groomed. If the owner says the horse doesn't mind his body being brushed, but he doesn't like his head handled, that will tell you the horse may be headshy.
Some behaviors often go hand-in-hand with headshyness, such as a tendency to get startled or buck when a rider makes a quick move. It could be that the horse merely doesn't like how his face is being brushed. But it could also be an important clue.
Is it easy to pick up his hind feet? It's a good sign if the horse readily hands someone a back foot for cleaning. On the other hand, if he kicks out when someone tries to reach for a hind foot, that will tell you he's likely to kick you should you fall off near a hind foot, or he might buck if tall weeds tickle his hind legs.
How did he act the last time someone rode him off the property? How long ago was that? If it's been a while, he may not be too eager to leave. On the other hand, he might be totally relaxed about it. But if the last time was two years ago and he only left after a second horse joined him, realize that riding off the property today may be too ambitious.