Looking for a good trail horse? The good news is that trail horses come in all breeds, crossbreeds, sizes, shapes, and colors. Trail horses can be tall and lean or short and stocky. A good trail horse is simply any animal that safely takes you down all types of trails in all types of trail conditions.
On the other hand, this wide range of choices can make the final decision difficult. Here, I'll tell you what to look for, where to find a trail horse, and questions to ask the seller. I'll also tell you about my own recent trail-horse-buying experience.
What to Look For
Here are five key characteristics to keep in mind as you shop for your next trail horse.
- Trail experience. Trail-horse prospects aren't necessarily bred for trail riding; they're "educated" to carry you safely in diverse trail situations. The more wet saddle blankets that have come off a prospect's back, the better he'll be on the trail. The less experienced you are, the more experienced your trail mount should be. He'll likely get you through tough spots.
- Conformation. Look for balance over beauty. Don't rule out a Roman nose or an extra-thick neck if the horse's disposition and attitude demonstrate his trail ability. There are thousands of trail horses that will never place in a conformation class, but that have proven their worth by safely carrying a rider along narrow trails and across flooding rivers. However, overall balance does affect trail ability. A short-backed horse will be able to carry more weight than a long-backed one. A short-coupled horse with long legs may tend to "scalp" his front heels. A horse with an exceptionally wide front chest and wide base (distance between hooves) will have power going uphill, but may stumble on narrow trails, due to his width.
- Disposition. When you test your trail-horse prospect under saddle, look for a quiet, laid-back disposition. A quiet horse is one that will put up with a lot of distractions. He's forgiving. He may suddenly throw up his head and snort at a plastic bag, but he won't spook, spin, or take off to parts unknown. He'll think first, then react. He'll give you time to reassure him with a pat on the neck, a quiet word, or a nudge to keep moving. He won't waste energy. Conversely a nervous horse that frets and worries doesn't always make the best trail horse.
- Attitude. Attitude dictates a horse's momentum. A horse with a willing attitude will walk down the trail looking at the world around him. His ears will swivel to catch trail sounds. His whole body language says, "I just love being a trail horse." Point his nose up a hill, and he'll pick the best route through the rocks. He likes people and other horses. He just wants to please.
- Gender. This is an individual decision. I like geldings for their even temperaments. Mares, which have heat cycles, can develop trail-kicking problems; others will whinny to every horse that goes by. Avoid stallions, which aren't allowed in some public parks, trails, and horse camps, and need expert management.Trail-Horse Sources
Now that you know what to look for, here are several places to start your search.
- Local sources. Begin with your friends. Ask whether anyone has a good trail horse for sale. Find out whether there's a seller in your area, and ask who he or she would recommend. Contact your state horse council for leads. Ask your farrier and veterinarian. Look in local equine publications and The Trail Rider. Put up a "horse wanted" notice in local barns, and tack and feed stores.
- Horse breeders. Although most trail horses are made, not bred, there are breeders who specialize in producing good-minded, well-conformed, athletic trail horses. Gaited-horse breeders especially fall into this category. You can find such breeders through their respective breed associations, print advertising, and the Internet.
- The Internet. Speaking of the Internet, this can be an excellent search tool, especially if you don't mind traveling some miles to find just the right horse. You can search for Trail Horses For Saleon the premier classified site of the Equine Network, Equine.com.You can search for Trail Horses For Sale on the premier classified site of the Equine Network, Equine.com. Just type "trail horse" into your favorite search engine, and countless sites will come up. Once you find a horse you like, go see him in the flesh to avoid surprises once the purchase is completed.