The experience of trying a horse for purchase can be "trial without error" when you're honest about what you want, you take your time, and you know when, why, and how to say "No, thanks." Trying a horse that's for sale can be nerve-wracking. If you've misstated your ability, goals, or price range, he could turn out to be wrong before you put a leg over him. On the other hand, he could be perfect but you might never know if you let nerves, self-consciousness, or real or imaginary pressure get in the way.
That's why I've come up with a system of logical steps for trying a horse, either on your own or as preliminary legwork for your trainer; it gives you checkpoints along the way for deciding whether to continue or to tell the seller this isn't the horse for you.
Step 1: Set it up. When you call, ask about the horse's size, breed, color, sex, age, temperament, vices and experience. Be painfully honest about how you ride and, if you plan to compete, whether you're aiming for the A circuit or local schooling shows. Do you trail ride, too? Not all show horses are good trail horses, so pick your priority. If you want both, make sure this horse does both. And if you're going to keep him at home, ask if he has the ground manners and temperament for it or needs to be in a structured program under professional supervision.
Trying a horse that's totally out of your price range is neither honest nor fair, so be up front about what you can spend. (That doesn't mean you're wrong, if, say, your limit is $6000, to try a $7500 horse in hopes the seller will come down. Just realize the seller is hoping you'll come up.) And if you have a trainer, discuss commission details.
Checkpoint: If you don't like what you hear--the horse is too green, or she's a mare who must be on hormones you're unwilling to give--say, "Thank you, but that's not what I'm interested in."
Otherwise, move on to...
Step 2: Arrive on time. If you're running late (or decide to cancel), call. There's nothing worse than tying up a seller's day--except leaving the poor horse standing in the crossties for hours.
Step 3: Look him over. If the seller doesn't stand the horse up, ask her to. Take your time assessing his size, appearance, conditio, and conformation, but remember you're not buying a conformation horse.
Checkpoint: If you see something you really can't live with (a severe conformation fault, such as back at the knee or an enlarged ankle), politely say, "Thank you very much; he's not for me."
Step 4: Ask to see him ridden. The seller should have a set routine--walk, trot and canter flatwork, then some jumping. After that, she should ask if you want to see anything else. If she doesn't, ask. Say, "Can you do a couple of flying changes?" or "Can I see how he handles the rolltop?" or "Could you do that line again?"
Checkpoint: If, watching on the flat, you realize that you don't like him --maybe he's too much horse or is too short-strided and choppy--don't wait until he's jumped. Say, "Thank you. Before you jump him, I don't think he's the horse for me." (The seller will be grateful. She'd rather save her time and his 20 jumps for a buyer who is interested.) You don't have to be more specific. If the horse does pass muster on the flat and over fences, go on to...
Step 5: Flat him. I'm not a fan of mounting from the ground, because you can really get off on the wrong foot by jabbing a horse with your toe or pulling the saddle against his withers. Use a mounting block, or get a leg up. Once on, make sure you're comfortable (ride in your own saddle if you want and make sure the stirrups are adjusted correctly).
The horse is going to be a little "up" from jumping, so walk around, give him a chance to relax and catch his breath, and take your time getting a feel for him (Do not gather up the reins and blast off because you think, "Whoops, they're expecting me to do something." They aren't.) Ask, "How much leg does he need? Should I wear spurs? Do I need a stick?" (the fact that the professional riding him wears spurs doesn't mean the horse is dead to the leg. Unless you have good control of your leg, spurs could get you into trouble with a horse you don't know.)
Pick up the trot; when you're comfortable trotting the horse, canter. Depending on his level, do big and small circles, transitions, some patterns--half-turns, serpentines around the jumps, changes of direction--and even flying changes if the horse does them and you know how to do them. Otherwise, keep it simple. You don't need to put him through the wringer; you just need to know if he makes you feel good.
Checkpoint: If you find something you don't like--maybe the horse doesn't feel as good (or isn't as easy) as he looked--say, "I don't think he's my type. I won't jump him."
Step 6: Jump him. Start slow and small. Yes, the horse is warmed up and doesn't necessarily need to trot crossrails again, but you do. If the crossrails go well, canter back and forth over a single jump, focusing on his rhythm, response to your aids, length of stride and bravery.
Once you feel good about singles, go to lines, again, starting by trotting in--and, by all means, ask how the lines are set and what number of strides you should do the first time. When trotting in goes well, canter in for the normal distance. As you do, keep the questions coming. Ask the seller, "Am I over-riding? Should I use less leg? Is his stride longer than I thought? Will he be happier and still get down the line with a softer ride?"
If time permits, volunteer to cool the horse out. It's common courtesy and a good opportunity to get to know him better. And thank anybody--seller, rider, groom--who handled him for you.
What not to do? Fifty jumps. Either the horse is going to work out within a reasonable number of jumps or he's not.
Checkpoint: If you hated the jumping (oops... he stopped), say, "Thanks. I don't think he's for me." If you're not sure (or you were checking him out for your trainer), ask to return and try him again. Also consider watching the seller school the horse or going to see him at a horse show. And if you loved him, go ahead and show your enthusiasm. Contrary to popular belief, doing so does not increase the price.
Want to avoid the most common amateur faux pas when trying a horse? Then arrive on time, says Holly Hugo-Vidal--and don't expect flying changes from a green youngster, don't jump higher than the seller says the horse can jump, and don't turn a tryout into a marathon lesson.
Her secret of success? "Buy the horse that makes you comfortable. How well he performs matters only to a point. The most important quality is the rapport you have with him, because you'll only do well if you click and feel right with the horse."
In addition to teaching adult-amateur riders and children at Motlow Creek Farm in Campobello, S.C. (and giving clinics), Holly specializes in "finding very green horses, developing them as hunters, showing them, and selling them."
This story was updated for Practical Horseman magazine.