by Laura Crum
Recently I’ve had a few folks ask me how I happened to pick out Henry and Sunny, the two horses my son and I use for trail riding, and how someone else could select a similar horse. Usually they say, “I want one like that.” Or “I want to enjoy that kind of trail riding—how do I get a horse like that?” What they admire, of course, is our two horses’ “bombproof” quality—how they will go anywhere calmly and quietly. This is what I selected these horses for. So, I thought I’d write a post on this subject.
First off, I did select Henry and Sunny very purposefully to fill this need. I wanted two absolutely reliable trail horses for my son and myself. And I was willing to forgive a lot of things if the horses could do this job. In Sunny’s case, particularly, there was quite a bit to forgive. So, my first piece of advice would be to keep the goal in mind when selecting a horse. In my experience, horses who are excellent, bombproof trail horses are not usually superstars at some demanding arena event. My best team roping horse, Flanigan, was a great trail horse, but he could spook—and make some mighty big jumps. He was a real athlete. And he was very cold-backed. In those days it didn’t bother me. But its best to remember that the very sensitivity, responsiveness, and athletic ability that make a horse a good performer in the arena are traits that may weigh against the ability to go quietly and reliably down the trail.
What is a good trail horse? This will differ from rider to rider. I wanted horses that would walk quietly (no jigging—including on the way home and on solo rides) and were virtually spook proof. I wanted horses that could deal with anything—traffic, mud, surf, strange horses charging by, barking dogs, wild animals, public situations…etc, without turning a hair. I wanted to make trail riding as safe and relaxing as possible for myself and my son. I wanted horses who would stay relaxed themselves at all times and were willing. I wanted zero problems on the trail. The horses needed to be experienced and sure footed enough outside not to put us at risk by stumbling or falling or panicking when faced with a steep hill or any other sort of trail obstacle. You get the picture. I wanted bombproof trail horses.
I definitely wanted to buy horses I’d “known” for some time, if at all possible. I wanted to be sure that neither horse had ever dumped a rider—that both really were experienced and reliable on the trail. I wanted to be sure they were sound. It is very hard to be sure of such things if you haven’t known the horse awhile. I’d known Henry for over ten years and Sunny for three years when I bought them. So I knew what I was getting. I highly recommend this approach, though I know it isn’t always possible.
Both Henry and Sunny were over ten years old when I bought them (Henry was 19). I recommend choosing a horse in the double digits if you want a reliable trail horse. It just makes sense. There are eight and nine year old horses that are just as reliable, but they’re less common. I personally would not select a horse for this job that was less than eight. I also recommend a horse that has done a lot of work outside. In Henry’s case it was more ranch work than trail rides, but he was surefooted and experienced outside the pen. I recommend looking for a horse who has been a reliable “babysitter” at his last home. Henry’s previous owner was an 80 year old man. Sunny had been a trail horse for beginning riders for several years (and yes, he had some bad habits—but he had never dumped a rider). Both horses had established their reliability “outside”.
I trail rode them both before I bought them and made sure that they walked quietly solo or with others, both home and back. Herdbound or barn sour horses are very hard to cure—though any horse will have better and worse days in this respect. Still, the basic tendency to walk quietly needs to be an entrenched habit, or you do not have a “bombproof” trail horse of the kind I was looking for.
Are these horses easy to find? No. And again, you will probably have to forgive some characteristics that others might call faults. Sunny and Henry, for instance, are basically lazy horses. This is, in part, what makes them good, reliable trail horses. They are happy to walk on the trail. They can both be a bit frustrating in the arena, due to the lack of “go”. Spurs would pretty much cure this, but I don’t choose to ride with spurs these days, nor do I choose to put them on my 10 yr old son. The reasons for this are several—if you’re interested, ask me in the comments. My point here is that the horses can be reluctant to move out in the arena to a degree some would find objectionable. I don’t mind because I know that this is partly why they walk so quietly on the trail. I like their relaxed attitude.
On the other hand, neither horse is a “dude” horse. In other words, an ill broke plug who has never done anything but pack dudes down the trail. Such horses exist, of course, and some people think that buying that kind of a horse is the way to get a bombproof trail horse. I disagree. I recommend buying a horse that is “broke”. Both Henry and Sunny were competitive team roping horses. In order for them to do this, someone with some skill had to teach them to obey even when the pressure is on. Such a horse stands a far better chance of being reliable in a bind than a horse who is quiet only because he is lazy and dull. When something does scare your horse (and it inevitably will), a broke horse will stop when you tell him to, even under pressure. An ill broke horse is perfectly capable of an out of control bolt—even with an experienced rider. One thing that distinguishes Henry and Sunny from a "dead-sided" dude horse is that both horses walk down the trail with their ears pricked alertly, looking at everything.
I have had great luck buying ex-team roping horses who are quiet minded and have been ridden a lot outside. Soundness is an issue. You can’t enjoy trail riding if your horse isn’t sound enough to go. What can I say? Soundness is the bane of all good older horses. You do the best you can to choose a sound horse. Fortunately light trail riding is doable for horses with minor arthritic issues, which most older team roping horses (and I would venture to say performance horses of any kind) do have.
If I went out today to buy another trail horse, these are the criteria I would use. Hopefully a horse I’d “known” awhile (at least peripherally), in the double digits, sound, quiet minded and a bit lazy, had lots of experience outside, hopefully had been a babysitter for others, had never dumped a rider, was reasonably well broke. That about covers it. I like geldings, so I’d look for a gelding. I’d ride the horse outside as much as possible before I bought it. I’d have to like the “feel” he gave me on the trail. I’d forgive other faults, as I said. No horse will be perfect in all respects. The horse needs to be “safe” outside. He doesn’t need to be a star at anything else. (I realize other folks will have different needs—many want a horse to do an arena “event” or two and also be a good trail horse.)
What I wouldn’t care about: Looks, color, breed or confirmation—as long as the horse had no obvious predisposition to a problem. I have known many somewhat crooked legged horses to stay sound into their thirties. I’m not critical when it comes to straight shoulders and the like. If the horse is sound and has been sound, I am willing to forgive a lot of confirmation flaws. I have also known plenty of horses with excellent confirmation to have soundness issues. I think the fact that the horse has been a sound horse all his life is the best prediction. That said, horses with little feet and light bone turn me off. I am very attracted to horses with good bone and decent sized feet that are not low in the heels. And having said I don’t care about color, I will admit that like everyone else I have colors I prefer—and I think this does influence me quite a bit, despite my inclination to think it shouldn’t. I find Sunny’s bright gold color very appealing and he makes me smile every time I look at him and that’s worth something. But I never cared for sorrel horses, and having owned wonderful, reliable Henry (who is a bright copper red sorrel) for three years, I am now a huge fan of a good red horse, so I think this works both ways.
Linda’s post yesterday mentioned withers and a good walk, and I think most of us would agree these are nice traits. But my horse Sunny has low withers and a slow walk, and I picked him anyway. Henry is not a particularly fast walker, so the two horses go about the same speed and both walk out willingly on the trail. They just don’t have a fast pace, and that’s OK for me. Again, I think you have to accept some trade offs, and I really prioritized the solid, bombproof trail horse quality over anything else. Other riders might prioritize the fast walk and accept a little less reliability.
I think you should always buy a horse that looks “right” to you. This is a hard thing to define, and maybe this sort of insight only comes over time, but I’ll put it this way. Whether buying a bombproof trail horse, or a potential star at some event, once you’ve determined the horse is suitable, look at him and ask yourself, is this what I want to see in my corral (or stall). If the answer is not a solid yes, its worth thinking about. At this point in my career, I always listen to that little intuitive voice.
What I would be very leery of: A horse that for whatever reason had been turned out and not ridden for some time previously (this would include broodmares and horses that had been turned out to be healed up from something). Such a horse is an “unknown”, whatever its prior experience. A horse with a known health problem would cause me to think hard. I’ve been there, done that, and it can be expensive and very sad.
I would avoid any horse that is not a fully “made” horse. This is a matter of judgement on the horseman’s part, so I can’t really advise you how to make that call. But experienced horses in the double digits are pretty much made horses de facto—whether for better or worse. If you want to teach a horse to be a good trail horse, younger horses can be fine, but I am not talking about a training project here. I’m talking about relaxing rides through the woods with a child.
I’d take my time, and I’d be willing to spend up to $5000 (in my part of the world). I would not be turned off by a horse that fit my criteria and was in his late teens. If he had been sound all his life there’s a good chance he’ll stay sound. And if he stayed sound through his late twenties (very possible) there’s ten lovely, peaceful riding years. As opposed to miserable struggle (potentially) with a younger horse that is not “bombproof”. I know what I’d rather have.
Ok. There’s my thoughts for those who want a horse like Sunny and Henry. Any insights from you guys?