6 Assessment Steps During a 6-week Trial
Buying a horse can be a stressful business. We often have our own expectations on what we want from horses, so how can we best assess the horse before committing to buy?
The assumption here is that you have tried your horse in their current environment and now you have brought them home to begin your trial period.
Please note, if you are unfamiliar with some of these ideas, find a professional to help you. Safety is key at all times.
1) Check the new horse can settle with your current herd
This takes time and will not happen overnight, to the point where I have had a pony take 3 months to really settle (he had previously been kept alone).
Aim to create an environment that helps the horse settle. For example, more options for eating hay, moving the dominant horse away during feed times, those aspects that can help them settle more quickly.
The dynamics should also include taking them away from their herd and taking other herd members away from them. I’ve often heard when 2 horses are kept together either one or both can suffer with separation anxiety. This is an area you will want to check out, especially if you use one horse regularly without the other.
2) The Basics
Working on the 4 basic responses of GO, STOP, TURN FORELEGS, TURN HINDLEGS, will help give you an understanding of how your horse will perform at different levels of their training. For instance, if you want your horse to perform well in its dressage tests, can you determine which diagonal it uses as its running pair or its slowing pair? Most horses have a difference and assessing which is which will give you an advantage in your later stages of training.
In addition to the 4 basics, I test a horse for other responses I use regularly, such as head control and park. I test these situations in everyday moments – putting the bridle on, saddle on, moving around them for grooming, at the tie-up rail, in the float.
I also include here an element of ‘gear checking’. If I have a horse that is ridden in a stronger bit than I would like, I will change it to a milder bit (plus even the bitless bridle if that is my future plan) and see how the horse responds. Quite often the horse that is used to a stronger bit pressure may become less responsive to a milder pressure, so beware of the safety implications here. There are ways to improve a stop over time that don’t require stronger bits, but they must be implemented in safe situations.
3) Ask them new questions
One of the first things I do when assessing a new horse is ask them something they haven’t been asked before. This is quite often a sideways step (turn the forelegs) from the tap below the knee on the outside of the cannon bone. The reason I put this in early in my repertoire, is to see how the horse responds to something new. Horses naturally have a trial and error learning system. When using negative reinforcement, we want them to give a few different answers a try before they learn the response we are waiting for. For some horses, it doesn’t take too many repetitions, for others it may take some more. Horses can develop an almost pessimistic outlook on their options – instead of trying to find the answers to something new, they tend not to react, not even bothering to try and stop the annoying pressure (this is a pretty unhealthy sign from a horse). Some horses who are not used to such questions can also overreact instead of working it out. This assessment then provides some great information about arousal levels and lets you know where your horse naturally goes when they are put out of their comfort zone and into the learning phase.
4) Exposure to your goals
If you plan to compete, trail ride or give lessons on your horse, you need to know how they respond to these experiences before you commit to buying. This may include clipping, rugging, farrier work, floating in pairs or alone, jumping, being surrounded by other horses or people, cats, dogs, tractors…whatever your situation will hold for them! Horses need on average 5 different exposures before they can generalise their learning, so ensure you test them in a number of situations.
I’ve put floating in on its own. Many horses have some history with floating and this can appear in differing moments. I have had a horse arrive late, with an apparent genuine reason, but when we first went to float him, the real reason for their late arrival became clear! He didn’t float! Luckily for me, this hole in his training was easily changed. The “good floater” however, can actually be context specific - not transferring their learning to other situations. Obviously, a big problem for those horses whose learning is specific to a particular float and not your own! Test them out in different situations and environments. I often move my float around my property to see their reaction in differing positions – and am somewhat surprised at the outcome!
6) Check soundness and gear
It is thoroughly recommended that your vet complete a thorough pre-purchase examination before buying a horse. However, it is also an important step to check the gear being used on the horse - a professional saddle fitter can help you here - I cannot tell you the amount of horses and ponies I have seen with behaviour problems who have come with an incorrectly fitted saddle because the previous owner honestly believed the saddle was a perfect fit. I also include a dental check, a chiropractor or physio check, a trusted farrier or trimmer. This way, you know you have done all you can to eradicate any pain or injury that may be influencing any behaviour.
Having a horse for a 6-week trial period can be extremely useful to determine if they are the right horse for you. We have all seen the ‘looking to buy’ posts where the buyer wants to find their perfect unicorn - and I don’t blame them. However, we have to ensure we understand the horses previous handling and training and that we are prepared to continue to learn about successful training ourselves. Only then can we maintain the ‘perfect unicorn’ we initially brought home.
After-all, a bad workman blames his tools…
To learn about the principles that underline successful training, go to the 10 Training Principles adapted from the ISES website.