In a way, getting on a new horse is like going on a blind date. You may know some facts ABOUT your date, but you don’t really KNOW your date. You’re winging it.
You’ve decided you like what you’ve seen so far and what you’ve learned about this horse. Now you want to see how it feels. Will we connect? Will we like each other? Can I even get it to go forward or in a straight line? Can I get both leads in the canter? These are not always simple questions when you meet a horse for the first time.
A few considerations for the test ride:
1) VIDEOTAPE YOUR RIDE. A friend (or trainer) can videotape you – or in a pinch – the seller can do it. I’ve found this tremendously helpful.
Buying a horse is a BIG decision and during a test ride so much information is coming at you that it feels overwhelming. Video helps you process it later.
Being able to see for yourself how the ride went (via video) helps you process the visit and ask follow up questions or decide if you want to go further with this horse. There have been a number of times I’ve caught things on video that have convinced me pass on this horse – some subtle lameness, a reminder that this horse really was a lot of work to ride, or just the sense that we didn’t look happy together. Similarly, there have been a couple of horses over the years where the ride video clinched the deal! I liked the horse, and in reviewing the video could see that the horse and I were really good together – we just fit and were harmonious. A picture is worth a thousand words. In the absence of video, at least take some conformation snapshots and short video clips with your cell phone.
2) THE SELLER RIDES FIRST. Always have the seller ride the horse first unless you are a professional rider. For safety reasons, it’s wise to let the seller be the first one on the horse (just in case) – and you may decide after seeing that horse go around the ring for a few minutes, that you really don’t want to ride it after all! If your gut is saying NO for some reason, just listen to it. Ride the horse you feel excited to ride and let the other ones go. Life is too short to take the risk – or it will be, if you take unnecessary risks. You may feel a little nervous about riding this new horse, but you should feel that the horse is essentially safe and trustworthy for you or don’t get on it. The seller should warm up the horse and demonstrate its basic training and suitability, but not wear it out. Make sure they don’t ride it so long that it has nothing left for you. Feel free to speak up and say, “I’m ready to try her now.” Sometimes they’re just riding and riding and riding…waiting for you to say something.
3) THE TEST RIDE. It’s fine to ask the seller to give you some pointers on riding the horse, if you feel you need them. If your trainer is with you, then she may coach you. Otherwise, depending on your experience, you may be on your own. I usually walk the horse around on a light rein and get the feel of her first. Do a few walk/halt transitions, circles, etc., then move on to the other gaits and more advanced work, depending on the level of this horse’s training. Test rides can be as short as 5 minutes or as long as 20 minutes or more, depending on how much I like it. If I don’t like it: it’s a short ride. Even if I like the horse, it doesn’t take a long ride to take it through some of its training, and hopefully I will be able to come back and have a second test ride. Don’t ride the horse a long time if you don’t like it – that’s unfair to the horse and to the seller. There’s nothing wrong with trotting twice around the ring and knowing “that’s enough, this horse isn’t right for me” and saying so.
4) THE STRESS TEST. If this will be your ONLY test ride (if the horse is a long distance away, for example), then you will want to ride longer if you have any serious interest. For horses I really am serious about, I always try to throw in a little “stress test.” This is where I push the horse a little bit mentally. If it’s green, I ask it to do something it doesn’t really
understand (maybe a turn on the forehand or a leg yield) and see how it reacts. If it’s trained, I ask it to do something difficult and do it really well. I want to see if it responds willingly to pressure or if it becomes unduly anxious, cranky, resentful, or stupid. I’d like to see it try for me. A little anxiety – because it doesn’t know me and may not entirely understand what I want, is o.k. – but it should calm right back down because that’s the temperament I like. Other people may have other tests they do.
5) TEST THE TRAINING. If you are looking for a trained jumper and this horse supposedly courses around beautifully, then you should jump it. If this is a 4th level dressage horse who does tempi changes, then do some tempi changes or ask the seller to demonstrate them. Be sure the horse can do what it is advertised as doing. Some sellers exaggerate the abilities or training of their horses. Perhaps that wonderful jumping horse COULD jump a 3’6″ course on a perfect day with a whole lot of practice and if he’d practiced all the jumps before, but normally, well…uh, he tends to run out on jumps. Oh, didn’t I mention that? I guess I didn’t. Caveat emptor. Seriously: I can’t tell you how many sellers exaggerate the training or talent of their horses. Or they may just not really understand what you are looking for. Don’t take it on faith: be sure you SEE it in person. Of course, while caveat emptor is the rule you do occasionally meet a wonderful seller who is completely straightforward and the horse you buy is exactly as described. My Finn (New Forest Pony) and Ellie (Haflinger) are such cases and I feel very blessed!
6) RIDE OUTSIDE THE ARENA IF POSSIBLE. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but if it is, it’s a great way to test the horse. A short trail ride, or even just riding around the barn area, but something unstructured and full of opportunities to spook would be great!
7) UNTACK THE HORSE. If you really like this horse and are thinking of buying it, ask if you can help untack it and clean it up. After all, part of the joy of horses is the relationship we have on the ground. You want to know what this horse is like to handle, right? Here’s your chance.
8) COME BACK AND DO IT AGAIN. If you can…try to get at least a second test ride, or even a third. That said, I’ve bought plenty of horses with just one ride and been happy with them. And I’ve had a couple of mistakes in there. If you have good help and/or know what you’re doing, it can be done. On the other hand, the more you can find out in advance, the better. You wouldn’t want to get married after just one date, now would you? Not usually.
Next up: How do I know when if this horse could be “The One”?