If your horse has had some time off, or you’re riding an unfamiliar or young horse, it’s a good idea to evaluate him before you climb on.
The most important thing to know is you don’t want to be sneaky and tiptoe around your horse as you evaluate. Your movements should be casual with flow and purpose. If you try to strictly avoid doing anything that may bother the horse, you’re defeating the purpose of the evaluation.
You want to bring any inner bother to the surface without doing so much that you overexpose the horse. The goal is to provide the reassurance that the horse may be lacking BEFORE you’re on his back.
Listen To Your Horse
There are limitless things you could do to evaluate a horse. This list does not cover it all. Your horse should actually be the one to let you know the areas where he’s lacking confidence. But these exercises will give you a game plan and ideas of things to do as part of a pre-ride evaluation.
Fencing Your Horse Evaluation
You want to be certain that your horse is okay with a human being above him. Will he give you his back? Even if you’ve ridden this horse 100 times, you may be find that he won’t. We have an entire article on ‘Fencing’ that explains the process in detail.
Access that info here: Fencing Your Horse
Catching and Saddling
Is your horse is hard to catch? That’s a sign there are more unlying problems that need to be addressed. As you throw the saddle on, evaluate the horse and watch his expression. Evaluate if he can stand still in a natural position without getting bug eyed and anxious.
Snug up the cinch just enough that it will stay on as you continue to watch his body language. Then push his shoulders and hips around both directions and be sure he can do that with flow and cadence. As he’s walking in a circle around you, his feet should move naturally without rushing. Stay in a neutral position, with your hand that’s holding the lead rope down by your side, unless he stops moving. After he walks around you in both directions, ask him to do that at a trot.
After a young colt has had a few rides, a horse shouldn’t need to be lunged for 30 minutes to wear him out before you get on. That can end up being a crutch.
The best part of the ride should be when your horse is fresh.
For more help on catching your horse, go here: How To Catch A Horse
Move The Feet
With the horse saddled and still in a halter, use a flag to rub over his legs and body. As you’re doing that, see if the horse can walk a circle around you without his feet getting choppy and rushed. If he gets really bothered, back off a little. If he only gets slightly bothered, hang in there with the flag until he walks around like it’s not there.
You want the horse to be moving during this evaluation with the flag. If he’s standing still, it may appear he’s okay with the flag. But he’s simply frozen in place.
Release The Tension
Pet him all over and roll his ears sockets around to release tension. Another good exercise to release tension is to have the horse lower his head.
Continue To Evaluate Your Horse
Pick up all four feet. Tap on each foot and massage each leg.
Hold his tail while he walks around you and make sure it’s not tight.
Move the stirrups around as the horse is walking in a circle around you. If a moving stirrup causes him to bolt, you want that to happen now and not when you’re on his back. If he does freak out over the stirrup moving, move it less but hang in there. Gradually increase how much you move the stirrup as the horse can handle it. Any time he gets more accepting, stop and reward. Then begin again and add in some bumping with the stirrup. The horse will learn that a stirrup bumping is not a big deal. He doesn’t need to panic. He just needs to walk off.
Rock the saddle around and be sure that doesn’t cause him trouble.
Step halfway up in the stirrup (toe only) and untrack his feet left and right. Be ready to step off if things go weird. Look for normal, natural movement with no evasion.
During all these evaluation exercises, make sure the horse can hold himself in place and not walk over top of you.
The Goal Of Evaluation
You’re looking for a horse that’s responsive but not reactive. A horse that’s okay with handling a little pressure. If your evaluation finds any areas where the horse needs more support or understanding, work more on that. You can’t get a horse TOO good at all these little things.
The goal is to be able to throw on the saddle, snug it up, untrack the feet a few steps, snug up the saddle a little more, untrack a step or two, jump on, walk for 10 feet and then take off trotting.
If you have to do much more than this before your horse is usable (after he’s had more than 30 rides), then you’re likely missing some foundational elements.