Buying a horse: riding at a viewing

Article reference: UK-IA-EQU03
Last updated: September 2022 | 7 min read

This is the third article in our guide to buying a horse. You may want to read the previous article what to look for first at a viewing.

The importance of riding at a viewing

You must both see a horse being ridden and ride it yourself to make a valid judgement about its suitability.

Even if you are buying for a specific purpose, test the horse in a number of situations over a number of days. Make your intentions clear to the owner, so they do not feel you are leading them on for no good reason.

Horse sellers are wary of timewasters who come for a ‘free ride’ on their horse, so it’s important to explain why you are being thorough. The simple reason being that you cannot afford to make a mistake!

Step 1: Watch the horse being ridden

Firstly, watch it be ridden. Note if the rider requires assistance to get on and whether the horse stands still. You need to know if this is a horse that allows a rider to get on without assistance, otherwise you will never be able to do a thing with it alone.

If the rider is awful, just go home. The chances are the horse will have picked up bad habits if it has been ridden poorly. Ask to see regular transitions between walk, trot and canter, as well as some circle work, and some jumping. From the transitions, you are looking for a responsive horse who listens to light aids and moves between each transition calmly and smoothly. If the horse rushes its transitions or is very sensitive to the leg and hands, it is inappropriate for a novice rider, as both are likely to become unsettled by each other’s movements. However, this jerkiness can denote keenness on the horse’s part – a good sign for any young competition prospect, if you have the time and patience to perfect it.

Circle work is essential to knowing how balanced and supple the horse is. Ask them to do some 20 and 10 metre circles, figure-of-eights and serpentines. Observe how accurately and willingly the horse bends. A horse that has not been schooled well enough will either fall in or drift out during a circle, or try to cut the corners of the serpentines and figures-of-eight. Green horses are also likely to do this because they are still learning how to balance.

Balance and suppleness is something that can be fixed through schooling, especially in younger horses, but is certainly a disadvantage for someone who wants a ‘ready to go’ horse. Make sure you see the horse complete each move on both reigns as most horses are more balanced on one reign than the other: an experienced seller will avoid displaying the more advanced moves on its bad reign!

All horses can jump. Even if you do not wish your horse to jump, watching it do this can tell you a lot about the horse’s willingness to tackle a challenge. You are not concerned how high it can jump, unless you are buying a jumper. However, a lazy horse will often run out of a jump or halt at the last minute, and a wilful horse may ‘set its neck’ and charge toward it, creating a very ‘flat’ shape over the jump.

Step 2: Ride it

If you are not excited by the prospect of riding it, go home. There is no use riding the horse if you think it is not right for you, especially if you think it is too much for you to handle.

Unless the horse was very fidgety when the owner was mounting, ask if you can get on unassisted. That way, you know you'll be ok doing this back at home. Adjust the stirrups and girth yourself, even if the owner is very eager to help you. Again, do it to know this is simple task is doable.

The same observations apply as when watching it being ridden, but you must also get a sense for whether you would enjoy riding this horse on a regular basis. An uncomfortable saddle can be replaced but if you take an instant dislike to the horse’s choppy gait, this is unlikely to improve over time.

Ride the horse how you would normally ride. If this horse is a ‘step up’ for you, there is no point trying to ride ‘in a more sophisticated way’. You may fool the horse and seller during this test but it could quickly unravel when you get home.

Start off slow – stop and go. Establish whether it can do the basics well. Then move slowly into doing some transitional and circle work. You may find the horse doesn’t perform as well for you as its owner but this is to be expected, since you are both new to each other. Don’t rush into testing the horse in your chosen discipline – you can do this at a second viewing. It’s more important at this stage to establish whether the horse has manners and received the basic schooling needed for every discipline. You will be surprised how many horses have not. If you wish to finish the session with some canter work or by popping a small jump, do so. This can be a good confidence-giver as you will leave the session knowing you have conquered all the basic milestones.

Step 3: Hack it out

The next step is to hack out the horse since this is an important part of every horse’s exercise routine.

During the hack, ask for a combination of both road and off-road work. Some are not fortunate enough to live close to a bridlepath, in which case choose a safe, quiet road to do some extended trot work. The important thing is to give the horse the opportunity to ‘let its hair down’ and see if it is still willing to listen to you.

Hacking out also gives you a strong insight into how brave the horse is and how it relates to other horses. A forward-going horse will want to lead ahead of the other horse(s) whereas the more laid back horse is happy to slot in behind. A spooky horse will startle and recoil at every anomaly, whereas a relaxed horse will let everything pass it by.

You need to assess these qualities against your chosen discipline and personal needs. For example, a spooky horse will likely cause you difficulty in the buzzing, colourful atmosphere of the jumping ring!

Step 4: Test it in your discipline

If you are to buy a horse in a particular discipline, you need to see how it performs, since you will likely be paying more for the training and experience it has received. If it is competition season, you could watch it at a local event.

However, it is also important to see how you perform with the horse, as an experienced rider may make it look effortless. Do not be put off if the owner does not have facilities. You can book a local arena where you can set up for a dressage test or show jumping course, or seek out a local cross-country course. Be wary of an owner who is asking a premium price but not willing for you to test out the goods. They are likely hiding inadequacies in the horse’s aptitude.

Deciding whether this could be the one

Importantly, listen. Everyone will have niggling doubts, but if that niggle turns into a churn, it is unlikely the horse is right for you. Listen to friends: they will give an honest opinion from what they can see. Listen to the owner too: most will give you an honest answer about whether your riding ability and intentions matches the character of their horse.

If everything stacks up, you have a horse! Make sure you negotiate that all-important two week trial and make sure you use a horse sales agreement to protect you against what you can't assess at a viewing.

Further useful information and documents

This is the third article in our guide to buying a horse. The next article covers settling a newly bought horse into its new home.

If you are buying (or selling) a horse, we recommend that you use a horse sale agreement. We have a choice of three depending on the value of the horse and whether you are the buyer or the seller. See the buyer's version of our horse sale agreement.

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