Friday, October 8, 2010

Horse #3 - AKA Drifter

Well, I spent a nice morning with horse #3 and his owner. Since I've now met him and ridden him, he should be entitled to his name, which is Drifter.  First I'll set out my observations and experiences, and then my tentative conclusions - I've promised his owner that I'll call her tomorrow and of course all of your thoughts will be welcome.  He was pretty much exactly as represented and as I thought he would be.  No pictures - I was too busy.

I arrived at the barn - it's on her sister's property - horses are currently out 24/7 inside a two-strand electric fence.  There are two other horses and a lovely petite mule out with Drifter.  She showed me his Coggins, papers and shot records - all in nice order - before we went to get him.  I went out with her - all the horses and mule came up to greet us.  He smelled me all over and we spent some time breathing into each other's noses - I find when I meet a new horse (unless it's prone to bite) that this can be a useful way of getting introduced.  She haltered him and led him out and tied him to a hitching rail so we could do some basic grooming - she had a hard brush, a mane/tail comb and a hoof pick.  He led and tied well, but was restless when tied - he kept swinging his body around so he could see the other horses.

First impressions - he's a handsome, solid horse, with a nice broad chest and hindquarters and nice width and length of barrel.  Nice shoulders and solid, heavy-boned legs with really excellent (barefoot) feet that needed a trim - just small chips at the quarters.  Neck comes out nicely from the shoulder.  His confirmation is just about excellent - 8 out of 10 for me - he's really square and solid - hooves and legs are large and solid and just right for his size and build.  His back is not too long and not too short.  The only thing I'd ding him on is that his neck is a tad too short and his head a bit too large, and he's got a relatively small eye, which I don't find attractive. (I'm not one of those people who puts any credence in the eye size/head shape/color/markings theories of horse personalities - I think they're pretty much bunk - a good horse can come in any color and with any size eye and shape of face.)  And here's a nice thing I noticed - when she was leading him in - he wasn't even under saddle yet - his hind legs were easily overstepping his front prints by at least two hoof widths - and he's square, square, square without being posty.  I really like his confirmation.

He fidgeted a lot while tied - very clearly ties well but wanted to be with the horses rather than us.  And I picked his feet - and he's not good at all about that - lots of snatching away and slamming down and even some cow-kicking with the hinds, which I didn't appreciate.  I was able to get him to hold the hinds up for picking, but it wasn't nice and easy.  His owner's tiny, and I think he gets to take his feet away pretty much as he wishes and she can't do much about it.  There's a theme developing here - keep reading.  She saddled him up easily, although she commented "you're standing where it's hard for me" - get the drift?

I asked her to do with him what she would normally do.  She doesn't always do groundwork, but she did some for me to watch.  (It turns out she's worked with him maybe 5 times since May, so a good idea.)  He's got the Parelli wiggle-the-lead-and-back-up thing down, and was paying good attention to her, and also does a bit of lungeing and some inside turns, although he didn't seem too engaged with that.

I asked if I could take the lead, and did.  We led a bit and did some turns and backing away from my space, and he did very well with this - his ground manners are very good and she's clearly worked hard on that, although he doesn't "lead up" and follow me when I trot.  Then she bridled - no problem at all with that, and she uses a French link snaffle - and tried to get on.  She's been taught by somebody that she's to move the mounting block to the horse, so she did that, a lot, all around.  Every time she set the block by him, he'd swing his hindquarters away and she'd start over.  I didn't assist, but finally suggested positioning him next to the fence.  That time she got on.  She walked and trotted him - lovely walk and very nice trot, although she confessed she doesn't have good speed regulation and worked with her trainer on that for the lessons they've had this summer - the only time he's been away from the property in a year.  But there was a lot of wiggling - he didn't walk or trot straight and kept veering towards me (or the gate which is where I was).

While she was walking, I did my soundness tests, walking next to and then behind him - he's 100% sound at the walk and trot in both directions - lovely to see as I come from the hunter/jumper world where unsound horses are pretty common. I also had the chance to carefully feel his legs and feet - cold and tight legs, with some possible old cold splints.  Nice pasterns - not too long and not too short.  She allowed as how she doesn't lope and hasn't since she was a teen, although her daughter has loped him around.

Then I got on.  First we dealt with the mounting block issue - I asked her if I could do some things that might be unfamiliar to him and she agreed.  I got on the block and asked him to approach - my objective is a horse that will come to me on the block on its own without being positioned or held in place, who then stands still on a loose rein while I get on and adjust things, until I ask the horse to move off.  It took a while of him circling for him to get that I wanted him to approach, one step at a time, until he stood next to me - lots of praise for each step - she says he really likes praise.  Then I got on and he moved off - she said he does this sometimes (getting the drift?).

I rode him at the walk and the trot.  He clearly wanted to pursue his own agenda and turn towards the gate, and wanted to wiggle all over the place and cut corners (same theme is developing), and if I took up any contact or asked him to turn there was a lot of bracing.  When I asked him to move purposefully in a straight line by focus, he could do it.  Then I tried some tests - we tried backing without use of leg which was new to him, and softening at the walk.  When I first asked him to back by setting a boundary with my hands, he tried everything - head up, head down, head to the side, and all pushing hard on the bit.  Then he tried softening into the space I was offering him - and voila!  Almost instantly, he was able to consistently softly back, and pretty soon that carried over easily into the walk.  A lot of horses struggle very hard with these things - many find the backing difficult and softening at the walk often gets confused with "I should slow down" but he had no trouble with either once he figured out what I wanted.  I even got one very nice walk to halt transition where he maintained the softness through the transition.

But the steering was still pretty iffy.  I told his owner that I didn't want to lope - he wasn't ready for it yet and his steering and brakes were pretty inconsistent.  Here's my take - he's a very nice horse with excellent and athletic conformation, who doesn't know all that much except how to go down a trail and not spook (which he would do anyway, he's not spooky - I rode him around in the pasture outside the arena and he looks but that's about all).  His steering and stops are there but undeveloped.  The issue is that his owner doesn't ride him very much - she says maybe 5 times since May - and I don't think she has  (or hasn't exercised) the skills to give him consistent direction and leadership - she agrees with this assessment.  So he's had to take responsibility for making the decisions about where to go, how fast - and  when you ask him to turn this over to you he's a bit dubious but can be convinced.

My conclusion is that he's a very nice horse with a lot of potential who needs consistent work and handling to improve and progress.  He's never bucked, bolted, reared or had a meltdown - his mind is good and he's a thinker - he figures things out.  He wants to run the show, however, since that's what he's had to do in the absence of consistent direction from his rider.  I wouldn't even consider taking him on the trail, even though he might blop along just fine, until his stop and steering were much better developed.  He's a very quick learner and I think would progress well.  My biggest issue is that here we are in the middle of October, and I have no indoor.  This means that before winter shuts me down (assuming he isn't trail ready by then which might not happen) I'd only be able to get a certain number of rides in, depending on weather, and then would have to wait three or four months until spring (while paying board) to resume work.  I'm pretty sure I could make him into the horse I want, and I've got to love the soundness and athleticism.  I'm thinking of telling his owner that, if he's still available in the spring, I might very well be seriously interested in him.  He's not the seasoned trail horse I'd like to see in my stocking, but he's pretty interesting and a nice project that I think I could handle.

So, what do you think?


  1. Based on what I've read, I think you need a seasoned trail horse, not something that *might* turn into a seasoned trail horse after an unknown amount of work and effort by you.

  2. I think if you immediately didn't say "he's the one" then he's not the one. With the amount of horses on the market there are soooo many choices.. you'll find one.

  3. Based on what you've said you want, I don't think he's the horse for you. It sounds like the potential is there, but like you said, it would take a bit of work (and time) to get him there.

    If you're up for a bit of a project I think your idea about seeing if he's still available in the spring would be an option, but I'm hoping you'll be able to find a more suitable horse to buy before that time.

    I agree with Jeni... I think if he was the one you'd know. :)

  4. I went back to your original post about what you were looking for:

    "Key criteria: a good mind and temperament (intelligent, calm but responsive) come first, as well as complete soundness and the confirmation to stay sound - including really good legs and nice, big, well-shaped feet. I don't mind doing some training to develop a horse that's been well-started at an appropriate age (that is, not too young) by someone who trains horses without using coercive methods and who knows what they're doing. If the horse has already done some miles on the trails, that would be a positive. I don't want a "project" - no horses who've had mental or physical problems "trained in". "

    It looks to me like Drifter has the "mind" and "soundness" issues covered in spades. Doesn't have the *wrong* things trained in, but hasn't really gotten a lot of the right things yet either (tho it sounds like he could pick them up pretty quickly). You seem to trust the owner's assessments, and she originally listed him as a *trained* trail horse--so, altho you aren't comfortable with his steering and brakes, I'll bet he's more safe than you think.
    Overall, I think he should be a pretty good match for your criteria.
    On the other hand, he IS the first horse you've actually gone to look at. I certainly don't think that you are anything like the starry-eyed kid who wants the first scraggly beast with four legs and a tail that they see, far from it. But waiting until spring would give you the opportunity to look at and compare some others.
    But it might lose this option, too.
    It seems like it may come down to your gut decision...

  5. Waiting til the Spring makes sense to me. I think you'd enjoy working with this horse, given that he very quickly caught on to what you were asking him for in one session. He doesn't 100% fit the description of what you are looking for though, since you said you really don't want a project this time. Look at a few more, and then decide if he's the best of the bunch or if there's something else out there that's exactly what you had in mind.

  6. Us horse people are always up for a challange but by what seems to be on your "wants" list is a seasoned trail horse. I say keep looking. Though it is easier said than done when it comes to me. You seem to be more patient and methodical about horse shopping. I am more of a shop with my heart/instant gratification/can't pass up horse that has four legs and doesn't kill me type. I am sure you will make the right choice.

  7. I do think that if he's still available in the spring - assuming you haven't found 'THE one' by then - you could get some more rides in on him and maybe a 30 day trial. And if you like him, you could buy him. But based on what I've read and what I think you want, I do think you should wait and keep looking. I agree with the others; if you don't immediately love, love, LOVE him, don't get him. At least, not just yet. You never know - sometimes, you buy a horse that you're iffy about and then the perfect one comes along too late. I say give it time. And sleep on it a bit... You never know what you can think up. ;)

  8. If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't right. It's best to go with your instincts. It's tough to pay board for months on a horse that ultimately doesn't work out. We can attest to that (blog post to follow soon.)

  9. It sounds like you have things figured out really well :) It's amazing to me, though, how many horses have more advanced training but don't have the basics down. Sounds like you know exactly what you're looking for, which is great! That's half the battle right there :)

  10. It's really your call and only you know what's best for you. If it was me I would most likely take him. He sounds very solid and easily trainable. As a matter of fact he sounds exactly like Dusty when I got her, especially the steering and brakes issues. It's hard to find a sound athletic horse with a good mind. So I'd take him now and if you can't ride him in the winter then I'd work on ground training when I couldn't ride.Even with Dusty's lack of steering we did a lot of work just walking around the pastures or on trails, I find QH's very safe and sane. That said it's still your call and what you're comfortable with.

  11. Drifter has a lot going for him, and I rather think along the same lines as Grey Horse- plus, I live in Canada and ride outdoors in the winter. So winter doesn't need to be a waste of time, you can ride or do ground work, or haul to an indoor arena a couple of times a month. If he learns quickly, you can have the steering and brakes much improved in a month.
    I also agree- go with your gut instinct.

  12. This is a toughie. First, there are a lot of significant pluses about this horse, and I've noted that you have now "given" him his name. I like his conformation, soundness, trainability and good mind.

    At the same time, his lack of training makes a lot fall into your lap that you need to think about.

    So, I think it's down to whether or not you get a good feeling about him more than anything. Making him a good trail horse is probably not going to be a problem, nor is the other training he will need. The question is, do you like his good points enough to want to put the time into him?

    As for winter--good ground work can go far in "making" a horse, as you well know. Sounds as if he's been rather spoiled in having his own way, which is something that would not happen under your care.

    Probably, you should look at a few more horses to see how many "holes" they have before you jump in, unless you have that really "good" feeling about Drifter.

  13. I would sure keep him in mind.Sounds like the positives are all good and the negatives are pretty minor.Take your time ,I wouldn't leave him till spring though if you want him, as the "I'm bigger than you "habits will only get more entrenched

  14. I think Even Song's assessment was dead on. To add to what she said, I think it sounds like his bad points are fairly minor. If he picked up on some of what you wanted the first time he ever met you, I'm thinking it won't take long to get him where you want for trail work.

    The only thing I don't agree with is that you ought to wait simply because he's the first horse you've gone to look at. While this might be true, you have considered quite a few other horses, talked to owners, etc. Your search has been thorough, so it's not like Drifter was the first horse you considered. I think you've done plenty of thinking about it before you ever went to see him, so if it feels right to you, you shouldn't hold off because you think it's what you "should" do.

  15. I think Drifer has both some benefits and some drawbacks. He's a good, sound horse who hasn't necessarily had "bad" things programed into his little brain, though he hasn't had the absolutely correct things programmed either. He may not be the perfectly seasoned trail horse that you originally wanted, but my guess is that he has more experience down trail than you think. I agree that without an indoor, consistent training could be more difficult, but I think you've gotten to a point where you know enough about the horse to make a decision about whether or not you actually WANT him.

    I'll agree that confirmation, soundness, and temperament are perhaps THE MOST IMPORTANT when buying a new horse, but you also have to want to love the animal. Do you like the horse? Can you imagine him being YOUR horse? It can't always be about "important" aspects, as stupid as it sounds. Sometimes you just have to make a decision based on a gut decision. He's either the right horse for you, or he isn't, that's not for us to decide, it's for you!!! Good luck, Kate!

  16. I agree with Grey Horse Matters. He's sound and smart. His faults seem minor to me; you could train him "your" way. Winter is an excellent time to get to know each other.

  17. This is one you can talk yourself into or talk yourself out of, the way I see it.

    Let's say he was trail ready. Even so, there's only so much time to ride before our lovely Midwestern winter sets in. What then? I think you'd be doing lots of hands-on work with him during the winter, because that's something that's of value to you. From what you've said, he needs a bit of mentoring to become a solid, polished citizen on the ground. Winter offers the time for that and, even more importantly, bonding. He sounds to me like a horse who has also "drifted" a bit away from being bonded to anyone. Who knows what you may be able to draw out in him if he discovers that he now has a person of his own.

    You were clear right from the start about what was important to you, and this horse has much of it. I understood your prioritizing conformation and soundness, but I'm not sure I understood your reluctance to take on a "project" horse. One of the reasons I follow your blog is because of your clear dedication to working with your horses to achieve constant, subtle improvements that benefit both them and you. This guy sounds like he needs continuation, not rebuilding, not remedial therapy.

    As vague as it might sound, the "gut" factor has to be in play as well, no matter how precisely (and practically) you set the parameters for purchasing your next horse. I don't think I sensed much excitement from you about Drifter, but I don't know how you've weighted your emotional response in the equation.

    Selfishly, I just have to say that the "One-Year-Later" pictures would be amazing, and I couldn't wait to see them. There is a beautiful horse "adrift" under that unfinished exterior. Imagine him in dapples!

  18. He sounds like a decent horse, and since you have all winter even if you dont ride him, lots of time to get the groundwork done, like standing still tied and standing to be mounted, all that can be done without and arena and without riding. Id definitly keep him in mind, its always a good sign when they try to do what you ask without fighting it.

  19. Listen to your gut and follow your heart. Not much help, eh?

    hehe! :)

    I did find your written assessment of Drifter fascinating to read, though. Thanks for sharing.


  20. Well a lot of comments to sort through here but only you'll know what is right for your lifestyle and ability. My comment is coming from someone who has more than one project horse right now and it's difficult to keep up momentum especially during cold days. That said, I do agree with others that winter is not a hindrance to training. Our horses have gotten more ground training than most because we didn't have an indoor arena to work in. It's great for them to do groundwork over and over, a horse is always learning and reminders are all good. A trainer told me once that you have to constantly work and review. As someone stated not being able to believe how many horses have training but not the true. I would start with the basics with this guy if you purchase (I would do that with any horse I bought) and by spring, you'll be ready to ride on the trails. It could be a foundation building time for you with Drifter. I have more of a problem with owners making excuses for their horses' behavior (or themselves). I'm a tiny person with a bulging disk (does it hurt when I pick up a hind hoof or to mount, you bet). I demand a lot from my horses such as hoof picking without pulling away, cow kicking or stomping and standing still while mounting...without a mounting block or gate! (Remember my dad taught me at a very young age, if you cannot mount your horse, you cannot ride him)I became very determined! LOL! So I suppose it has always stuck weather that's good or bad! (My disk problem was caused by gymnastics as a child not horse related) I'm a stickler for details and these are all things you can work on during the winter months....unless you cannot withstand the cold and that's another story. I don't like the cold at all but I love my horses more so I go out anyway, yes bundled up like a snowman. We'll see, they're saying it's going to be a rough winter this year....I don't know if that's snow or cold temps or both! I might be singing a different tune in the dead of winter! LOL! Have fun with whatever decision you could always just focus on Dawn this winter too. You cannot lose either way:)


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