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?