Fort Collins, Colorado, horsewoman Jo Ann Merritt, the source for “Moving the Hindquarters” in the June 2005 Western Horseman, clearly states she’s not a horse trader.

“I don’t want to be one at all, but I’m not scared of sale horses. If other people have enough knowledge about what they want in horses, they won’t be scared either.”

Jo Ann isn’t hesitant to consider purchasing a sale-barn horse because she knows what she wants before she goes to the sale. She also considers training maneuvers, such as disengaging a horse’s hindquarters, tools that help her better evaluate from the ground how well or poorly a horse might respond when she’s in the saddle.

Here, Jo Ann shares a few tips for seeing the sale-barn experience from another perspective.

1. Know what you want. When you have a clear vision of what you want, you don’t have to be scared. You go to the sale for that exact thing, and you don’t settle for anything less. However, what you consider in a quality unbroken horse might not be the same as what you want in a solid, dead-broke horse. But whatever you want, don’t get off that path. Never stray from it. And that means you don’t impulse-buy.

2. Ask questions. If any red flags arise, inquire about them – quiz the seller to death. If you’re still troubled by them, just move on to the next horse.

3. Handle the horse. Try picking up his feet. While talking to the owner, quietly try, for example, to bring the horse’s head around softly. This really applies to an unbroken horse that can’t be ridden. That halter-rope is key on any young horse. See what kind of response you get. If a slight correction yields a response, the horse might be okay. If there’s heavy resistance to the correction, turn the horse down or inquire further. But be soft when you handle the horse and do these things – he’s not your horse yet, and this isn’t a big training session.

4. Watch the horse being ridden. You can evaluate a lot just by watching. You figure out pretty quickly if the rider’s tiptoeing around the horse. When you see someone pull on a horse’s head at a sale, look at his feet for a reason why. If the rider’s handling the horse well, and the horse’s head comes up, but his feet don’t move, decide what you think might be wrong and how bad the problem is. How much resistance is there in his feet or body? A lot of those problems are fixable, but you must watch. Is the rider hiding? In other words, has he really done anything on the horse other than ride a little-bitty circle? Why is the horse sweaty at 7 a.m. before a 9:30 sale?

People do try to show horses to the best of their ability, but the rider might not have much ability. Even if the horse doesn’t have much ability, that might suit you fine. Or maybe the horse just doesn’t know a lot. People at sales don’t try to hide things so much as they try just to not show real weaknesses in a horse.

5. Be willing to compromise, but not on the important thing. You can give up color or a little conformation, but never give up the nice mind. A horse’s good mind is key for me. If he’s silly, I avoid him. Maybe a horse has color or a lot of cow, too, and maybe he doesn’t. But when he has the nice mind, I can do just about anything with the horse I need to do.

6. Ride the horse. But ride only when you’re well-satisfied that the horse is exactly what you wanted before you went to the sale. Ride the horse only when the responses to any red-flag questions are so acceptable that your safety isn’t compromised. Ride only after you’ve handled the horse from the ground enough to reasonably evaluate how willing he might be to give a soft response or accept a correction. Ride only after you’ve watched the horse being ridden by someone else and, again, are satisfied that your safety isn’t compromised. Ride the horse only when you’ve determined that the horse is nice-minded enough to do the job you want him to do.

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