Trail In­sights

Why choose a ranch geld­ing for the trail?

Horse & Rider - - Contents -

You know what it’s like to ride a horse that acts up, is a spook, or is gen­er­ally high-main­te­nance on the trail. Hav­ing the right horse can make or break your ex­pe­ri­ence. While any horse can be­come a trail horse, I’ve found that ranch horses have many trans­fer­able skills that make for an easy tran­si­tion to trail rid­ing. Here I’ll share the at­tributes that make ranch horses the ideal trail part­ners. I’ll first ex­plain the cir­cum­stances of a ranch horse’s job that con­di­tioned him for the trail, and then I’ll give point­ers to help you look for a prospect. I’ll also share training and life­style tips to help him tran­si­tion.

Built-in Ver­sa­til­ity

A ranch horse puts in long hours as a full-time job. To sur­vive the work­load, he learns to con­serve his en­ergy. He doesn’t prance, pace, or fight the route. Be­cause of this, chances are he’ll han­dle long, dif­fi­cult trail rides the same as a ranch-work day, man­ag­ing his en­ergy through the en­tire ride. His solid base level of con­di­tion­ing earned through daily rid­ing make him re­silient and easy to leg-up for an ad­ven­ture.

Many day-to-day de­mands of the trail come nat­u­rally to a ranch horse. He stands pa­tiently while tied to a calf that’s be­ing han­dled on the ground, so will be sim­i­larly easy­go­ing when you’re held up at river wait­ing for rid­ers to cross. Hob­bling and ground-ty­ing will come eas­ily if he hasn’t learned al­ready. He’ll be used to his legs be­ing re­stricted be­cause he’s been around ropes and will likely have been caught in a loop at least once be­fore.

A ranch horse is ex­posed to a va­ri­ety of sit­u­a­tions, and en­coun­ters sur­prises al­most daily. These ex­pe­ri­ences teach him to fol­low ac­tive lead­er­ship. This means if he’s bring­ing cat­tle in and a hung-up tarp spooks him, there’s no op­tion but to work through it. The job teaches him to con­trol his emo­tions, stay level-headed in a cri­sis, and look to his rider for guid­ance. Sim­i­larly, if you face some­thing un­ex­pected on the trail, such as a wildlife en­counter, rapid change in weather, or an in­jured horse or rider, he’ll turn to you for in­struc­tions.

A ranch horse has mas­tery of ba­sic ma­neu­vers for safe rid­ing and a di­verse set of trail-spe­cific skills. He trail-rides ev­ery day as he works cat­tle, drags steers, and cov­ers di­verse ter­rain. He’s com­fort­able drag­ging heavy logs off a path and knows how and where to step go­ing up or down a hill. All you need to do is point him in a di­rec­tion and let him go. If you choose to branch out into stock horse, ver­sa­til­ity, or ex­treme trail com­pe­ti­tion, your ranch horse’s well-round­ed­ness al­lows you to do this.

Cream of the Crop

As you look for a horse, ask ques­tions about his spe­cific ranch du­ties. En­sure that the seller doesn’t over­state the horse’s pro­fi­ciency. Ask about fac­tors that’ll mat­ter to you as a trail rider, such as how he comes off of his winter lay­off. Is he sound, does he buck, is he hard to catch? If you know you take at least one long trip per year, find out if he’s ag­gres­sive to­ward other horses, which mat­ters if he tries to kick or bite on a high­line. Find out how he stands for the vet or far­rier in case you need to doc­tor him on a ride or tack on a thrown shoe.

Know that a ranch horse will have cos­metic bumps and scrapes be­cause he’s been used. Also check for signs of overuse that can mean long-term lame­ness is­sues. Look for knocked knees; hard knobs on his withers; hard cal­ci­fi­ca­tions on the top of his hips, which sug­gest kid­ney sores and cause back dis­com­fort; and ring­bone and sidebone. (Search these is­sues by name on Horse­and for more in­for­ma­tion.) Find out if he’s been lame be­fore, what caused it, and how he came back. When it comes to pur­chas­ing horses, trust your gut, but don’t be afraid to ask a trusted, ex­pe­ri­enced rider for ad­vice.

Train for Suc­cess

There are a few training and rid­ing ad­just­ments to make with a ranch horse de­pend­ing on what you plan to use him for. Ranch horses are in­de­pen­dent by na­ture. On the trail, you won’t need to mi­cro­man­age him and con­trol his ev­ery move. You can let him self-man­age and direct him as nec­es­sary. It’s also likely he hasn’t spent much time in a stall. If you choose a ranch horse, know that he’ll need more ex­er­cise and turnout than your other horses if he’s con­fined.

If you plan to com­pete in a pat­tern class, such as ranch rid­ing or rein­ing, you’ll want to fin­ish him in the spe­cific dis­ci­pline. While he has ba­sic training needed for the trail, he won’t be pol­ished or pat­terned for the show pen. He’s also likely un­fa­mil­iar with crowds. Give him time to get com­fort­able with sights and sounds of an event, and don’t be sur­prised if he looks around.

An ex­pe­ri­enced ranch horse with a good tem­per­a­ment makes a great trail horse. His calm, will­ing at­ti­tude and self-man­age­ment al­low you to con­fi­dently ap­proach any sit­u­a­tion.

The same rules for qual­ity con­for­ma­tion ap­ply to ranch horses. Be on the look­out for lame­ness indi­ca­tors, such as knocked knees or kid­ney sores that come from overuse.

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