Selection of Carriage Horse
By – Beth Batten and Cheryl SteppEmployees of Yellow Rose Carriages, Indianapolis, IN
We all know the financial and physical risks involved with bringing a new horse into a carriage operation. It’s always a gamble whether he will be mentally or physically able to do the job we are asking him to do. Of course there is no sure-fire way to know for certain that he will be an ideal carriage horse but there are some things we do to help stack the odds in our favor.
The first step in selecting our horses is actually locating them. It seems like horses find their own ways to us many times but there have been occasions where we have had to search for them. The most obvious source is the auctions aimed at draft or driving horses. We think this is a risky way to find a horse, as there are limited resources there with which to test his abilities. We must be able to drive the horse briefly in an area provided at the sale grounds for that purpose. Most times the area will be in an outdoor arena or fenced area where our exposure to traffic may be limited or none. Of course safety is always our number one priority so we make sure when we ask the horse to perform a task we are not in a situation where we might get into trouble. Frequently the owners are not present so getting an accurate history may not be possible either.
Talking to our drivers or other operators is another good way we network and locate horses that are for sale. Checking the classified sections of draft horse or driving publications can produce prospects. That at least put us in contact with breeders who may have other more suitable horses for sale. We make it clear to the breeder that we are not in the market for show quality horses, and brood mares aren’t desirable either. These are horses that generally carry a higher price tag and may not be any better than a gelding that they would not have considered telling us about otherwise. We find out if there is any kind of guarantee or trial period on the horse.
When looking at a horse that has caught our interest the first thing we take into consideration is the suitability of the horse to do the job of pulling a carriage in traffic. We use the criteria of age, size, soundness, health, temperament, and secondly by color and appearance. A good skill we practice is aging a horse by his teeth. Many people have bought horses advertised at a certain age and, after taking the sellers word on it, find the horse is much older. Getting familiar with common blemishes that horses acquire are okay for a horse doing this kind of work has helped prevent us from passing on a good horse with a minor issue. We recognize general good health and request a copy of his vet records if available. We ask if he sees a dentist regularly and what kind of worming schedule he has been on. We always pick up each of his feet and look for any problems there. We check for thrush, white line disease, and if there are rings on his hooves. We’ve had our farrier explain how to tell which cracks are cosmetic and which can lead to a costly problem. We want to know if the horse can be shod standing free or in stocks only. We have someone walk and then trot the horse so we can see him moving from the ground.
After we have done our homework and have gathered as much history as possible, we harness the horse and hitch. We know that some lameness may not show up until the horse is hitched and pulling so we have someone on the ground who knows what they are looking at while we are in the drivers’ box. We pay attention to the horse’s attitude while we are working around him and harnessing. We take into consideration where the horse is. If he is at his home he should be more comfortable than if he is at an auction or if he was brought to our place. Before we take the lines we find out what commands have been used with the horse or our different driving style may confuse him. We use the first few minutes to get used to the horse and get a feel for his pace when nothing is out of the ordinary. Once we feel that he is relaxed and working normally we start to perform “spook” tests. Some that we like are stomping feet in the box, whistling, clapping, yelling things at him, and our personal favorite is having somebody scuff their feet in gravel along side him where he cannot see. We do not expect him to walk along with no reaction to any of this. What we are looking for is how he reacts. We are deliberately trying to scare him because his response to fear is critical. We know he will get scared of something during his career with us. We want to know exactly what he does when he is scared. We think it is perfectly acceptable for him to pick up his head and pace but we want to be able to bring him back to a normal walk in just a few steps. A horse that jumps to the side is undesirable. A horse that flies backward is a liability and will not be seriously considered. We like to have someone on the ground walk in front of the horse while he is in forward motion and see what he does. We even run at him waving arms. If he stops, we think that is okay. What we don’t want him to do is lock it up and fly backwards. If he keeps on walking like nothing happened we give him extra consideration. We have our person on the ground reach out and touch him while he is walking. If at all possible we take him out on the road and see how he reacts to traffic. We will want to see him with traffic coming from behind and from in front of him. Anything else we can bring along or find that we think would test his reaction is a plus.
After all of our tests are finished and we decide we have found a horse that might work for us, we count ourselves lucky. Good carriage horses are hard to find. And we keep in mind when considering that hefty price tag that once he is in our barn and working consistently, he becomes priceless.