Dude horses are varied in their level of training, breeds, and confirmation. The best quality for our dude horses to have is a mellow disposition and the willingness to adjust weekly to having a new (mostly beginner) rider on their back. Guests come to the ranch ready to enjoy their vacation for a variety of reasons, but usually it’s the attraction to horses and ranch life that is their initial draw. Families come hoping that there is something for everyone, that everyone has a safe horse experience, and maybe for a little thrill-seeking. Dude horses at the Vee Bar have a unique set of criteria to make it as a guest horse. Not all ranches offer loping horseback rides, but we do at the Vee Bar. It takes a GREAT horse to be able to lope safely in a group with a guest on their back who knows how to do minimal speed control and steering.
One quality that we look for in horses that we purchase is what the horse-world calls a “soft eye” and a level head. In other words, if a horse is walking around, nearly prancing, with its head high in the air it will have a tendency to be excitable and antsy. A horse with a soft eye is one that is very inviting to human presence and is usually calmer to be with on the ground, which also means they are more even tempered when a rider is on their back.
Age is of some importance. A horse that is too young lacks life experiences that come with being a trail horse. Even though it may be very broke and quite reliable, it is not really proven until it has been exposed to “scary things” on the trail. Good examples might be coming up on a pack-donkey in the mountains when it has otherwise never been exposed to a donkey. When the donkey has a huge monstrosity on its back, it may look like a monster to the horse. The horse will have a choice of reactions: get away as quick as possible, or trust his rider to steer him past it, even if it is with caution. Horses are usually mature around 7 or 8 years old, some older, some younger. By then you will probably be able to predict (somewhat) how that horse will react to certain situations.
I mentioned confirmation as a quality that we do not shop for, but that is only half true. Certain confirmation traits come with certain breeds. Sometimes we need to shop for horses with a lot of muscle to make sure it is strong. A horse that is wider across the chest, “thick-boned,” and has good feet will sometimes experience fewer injuries than a finer-boned, tall, lanky horse. Horses with good straight legs and appropriately proportioned bodies are also important. There is a lot to the confirmation category, so let’s just say that we don’t shop for confirmation to have good-for-breeding bloodlines, but rather shop for traits that are practical for our uses!
A Quick Ride Can Tell a Lot!
In most cases we ride horses before we purchase them. When riding them there is a lot you can tell about their manners. Horses that are trained to rein and stop easily are a must. And, if they show signs of being too stubborn to leave their barn or friends, they are going to be at least that stubborn when they come home. We also do not want horses that need an hour of riding before they are calm enough for a guest to be on their back. We want to be able to saddle them, get on them immediately, and begin a nice calm ride. There are a lot of horses that are not like this and need some exercise before they are ready to behave themselves and pay attention to their rider.
Even though you would like to take all horse-sellers at their word, it is not always possible. For one thing, even if they tell the truth, many horse-sellers have never seen their horse react to someone who has never ridden before. Some horses immediately take advantage of a beginner rider while others stick to their training. And, only WE know our ranch operation and what will be asked of the horses.
When a Horse Arrives at the Vee Bar Guest Ranch
When the new horses arrive at the ranch, they are usually kept in the corrals close to the barn for a couple days. This is to keep an eye on them to make sure that they do not come with a disease that will infect the rest of our herd. It also gives them a couple days to settle down in their new surroundings, learn where “home” is, and allows us to introduce them to the herd when the time is right.
Not all horses have experienced large herd living. One time we bought two horses that had never been out of their stalls, except to be ridden in an arena or on trails through a sparsely populated neighborhood. In that case, we rely on the rest of our herd to show the new horses how to cross water, maneuver through the holes and rocks in the meadows, and where to find the barn when they are wrangled. We prefer to introduce the new horses to the herd while in the meadow. We may keep them in neighboring corrals for a couple hours to sniff noses and learn that each other are there. (Note, there is a safe, tall, all wooden fence between the two groups at this time—NO WIRE as that is a recipe for some injured horses.)
Now the Riding Begins
Then the riding begins, and that is when we start to learn about the horses that we have purchased, and expose them to all things Vee Bar! We take them on rides in the meadows and see how they react to seeing our trails for the first time, how they handle water crossings, and if they easily and calmly walk, trot, and lope. We do not put guests on them until we feel VERY comfortable with them and feel like we know them well. If we do not know the horse well, it is harder to tell a guest how to ride it when all we have to go on is the body-language that the horses is exhibiting.
The Vee Bar takes great pride in its’ horse herd. It may not come as a surprise to hear that there are quite a few horses that we purchase that never become guest horses. We hold our horses to high standards. After a period of time, if we feel that the horse will not ever become a dude horse, we will resell the horse to someone that we feel will benefit from it. The Vee Bar horses are often under-appreciated, but they could arguably be the most valuable ranch asset!!