You've seen good performance horses work: They move with cat-like athletic ability—sliding, turning back a cow, or racing around a barrel. It's pretty clear they're in the right job—they have the conformation, the bloodlines, the attitude, and the training to do what's asked of them, and do it well. How do you know if a particular prospect is suited to the work you have in mind?
Whether your goal is to compete at the top of your discipline, or you simply want an athletic horse that will help you improve your riding skills, you need to be able to evaluate a horse properly. No worries, mate. Here's my formula for finding the perfect performance horse.
As a general rule, a performance horse is only as good as his bloodlines. I want the parents of any prospect I choose to not only exhibit the qualities I look for (confidence, good-mindedness, soundness, athleticism, and trainability) but also pass those winning traits on to their babies.
If you want a reining horse, buying a colt out of the best racehorse sire and dam in the world isn't going to get you very far. Sure, the colt may be athletic, but not in the way you need him to be. Make sure when you're choosing a performance horse that his parents were good at what you want your prospect to be good at. You'll increase your chances for success if your horse has the genetic foundation to meet your goals.
If he's got the right bloodlines, I evaluate a prospect's conformation. I'm looking for a balanced horse with a nice hip, hocks that are low to the ground, and a neck coming out low from his withers so it's easier for him to collect and pack his head nice and low. Conformation is important for obvious (though often forgotten) reasons. No matter how talented and well-bred a horse is, if he isn't built to stay sound, you're not going to be able to win any money or have a horse that lasts. If you're not sure how to evaluate conformation, take the time to study the conformation of the horses who are excelling in the discipline you're interested in, and read as much about form-to-function as you can.
Age and Training History
If you decide to buy a yearling, his purchase price should be significantly less than a two-year-old already in training. The downside to buying a yearling is you're taking a bigger gamble that the horse won't work out. Because he hasn't had any training, you don't really know what kind of ability and talent he has— but you also have the opportunity to make sure he's started right to reach his full potential.
If you decide to buy a two-year-old (or an older horse), you may have to pay quite a bit more, but the good thing is, he'll have been ridden. You can see his ability—how he slides, stops, turns, circles, and changes leads. Because the horse is further along, you're not taking as big a gamble in choosing him, because you can see how athletic and responsive he is.
Horses for Courses and People for Horses
Good training, breeding, and conformation aren't always guarantees of success. Over the years, I've had some extremely well-bred horses—the mother was a champion, the father was a champion, the horse had perfect conformation and amazing bloodlines. The horse just didn't have the ability needed to get the job done. Maybe he didn't want to be a reining horse or a cow horse; maybe he wanted to be a barrel racing horse or a trail riding horse.
I'm very serious when I say, "Horses for courses and people for horses." This means that not every horse is going to suit every course. Just because I breed working cow horses and reining horses, doesn't mean that those horses will want to be reining or cow horses. I'd like for them to be, but that doesn't mean they'll want to. When you're choosing a performance horse, you always run the risk of it not working out, but that doesn't mean that the horse can't be used or valuable in a different discipline than what you were planning on.