What To Look For When Selecting Your Next Workhorse

A while back, horses were an important part of everyday life in the United States. Folks were using them for transportation, fieldwork, and moving herds of livestock, and horses soon became a valuable possession. Purchasing a workhorse was back then serious business, and this endeavor was taken quite seriously by anyone looking for a reliable workhorse.

Times have changed, and today, a lot of folks have traded their horse for reliable all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). While such a piece of machinery can accomplish many of the tasks horses did not that long ago, a lot of ranches and farms still use horses in their everyday operations.

Having an excellent equine on your homestead

At our farm, we do have ATVs, but we also have horses, and to be honest, our horses have made jobs that were once challenging much simpler. For example, sorting cattle is done much better with horses because most cattle will respect a horse. They are less stressed and fearful in the vicinity of horses than they would if we would move them using the ATVs or by men on foot.

In the morning, the feed truck does its rounds among the pens of hungry cattle, and we ride the horses out for the daily routine. The horses help us pull out any sick cattle we might have and move them toward the locations where they need to be treated.

When we move the cattle from one pasture to another, the horses are an integral part of the entire process. Someone rides an ATV in front of the herd guiding the cattle to the next pasture, and the horses cover the rear and the sides so that nothing escapes too far from the road.

In the past few years, we had a variety of horses in our pen, from mild-temperate horses to a wild American appendix horse.

While some folks might occasionally have a little bit of luck and stumble upon an exceptional workhorse, finding the right workhorse for your ranch and needs requires some research on your part. Horses require quite a bit of commitment from your side, both time and money-wise. Therefore, it’s important to make sure you’re making a wise investment when buying a workhorse.

Searching for a workhorse

searching for a workhorse

When you are ready to start looking for your next workhorse, you should begin by clearly defining your needs and wants. Here are a few questions you should ask yourself.

Will you ride the horse mostly in a feedlot, or do you plan to take it out in the pasture as often as possible?

How much experience do you have with horses, especially workhorses?

Are you comfortable getting a workhorse that requires some brushing up on its training, or do you need one that’s ready to go from day one?

Do you have a preference between a gelding or a mare?

What is your budget for the workhorse? This is especially important to figure out since once you have a price range in mind, you will avoid looking at horses outside your budget limit.

While you should consider all the questions from above when you start to look for a workhorse, you also need to consider some basic horse characteristics.

Body conformation and size

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When you start looking at various workhorses, make sure you study their conformation from the ground up. Most marks, such as unappealing scars, won’t influence the usability of a workhorse, but invalidity or poor conformation are serious issues that will influence how much a horse can be worked.

A ranch horse needs to be regularly used and exercised, even if it may complain a little at times. These horses are best off when they have a regular job to do, so you want to get a horse that’s physically up to the task.

My paw used to say that a horse is only as good as the four feet it stands on. Check the hooves of the horse and make sure they have a nice round shape and thick walls while not being too spread out or flat. The legs should sit squarely under the horse, and, if viewed from the front, the legs should be divided into equal halves by a vertical line running from the shoulder points straight down to the feet. Same for the back legs.

When it comes to the size of the workhorse, find an animal that it’s well-suited to your own size and physical abilities. You need to test ride the horse to see how easily you can handle it but also how effortlessly you can mount and dismount.

If you pick a horse that’s not particularly tall, in order to make sure it’s suitable for you, make sure your legs don’t hang too low below the barrel when riding. I’ve had horses that were not that tall, but they were large-bodied and were a perfect fit for me.

Training and obedience

workhorse training and obedience

If you plan to get a workhorse to help you with the cattle works, you need to get one that has cow sense. This refers to the horse’s ability to judge and respond to the movement of cattle.

The genetics and breeding of a workhorse determine the cow sense of the animal, but even so, this can be gradually acquired over time with careful training and determination.

When you get the horse into a pen full of cattle, it should be aware of the cattle and focused on the cows. Once you move the horse closer, it should be attentive to figure out which cow you want to separate from the bunch.

Obedience is something that you can constantly work on with training, and with experience and patience, you can improve the cow sense of your horse. One piece of advice I can give you is to avoid getting a suborn horse, to try and make it a successful project. You probably won’t have enough experience to do it, and you will just waste your money.

Temperament and gender

When picking a workhorse, gender is usually a matter of preference, and many prefer geldings because they are generally believed to be more even-tempered and somehow easygoing. They aren’t affected by hormonal changes like mares. Even if mares may sometimes have a more aggressive attitude, I can tell you from experience that they can make loyal workhorses, and they can form strong bonds with their riders.

In general, temperament and attitude often come down to the individual animal, and you will need to spend some time with a horse before you agree to purchase it. Sometimes you can get a really good idea of the animal’s overall attitude and disposition after spending time with it.

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Breed and color

Choosing a specific breed is mainly a choice of personal preference, although certain breeds are indeed better suited for certain jobs. That’s why it’s important to figure out from the beginning what you will need the horse for and how you plan on putting it to work.

For example, Quarter Horses are good, solid-cutting horses thanks to their quick reflexes and short-coupled bodies. My Quarter Horse-Thoroughbred mix (American appendix horse) is an excellent ranch horse, and he loves to run. I’m using it to run after calves but also to patrol on the ranch since it loves to run, and it’s hard to hold him back on the open field.

Regarding color, this factor doesn’t play a big part in my decision to buy a horse unless the seller asks for a higher price just because the horse has an unusual color.

Have some questions for the seller

have some questions for the seller

If you are able to buy a workhorse from someone you know, you might be in luck. However, since that’s not an option for many folks, it’s better to try and find a seller who’s been in the business for a long time and has a good reputation.

Reach out to horse owners in your area and see who they recommend. Hopefully, you will find someone who’s honest in their evaluation of the horse they’re selling. You should know upfront about anything that might influence your decision, such as bad habits, previous injuries, and various flaws.

When you meet the seller and check out a prospective horse, you need to ask plenty of questions. Make sure you ask all the questions to cover your specific needs and then ask some more. Here are a few questions you should keep in mind.

Does it get along well with other horses?

Has it had any previous lameness?

Does it have any bad habits (kicking, biting, bucking, trouble holding loads)?

Will it stand quietly for mounting?

While asking questions and talking with the seller, observe how they interact with the horse. Take note of how it follows while led from the ground and how it otherwise interacts with the handler.

Ask if the seller is the breeder and if that’s not the case, ask how many previous owners the workhorse has had and why the current owner is selling it now.

What to do next

Once you’ve looked at various horses and feel like you found the right one for you, the next step would be to set up an appointment with your veterinarian and get the animal checked out. This is an important step, and it shouldn’t be skipped. If the seller refuses to allow this check-up, you should take your business elsewhere. A seller that refuses to allow a veterinarian to perform a pre-purchase exam is a red flag for me.

Check with the seller if they can allow for a short trial period with the horse so that you can take it home and see how he acts around your other horses, the new herd of cattle, and so on. Some decide to do a trial run to see if the horse has a cow sense, and they will test its sense in the pen. The trick here is to be patient with a new horse because it is experiencing a new environment and a new rider, and it may need some time to adjust.

When you look at and test various workhorses, keep in mind that if the horse doesn’t work well with you during the testing period, you shouldn’t buy it with the expectation that things will improve. Be realistic about your own abilities and skill level, and understand that such a horse may require an experienced trainer to work out the horse’s issues. This requires money and time.


I can tell you from experience that there’s no such thing as a perfect workhorse, but a dependable mount will be a valuable asset to a farmer or rancher and their operation. Do your research and be patient when looking at different horses.

It takes time to find the right workhorse, and you shouldn’t rush into anything if you want to be rewarded with a truly valuable workhorse.

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