Some items on this checklist might be hard to negotiate, especially with a “dude” or rental horse, but not impossible. Ask the horse’s owner if you can just work with the horse on the ground for a while prior to getting on the horse. Even if you only accomplish a few items on the list, you will have moved that much closer to ensuring a safe ride.
1) It has been said, “a horse doesn’t care how much you know until he knows how much you care.” Take a few moments to bond with the horse. This can be as simple as finding an itchy spot and giving it a good, satisfying scratch. Horses will do this for each other in pasture and they don’t ask nearly as much as we riders do.
2) Make sure you have proper riding gear, including a helmet. If you are skeptical about the value of safety headgear please visit http://www.extension.org/pages/Demonstrations_of_Falls
3) Inspect the horse’s feet for any rocks, debris, loose or missing shoes, or cracked hooves.
4) Take a walk around the riding arena and check for rocks or debris that might injure the horse (or you, should you dismount quickly).
5) Inspect the tack—including making sure the saddle’s cinch/girth is tight enough, and checking the headstall, reins, and chin strap—for proper fit and signs of possible weakness.
6) Observe the horse’s movement and facial expression. Don’t get on an obviously agitated horse without knowing what is causing the agitation.
7) While still unmounted, make sure the horse can go over a two-foot obstacle without discomfort. If he can’t jump it or refuses, there may be a saddle fit or lameness problem that needs checking out before you mount up.
8) Make sure the horse will respond to rein pressure: If possible, wrap a rope of at least 10 feet around his rump (on the opposite side of where you are) and see if he will “unwrap” himself by following the pull of the rope and walking in a tight circle. Does he bend his neck or brace it? How well he responds to this will predict how well he responds to the feel of rein pressure.
9) Check for a horse’s responsiveness to your leg by applying pressure to his side with your hand or fingers, on his barrel just behind the stirrup. Notice how much pressure you need to move sideways a few steps.
10) If you have access to it, check the horse’s response to a plastic shopping bag tied to a riding crop. You would be amazed at how a loose Wal-Mart bag on the trail or in the arena can ruin an otherwise enjoyable ride.