It’s definitely not “just like riding a bike.” True, procedural memory kicks in: reins over ears, left foot in stirrup, heels down, walk on. But a few spins around the arena after years away probably won’t reinstate your previous riding competence. Chances are you’ll discover that sitting trot ain’t what it used to be and core strength’s not just a buzz word. As one riding instructor of mine puts it, “You don’t ride to get fit ‒ you get fit to ride.”
So yes, the prospect of getting back in the saddle after years on the ground can be daunting. One approach is to ease your way in: start with lessons, move on to part-boarding and only then consider buying your own horse. In my own experience that trajectory has led to glorious rewards, but just as many challenges. There are many considerations to be made at each stage — some of which are outlined below.
Maybe once upon a time you were a show jumper. Maybe one day you hope to resume. On the other hand, it’s possible your horse goals are defined only by a persistent longing to groom a silky neck and swing into the saddle for a quiet trail ride with friends. Either way, in the first flush of return-to-riding excitement don’t overlook the following fundamental requirements.
The Barn: No barn is spotless, but it should be well maintained for safety — shovels and rakes stowed, hoses coiled after use, feed bins secured, fire extinguishers at the ready, etc. Also, the human facilities should suit your comfort level; if you can’t imagine shivering in an unheated tack room come January (let alone perching in a frigid or stifling johnny-on-the-spot) keep looking.
The Horses: Safe, sane and well trained — a great school horse is a rare gem, but one you can’t recognize just by looking. Ask questions about the potential schoolies’ track records and view them with an eye to assessing if they appear healthy and well cared for.
The Instructor: Regardless of riding discipline, good communication is key. Ask to watch a lesson to get a sense of the instructor’s communication style and inquire about experience and credentials. If you plan to compete at Equestrian Canada-sanctioned shows certification matters. If showing for you seems as unlikely as travelling to the moon, it probably doesn’t.
Part-boarding can be like having your cake and eating it too — regular access to a horse while paying a fraction of ongoing costs. But it’s still a big commitment. You’re not only forming a partnership with someone else’s horse, but also with that someone. Knowing what to avoid can be as important as knowing what to look for.
Equine Deal-Breakers: Be realistic about the kind of horse you don’t feel ready to ride. You could do worse than taking the advice of equestrian and author Denny Emerson; in his book Begin and Begin Again: The Bright Optimism of Reinventing Life with Horses he writes, in caps, “DO NOT RIDE A HORSE THAT REARS. Think of both rearers and buckers as horses to avoid. There’s a saying about this: ‘They can’t buck you off if you’re not on!’” Funny, but also true.
Human Deal-Breakers: Having a sympatico human part-boarding partner is a wonderful thing — a built-in sounding board to discuss the horse’s idiosyncrasies and needs. But if the owner can’t communicate clearly about logistics and care (who pays for what, when Floofy’s farrier is coming, etc.) think twice before entering into an arrangement — and never do so without a written contract.
If part-boarding is dating, then buying a horse is marriage. Not only that, but an arranged marriage, since you’ll probably only meet your intended once or twice.
Haven’t bought a horse in a few decades? Newsflash! Online selling is all the rage, a boon to flippers but a pressure cooker for newbies. So many horses, so little time. It accelerates the tricky balance between head and heart that horse buying entails.
Think With Your Head: Shortlist your preferred breeds, age and height range, level of training and so on. Create a budget, one that ideally includes a pre-purchase exam as well as tack/boarding/farrier/vaccination/insurance costs — purchase price is a mere drop in the leaky bucket of horse ownership costs. Also, research potential sellers since the horse world is replete with folks both ethical and not.
Trust Your Heart: “So much of buying is based on a whim and impulse rather than on rational analysis,” writes Emmerson, and he is not wrong. It helps to acknowledge your weaknesses e.g., you’re a sucker for a pretty face (guilty as charged) and to shop with a coach or horse-expert friend to keep you focused.
At the same time there’s something to be said for having an open mind. I thought I wanted a schoolmaster (too expensive), then a seasoned happy hacker-slash-dressage horse (couldn’t find one) and settled on a young, green half-Arab. No regrets. She’s a beguiling mix of sweet and spicy (but not a rearer or bucker!) who keeps me endlessly engaged. Besides, when a horse pulls at your heart strings it’s a reminder that you’re forming a partnership with a living, breathing sentient being.