Written by: Susan Stafford-Pooley

After years of begging and pleading, working and saving, your parents have finally agreed to buy you a horse!

Thumbnail for Your First Horse

Pam Mackenzie photo

What will you be using the horse for?

If you are a beginner rider, do you really need a grand prix horse or an off-the-track Thoroughbred? Of course not. What you need is a solid old schoolmaster – a reliable pony or horse, possibly with a bit of age on him and a whole lot of years trucking youngsters around safely. Talk to your coach about where you see yourself in terms of riding in the next year or two and find horses that fit the description; for example, if you want to try your hand at speed events, perhaps a solid old western games campaigner would best suit you. Or if lowlevel eventing is your goal, a reliable packer who has been outgrown physically or ambitiously by his rider might be a good choice.

How much can you afford?

This will be up to you and your parents, but prices can range from as little as $1,000 to $10,000 and way beyond for a suitable “starter”. Have a price range in mind and stick to it.

What is your riding level?

Take an honest look at your level of riding. If someones says their horse is suitable for an intermediate rider, and you are a true novice who has just begun working at the canter or lope, for instance, this is not the right fit for you.

Where will you keep it?

If you are very lucky and your parents have a rural property large enough for horse-keeping, that is one option, but it also involves the greatest amount of labour on your part. You might keep your new animal at a friend’s farm, or board him at a public boarding stable (see “Housing Options” article).

Size, colour and age

Size is an important consideration. While a 17-hand warmblood who is a lovely mover might look like a great dressage prospect, if the chances of you topping 5’ height-wise in the next few years is slim, you may want a mount better suited to your stature. On the other hand, don’t buy that cute little pony that you will be able to wrap your legs around next year if you have a growth spurt.

Never begin your horse hunting by being really rigid with your criteria, such as “I will only buy a Palomino,” or “Nothing but a red dun with a dorsal stripe for me.” The old saying “a good horse is never a bad colour” is accurate – that lovely 15-hand Quarter Horse might be perfect for your needs, even if he is just a plain bay.

For a first horse, a minimum of 10 years old is a safe bet, but never discount horses 15 or older as long as they have been well cared for. And never, ever, buy a young, unbroken or really inexperienced horse thinking that you will “grow together.” The old expression “Green plus green equals black and blue” is absolutely true!

Where to look?

Visit local barns and check out their bulletin boards; scour the local papers; check horse magazines and their online classified sites. Ask friends who ride, or your instructor, as they often are the first to know about available horses. Horse shows are a great place to shop, as you can actually see the horse performing in a show setting away from the security of his barn, see how he loads onto the trailer, stands to be groomed, mounted, etc. There are also plenty of online sales sites which give you the advantage of viewing videos of lots of horses in your area, which will save you some travelling.

Horse rescues often offer lovely, kind older horses looking for a caring home. If you are not intending to show heavily and just want a loving companion for hacking and having fun, adopting may be the answer. It is important to include your coach or other experienced horse person in this decision; some facilities offer 30-day trials to ensure a perfect match. Auctions are a risky place to find a first horse and should be avoided.

The test ride

Be sure to bring along your coach or other knowledgeable horse person when you first ride a sale prospect. Don’t be afraid to ask the owner why the horse is for sale – getting an answer such as, “He’s too keen to be a western pleasure horse,” might mean he’s not suitable for you, either.

Tell the owner you would like to watch the horse being caught up (if he’s out in the paddock), groomed and tacked up, rather than having him ready to ride when you arrive. Have the owner ride the horse first so you can see how he moves and behaves, and then ride him yourself. Have your coach get on him as well. Try to test ride the horse twice on two different days. The horse should walk, trot and canter calmly both ways of the ring and, depending on what his area of expertise is, perform flying changes, jump 3’ comfortably, do a reining pattern, etc. Ask to see his show record if he has been competing.

If you really like the horse, have your vet check him out, and be sure to tell him what you plan to use the horse for. Something that might pose a problem for a 1.30m jumper might be insignificant for a horse that will be only used for hacking and pleasure classes. Even if he vets out perfectly and you just don’t “like” him, don’t buy him. Sometimes you have to trust your instincts.

What type of equipment will you need?

The expense of buying a horse is small compared to its daily upkeep. In addition to a place to live, there will be blacksmith and vet bills and extra expenses if you want to show. Assuming that you have (hopefully) already been taking lessons and have a helmet and riding boots, you’ll need tack (saddle and pad, bridle, halter and leadline for starters, and possibly protective boots, a crop, lungeline and lunge whip), grooming tools (soft and stiff brushes, hoof pick, rags, bathing  supplies, etc.) and emergency medical supplies in a first aid kit.

Are you really ready for the responsibility?

Horses involve a lot of work, and if you would rather hang with your friends than muck stalls or ride, horse ownership may not be the right choice for you. If you’re not sure, try volunteering at a rescue barn or therapeutic riding facility where they will be counting on you to show up on time and act responsibly. (This may also help your parents make that final decision in your favour if they see that you are really serious about it.) The well-being, comfort and safety of your horse must always come first, but you will still be expected to keep up your grades, do your chores and carry out other family responsibilities with a smile on your face. The rewards are huge, though — hearing your horse nicker a greeting every time he sees you, and spending time with a loving companion and best friend.