Considerations in Buying a HorseBy Dr. Peter Huntington · August 2, 2011
The process of buying a horse should not be rushed because you need to find the right horse for your needs. If you purchase the wrong horse, not only will it erode your confidence, you also have to decide what to do with it. If the decision is made to sell, you may lack the experience to achieve a successful sale and recoup your money. It is important to ask an experienced horseperson to assist you with the purchase of your first horse. That may be your riding instructor, who will know your capabilities, or it may be a more experienced friend. Whomever you choose should know the potential pitfalls and be able to weigh the positives and negatives about a particular horse. Ultimately, the person must be able to help you decide which is the right horse for you at your current level of experience.
Timing Many people decide that they want to learn to ride and think that they will need to acquire a horse in order to do so. In fact, it is strongly recommended that you learn to ride before buying a horse. Even after taking lessons, the horse that you buy may be different to ride than a riding school horse, which works hard and is usually quieter than a privately owned horse. If you are able to buy the horse that you have learnt to ride on (many riding schools sell horses from time to time), you may be surprised by the difference in its behaviour when it is no longer working as hard.
Your budget Many beginners underestimate the cost of a good horse, but remember that the right horse will help you gain experience whereas the wrong horse will damage your confidence. A good horse may seem expensive, but it takes many years of work and expense to train a horse. A horse that is less than 10 years old, good looking, well-educated, very quiet and with no particular faults can be worth several thousand dollars. Other factors that add value are the level of show quality, unusual colouring, or a particular breed. A good beginning horse will give you the opportunity to try out a few different equestrian activities such as trail riding, a novice dressage test, or jumping a small course of jumps. You will be able to attend Pony Club or riding club rallies safely, have fun, and gain experience. When you have gained more experience you may need a different type of horse, or if you are lucky your first horse may still be suitable.
Temperament This is the most important factor. The horse must be friendly, calm and easy to handle. You must feel safe with the horse. If you have a limited budget you may have to compromise on some points, but not on temperament, especially if you are a beginner.
Performance The better the horse’s performance in any particular field, the higher the price. The potential of a young horse to perform will still influence the price.
Education You should buy a well-educated horse, one that has good manners and well-established basics. A good-mannered horse is obedient and does not push around its handler. Examples of bad manners are dragging you around, not moving over or out of the way when asked and getting nasty at feed time. Good basics mean that the horse should be easy to stop and turn, and move forward willingly and quietly. The horse should also yield (move over) to leg pressure and back up when asked. Regardless of the education level of the horse, as the new owner you must maintain it or improve upon it because even a good beginner’s horse will start to misbehave if you do not handle and ride it properly.
Age The prime age of a horse is between 6 and 10 years, and if sound these horses will generally command the best price. Older horses in their late teens with good legs may be a better buy for the novice as they still have many years of service if well cared for and tend to be quieter because of their varied experience. An older horse will not be as supple as a young horse and this must be taken into consideration when you have the horse checked by a veterinarian. Late-teenage horses may not pass a flexion test because they have wear and tear in the joints from both previous work and old age. This does not mean that the horse is no good, only that some activities may have to be restricted; however, steady work is often the best remedy for stiffness and as long as the horse is not lame, stiffness that improves after the horse has warmed up is not usually a problem.
Young horses and beginning riders are not a good combination. Sometimes young horses are advertised as very quiet or even bombproof, but the seller cannot predict that the horse will always be quiet. Young horses are often very quiet at 3 to 4 years of age because they are still maturing, but when they are 5 to 6 years old the excess energy is no longer channelled into growing and their temperament may change. Other seemingly quiet young horses are being handled and ridden by experienced people. Less experienced riders give unclear signals until they have perfected their technique, and a young horse is more likely to be confused than an older horse that has been ridden by a variety of people.
Colour There is an old saying that a good horse is never a bad colour. The less experienced you are with horses, the less colour matters. Suitable horses are sometimes hard to find, and a colour restriction will reduce the number of potential purchases. When you have learned to ride well, you can select a horse based on colour if you have strong preferences.
Breed Some breeds have a reputation for being quieter than others, but there are examples of quiet and excitable horses in all breeds. Hot-blooded horses such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians are thought to be more excitable than cold-blooded horses such as the draught breeds (e.g., Clydesdale). Although there are plenty of exceptions to this belief, an off-the-track Thoroughbred is not a good choice for a beginner. Warmblood breeds and Quarter Horses are usually somewhat calmer than Thoroughbreds or Arabians. A pony or a crossbred horse, usually a cross between a hot-blood and a cold-blood, is often a very good choice, but remember that every horse is an individual. A horse is not automatically docile or well-behaved because it is a certain breed. Horses that are registered (pedigreed) usually cost more than unregistered horses, but a pedigreed animal is not necessarily a better horse. It is more important to know the history of the horse than to concentrate too much on the breed.
Conformation Assessing a horse’s conformation requires a trained eye, and the beginner needs the help of an experienced horseperson. Certain conformation faults can be overlooked in a beginner’s horse if it has a good temperament. Conformation faults in a younger horse are to be regarded with more caution because their long-term effect is unknown. Again, it depends on what you are planning to do with the horse.
Action and movement The horse should be able to move freely, without stumbling and tripping, in all of its gaits. It should move straight, without hitting itself (i.e., hitting one leg with another). Some imperfections in movement can be overlooked in a beginner’s horse if they are not likely to cause lameness. The term “forward-moving” is sometimes used to describe a horse and can mean either that the horse moves freely (as opposed to sluggishly) in a calm manner or that it is “on its toes” and ready to move faster with little or no signal from the rider. The latter type of horse is not suitable for a beginner, but may be once the skill has been acquired to control its forward movement.
Sex Some people prefer geldings because they believe that they are more obedient, while others prefer mares. It usually depends on that particular person’s previous experience. There are good- and bad-tempered horses of both genders. A gender restriction will limit your choice. Stallions are usually purchased for breeding or for high-level competition work, and even then should only be purchased by an experienced person.
Size As a general rule, when mounted, the rider’s feet in the stirrups should be level with the bottom of the horse’s stomach. If the rider’s legs are too short or too long, the horse will not be under effective control. Many people buy a horse that is too large and strong for them. If you are buying a horse for a child, do not buy a bigger horse than the child is ready for, because the child may lose confidence.
This article is adapted, with permission, from Horse Sense—The Guide to Horse Care in Australia and New Zealand, second edition (2004).