Buying Your First Horse

Many of my riding school clients have aspirations to own their own horse. It is a wonderful thing to be able to do. However, finding the right horse for that individual person is not a simple task.  It is often a very big step from riding a horse in a school to one that’s been in private ownership. Unfortunately I have seen or heard of this transition going wrong on far too many occasions. Why, you may ask.

When riding in the school, we take a lot of care to match you with a horse that is within your capabilities or stretch zone and not beyond.   If we put you on a horse that is at the upper end of your capabilities we will often keep you in walk and trot until we are confident you are ready to deal with the canter, or jump.  We know our horses very well, we know which ones need riding daily and those that can go a few days or weeks without being ridden.  It is not just about the amount of time under saddle, it is about the quality of the riding they need too.  Some just need an hour or so here and there, if they’ve not been busy, to reduce the amount of excitement they express and this can be done by less experienced riders. Others need more regular riding by more experienced riders – sometimes staff, sometimes clients – but by a rider that can address issues such as controlling the speed of their legs, or with the skills to remind the horse it needs to be responsive to your leg or rein aids, or to encourage them to lift through their back and work in a way to build their musculature correctly. There is also management of their feed and turnout, but this is another topic.

Mary Wanless often asks “Does the organised rider organise the disorganised  horse or does the disorganised horse disorganise the organised rider?”  You could chart these two aspects against one another, it would look something like this chart –

Level of Organisation when trying a horse

level of organisation when trying a horse

When the level of organisation in the horse is low, then generally the level in the rider needs to be high, in order to assist and educate the horse. A young or untrained horse may be difficult to get to go or stop or steer, or all three.  In one scenario horse and rider may just not go anywhere, alternatively they may be run off with, even if at a slow pace.

If the level of organisation of the horse is high, then often, but not always, a rider with a lesser level of organisation may get on it and have the ride of their life. Unfortunately this rider is generally unable to maintain that horse’s level of organisation without regular assistance from a more advanced rider.  Over time the horse’s level of organisation tends to be drawn closer to that of the rider. This may take minutes, hours, days or months, but the decline is almost inevitable.  If a rider with a low level of organisation gets on a sensitive horse with a very high level of organisation then they may wonder what hit them. At best the horse lowers his offering to paces/moves the rider can match, at worst a confusion of communication ensues, with potential for danger.

When buying from dealers, often their horses are being ridden regularly by highly experienced riders. Those riders may find a particular horse very easy to ride and put it in a ‘novice ride’ bracket. What they do not appreciate is how different they are to truly novice riders. The novice rider then gets on the horse, both seller and buyer are then amazed at how differently that horse behaves with that rider (in that instance hopefully the buyer will go look elsewhere), or they may have a good ride, buy the horse, then things deteriorate once the horse is home (horse and rider will have probably lost confidence in one another).  In the latter case things may be rescued by improving the training of both horse and rider, or it may be wiser for them to part company. Every scenario is different and needs to be judged accordingly.

When buying a horse from a private vendor, it is often best if that rider is of a similar level to the purchaser. If they are a little more advanced than you, then you will be able to grow your skills to that next level. If they are a little more novice then you will be able to use your skills to educate the horse further, then grow on together.

In my last blog I talked of thinking about horses like cars. You would not learn to drive in an F1 Ferrari. There are two aspects to this, the ‘Horsepower’ and the ‘Tolerance’.  How much power do you want or need from your horse? How sensitive is the horse, what will his response be if the communications get a little muddled, will he shrug it off, or explode in rage? With horses there is also the element of how much education have they had to do what you want to do.

The first thing is to go into the process of buying a horse with an understanding of this. You should also ride as many horses as you can, in as many different situations.

When I am buying a horse, I have a check list of questions to ask, firstly myself –

  • What type of horse do I want? Age/Sex/Height/Colour (may or may not be important)
  • What do I want it to be able to do? Hack/School/Dressage/Show Jump / Cross Country / Hunt – at what levels / go alone, in company or both?
  • How soon do I want it to do the above?
  • Do I want more Whoa or more Go?
  • Should it live in or out, barefoot or shod?
  • How much time do I have for riding / training
  • What support do I have around me daily or on call?
  • What is my budget in £’s?
  • How far am I prepared to go to look at horses? (I always prefer to take someone knowledgeable with me). (Be warned, good horses can go very quickly, you have to be prepared to go almost straight away to see them after the ad is placed.)
  • There will be other questions such as where am I going to keep it, what facilities do they have? Will you need to ride on busy roads?

I also have a check list of questions to ask the vendor over the telephone (I like to be able to hear the tone of their voice as they respond, even if some of these are already answered in the ad). Be sure to ask for verification –

  • Horse’s Name – confirm age / sex/ height / colour
  • How long owned
  • What’s it done before
  • Does it have more whoa or go
  • Ever been lame or sick
  • Shod / unshod
  • Carry what weight of rider
  • Canter – both reins
  • Jump – height / fence types
  • Behaviour in
    – Stable
    – Field
    – Hacking – a leader or a follower
    – Traffic
    – School
    – Loading
    – Shoeing
    – Clip
    – Any vices
  • Worst thing ever done
  • Last saw dentist
  • Any bodywork treatment – regular/irregular
  • Why selling
  • Price
  • Vetting – has it had recently, passed/failed, are they open to full vetting
  • Insurance – is it insured, are there any restrictions on the insurance
  • Other buyers in pipeline
  • When available to view, where, what facilities
  • Anything else I should know

When you go to view, have a plan, if you don’t think you can judge the things below then take someone who can, but I recommend taking a companion anyway. I have assumed you are looking for a horse you can take home and ride.

  • Meet the owner/vendor and horse – are you comfortable with them both? (Listen to your gut/heart here.)
  • Put a head collar on the horse, see how it responds to you touching it and moving around it. Feel its body and legs for any lumps, bumps, swelling, ask about anything you notice. Is the horse comfortable with you doing these things?
  • Pick up its feet, notice if it does so willingly. Resistance to pick up one leg may indicate it does not want to weight bear in the opposite leg. Notice the shape and quality of the hooves, do left and right look similar in size and shape, do they look cared for?
  • Have it walked and trotted up, in just the head collar. Does it look happy or stressed? I cannot tell you how many horses I’ve been to look at with a view to buying that have not been sound/level when walked / trotted up, I go home at this stage if not happy with what I’m seeing. This is not a vetting, I recommend you still get one done if purchasing.
  • Return to stable and tack it up yourself. One of the very first horses I bought I allowed the vendor to tack it up, I was busy chatting to someone else. We bought the horse, took it home and found it was very head shy. It took me many months before I could get the bridle on without taking it apart.
  • Take it out and have the vendor, or their rider ride it first. Again, if you don’t like or feel comfortable with what you see turn away at this stage.
  • Your turn – I always start with some basic groundwork to test the response to being stroked with a whip, stop and go and yield of legs (as based on the teachings of Dr Andrew McClean). This can tell you a lot before you get on board.
  • If you don’t want to get on, then don’t, take time to work out what the issue is.
  • When you do get on, have a plan. What are you going to ask the horse to do? I always start with walk halt transitions, I want to know I have control of the speed of the legs and the ability to halt. Use as much or as little of the arena/area as you are comfortable with. Work on both reins. Build up to walk trot transitions, then trot canter. Remember to try each pace on both reins. Notice does the horse fall in or out, or not. Remember you have nothing to prove. If you are uncomfortable or feel unsafe at any point, go slower, do less ambitious activities and, if need be, dismount.
  • Happy with the above? Then you can move on to hack, poles, jump, go laterally, whatever you want to do.
  • When you are finished, put the horse away, untack, say thank you to the horse. Notice how you are feeling- excited? positive? unsure? negative? sorry for the horse? Why?
  • Look again at your check list, how does this horse match up to what you wanted? Were there any questions you left unanswered?
  • Be prepared to walk away.
  • Give yourself some thinking space. Do not be pressured into purchasing. You can ask about the negotiability of the price, what they want as a deposit, talk about the logistics of vet inspections and transportation, would they consider a loan with a view to buy or trial period, then go. Even if you just sit in your car, talk it through with your companion, but if possible sleep on it. Know that if this is the horse for you, then the Universe will keep it for you.  If it goes elsewhere then the Universe will have a better partner for you somewhere else when the time is right.

Consider trying horses as part of your process of learning about what it is you do or don’t want. Do not expect to buy the first one you see. When we were trying to replace one of our school horses it took us over 2 years to find something vaguely suitable. He will grow into the role, but it will take time and training.

The same approach can be applied to taking a horse on loan or share.

Remember more haste, less speed, be safe. Enjoy the journey of looking and hopefully you’ll find your ideal partner and have lots of fun in the future.