Traditional wisdom advises the first time horse buyer to look for an older gelding; a horse who has been "around the block" a few times and has no shortage of experiences. That's generally good advice. The only problem is that the average novice is not equipped to evaluate a horse to determine good experience from problem "baggage," and they don't know what problem signs to look for, what questions to ask, or what different activities to ask a seller to demonstrate with the horse in question. Even though a horse may demonstrate good behavior when being shown by a seller, a first-time horse purchaser may find himself (or herself) incapable of reproducing the good behaviors after he/she gets the new horse home. A competent, confident, savvy horseman can make a questionable horse look good, where a less confident, or timid, novice horse handler will experience problems with the very same horse.
Age is not a cure-all for bad behavior, or ill temperament. In some cases, a mellow younger horse may be a better choice than an older horse with a more nervous nature. Or a horse with significant training and willing attitude, may be a better choice than an old "bomb proof" trail horse who simply goes whereever he desires regardless of the signals he's getting from his rider. Don't pass up looking at a horse just because it doesn't fit the "old gelding model." But do stay away from any horse described as "green broke." Green horses and green owners are a bad combination.
The best advice is to seek out expert help in choosing a first horse -- but ONLY if the person helping you with your choice does NOT RECEIVE A COMMISSION on the sale. That's the kind of conflict of interest that will make even an honest professional rationalize reasons for making a less than optimal choice for a client, especially in hard economic times. If you hire an expert, pay the person for his or her time and expertise independent of whether you purchase a horse or not, and never rely on the seller to serve as your expert! "Horse Traders" make their living by buying and selling horses, and serve an important role in the horse industry. They find buyers for a lot of serviceable horses, but they are NOT a good source for the novice first-time horse buyer. Nor are horse rescuers an appropriate resource for the first-time buyer. While it's true that there are many abused and/or neglected horses that need homes, the role of rescuer is best left to experienced, savvy horse handlers.
You want your first experience as a horse owner to be a positive one. There are no guarantees, but you can certainly avoid some of the worst pitfalls by starting with 1) expert advice from a neutral party, 2) observed demonstrations of a horses's skill sets performed by the seller first, 3) practiced maneuvers of all the horses's skill sets to be peformed by you, the buyer, under the supervision of a more expert horse handler, and 4) depending on purchase price, having a general health and soundness exam performed by a veterinarian. This last service can run several hundred dollars, especially if you have x-rays done, so you would not bother with this if you were purchsing an inexpensive horse that would not be required to perform strenuous athletics.
Examples of skill sets to be demonstrated:
The final test, of course, is to confirm that the horse will behave this way for the buyer, as well as the seller. Although the list may seem fairly long, an experienced horseman will put the horse through all these paces fairly quickly. It's essential that the buyer is allowed to go through the same list of exercises, either directly after the seller, or at a second appointment. This will determine that the horse is a good match for the potential owner, whose skill and experience level may be very different from that of the seller.
If you are not capable of putting a horse through the riding exercises described in the list above, please delay purchasing a horse until you have time to take a sufficient number of riding lessons from a certified instructor to ensure you have the skills necessary to ride and control a trained horse at the walk, trot, and canter, in a circle pattern in each direction, on the correct lead at canter. Having these basic skills will help keep you safe during your search for your first horse.
Letitia Hise is a former riding instructor and currently works as a freelance graphics and marketing professional.