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Your First Horse

by Letitia Hise

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Your First Horse

by Letitia Hise

As you begin looking for your first horse . . . 

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:

  1. Catching and haltering
  2. Walking alongside the handler (Is he well mannered, or does he charge forward, lag behind, push into the handler, or try to pull off in another direction?)
  3. Standing tied quietly (including next to other tied horses)
  4. Grooming -- should be able to touch horse anywhere*- spraying with fly repellent
    *Some geldings need to be sedated by a vet in order to clean their penile sheath because they won't let the handler touch them in that area, and a build-up of smegma can form into lumps which cause problems with urination, making the vet call necessary.
    --IF you're wanting to compete in local horse shows, you may want to ask if he's used to electric clippers
  5. Handling feet - picking up and holding each foot while cleaning out crevices with a hoof pick. Generally speaking, a horse that allows this easily, is also well mannered for the shoer/hoof trimmer
  6. Saddlling and Bridling
  7. Standing quietly for mounting and dismounting -including using a mounting block
  8. Standing quietly after mounting while rider adjusts stirrups and gets situated
  9. Moving willingly forward when asked
  10. Riding a Circle in each gait (walk, trot, canter)
    --Both directions - clockwise & counter-clockwise including taking both leads (If you don't know about leads, you should take some additional riding lessons)
    --Tansitioning from walk, to trot, to canter, and to stop from each of those gaits
    --Watch for any signs of limping, tripping, head-bobbing, or stiffness during this demonstration
    --Also watch for ear-pinning or excessive tail swishing as these are signs of bad temperament.
    --If the horse kicks out or bucks during this demonstration, it's an automatic FAIL!
  11. Backing up
  12. Side Passing to the left and to the right (helps with number 13)
  13. Opening and closing arena gate without the rider needing to dismount.
  14. Riding alongside, in front of, and behind other horses without pinning ears back, biting, or kicking
  15. Riding off the premises -- leaving the property to "ride out" without the company of another horse
  16. Loading into a trailer; and riding quietly in the trailer without the company of another horse.
    -- This is a major issue if you ever want to be able to participate in any events, or even just trailer over to ride with friends in another area. You also should consider that you may need to take your horse to a veterinary hospital some day.
    --At least have seller take the horse for a short trip (i.e. to the neighbor's and back, or around the block) and you ride along with seller to see if the horse rides quietly in the trailer without kicking and stomping.
    --Upon return, how quietly does he unload?
  17. Bathing -- does he stand quietly while being hosed down with water?
  18. If the horse dosn't live full time in pasture, have the seller put the horse in a stall with no food in it, AND THEN have him walk in with some hay or a bucket of feed and watch to see if the horse acts aggressive toward the handler. A well mannered horse will be very attentive, but not overly pushy or aggressive.

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.

© Copyright 2010 by Letitia Hise, all rights reserved. For permission to reprint, copy, or post, please contact: Letitia Hise at

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