by: Rallie McAllister, MD
August 14 2007 Article # 10182
If you've loved horses for as long as you can remember, having one of your own may be the realization of a lifelong goal. As a child, and even as an adult, you may have spent countless hours dreaming about the "perfect" horse, but in reality there's just no such thing. Fortunately, you don't need a flawless horse to be happy and successful as an equestrian--all you need is a good horse that fits you well.
Riding is a team sport, pairing horse and human. Neither is more critical than the other. As with any other team sport, successful riding depends on a number of factors, including mutual respect, cooperation, and compatibility. While you're building your own two-member team, remember that no matter how new you are to riding, you're not starting from scratch. Half of your team is already established, and that half is you. Your physical and mental characteristics dictate the physical and mental characteristics of the ideal teammate.
As you work through the process of choosing and buying a horse, you'll need to consider dozens of factors. Ultimately, you should always come back to the most important consideration: whether the horse is a good fit for you. No matter how "perfect" a horse may seem, he's not the right one if he's the wrong teammate for you.
To ensure you end up buying the right horse, it's wise to do your homework and plan your purchase carefully and as far in advance as possible. When you approach the process in logical steps, you're more likely to be happy with the result. Satisfaction comes from knowing not only exactly what you want but also exactly what you need and then searching until you find it. You should never allow yourself to settle for an unsafe or unsuitable horse.
Your experience with your first horse will impact your desire--and perhaps even your ability--to continue riding. A safe, pleasurable experience will deepen your love of horses and enhance your skills as an equestrian, but a bad experience may cause you to quit before you reap the rewards of horse ownership.
The decision to buy a horse is a big one, and like all major decisions, it should be made with a great deal of thought, consideration, and planning. Because owning a horse will change your life in ways you might never have imagined, you should approach the process as carefully and as cautiously as you might if you were deciding to buy a house, start a new career, or get married.
In the school of hard knocks, most of us have learned reality far differs from expectations. If you're a wife and a mother, you've learned that marriage doesn't even remotely resemble dating and motherhood is vastly different from baby-sitting or being an aunt or a godparent.
It's only natural to focus on the most exciting and glamorous aspects of any project we undertake--that's what drives us to succeed. It's also natural to turn a blind eye to those aspects that promise to be less than wonderful.
If owning a home was once your dream, for example, you undoubtedly focused on the countless positive attributes of home ownership, ranging from decorating your new kitchen to relaxing with friends and family in your spacious, well-appointed living room. You probably didn't spend much time fantasizing about the harsher realities of homesteading, including risking life and limb to clean the gutters or hiring a plumber to fix a perpetually backed-up toilet. By the same token, owning a horse is far more complex and complicated than taking riding lessons or even caring for someone else's horse.
Regardless of your financial status, horse ownership involves a significant cash outlay. In addition to the initial purchase price of your horse, you'll also be shelling out a substantial amount of your hard-earned cash to cover the cost of boarding and feeding your horse. Your horse will likely require a veterinarian's services at least once or twice a year and a farrier's attention every four to six weeks. Any experienced horse owner will tell you dozens of ways in which a horse can help you spend your money.
While horse ownership requires a major financial commitment, there are also the commitments of time, energy, and emotion to consider. Your horse will end up becoming an important part of your family--and an integral part of your life. Even if you don't bat an eye at the purchase price, and even if the monthly expenses don't strain your budget, you'll still need to schedule enough time with your horse.
If you're responsible for every aspect of your horse's care, you can probably count on spending at least an hour a day feeding, watering, and grooming your horse. If you plan on riding, mucking stalls, or giving your horse some turnout time, you're looking at spending two or three hours at the barn. You'll regularly need to replenish feed, hay, bedding, and various supplies.
If you're not going to have these items delivered, you'll need to pick them up, so don't forget to consider the time involved in maintaining a well-stocked stable. If you're planning on boarding your horse at a barn that's not within easy walking distance of your house, you've also got to account for travel time.
Taking responsibility for your horse's daily upkeep can be a rich and rewarding experience, but it may cut into your riding time. If your primary goal is to care for your horse and to enjoy his companionship, this isn't a major problem. If, however, you're on a tight deadline to achieve a specific level of training, or if your goal is to compete in specific events or equestrian classes, assuming full care of your horse may not be your best option.
If you're planning to board your horse at a facility that provides full care, you won't need to spend quite so much time at the barn. Your role may be limited simply to riding and enjoying your horse. The trade-off for this type of full-service care is, of course, a higher monthly boarding bill.
Like all other relationships, the one you develop with your horse will be fraught with emotions, both good and bad. These emotions are often intensified if your schedule and your life are already full. If you buy a horse that you grow to love and cherish, you'll likely suffer a great deal of guilt if you're so busy that you aren't able to spend enough time with him or ride him regularly. If you end up with a horse that you're not entirely crazy about, you'll probably start to feel resentful about the amount of time that you're obligated to spend with him, and, eventually, you may have a hard time dragging yourself to the barn.
Regardless of your feelings toward your horse, you'll be bound to him by a sense of responsibility for as long as you own him. At one time or another you may face trading your nice, warm bed for a freezing barn in the dead of winter. Or you may find yourself fighting flies and fatigue as you ride or care for your horse in the sweltering summer heat. The horse that is right for you is the one that will inspire you to make these sacrifices willingly.
If the realities of horse ownership don't deter you in the least, and if you're convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that owning a horse is your destiny, then hold on, because you're about to embark on an adventure that will be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of your life.
The Ideal Teammate
Whether you realize it, you have certain expectations-- and maybe even a fantasy or two-- about the horse you will call your own. You already know a few things about this horse. You may know, for example, that he's a gentle gelding that is kind, quiet, and willing to work.
This is an excellent place to start, but at some point you'll need to begin filling in the blanks. What breed is your future teammate? How old is he? What level of training has he achieved? Is he a show horse or a pleasure horse? The more you know about the horse ahead of time, the simpler your search will be, and the less likely you'll be to get sidetracked by horses that aren't right for you.
Because it's easy to get carried away by your emotions, it's important to guard yourself against impulse buying ahead of time. Before you start your search, it's wise to sit down and write a detailed description of the ideal teammate.
Using your written description, make a list of all the qualities your horse must have.
Next, make a list of the qualities you'd like your horse to have but you could live without or you'd be willing to compromise for a more essential quality. The more specific you are, the more likely you are to find the right horse.
Take Your Time
In your search for the ideal teammate, it's perfectly acceptable to be picky and to take your time. There's no shortage of horses for sale, so there's no need to rush and settle for an unsatisfactory mount. It's not uncommon for sellers to inform you that there are "several interested parties" and "this horse will go fast." It may be true. On the other hand, it could be that the seller is being a good salesperson, trying to create a sense of urgency and an "act now, before it's too late" mentality in you, the potential buyer. If you're prepared for this kind of pressure ahead of time, you'll be less likely to succumb to it.
While finding a horse that is the perfect match for you can be time consuming and even downright tedious on occasion, it's far less tedious than owning a horse that is wrong for you. As the saying goes, chance favors the prepared mind. There's no way to foresee every challenge you and your horse will face in the short term, much less in the long term, but the chances of a favorable outcome are much greater if you're well prepared.
If you're patient and diligent in your search, chances are excellent you'll find the right horse. Sometimes it's very easy to cross a horse off your list. If he has a dangerous habit such as kicking or bolting, or if you feel that he's just too small for you, it's easy enough to walk away. At other times you may not be able to put your finger on the problem quite so easily.
You may not understand why you're not enthusiastic about a particular horse that seems like a suitable candidate. It could be there's just no chemistry. If something doesn't feel right about a particular horse--even if you're not sure exactly what it is--trust your instincts an keep looking.
Purpose of the Horse
Before embarking on your search for a horse, you need to understand fully your motives for doing so. Why do you want a horse? The answer may seem obvious to you, but you need to be able to verbalize a response to this question, not only for yourself, but also for others.
You must be capable of clearly communicating your reasons for owning a horse so that sellers, breeders, trainers, veterinarians, and even your friends can help you find the right one. What are your goals? What purpose will your horse serve? Do you want to compete in horse shows, endurance rides, or other equestrian events, or do you want to trail ride? Is your primary goal to enjoy the companionship of a horse without
competing or, even, riding?
Your Panel of Experts
Once you've defined why you want a horse, it's a good idea to assemble a panel of knowledgeable horse people whom you'll be able to consult prior to making your final decision.
This group of professionals should be headed by your riding instructor and the equine veterinarian who will be caring for your horse.
It's also a good idea to include a horse trainer and the farrier you intend to hire. When you've narrowed your list of horses to a few finalists, you'll want to critique each horse with the members of your panel before making your final decision. Each of these experts can provide valuable insights, information, and advice that will go a long way toward ensuring the horse you buy is the best possible teammate for you.
Your riding instructor, for example, knows your strengths and weaknesses as an equestrian and can help you determine whether the horse in question will be a good match. The ideal horse will have strengths that complement your weaknesses and vice versa. If you tend to be a timid rider, you don't want a horse that spooks every time the wind blows.
If you've got arthritis in your knees and have a little trouble climbing into the saddle, you don't want a horse that dances around in circles while being mounted. Your riding instructor can spot these kinds of mismatches early on and can help you determine whether they can be corrected easily, and if not, whether you can live with them.
A skilled and experienced horse trainer can offer a qualified opinion about the horse's potential to reach a particular level of training, or to compete in specific disciplines, based on the horse's attitude and conformation. Ideally, the horse you buy will be doing what you want him to do already, but if he's not, how can you tell if he's mentally and physically capable?
There's no way to know for sure, of course, but a good horse trainer's educated guess may be the next best thing.
After performing a pre-purchase examination, an equine veterinarian can evaluate the horse's health and soundness. It's helpful to know whether the horse has any conditions that will prevent him from fulfilling your goals. Likewise, a good farrier's opinion is worth having.
Along with the horse trainer and the vet, the farrier can provide you with a great deal of useful information after evaluating the horse's feet, legs, and gaits. The farrier also can determine how the horse behaves while his feet are being handled. For instance, if you knew ahead of time the horse you're considering buying requires a tranquilizer to have his back feet shod would you still buy him?
Ultimately, the final decision about whether to buy the horse is yours alone, but you'll be more likely to make the right decision with the input of qualified professionals.