I suppose there are many times we question our involvement with horses, especially during a New England winter! But my topic today centers on the pain of choosing the wrong horse. Too often a parent is willing to buy their child a horse but without the necessary support they can make an inappropriate choice. Once that happens it is very difficult to undo the damage. It is unfair to the kid and it is unfair to the horse.
The first pony we leased for my daughter was appropriate for the sport we leased her for but when we changed sports, the pony was no longer a safe choice. She dumped my daughter several times before our trainer wisely said enough. This is the point at which parents are tempted to make a huge mistake by not listening to our experts. Our experts want the best for us. In my case, the trainer had not one thing to gain by a horse change since she neither buys nor sells horses nor does she take a commission on any purchases. Fortunately, the pony we had was wanted for the job she knew and we were able to send her to a good home. Too often when the horse doesn't work out it is difficult to find them a new situation. It can take a very long time to rehome an unsafe horse and all that time you will be paying for board, shoes, vet costs and possibly training for a horse your child isn't riding or is riding in a limited way. The wrong horse will prevent your child from doing the things she wants to do. An uncooperative horse will make Pony Club or horse shows nearly impossible and if you do manage some schooling shows, your child will find it difficult to move up the levels or to go to rated shows and after awhile, you will resent the horse. You will also watch your child's confidence deteriorate and she very well may become so afraid she no longer wants to be involved with horses.
I've watched a few families suffer negative experiences. One family I know has a one year lease, two daughters who want to ride and very little knowledge about horses. Older, more experienced people can ride their horse but the girls who lease him really shouldn't. Even some trainers don't want to ride him because it isn't worth getting hurt. One of the girls came off the horse and broke her foot shortly after they got him. The family is stuck with the horse until the end of the lease and they are trying to do what they can, engaging a trainer to ride him. The biggest mistake I saw this family make was not having help right from the start. They waited months thinking they knew enough.
Let me tell you right now that if you have spent less than 6 days a week over at least 5 years with a horse you have no business owning one without professional help! They are complicated and there is an endless amount you need to know to handle the variety of situations that will arise. If you have a backyard horse for your kids you need Pony Club. Run, don't walk, to your nearest Pony Club and start learning what you need to know.
Another family has a daughter who is a bit more experienced and has had a very tough horse for a few years now. She handles him extremely well but hasn't been having any fun at all. Every ride is exhausting to watch. He always misbehaves, is very out of control and it is not a training issue. Her mother, who grew up with horses and Pony Club, has finally started looking for a different horse but even she is wondering what took her so long. They wasted several years on a horse that was never going to be a good partner for her daughter. I'm amazed the girl still wants to ride! They will not be able to sell the horse and plan to donate him to a collegiate riding program. Woe be the rider who draws that horse in competition!
Let's take a moment to think about the cost of the wrong choice. Board where we live is about $1000 a month, shoes range from $200 a month on up, the vet is about $1000 a year in a good year with no issues and then we have lessons and training costs which would be a minimum of $70 a week or $3600 a year. So a free horse costs you no less than $18,000 a year to support and honestly it costs more than that. So the thought of spending all that time and money for something that is not fun, stresses you out, endangers your child and has no easy out is ludicrous! But there is a solution!
I will start from the premise that it is always possible to find an appropriate horse for every kid. That does not mean that it will be quick or easy to find the right horse. And even wonderful horses have bad days. You will find many people who grew up with horses that threw them off, refused every fence, never came to them in the paddock and on and on. Some of those people would argue that they learned more from those naughty horses than they could have from the kind who take care of their rider. Well, I beg to differ. You don't necessarily learn more from either kind but you do learn different things. In most of those cases, someone, usually not the parents, gave those kids horses that were then kept in their backyard. Most of those parents didn't make conscious choices about the horse they had. It was a different time. And I would warn you about any "free" horse that crosses your path. As mentioned above, the upkeep for a horse is far more significant than the cost of an appropriate mount for a child assuming you aren't trying to be competitive on the A Circuit or in the Pony Division so if you are willing to support a horse, be willing to provide a small budget for the purchase.
I would argue that as equine parents our priority is to give our children the opportunity to experience life with horses and all the wonderful things that can come from that in the safest way possible. This is especially important if you are a parent with limited knowledge of horses, even more so if you have limited access to help. There are 2 primary qualities that stand out as determining the safety of any particular mount. The first is a good brain. You will hear this often with horses. It generally means the horse is intelligent, doesn't spook each and every day at the same exact bush it has lived next to for 5 years (I used to ride a horse that did this and it was annoying rather than unsafe but would have been very unsettling for a child). A horse with a good brain will try to figure out what you want him to do and will know when he has a kid on his back and how to behave. The second quality is experience. You can buy a young horse that will miraculously have such a good brain that it doesn't need experience to be a safe mount. However, it is best as a non-horsey parent to stick with slightly older, experienced horses. A horse that has already done everything you want to do with it will not be surprised. It will understand what's going on each day and can help your child along as she's learning. An older horse will need more maintenance but I promise it is well worth the trade off!
Before you choose a horse, know what it is you want to do with the horse (hunters, equitation, dressage, eventing) and look for a horse that has a record at that sport. If at some point this changes, be aware you might need to change horses as well. For instance, we leased my daughter's first pony to be used in the hunter ring in the short stirrup division. She was only ridden in smallish, enclosed rings. My daughter then switched to eventing. Suddenly the pony found herself in wide open spaces somewhat far away from the barn and with no other horses in sight. Asking her to change sports was actually unfair. She would have needed a great deal of training in order to succeed in a new sport and it just wasn't worth it so we sent her back to the short stirrup division where she has kept her rider very happy.
Once you identify the sport, identify the place you will board the horse and the horse professional who will help you with your horse. Have a discussion with any potential horse professionals and ask about their approach not only to finding the right horse but to caring for the horse once you have it. If you need help, is this person interested in helping you or does he or she primarily offer lessons and leave everything else to the owners or barn manager? Our trainer is a resident trainer at the barn where we board and she gives my daughter lessons, gives our horse training rides and provides a ton of invaluable support and advice. She is never too busy and is incredibly generous with her time and knowledge. In some cases your horse professional will lead you to an appropriate horse. I know one eventing trainer who specializes in half leasing schoolmaster ponies to kids for the introductory levels. At a certain point they need to acquire their own horse but this is a great way to get started. Our trainer does not act as an agent in horse sales but she does assist her clients by helping them identify the characteristics they are looking for in a horse, looking over ads brought to her by clients and going out to look at horses the client has identified as potential options. This process is extremely educational. Even though it can take a great deal of time to search for horses and visit them only to be disappointed by what you find, each horse you look at teaches you something about what you are looking for and which qualities are the must have qualities.
There are many places to look for the right horse. There are great websites out there with horse listings and people at your barn will often know of good horses for sale. Pony Club is a great resource for finding horses for kids. Any ad that mentions a horse has been used for Pony Club rallies and/or ratings, especially if they have done rallies in multiple disciplines and ratings above the D2 level (which means D3, C1, C2, etc.) that tells you this is a kids' mount. There are classified ads on the Pony Club website and many local clubs or regions keep their own classified ad pages. From there it really depends on what you plan to do with the horse. USEA (US Eventing Association) has websites by Area with great classifieds. Sport Horse Nation is another classified site dedicated primarily to eventing horses. I am sure there is an equivalent in the hunter, equitation, jumper and dressage disciplines and a good web search should help you find them. In addition equine.com, dreamhorse.com and others have a huge assortment of classified ads. You can narrow it down by price, location, age, etc.
The next thing you need to determine is what does the right horse look like. Color, breed, even gender and size are all things you need to be willing to let go of in your search. It's ok to have a preference but if you want a bay gelding and the perfect grey mare appears, you buy the perfect grey mare. High on my list of qualities are good ground manners, willingness to get on and off the trailer and willingness to stand for me when I pull his mane or clip him. These are the things that will make my job as chauffeur and groom easy and since I'm paying the bills, these are by and large non-negotiable. I can say that because my daughter is riding at a low enough level that we don't need some kind of insane speed or jumping ability. In fact, those would be negatives at this point. For a first horse you want one you have to really kick to make it go rather than one you are always pulling on to slow it down. As I mentioned earlier, experience is essential. If you plan to ride in the open, buy or lease a horse that has evented or done hunter paces. If you plan to do dressage, buy a horse that knows how to be ridden with contact so that your child can learn from the horse. Ask parents of kids doing the sport your child wants to do what they most value in their child's horse. Work with your professional to hone the list and prioritize it. You should have a few non-negotiable qualities, several desirable qualities and a few preferences you can live without but can be kept in mind during the search.
I'd like to say something her about gender. Some people will only buy geldings and others will only buy mares. We've had both and here's what little I can decipher about the difference. The boys may have an opinion but they are pretty willing to give it up if you insist. The girls on the other hand tend to hang onto their opinions. They are more willing to stick to their guns and have an argument with you about who's way is the correct way. Our trainer is a big fan of geldings and my daughter's amazing pony was a gelding. When I found our lovely mare our trainer was determined not to like her. She tried everything to make the horse angry or to find an issue. But our mare is just lovely. She has the world's best attitude and tries her heart out every day. She is definitely bossy and opinionated but she's so wonderful we can live with that. She is also quite amorous of all the boys when she is in season which seems like pretty much most of the time so we live with that too. So gender can be one of your non-negotiables but I hate to think we would have passed on Quizz because she's a girl. It would have definitely been our loss.
Before you head out to try any horses, set a budget. Depending on what you want to do, a first horse should cost between $5,000 and $10,000. Backyard ponies can be cheaper, show ponies (meaning hunter division) will be far more expensive. We paid in that range for our pony and quite a bit more for my daughter's current horse. This may vary depending on where you live. Remember a more flexible budget will give you more options but you really do not need to pay a whole lot more to get a first horse. And don't expect to buy one horse and be done. Again, it all depends on what you intend to do with the horse. In our case my daughter needed one year with an experienced pony we knew she would outgrow. We bought a pony, lost a little selling it (as we knew we would), and bought her wonderful next horse. This horse should last her awhile if she can stay sound. It's a little bit like buying a house. You start with something small and then after having 3 kids you outgrow the tiny house and move somewhere a little bigger. If you try to buy one horse that will be all things from beginning to end you will have to make concessions somewhere else. Either you will pay more for talent you won't be using until some undefined time in the future by which time your child may not even be riding or the horse may not still be sound or you will buy too much horse - too big, too strong or fast - wanting to make it last only to defeat the whole purpose of trying to buy the appropriate mount. Don't do it! If you are really concerned about buying and selling on a rather short horizon, find a horse you can lease.
Regarding the search for the horse I just want to mention something about looking at ads and videos. Look at horses aged 8 - 16. The older horses should cost less and you should plan for needing to retire that horse or free lease it out to kids when you are done until he can't work. Many horses can keep teaching kids well into their 20's. When you look at videos, make sure you are looking at a child riding the horse in a situation comparable to what your child will be doing. I often found the videos were of professionals riding the horse. I would ask to see a video of a kid jumping the horse in a field. If the video is less than 10 seconds long, they might be hiding something. They might not but it's something to keep in mind. I'd rather see a horse jumping clumsily but safely with a kid on its back than beautifully 3 levels above where my child is competing. Even better is seeing both!
After you identify some horses you are interested in, call the owners or agents to chat and set up a time you can take your child and trainer to ride the horse. If the horse is nearby, try to visit on more than one day. This is a huge long term commitment, take your time and gather all the information. When we look at horses, usually the current trainer or rider will get on and warm the horse up, show off his jumping or lead changes, etc. Then both my daughter and our trainer take turns. If we go a longer distance and our trainer can't join us, I might hop on just to see if I feel like the horse is scary or not. I'm not much of a rider but I can at least gather one more data point. I would never buy a horse my trainer hasn't sat on but I might have to do the first visit without her. I always let the people showing us the horse know ahead of time that I need to see my daughter jump the horse in an open field. Often this has to be done on a different day since not everyone has a cross country field available on their property. However, I wouldn't ever buy a horse without having seen my daughter jump it in the open. Jumping in the open is a big part of what she does with her horse and it's the activity that leaves the most opportunity for something to go wrong. After the ride I like to go into the barn and be part of the untacking experience, especially if they already had the horse tacked when we got there. It's important to see how the horse behaves in the barn, on the cross ties, etc. Sometimes you will gain little snip-its of pertinent information such as the horse can't be cross tied! It may be a manageable quirk rather than a deal breaker but such a thing would surely warrant consideration and further investigation.
I'm not going to get into vetting and all the other things involved with buying a horse. Everyone has their own perspective and I'm really just focusing on how to make sure you're making a safe choice for your child. If you do make the right choice, your child will have fun and thrive while learning from a lovely animal. She will likely improve her skills quickly and be able to move up the levels and gain confidence. If you don't make the right choice, be patient but not too patient. It takes a year to get to know a horse. There are so many factors - change of environment, different riding style, new schedule, new farrier. Give the horse a chance. If you did your homework then you chose this horse because you believed it was the best choice. Give it some time. On the other hand, listen to your gut, your child and your horse professional. If the horse demonstrates dangerous behavior, take it seriously. Don't be afraid to say we made a mistake and to take steps to relocate the horse and start over again. Don't waste 3 years with the wrong horse making a bad situation worse. It's ok to acknowledge when it isn't working and to find a way to move onto a better fit but be responsible to the horse in the process. In reality our kids are home with us and riding for a very limited number of years. Try not to waste them!