Buying Your First Horse

Lisa Wiseman
22 Min Read

You’ve been bitten by the rural lifestyle bug.  Maybe you’re living on some acres, the kids are nagging you to buy a pony or you’re thinking about acquiring some old-fashioned “horsepower”?  Don’t know what to buy or where to find it?  I’d like to let you in on the best-kept secret in the horse world, the Standardbred!

There are many possible pitfalls in buying your first horse (or your fifteenth), so first, get some practical knowledge.  Horses are large, strong, quick-reacting, and predictably unpredictable, so safety around them is paramount!  Get some coaching or take a course before you buy.  Adult Education offers good, reasonably-priced Horse Management courses.  I strongly advise finding a coach or experienced person who will help you learn the basics of horse management and assist in finding your horse.  Volunteer to help out at your local Pony Club or Riding Club.  Clubs always need manpower and you’ll probably learn a lot and make useful contacts.  You’d be surprised how many people are just about to upgrade to a faster/larger horse and are looking for a good home for their present one.

Treat buying a horse as you would an investment such as a car.  First, decide on your available funds.  Acquiring a horse may not cost much, but keeping one has many hidden costs.  There are lots of expenses related to owning a horse including but not limited to: vet care, worming, dentistry, feed, saddlery, farriery, fencing, water supply, shelter, safety equipment, etc.  If you want to take your horse anywhere then you may have to trade your car for a larger vehicle as well as buy a trailer.  And then there are equine chiropractors, aromatherapists, massage therapists to pay, horse jewelry to buy, and lots more!

Decide what you’re going to do with your horse.  Be realistic and when you’re offered a weanling full brother to Brunhilde Bouncensittentrot’s Olympic mount, think carefully.  You need a horse that is the right size and shape, but most importantly it must be sound, have the right temperament and training.  Having to find logs to climb back on an 18hh (hands-high) horse gets wearing when your property has 15 gates and your horse won’t stand still to open them.  Buying an expensive show-jumper (for example) to do some light harness work and take the kids to Pony Club is as silly as me buying a Ferrari to flog around the country roads here.

When you find a horse you like, get it checked out for suitability/soundness before you pay any money.  You may need to pay to have the horse vet-checked or get an experienced person to look at it.  Money spent now is money saved if the horse turns out to be unsound and unusable and you’re stuck with it for the rest of its life or, even worse, you sell it on and it kills someone…  There are sharp practices in horse dealing, just as there are in used car sales, but the majority of vendors are simply naïve about their pride and joy’s “little foibles”.  There are bargains and there are horses that are way overpriced too.  It’s not a bargain if it won’t do the job.

SEX.  Got your attention, did I?  Stallions require expert handling.  They are definitely not for the first-time owner.  If you buy a colt, which is a Bad Idea, you’re going to have to deal with the expense of gelding as well as aftercare and the ex-colt still thinking he’s a boy (and being fertile) for some time after his operation.  Mares cycle about every three weeks and some can be temperamental at these times.  PMS stands for “Pony Mare Syndrome”, but don’t be put off buying a sensible mare by that.  Not all mares turn into evil trollops every three weeks! If you buy a mare, please think very carefully before breeding her.  There are too many unwanted horses going to the doggers every day.  Geldings tend to be more tractable and placid, but some can be “proud cut” (retaining testosterone-producing tissue that makes them act like boys) or “rigs” (retaining one or both testicles).  Rigs can be fertile as well as difficult to handle.  Surgical removal of the retained testicle costs and mare-owning neighbors can get irate when your closet stallion lusts after their girls.  Get your potential new horse checked out by an experienced person or vet, but remember that even they can make mistakes in the case of a rig.

If the horse is sound but needs work, first-time owners should not think about retraining a horse without help, so stay away from any that “just need work”.  You wouldn’t buy a car that “just needed a new motor, gearbox and front end” when you want something to drive, now would you?  Are you willing to trust your life and perhaps your children’s lives to it?  I sometimes say to parents purchasing a child’s first pony, “How much is your son/daughter’s life worth?”

There ARE good, cheap, and even free horses around.  But you have to know how to find them and be able to tell the fabulous from the unsuitable.  That means that you need to learn as much as you can about these wonderful animals.

We’ve all heard the story that “I rode as a child, but then someone put me on a horse and…” The fact that accidents happen in the sort of circumstances I hear about doesn’t surprise me at all.  What does constantly surprise me is just how kind horses actually are and how many people keep getting back on, despite bad experiences! There’s something about horses that just makes many of us go gooey at the knees.  Horses are affectionate, intelligent creatures who will generally do their utmost to avoid hurting us.  Having said that, don’t buy a horse just because it “looks cute”.

It really helps to understand that the vast majority of horses ARE kindly creatures.  Like us, they react quickly to pain and other stimuli.  Like some of us, they have good memories.  And they are anything but stupid.  I’m sure my best horses are far smarter than my best dogs.  Treated consistently and well, horses are willing partners.  They learn fast, and that goes for good things and less desirable things.

If a horse is doing something undesirable please don’t put it down to the horse being “naughty” or “bad”.  They usually are trying to tell us something! The number of horses I see with behavior problems that need physical attention of some sort saddens me greatly.  The most common reason why horses are “naughty” is PAIN:  due to ill-fitting gear (saddles most commonly but bridles and bits next), new and old injuries, feet and teeth not adequately cared for, badly-balanced riders bouncing on sore backs, and just plain old previous abuse leaving memories of pain and stress.

Horses are NOT “naughty”.  They are trying to ask us to help them.  To help a horse that’s “naughty”, first find and remove the cause of the pain, then show the horse calmly that you aren’t going to hurt it.  And repeat… That can take years.  It is not a job for a “newbie”.  Horses are relatively cheap.  Why buy something that’s going to give you years of grief when you can get something that will be useful as well as a great companion?

Please don’t buy a young horse thinking that you can train it and it will grow up with your children.  Baby horses are very big babies and need to go to school and grow up before starting work.  They are not physically and mentally mature for a long time.  Don’t buy a two-year-old and expect it to work hard, and then live a long, sound life.  First time horse buyers should buy something older and more sensible, usually over 7.  Look at it this way: the years you lose by working a baby you gain in the mature horse’s sound later years.  Horses aren’t meant to work as two-year-olds, despite what the racing industry does.

People ask me what breed of horse they should buy.  I hate to generalize because there are individuals in all breeds.

As a general rule, I don’t encourage first-time horse owners to buy Thoroughbreds.  I adore my Thoroughbred performance horses.  They’re the V8 muscle-cars of the horse world and I’m an equine rev-head.  Thoroughbreds are athletes first and foremost, but gallopers, especially those straight off the track, can be challenging to downright dangerous for first timers!  You may also have heard the saying that “you can’t fatten a Thoroughbred”.  That’s not always true, but often, a Thoroughbred won’t do well without supplementary feed.  They also have a lower than average life expectancy than some other breeds.

Arabs are often good doers, are sound and highly intelligent.  They also have memories like elephants.  And that’s for good things and bad.  I’d compare them to highly-tuned rally cars; quick and requiring subtle handling.  Thoroughbreds and Arabs are “hot bloods”.  That means they have certain physical characteristics that allow them to go fast and react even faster.

The label of “warm blood” covers a variety of breeds, so it’s impossible to generalize in about them.  Sometimes they’re called “dumb bloods”, but some are very smart indeed.  Breeds that fall into the “warm blood” category are Trakheners, Cleveland Bays, Appaloosas, Quarterhorses, Paints, Stock Horses and many, many more.

A word of warning about buying a “colored” horse: anything with a skin that would make a good mat is usually going to cost more than a plain horse (bay, black or chestnut), unless there’s something wrong with it.  Sometimes people breed for color rather than functionality and soundness.  Grays are also “solid colored”, but be careful.  Grays are prone to melanoma.  Usually, they’ll die of old age before cancer gets them, but you never know.

“Cold bloods” include the draught breeds.  If all you want is for your horse to pull very heavy weight, then they’re ideal.  I’ve known some wonderful “draughties” that were saddle horses, but their action is designed for pulling weight, rather than covering ground.  They’re also often very large and eat like, er, very large horses.  Shoeing them can also be expensive.  If you’re not using them for their pulling power you might as well buy something lighter.

If you want a horse to do some harness work with and ride there are other options.  Having read this far, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get to the “best-kept secret” part.  Here it is.

“Where can I find a horse that the kids can ride safely, drive in a harness around the farm, and to town to get the groceries?” you ask?  Don’t look further than a Standardbred.  I highly recommend the Standardbred to first-time horse owners and anyone wanting a genuinely versatile all-rounder.  Standardbreds are harness racers.  They are also athletes, but their temperament is usually not as “hot” as that of the Thoroughbred.  Sadly, too many Standies end up as dog-food when they finish racing, because of silly prejudice.  But talk to any horseman and most will admit to having owned or known a Standardbred that they adored.

The average “Standie” off the track is cheap or free, he’s harness broken, if not saddle broken.  He’s usually seen races, crowds, been transported all over the country, had all sorts of gear flapping around him, been shod etc. many times, jogged many miles per day as part of his training and if he comes out at the end of all that physically sound, (which a large number of them do), not much will worry him.  Thoroughbreds are bred to go fast with a jockey on top.  Standardbreds race with a gig attached and more horses and gigs around them, which means they have to be sensible and controllable.

Standardbreds are cheap, but many of them are laterally gaited, efficient at covering ground, and comfortable to ride.  Fashion is only just catching up with them.  You have a choice of the laterally gaited or “conventional” model in the Standardbred.

Not all Standies are gaited.  Some are “square gaiters” which means they walk, trot and canter rather than pace.  Some race as pacers wearing hopples, but don’t gait naturally under saddle.  Some are “free-leggers” and prefer to pace or gait laterally.  To dispel a myth about Standardbreds; even the “free-leggers” can learn to canter well under saddle.

My Standardbred “Australian gaited horses” are much in demand for novice riders or people who need a gentle ride.  I joke that the riders of the Peruvian Pesos (gaited horses) carry a glass of wine on their hats, but the Australian Standardbred rider can carry a schooner of beer on their Akubra! That’s a joke: please don’t EVER get on any horse without wearing a sound helmet which is approved to the current appropriate safety standard!

The horses that have the intelligence, athleticism, and sound conformation to make a top harness racer are the ones that contribute to the gene pool.  So Standardbreds are sane, sensible, slower reacting than a Thoroughbred, an athlete that’s been bred to take the physical pounding that is harness racing and what’s even better, they’re affectionate and lovable! With any breed there are exceptions, but in over 25 years around them, I’m yet to meet a Standardbred that’s truly “flighty” compared to some of the “Terrorbreds” I’ve known.

People are now discovering just how great Standardbreds can be.  There are societies in Australia and the US that list horses and find homes for them.  The Standardbred Pleasure and Performance Horse Association allows people to adopt horses out after racing.  Or go down to your local track and ask around.  Someone will always know of a good horse that needs a home.  The horses that trainers like best and take the time to find homes for are usually the ones that make good family horses.

I know many people who have taken on Standardbreds that have never been ridden and gone on to ride them with no problems without having the horses professionally started under saddle.  As a teenager, I bought a horse that had his last race start on Wednesday, picked him up on Thursday, started him under saddle on Friday, showed him successfully on Saturday and rode him to Pony Club through city traffic on Sunday.  He went on to have a long and successful competition and pleasure career under saddle.  Nowadays I know better than to do that sort of thing, but people still do similarly stupid things with Standardbreds and survive.

There is an old saying “green and green equals black and blue”.  A better option to finding a horse straight from the track is to find one that has already done some work and is proven to fulfill your criteria.

If you choose to buy a horse off the track you should, ideally, have your Standardbred started under saddle by an experienced person who likes working with the breed, then work with the trainer as your horse progresses.   In the long term, that will save time, stress, and possible injury for both you and your horse! It’s still also much cheaper than buying a ready-trained horse of a more fashionable breed.  Be aware though that working with a newly started horse takes time, patience, skill, and common sense and must be done on a regular, frequent basis.  If you haven’t got the time to work with a green horse, buy something that’s had more education and experience.

Currently, I own nine Standardbreds.  At any time, day, night, in any weather, I can go and put a saddle or harness on any of them and take them anywhere reliably with no drama.  I can ride all of them bareback with no bridle safely.  No matter whether they’ve been out of work for months or not, they’re always calm and keen to go places and do things.  They love attention, learn fast, and are often very good with children or nervous riders.  Mine have done street parades, shows, trail-rides with groups of over 50 riders, all sorts of things, and nothing worries them.

What’s even better is that they come in many sizes and colors! They range in height from under 14hh to over 17hh.  While bay is the most common color, there are also chestnuts, grays, blacks, duns, piebalds, and skewbalds.  Standardbreds are also performance horses.  They excel at harness events, but many of them show talent for jumping and dressage.  Some compete successfully in Endurance or speed events like barrel racing.  They’re the true all-rounder of the horse world.  The ultimate in practical recycling is to take an unwanted Standie and give him a home for life where he can be useful and enjoy his work.  The bottom line is that Standardbreds are sensible, affectionate, sound, easy-keeping, intelligent, hardy horses and just fabulous to be around.  They are especially good horses for families.  Standardbreds are THE horse you should consider as your first horse or your farm’s work-horse!

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