Choosing a Horse That's Right for You

Choosing a horse that is right for you should be a lengthy decision that is well thought out. Wait until you’ve found the right one and don’t purchase impulsively.

Buying A Horse

Your chances for finding a horse in the town where you live are slim. You will most likely have to do some searching online or elsewhere before you find the right one.

Photo by Daniel Johnson

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Want to raise a healthy, happy horse, but don’t know where to begin? Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson provide an essential primer of horse ownership in How to Raise Horses (Voyageur Press, 2011), explaining things for both beginner and veteran horse owners. This excerpt, which explains the best methods for finding a personally suitable horse for sale, is from Chapter 2, “Choosing Your Horse.”

Choosing a Horse That's Right for You

If you’ve already settled on a specific breed to purchase, the choice between a registered horse and a grade (unregistered) horse may be irrelevant. You may have already decided that a registered Quarter Horse is the only option you’re interested in so that you may show at Quarter Horse shows and possibly raise a purebred, registered foal in the future. In that instance, your choice is already made. But what if you’re only planning to show locally at open shows and you have no plans to breed? Do you really need a registered animal, or would a grade horse be perfectly suitable?

Backyard family horses that will be used for pleasure and enjoyment can come in all shapes and sizes and don’t need to be accompanied by registration papers. A grade horse can often be less expensive than a registered one, which is appealing to many first-time horse buyers. Resale values on registered horses tend to be higher than those of grade horses, which is an important consideration if you think you’re eventually going to move up to a different horse.

For many disciplines, a registered horse is not necessary in order to compete, but breed shows typically require registered animals. If you have any inclination to raise foals in the future, using registered stock will probably result in foals that have a higher dollar value than foals from grade parents. There are people who feel that only registered animals should be used as breeding stock, but many others feel that they are able to achieve satisfactory results with grade stock, as in the case of those breeding for the sport pony or sport horse markets, which are often produced using grade or crossbred animals. The expenses to keep a horse are the same whether it is registered or not, so many people feel that it is worth the additional purchase cost to increase the value of their investment. If you’re looking to purchase a registered horse, it’s always important to ask if the seller is in possession of the horse’s registration papers. Even if a horse is advertised as registered, it’s possible that the registration papers are lost or were never transferred from a previous owner. In these instances, registered animals with no proof of registration are of no greater value than a grade horse if the registration cannot be provided.

Horse Size

Size is an important consideration when choosing your horse. Some people may discourage you from purchasing a horse that is too small for its rider, yet many people tend to overlook the opposite and end up purchasing a horse that is too big for them, which is every bit as unsuitable. One common mistake is to assume that you need a larger horse than you really do. A 14.3-hand horse may be considered small, but it’s still a very large animal and big enough to be intimidating to a novice. There is virtually no practical difference in the athletic capabilities between horses that are within a few inches of each other in height.

It can be difficult to visualize the true size of a horse in terms of height and weight. If you are at all unsure, try visiting a boarding/riding stable and ask to be shown horses of various sizes so you can get close to each one and determine what height you are most comfortable around. Many people (particularly children) will pick an arbitrary size for their potential horse (“Must be at least 16 hands” or “Absolutely no smaller than 15 hands”) without having any practical idea of what that size represents or what they really need.

If you’re purchasing a family horse to use for pleasure riding on trails it really makes no difference whether you purchase a 14-hand pony or a 15.3- hand horse, except that the pony would have the advantage of being a more universal size for a family of various experience levels and abilities. Quiet, smaller ponies are always in high demand, as there is no better match for a beginner child than a sensible, well-trained pony of 12 to 13 hands. Young riders can learn the basics of handling, saddling, bridling, brushing, picking out hooves, mounting, and riding on an animal that is precisely sized to fit them.

Unfortunately ponies have an undeserved reputation for being stubborn and lazy, but this stereotype is largely exaggerated. Well-trained ponies with good dispositions are a marvelous choice for a family.

How to Measure a Horse

The height of a horse is measured in hands. One hand equals four inches. The term “hand” dates back to the time when a man estimated the size of a horse based on the width of his own hand, which he could use as a gauge when examining a horse.

When measuring a horse, bring him to a safe, level, firm surface, such as the barn aisle. Don’t measure him in his stall as the depth of his bedding (which he is standing on) may throw off the reading. Have him stand fairly square, especially in the front. It helps to have someone else hold the horse while you measure. A specialized stick, available in most tack shops, will give the best reading. Measure from the ground to the point at the top of the withers, while taking care to keep the stick perpendicular to the ground. Some measuring sticks have a small bubble level that will assist you in taking an accurate measurement. The top of a horse’s withers can be difficult to judge at times, so it may help to have someone encourage the horse to lower his head and neck as this will make the withers stand out more prominently. Take a few different readings if you’re having trouble and average them out.

Horse Breeds: Mare, Gelding or Stallion?

Your decision to choose a mare, stallion, or a gelding will depend upon your plans for the horse. Obviously, if you’re starting up a breeding operation, then a gelding is not going to work for you. However, if you’re looking for a good, family horse that will take the kids on trail rides, then a gelding may be the perfect choice.

Geldings are the preferred choice of some horse owners. Geldings are castrated males and are noted for their steady temperament, because they are not as prone to hormonal mood changes as mares and stallions can be. Geldings can sometimes be less expensive than mares or stallions, especially if you purchase one that is young or has had limited training.

Experts generally agree that a stallion is not a wise choice for the novice horse owner. Stallions can be unpredictable, strong, and require a confident, capable, experienced handler. While there are certainly stallions of all breeds that have gentle, quiet dispositions and can be handled by most members of the family, they are the exception rather than the rule.

Mares are also a good choice for the average owner. The majority of mares are as easy as geldings to work with and be around. Some people do complain of mare-ish behavior when the mare is in heat. Acting mare-ish can include an inability to concentrate and a change in disposition (suddenly placid and sweet or suddenly cranky), which lasts for the duration of the mare’s cycle (5–9 days). It must be noted, however, that this is not an across-the- board phenomenon and many mares display no outward signs or changes when they are in heat. Again, if you’re thinking of doing small-scale horse breeding, mares are a necessary component. Some families will choose a quality mare for their children to ride and enjoy and will later use her as a broodmare. Thus, it’s important to keep future possibilities in mind when choosing a horse. If you think you might possibly use a mare as a broodmare in the future, make sure that she is of good quality, conformation, and type for her breed, in addition to the other attributes that you’re considering for her present use (good disposition, trainability, and soundness).

It’s possible that a mare will retain her value better than a gelding. In the event that a gelding becomes injured (to the point that he is no longer sound enough to ride), his value greatly decreases. However, a mare in the same situation can go on to a successful second career as a broodmare, producing foals and retaining her value for a longer period of time.

Some owners feel that mares have more personality than geldings do, try harder while working, and are more sensitive to their riders. On the other hand, some people feel the exact opposite, that geldings are more consistent and put in a better day’s work than mares.

Finally, it’s important to remember that some people have a personal preference. Some people love mares and would never have anything else. Others are smitten with geldings and love their steady personalities. Some experienced horse owners prefer owning their own stallion and enjoy the challenges of maintaining and promoting him, though again, this is not recommended for a novice or beginning horse owner.

Understanding these differences is vital to making the right choice for your situation and having a good relationship with the horse you purchase. A good rule of thumb is to remember that if you’re a total novice with horses, a gelding is a good choice. It’s very rare to come across someone who believes they are a total novice with horses, but we know you’re out there. When it comes to horses, it’s always good not to overestimate your ability.

The Age of a Horse Is Important

Foals are undeniably adorable and many people feel irresistibly drawn to their charm. While it’s natural to want something so adorable for your very own, it’s good to think through your plans and goals for the horse before you purchase one. If you’re looking to ride, whether it’s pleasure riding or showing, you must keep in mind that it will be several years before your foal is old enough to be started under saddle, and then even more time must elapse before he will be trained enough for a beginner. You also must consider whether you have the expertise to train a young horse. If not, you’ll need to factor in the cost of training. A better option might be to purchase a well-trained mare that you can use in performance right away, which will give you the option of breeding her later.

Young horses appeal to some buyers because they can be much less expensive than a mature, trained horse, but it’s vital to consider the amount of time and money that must be invested in a young horse. There is the cost of raising the horse until he is of an age to begin training, the cost of the training itself, not to mention the time and attention necessary to make sure that your young horse is well-handled and raised correctly.

Experienced horse owners often enjoy selecting a young horse (yearling, two-year-old, or three-year-old), raising it, training it, and reaping rewards later on. But this is a complicated process that requires expertise and patience and is not recommended for the person choosing his or her first horse.

Most experts agree that the first horse for a novice horse owner should be at least eight years old. There are certainly horses younger than eight that might be a perfectly suitable match for a novice, but it is typically advisable to purchase a horse that is at least five years of age, and preferably over eight.

Don’t overlook an older horse, especially if you’re a novice. A horse in its late teens or early twenties can still give you several years of enjoyment and you’ll benefit from purchasing a horse with many years of prior experience. However, an older horse may be more prone to health issues so make sure you get a pre-purchase physical exam before you decide to buy the horse.

Keep in mind that age is not a foolproof guide to finding a quiet, well-trained first horse. A well-trained, quiet 5-year-old would probably be a better choice than a 12-year-old that was broke to ride at three years old and then turned out to pasture for the last nine years. While age can be a good gauge, it is not the only aspect to consider. It’s wise to look at the whole picture before making your decision.

Horse Temperament

Considered by many to be the single most important characteristic when choosing a horse, temperament is a vital consideration when you’re horse shopping. For a novice owner, a quiet, sensible, well-trained horse is worth its weight in gold. You will want to shop carefully to make sure that you don’t buy a horse with any temperament issues.

Horses have personalities. I personally prefer a horse that “thinks” and has an endearing personality (friendly, happy to see you), while other people prefer horses that mind their own business. Others like a sassy horse. At the risk of over-simplifying, you can generally classify horses into two categories: ones that are easy to live with and the troublemakers.

Characteristics of Easy Going Horses

• Can be safely turned out to pasture with other horses.
• Can be bathed, clipped, tied, loaded, and dewormed without breaking your bones or theirs.
• Don’t chew wood and won’t chew your barn down.
• Are happy eaters.
• Are easy to catch.
• Are “bombproof,” unflappable, not easily spooked by everyday objects, such as a water bucket.
• Would never dream of biting or kicking.

Characteristics of an Ill-Tempered Horse

• Fighting with other horses at pasture; a bullytype personality.
• Require twitching or sedation to bathe, clip, and deworm; may also be difficult to tie or load.
• Chew wood/cribbing.
• May be nervous eaters, suspicious of any change in diet.
• Are hard to catch; you haven’t touched him since the day you bought him, or the only view you ever get of him is his backside.
• Are easily spooked; the kind that jumps if you move your wheelbarrow to a new spot.
• May bite or kick.

These are obviously generalizations and you may or may not be bothered by these distinctions. Additionally, the characteristics above only describe basic temperament. You will want a patient, gentle, kind, quiet horse for your family, and without these fundamental characteristics, your search should continue until you find a horse with these qualities. A more difficult situation is a young filly that resists the pressure on her halter and attempts to pull backward. It may take some careful handling before she learns to lead properly.

Horse Discipline

If you have a specific discipline in mind that you’d like to pursue, such as dressage, driving, or barrel racing, you’ll want to find a horse that has natural ability, the proper build, and training in that area. It would be a poor decision to purchase a horse trained and proven in the hunter ring if your goal is to do barrel racing. Similarly, if you’re looking for a broodmare for a breeding program, you wouldn’t want to purchase a 20-year-old maiden mare (one that has never had a foal).

Specific disciplines are often associated with certain breeds. For instance, Quarter Horses and Paints are well known in Western riding, while Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods often excel in English disciplines.

If you’re purchasing a horse for a horse-crazy child, he or she may not care what the horse is or does, just as long as it has four legs, a mane, and a tail. However, as a parent, you must be the voice of reason. Explain to your child that he or she will be much happier with a horse that is suitable for its intended discipline. Find an expert (trainer, breeder, or judge) in the discipline that you’re considering and ask that person if he or she will give you specific things to look for in a horse that will be suitable for its job.

Where to Look to Find a Horse

Bulletin Boards

Stop by any feed store, tack shop, or show barn and you won’t be able to resist taking a peek at the bulletin board. Ads, photos, flyers, and phone numbers are available for the horse shopper to peruse. Advertisements are typically limited to a short period of time so you can be sure that the ads you’re viewing are relatively current and local.

If you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for on the board, you can post a “wanted” sign detailing your horse specifications, price range, and contact info. Bulletin boards tend to get a lot of exposure, so someone may see your sign and contact you with a possibility. Keep checking the bulletin board as new ads are posted often. Even if some of the ads aren’t applicable to your current search, you can still enjoy looking over the stallions at stud, puppies for sale, used saddles, outgrown show clothes, and other horse items while you search for the horse of your dreams.

Word of Mouth

Spreading the word to your horse friends that you’re shopping for a horse can be enough to get you some good leads. Trainers, veterinarians, farriers, and feed-store owners can all be good sources of knowledge about what is available locally and might be able to point you in the direction of a suitable choice. In some instances, your friend may know the horse personally and be able to give you first-hand information on whether or not it would be appropriate for you. Trainers can be excellent sources of contacts in your area and can give insight on a particular animal based upon their educated opinion. It has been said that the best horses are never actually listed for sale because they are sold quickly through word of mouth before they have been on the market long enough to appear in ads. Sometimes sellers will be more inclined to negotiate the asking price if they sell the horse quickly through word of mouth before they have had to spend any money on advertising.

Looking for a Horse on the Internet

The world is at your fingertips when you’re horse shopping on the Internet. Horse classified websites reach thousands of shoppers every day and offer a vast selection of horses and ponies for sale. You can search for specific breeds, certain sizes, or particular colors, or you can search by bloodlines, training level, attributes, location, or price. If the ad doesn’t have a photo, you can contact the seller to request one, which he or she is typically able to send via email. In addition, organizations and associations usually have locations on their websites for advertisements from their members that you can browse.

If you are searching for a particular breed or only wishing to look locally, a search on Google can bring up dozens of possibilities. For instance, if you type “Welsh Pony, mare, Wisconsin, for sale” into a search engine, it will bring up several links to classified sites with Welsh Pony mares for sale in Wisconsin, as well as breeders of Welsh Ponies and links to Welsh stallions at stud. Similarly, a search for “Appaloosa gelding, for sale, Texas” will bring up numerous classified listings that meet the criteria, including breeders of Appaloosas in Texas and message boards where Appaloosa enthusiasts meet to chat about their breed and list horses for sale. If you want results that are even more specific, try adding in other attributes, such as registered, bombproof, or sound.

Since you might not find exactly what you’re looking for on the first try, you can bookmark a particular search on an Internet classifieds site and check back every few days to look at the new listings. It saves time and allows you to only look through the ads that interest you.

Breeder’s websites can be particularly helpful because they often contain a wealth of information for the buyer to read. In addition to the information and photos on the horses for sale, you can also look at their stallion and mare pages, view show records, explore the farm’s history, and see photos of the horse’s relatives. All of this information can give you a good feel for the areas that the breeder’s stock excel in and help you determine whether they are producing the type of individual you’re seeking.

Horses in Magazines’ Classified Sections

Flip to the back of any horse magazine and you’ll find a selection of classified ads. Most are arranged by breed so if you have a specific one in mind you’ll be able to quickly locate the ads that are pertinent to your search. Major newsstand magazines typically have classifieds that are geared toward offerings from breeders, as opposed to horses for sale from single horse owners or discipline-based ads. Magazines representing specific disciplines (dressage, driving, hunters, Western) will have classifieds that are strongly based upon their readership’s interests. Regional or state publications are terrific for helping you locate breeders and sellers in your area. Most states have a horse publication of some sort, as do most breed associations, so if you are looking for a specific breed or particular location, these publications can be a vital asset in your search.

One important thing to keep in mind, whether you’re looking at magazine or Internet ads, is the hidden meaning of the phrases in the ads. Obviously, the ad is going to highlight the horse’s positive points and will usually not mention anything negative. However, I’ve personally learned to be leery of any animal labeled “smart,” or “sensitive,” or anything that “needs an experienced rider/handler.” These can be polite ways of saying that the horse is jumpy, nervous, easily upset, pushy, or possibly dangerous and not a good choice for the novice owner.

Buying a Horse from Video

If you’re searching on the Internet, it’s very possible that you may find the perfect horse halfway across the country. It’s also possible that you will find one only a few hours away. But either way, you will want to have a little more information before committing to making the trip to see the horse in person. In this case, you can request, or the seller may offer, a video.

Videos of horses for sale can vary. Some will be short and only a couple of minutes long, while others will contain a half-hour of footage of the horse in various situations. Obviously longer is better as it will give you the most thorough evaluation of the horse you’re considering. Much of the video’s contents will depend on your intended use for the horse. If you’re purchasing an older mare as a prospective broodmare, you will hopefully receive footage of her standing, untacked, to evaluate her conformation. You would also want to see footage of her being led to and from the camera at a walk and trot with a clear view of her legs to verify that they are correct structurally. This would be followed by footage at liberty to see her movement. If the mare has already produced foals it would be ideal to receive footage of them to get an idea of whether she reproduces herself and if her foals are higher or lesser quality than their dam.

Purchasing a trained horse is more complicated because you will want to see footage of the horse being saddled; lunged; ridden at the walk, trot, and canter; and footage showing a willingness to halt and back. If you’re looking for a trail horse, it would be helpful to see the horse out on the trails. Watch for how he reacts to strange situations, spooky objects, and unexpected sights. Similarly, if you’re looking for a prospective hunter, you’ll want to see how the horse navigates a course of jumps, his form over fences, and his style and regularity of gaits.

Some sellers will have the video already prepared in advance, in which case you won’t have a choice as to what footage is offered. If the seller will make the video exactly to your specifications, you can request that certain segments be included. Ask to see footage of the horse being handled and led, standing tied, and other footage at liberty.

Watch the video several times over the course of a few days to give you time to really examine the footage you have been provided. If possible, have an experienced friend evaluate the horse. He or she may notice something that you did not. Don’t purchase on impulse. Even though the horse may seem absolutely perfect, you should never let excitement prompt you into making a rush decision. Take your time, think it over, ask more questions if necessary, and then make your decision. What may seem like the perfect choice on Tuesday morning could turn into an “I don’t think he’s quite right” decision on Thursday after you’ve thoroughly weighed your pros and cons. Try to avoid being swayed by seller tactics because he or she may try to pressure you into making a quick decision by informing you that there are other buyers ready to buy the horse. Some sellers use these tactics to push you into making a decision before you’re ready. Don’t rush! Making the right decision is more important than making a quick one. You don’t want to regret your choice.

Some people would never consider purchasing entirely from a video without having seen the horse in person, while others have had excellent success with their video purchases. It really is a personal decision, and will depend on what you are comfortable with. It’s your money and your horse so you must feel satisfied with your decision. If you do your homework, ask a lot of questions, and thoroughly research your purchase, you should have no reason to be disappointed when your new horse steps off the trailer and you meet him for the first time.

Want to learn more about buying, riding and raising horses? Try these other articles:

Training, Showing and Learning to Ride a Horse
Buying Your First Horse


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How to Raise Horses: Everything You Need to Know, by Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson, and published by Voyageur Press, 2013.