A beginner’s guide on how to choose, care for and buy a horse.
A stallion horse rears up in a field with autumn trees in the background.
There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man. — Winston Churchill
Have you been watching your neighbors’ horses grazing in pastures, dreaming of someday owning your own steed? Maybe you rode as a kid, and recent thoughts creep through your mind of grabbing hold of the mane of a mare, swinging up onto her back, bareback, and cutting the throttle loose. For many folks with horse experience, there’s something about the smell of a horse as you bury your face in its fur that conjures up the same earthy and soul-renewing feelings as the smell of freshly mown grass.
But before you succumb to your horse hankerings and start searching for animals on the bulletin board at your local feed store, make sure you’re completely ready for horse ownership.
First things first, before you purchase a horse, know what you would like to do with it once you find the perfect mount and get her home. Do you dream of lazy trail rides, or would you rather chase foxhounds through fields and over streams and fallen logs? Do you want a workhorse to help with field and timber chores? Do you want to work cattle or learn to rope calves? Do you fancy the top hats and tails of dressage riding? Or do you simply want a pasture pet with which you can feed and share your innermost thoughts and feelings?
Horseback activities and uses can be as diverse as the breeds themselves. If you simply want to keep a horse as a pet, or rescue an equine that has fallen victim to the economic times, breed won’t matter as much. But for other uses, working (Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron and Shire), riding (American Quarter Horse, Missouri Fox Trotter, Morgan, Tennessee Walker), racing (Thoroughbred, though this depends on distance and type of race), and on down in size to a pony (Hackney, Shetland, Welsh) and the tiny miniature horse, the choice is yours. Do a little research and see which horse will fit your needs best. You can find the Grit guide to 16 noteworthy breeds in the article Horses of Different Colors.
Before you start, I highly recommend making friends with an experienced horse person who can give you advice. There’s a lot more to owning a horse than just shutting the pasture gate behind it, and a simple question, answered by someone in the know, can save you a ton of heartache and vet bills.
You’ll also need a way to get your horse from its former home to your place, and if you don’t already have a horse trailer (or don’t plan to get one), it’s nice to have a friend who either has one and can haul your new horse home, or maybe just knows someone who can. Besides, it’s just plain fun to have someone to share your new pastime with!
Many avenues exist to buy a horse. Craigslist, your local feed store, and newspapers are good sources. There are also plenty of auctions, but beware, as oftentimes they’re the disposal route for horses with health and behavioral problems. The horse industry is not in great shape right now, so it’s a good time to buy, but be extremely cautious and always try to purchase through an acquaintance first; here’s where that horse buddy or your rural neighbors can help.
As you browse ads, consider the age, size, sex and training of the horse being sold. For someone new to horse ownership, I suggest finding a horse that’s in the neighborhood of 8 to 15 years old. Since a horse reaches full adult development by age 5 and has an average lifespan of 25 to 30 years, a horse 8 to 15 is mature, yet young enough to give you many years of enjoyment and use.
Horses are measured in hands, with each hand being 4 inches. They are measured from the highest point of the withers — the ridge between the shoulder bones, where the neck meets the back — to the ground. Light riding horses average 14 to 16 hands, larger riding horses generally stand 15.2 to 17 hands, and draft horses typically range from 16 to 18 hands. You’ll want to take your height and build into consideration when selecting a horse, so you get a size that works well for you and your body frame.
Generally speaking, geldings, or castrated males, are good-natured, while mares, females that are 4 years and older, can be slightly temperamental. Stallions, or intact males 4 years and older, are oftentimes unpredictable and are extremely dominant and high-spirited. While expert horsemen may be able to handle stallions, people new to equines should stick with geldings or mares.
Look for a gentle horse that’s been well-trained and handled frequently. Talk to the owner to learn how long they’ve owned the horse, what her history is, who trained her, and what they’ve used her for. Ask if she’s easy to catch, what she’s accustomed to eating, if she stands well for grooming, and if she loads into a trailer easily. And don’t be afraid to ask if she has any behavior quirks you should know about.
If an ad says a horse is “spirited” or “needs an experienced rider,” it could very well mean the horse is half wild. These are large and powerful animals, and you want one you can handle with ease and pleasure. If you have children or grandchildren, you especially want to be sure you select a safe mount. It pays to shop around and select carefully, so take your time and find a gentle horse, and the rest will follow.
Once you’ve narrowed down your selection, make an appointment to go look at her — or better yet, look at several. Ask the owner to pick up the horse’s feet to see if she’s at all touchy, and to rub her from head to tail. As they do so, watch her ears; if at any point they lay flat back against her head — a sign that she’s not happy — cross her off your list and move on to the next possibility. If she seems good-natured, you may want to repeat the handling process yourself to get a feel for her and to build your confidence.
Making a second, unscheduled visit on another day is also a good idea. We’d all like to believe that sellers are honest, but, unfortunately, that’s not the case. By showing up unannounced, you’ll be able to see how things are on any given day, and not when a seller knows that a potential buyer is coming.
When you’ve found the one horse that fits all your criteria, find a veterinarian and schedule a pre-purchase exam on the animal. Your vet won’t tell you whether you should buy the horse or not, but he will tell you whether the horse has any medical conditions that could affect her use for your intended purpose. It will then be up to you to determine whether those flaws, if any, are things you can live with.
Somewhere in the purchase process, you’ll also need to find a farrier who can replace your horse’s shoes every eight weeks. Or, if you use your horse only lightly, merely trim and file her feet about that often. Shoeing and trimming vary widely according to geographic location, so call around to get some estimates. This is another area your horse buddy might be able to help.
When you’ve decided on a horse, had the vet examine her, and you’ve got the logistics figured out, ask the horse’s current owner if he’d be willing to let you take the horse home for a week or two and give her a trial run. This is a great way for you to get to know the animal in your surroundings and, if you’re a newbie, to get a hands-on taste for what horse ownership is all about.
If a seller believes you’re seriously interested in buying the horse, he’ll more than likely agree to a trial run. If he doesn’t want you to take her to your place for some reason, ask if you can schedule times to visit and ride on his property so you can get to know her before you buy her. That’s not too much to ask.
If at this point you love everything about the horse, grab your halter and lead rope, head outside and hook up your horse trailer — or call a friend and arrange a ride for your new equine resident — and go get her.
When you pay the seller, always obtain a bill of sale. If your horse is registered with a breed association, also ask for the horse’s transfer of ownership papers, and I recommend checking the description of the horse on the registration papers against the horse in front of you, just to be sure no mix-ups have occurred. Then load up your new horse and take her home. Saddle up and explore those routes you’ve longed to ride.
• Some type of shelter for him to get in out of the weather. This can be a shed, a barn or some other structure. This could also double as your feed storage facility, but make sure your feed isn’t accessible to your horse. An accidental pig-out session can cause many problems for a horse.
• A light source, as you’ll be feeding and watering your horse twice a day, morning and evening. In winter, that may be before or after dark.
• A fenced area for exercise that could also double as a food source — a pen or pasture with sturdy fencing. Because horses are basically flight animals, horses and barbed wire are a dangerous combination. Board or pipe fencing are best, but there are many commercial livestock fencing products that will work as well.
• A manger and grain bucket to feed hay and grain in so it will stay fresh and off the ground. If you use a bucket, secure it to a fence post or stall wall so you can remove it easily for cleaning. Dog-leash-type clips work well when attached to a sturdy eye bolt on the wall end and the bucket on the other end. Avoid leaving exposed nails anywhere a horse has access.
• A bucket or water trough that will hold at least part of the 10 to 25 gallons of water your horse will drink each day, depending on weather and exercise levels. If you’re using a bucket for water, follow the attachment procedure for the grain bucket. Also, if you live in a cold climate, you may want to use a heater during the winter months to keep the water from freezing.
• A source for that water — preferably not your kitchen sink or bathtub. Water weighs 8.34 pounds per gallon, so a 5-gallon bucket will weigh more than 40 pounds when full. A water hydrant in close proximity to the trough is a great investment.
• Grooming supplies, including a soft brush for your horse’s face, a stiffer brush for his body, a rubber and/or metal currycomb to remove dried mud from his coat, and a hoof pick to clean out the soles of his feet.
• Tack, including a halter and lead rope to get your horse from one place to another or to tie him up for grooming, tacking up — saddling and bridling — shoeing and veterinary care.
• A saddle, blanket and bridle. These come in several styles, including Western, English and dressage. Be sure to find a saddle and bridle that fits the horse comfortably and is a comfortable fit for you as well.
• Expendables, including hay and grain, and a salt/mineral block for free-choice licking. The average horse will eat a bale of hay, not to be confused with straw, every two to five days, depending on his size, exercise level, the weather, and whether or not he’s an easy keeper. It’s most economical to buy from a farmer in large quantities, if possible. Grain may be optional, but if you use your horse a lot and find he’s losing weight and condition, oats or a sweet feed mix will provide supplemental calories and nutrients. It’s a good idea to keep grain in a rodent-proof bin of some sort, such as a garbage can or an old chest freezer.
• Clean-up tools, including a manure fork or rake, a scoop shovel for bedding and stall cleaning, a wheelbarrow for transporting manure from the stable to the compost pile, and a broom for sweeping up.
Former editor of Appaloosa Journal magazine, Diane Rice now lives in Lewiston, Idaho, where she gardens, raises rabbits and tends a small flock of laying hens in her less-than-500-square-foot in-town yard.
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