A guide to buying your first horse or pony
Buying a horse can be harder than buying a second-hand car. You need it to be in good working order but it also has to be safe to ride.
A vet can check the general health and fitness of the horse but assessing it for suitability and personality is down to you. Don’t worry, the following tips will help you find your perfect match.
Firstly, you need to decide what sort of riding you intend doing. Many first-time horse owners want to enjoy hacking around local roads with the occasional canter through fields and maybe progressing to a bit of jumping here and there. In this instance, safety is paramount as you don’t want to frighten yourself with a horse that is too ‘flighty’.
What type of breed?
It’s worth taking time to research the traits of different breeds of horse as they are all bred for different disciplines.
An example would be a Thoroughbred. They are gorgeous to look at but built for speed and therefore highly sought after for horse-racing. Asking them to potter around on quiet rides and not fizz up when encouraged to have a canter is not going to work well. They are also very lightly built (again, this works well for making them as fast as possible) but for everyday use, it can cause issues with their fragile legs not coping well with the pounding of roads. Thoroughbreds are also renowned for having poor quality hooves which can give rise to problems keeping shoes on. They are not good in muddy fields and need stabling during the winter months.
A Welsh Cob, on the other hand, is a much heavier build. They have very sturdy legs and strong hooves which can save costly shoeing bills. Bred to withstand the harsh weather of the Welsh mountains, they can live outside all year round with a good rug. Their stocky build is not designed for speed which makes them better suited to steadier riding. They can carry more weight than Thoroughbreds and are much easier to look after. They have thick skin as opposed to the more fragile skin of a Thoroughbred. This makes them less susceptible to injuries and rub marks from girths etc.
In between the lightweight Thoroughbred and heavier weight Cob is the Connemara. They are not as thickset as the Cob but have stronger legs than the Thoroughbred and denser coats and tougher skin making them less susceptible to injuries than the fine race-horse types. The Connemara can suit riders who want something a bit more forward-going than most Cobs but still require a sensible horse.
Apart from these types of horse, there are many other choices, all with traits specific to their breeds. Cross-breeds can be a great mix of characteristics but the wrong mix can be disastrous!
Having narrowed down your search, you can start investigating where to buy your horse from.
This falls into two categories; a horse dealer or a private seller.
Unfortunately like some second-hand car dealers, a few horse dealers are not reputable and will do their best to sell on a horse that is either unsafe or unwell. Check reviews online to ensure you don’t make that mistake. Personal recommendation is always good.
Private sellers are not always ethical either but there a few things you can do to help make your experience a positive one.
Firstly, don’t let your heart rule your head. You may ‘fall in love’ with the picture of a horse for sale but don’t raise your expectations. Be prepared to take the process slowly and walk away if you have any doubts at all. It is too big a financial and emotional commitment to rush into a decision.
Your preliminary step is to speak to the seller and ask them why their horse is for sale. Has a teenager grown out of the horse or are they leaving for University and sadly recognising they won’t have time to ride any more? Maybe the sale is for completely different reasons. It’s definitely worth asking.
The age of the horse is important too. If you buy a horse upwards of 8 years old, it will have experience and will have lost much of the immature behaviour you expect in a younger animal. A horse over 20 years of age is probably not going to want to race around and could come with health issues.
Consider asking the seller some of these questions: –
What sort of riding have you been using the horse for?
How long have you owned the horse?
Are you sad to be selling it?
Is the horse easy to catch?
Does the horse kick/bite?
Does it live alone or in company?
Is it stabled/living out all/part of the year?
Is it good in traffic?
Is it strong to ride/soft in the mouth?
Has it had any health problems?
Is it shod or does it run barefoot?
Is it good with the farrier?
Does it buck/rear/bolt?
What does it eat? (Some horses exist well on good quality hay others need hard feed to keep condition, especially during the winter)
Does it like being brushed/fussed over?
Does it load well in either a trailer or lorry and is it calm to travel?
Assuming you are satisfied with the answers you have been given, it is time to arrange to meet the horse and the owner. If you intend keeping your horse out at grass, ask if the owner could leave the horse in the paddock for you to help catch and get in to then brush, tack up etc. This way you can test whether the horse is happy to be caught and prepared for riding.
When you arrive, assess the surroundings. Are they what you would expect or do they fall below the standard you would set yourself? Does it feel nice? Trust your instincts.
First impressions are important. If the horse looks suitable, make a fuss of it in the way you would do if you owned it. Press down it’s spine to check it doesn’t dip away with apparent pain. Ask whether it is safe to go around the back of the horse, maybe ask the owner to show you before trying it yourself. When grooming the horse, feel down its legs for lumps and bumps and pick up each of its feet to ensure it doesn’t mind. Have a look at its hooves to see if they look healthy and strong. White hooves have a tendency to be weaker than brown ones.
Time to tack up
When you tack up, see if there is any discomfort as you put the bit in his/her mouth. If there is, it can be a sign of teeth problems. Some horses can be head-shy if they have experienced ill treatment in their younger days. With careful handling, this can come right in time.
If the owner is reluctant to have the horse near a fence or stable door, it may be that the horse is prone to ‘crib bite’ or ‘wind suck’. This is an annoying habit thought to be caused by stress in its past. It involves the horse taking hold of a fence rail or stable door and sucking in air. This trait can devalue a horse as it can make it harder to keep condition on the animal. It may not bother you but it will make it harder to sell in the future.
Having tacked up, ask the owner to ride for you. Ideally, choose a route to encompass every type of riding that you will want to do yourself. This may need a little forward planning and perhaps require you to take a bicycle to keep up. Ask to see the horse ridden on the road in similar traffic to what you would be faced with at home and get them to take the horse into a field for a canter and gallop. Maybe ask them to demonstrate a jump or two if that is what you want to be doing. Watch the rider carefully to assess whether they are fighting the animal at all and whether they look at ease. Once you are happy that everything looks safe, ask to get on yourself. Sit for a moment and see if you immediately feel comfortable and trust the horse. If you don’t, get off. If you do, start off slowly and build up gradually to a canter etc. When you have finished, if you can’t stop smiling, then you have chosen well.
Last but not least
Before making a final decision to buy, ask a vet to do a 5-star vetting to assess for any problems. This is not cheap but it will help to safeguard your money and save potentially expensive vets’ bills in the future and potentially a horse you can’t ride or sell on.
Ask to see the horse’s passport which will show you the age of the horse, any identifying features, its bloodline and recent vaccinations. Check it matches the horse you are viewing.
Don’t part with any money until you are 100% confident everything is legitimate. Be sure to get a receipt for your purchase.
Owning a horse is a huge responsibility but the most wonderful fun if you choose wisely.