A Parents’ Guide to Choosing Horses for Children

Last weekend, I had the privilege of judging a local 4-H horse show.  Part of the show included a conformation class for the 4-Hers doing a horseless project, where the 4-Hers and I judged a halter class of four horses.  At the conclusion of the class, I turned in my placings and the 4-Hers turned in theirs, and then they were graded based upon how closely their placings matched mine.  Wanting to make sure that the 4-Hers understood why I placed the class the way I did, I walked them through the conformation of each horse and how it would likely impact that horse’s performance under saddle. 

At the lunch break, a father of one of the girls mentioned to me that he had been listening closely to the conformation explanation because he was considering buying a horse for his daughter.  Like many parents of children interested in horses, he could see how being in 4-H and being around horses was benefiting his daughter, and he wanted to take that next step of buying her a horse. 

Here’s what I suggested to him:

(1) Enroll your child in regular riding lessons (at least once a week) with a reputable trainer or instructor. 

(2) Help your child become a member of the local 4-H horse club or local chapter of the U.S. Pony Club.  You can get more information about your local 4-H horse clubs by calling your county’s cooperative extension service.  Both 4-H and Pony Club offer a wealth of opportunities for you and your child to learn about horses and develop their horsemanship and leadership skills in a safe, encouraging environment.  These clubs are designed as family activities and as a parent, you can (and should!) volunteer and learn along with your children.  Note that you need not actually own a horse to join either of these organizations.

(3) If your child demonstrates a sustainable interest in horses and you find that weekly riding lessons do not provide enough “horse time” for your child, consider a full or partial lease of a horse for at least six months.  Leasing is an arrangement in which you pay either a fixed fee or a portion of the horse’s expenses in exchange for riding time on that horse.  In the typical full lease, you take over all of the horse’s expenses and care responsibilities, and in a typical partial lease, the owner remains primarily responsible for these items.  Ask your child’s instructor or trainer to recommend a leasing situation for you.  ELS offers lease agreement forms that clarify the owner’s and the lessee’s responsibilities.

(4) If even leasing a horse does not provide enough “horse time” for your child, only then should you consider actually purchasing a horse or pony.  Deciding to purchase a horse or pony is a huge commitment, a lot like going from owning a dog to having a baby. 

Horse Budgets

Parents often ask me how much they should spend on a horse for their child.  The answer really depends upon what you want your child to achieve with that horse.  If your child just wants to go out and have fun, and compete at a local level, you should be able to find a suitable horse for $5,000 or less (with some variance based upon the local horse market in your area).  If your child has more serious competitive aspirations, consult with your child’s instructor regarding what you should expect to spend for a suitable horse.  Keep in mind that your family’s first horse can be a “starter horse” – a horse that is safe for your child and will help them learn basic horsemanship skills.  Even if your child eventually wants to compete at a national or world level, your child’s first horse doesn’t have to be the horse that will take them to the top.  

Now, one important thing to know is that the initial purchase price of the horse is just a small fraction of the ongoing expenses you can expect to incur.  Here are some of the items you should budget for on a monthly basis, in the approximate order of magnitude:

(1)   Board[1]

(2)   Lessons[2]

(3)   Competitions[3]

(4)   Farrier[4]

(5)   Veterinarian[5]

(6)   Tack and Equipment[6]

(7)   Feed and Supplements[7]

(8)   Bedding[8]

(9)   Miscellaneous[9]

You should ask your instructor to help you create a realistic budget, and you can benchmark with other parents as a reality check.

What Kind of Horse Should You Buy?

As a parent, your number one priority should be your child’s safety.  You want to buy Old Reliable for your child – a horse that is well-trained, well-mannered and kind, with a quiet, steady temperament.  Your first horse should be one that nearly anyone can handle and ride.  If it isn’t, your child will stop having fun and might even become fearful. 

A shy older teen at our barn used to come out and ride her grade gelding nearly every day.  He was well over 20 years old and the epitome of Old Reliable – she could hop on him bareback with a halter and lead rope and ride around the parking lot, take him out on the trail with others or by herself. She had a lot of fun with him and you could see her self-confidence grow.  This horse wasn’t conventionally beautiful, but he had a heart of gold.  When the horse passed away, the girl’s father helped her select a new horse.  They chose a fancy pinto half-Arabian mare, about four years old and not very well-broken to ride.  The mare is spirited and has an independent nature, and she threw the teen a few times when she tried to ride her.  Now I rarely see the teen out at the barn and instead, I see her father coming up a few times a week to exercise the horse in turnout or in the round pen. The mare, who was fairly spoiled to begin with, is starting to act dangerous, running over the father and not respecting his personal space.  I worry about this teen and hope that she is involved in team sports at school or other activities that can help take the place of horses in building her self-confidence.

Temperament, Temperament, Temperament!

Temperament should be the single most important factor in your horse-buying decision.  Old Reliable will be kind, gentle, quiet and calm and won’t kick or bite.  Your family will make mistakes in handling and riding your new horse, and you want him to be tolerant and forgiving, a gentle teacher.  Old Reliable should easily allow your child, no matter how inexperienced, to do the following things with minimal adult help (although an adult should supervise): catch the horse in the pasture or stall, halter the horse, lead the horse to the grooming area, tie the horse up, groom the horse, pick out its hooves, saddle, bridle and mount the horse. 

Let your instincts be your guide – even you as a novice can tell a lot before anyone even rides the horse!  Does the horse walk quietly and slowly with your child, and wait patiently for your child to tie it up, or does it prance ahead or try to use your child as a scratching post?  Does the horse stand still for grooming and saddling, or does it swing its body all over the place?  Does the horse wait quietly for your child to tighten the girth and mount, or does it step off just as your child is putting her foot in the stirrup?  Does it pin its ears and wring its tail, or does it wait patiently for your child to finish the job at hand?

Here is a very simple test for temperament that I have found to be a very reliable indicator. When you go to look at a horse, bring a jacket with you (any kind of jacket).  While the seller is riding the horse, place the jacket on the fence of the area where the horse is being ridden.  If it’s an open area, place the jacket on the ground.  Note the horse’s reaction to the jacket – does he casually notice the jacket and go right on by, or does he screech to a halt or jump sideways?  You want a horse to notice the jacket and even be casually interested in it, but not afraid of it.  He should go right past the jacket without snorting or eye rolling.  Personally, even though I’ve been riding for over 30 years, I won’t buy a horse that doesn’t pass this test – life is just too short to have to convince your horse that demons are not in fact lurking behind every rock and muck bucket.

Does Size Matter?

Many parents ask whether they should buy a pony for their child because it is more size-appropriate.  My personal opinion is that the size of the horse is absolutely irrelevant.  Even a small pony can be a terror, and the largest horse can be very gentle and quiet.  Choose a horse for your child based upon temperament, not size.  Also keep in mind that as your child grows, he or she may outgrow a pony or small horse, but they will likely never outgrow a good-sized horse.  If the horse is too large for your child to mount or saddle without help, they can use a mounting block.  As a small child, I took lessons from Patty Miller in the Dayton, Ohio area and rode a big draft cross named Danny Boy, who stood patiently every time while I dragged a rusty metal folding chair across the aisle and climbed up on it to saddle him up. I much preferred Danny over Beauty, the pretty palomino Shetland pony, who was just my size, but never passed up an opportunity to get the better of her small riders.

What Breed Should I Buy?

Much like dogs, horses have been selectively bred for generations to develop particular breeds with particular characteristics.  Certain breeds tend to be quieter and more docile, such as Quarter horses, Paint horses and many types of draft horses.  Other breeds tend to be more spirited, such as Arabians and Thoroughbreds.  However, there are outstanding examples of quiet, docile horses as well as highly spirited horses in every breed.  Your child’s instructor can help recommend the right breed(s) for you.

How Much Does Age Matter?

I recommend to all first-time horse buyers that their ideal horse is probably 10-20 years old. Younger horseably aren’t quiet and experienced enough for a first-time horse owner.  Horses can live to 30 years plus with good care, so don’t exclude older horses from your search – your veterinarian will be able to advise you on an older horse’s prospects for long-term health and soundness.  Some parents dream of buying a young horse for their child so that they can “grow up together,” but that is rarely a good idea.  More often, the young horse runs roughshod over the inexperienced family, and becomes a 1200-lb. dangerous spoiled brat.

Age vs. Experience

By itself, age is not always a reliable indicator of training and experience. You want a horse who has been there, done that - well-trained and very experienced under saddle. There are older horses out there who have been “pasture puffs” and have little riding history.  Steer clear of any horse that is advertised as “needs finishing” or “green.”  Choose a horse that is currently doing exactly what you want him to do.  For example, if trail riding interests your child, choose a horse that is a very experienced trail horse.  As my mother, Mary Kosmal (a riding instructor herself) often says, “Well, one of them has to know something, and it might as well be the horse!” 

Gelding or Mare?

Although there are many quiet mares out there who never show signs of being in season, I personally prefer geldings, because as a general rule, they tend to be more reliable and less moody.  Under no circumstances should you purchase a stallion for your child.  The classic black stallion books by Walter Farley are works of fiction, and in real life, the black probably would have seriously injured or killed Alec, his young admirer, even though he might not mean to do so.

Should I Care About Color?

In a word, NO!  There is an often-quoted saying that “a good horse doesn’t have a bad color,” and with a few small exceptions, I think it is true.  Your child may have his or her heart set on a particular color, such as a palomino or black and white pinto, but you should discourage this type of thinking, as it will shrink the list of potential horses and may serve to exclude a horse that would otherwise be perfect for your family.  Once the horse is at home and delighting your child, they will most likely forget that they originally wanted a horse of a different color.  You should choose temperament and experience before beauty – every time! 

Where Can I Find Old Reliable?

When my husband, a novice horseman, expressed an interest in having his own horse last spring, I knew that it would likely be a long and difficult search to find a suitable mount.  Every family wants an Old Reliable, so he is seldom on the market.  Instead, Old Reliable tends to be passed down from child to child within a family, or among families that take lessons from an instructor.  We purchased our Old Reliable after hearing from a friend of a friend that a suitable horse (currently serving as a “husband horse” for another family) might be for sale.  I called to follow up, and learned that the horse might be for sale to the right home.  We immediately scheduled an appointment to go and see the horse.  Your chances of finding Old Reliable are much, much higher in a private sale than through an auction.

Your child’s instructor should be integrally involved in your horse-buying process.  Before doing anything, consult with the instructor about what your horse-buying criteria and your budget should be.  For starters, I recommend browsing the classified ads on your own – you can find them at major Internet sites such as Dreamhorse and Ag Direct and also in the back of free publications at your local feed and tack stores. 

There are so many ads – how can you narrow down the list?  Start with geography – eliminate the horses that are more than a day’s drive from your home, because you will want to go and see the horse in person before buying.  Next, sort by age, gender and breed.  Finally, read the text of the ads and eliminate the following:

  •      Pregnant mares.  Your child won’t be able to ride before and after  the pregnancy, plus raising a foal is not a project for novice horse people. Code words include “in foal.”

  •      Horses not suitable for a beginner.  If the ad says the horse needs an intermediate or advanced rider, believe it and move on.

  •      Hyper horses.  Code words for this include: “spirited,” “has a lot of go,” “barrel prospect,” “gymkhana prospect,” “endurance prospect,” “needs strong rider,” “needs quiet rider,”

  •      Horses that are a pain in the a$$.  Code words for this include: “can be stubborn at times,” “needs a firm rider,” etc.

  •      Horses that aren’t well-trained enough for your family.  Code words include “great X prospect” or “in training for X” (where X = what you want to do with the horse).  See also “loads of potential,” “well started,” “needs finishing,” “ready to start,” “still growing,” and “will mature to X.”

  •      Horses that have health or soundness problems mentioned in the ad.  Exception: a horse described as “serviceably sound” may work for your family, but only your veterinarian can tell you for certain.

Now, what DO you want to see in an ad?

  •      Horses with a good temperament.  Code words to look for include "bombproof", “quiet,” “steady,” and “calm.”  In search functions that have a scale of 1-10 where 10 is the most spirited, you want to look for something close to a 1 and no more than a 5.

  •      Horses that are well-trained.  Look for a “proven youth horse” that “anyone can ride.”

Choose ads for horses that you think might be suitable, and run them by your instructor.  Based upon the instructor’s comments, you can help narrow your search and develop more specific criteria, then develop a list of horses to call and inquire about.  Just like buying a used car, buying a horse involves a degree of creativity in interpreting the text of an ad.  ELS’ “Equine Translation Guide,” while meant to be funny, also includes more than a kernel of truth. 

When you have identified ads for suitable-sounding horses that your instructor has approved, you can begin calling about them and asking questions, using ELS’ free horse-buying checklist.  Trust your instincts – if you don’t like the answers to your questions, the owner is unresponsive, or doesn’t answer your questions fully and openly, don’t waste your time by going out to look at the horse.  Don’t be intimidated by the fact that you are a first-time horse buyer – any seller who treats you rudely or speaks condescendingly to you is not someone from whom you want to buy a horse for your family.

Going to Look at Horses: 20 Dos and Don’ts

Once you have called and inquired about all of the horses in the ads you have selected, go over your notes with your instructor and eliminate any horses that your instructor does not approve.  You can continue to use ELS’ horse-buying checklist as a tool for evaluating the horses that you see in person.  Here are a few tips to sharpen your horse-buying skills and etiquette.

(1) DON’T allow your child (unless he or she is an older teen) to make the calls about the horse.  DO make the calls yourself, using the horse-buying checklist.  DON’T rely too heavily on email – it’s often quicker to make a call then ask lengthy questions in email.

(2) DON’T start calling about or looking at horses in person until you are ready to buy.  Few things are more irritating to a horse seller than a tire kicker.

(3) DON’T order a video of a horse unless you are interested in buying it, and DO promptly return any videos that you order.  Horse sale videos are expensive and time-consuming to create, edit and mail.

(4) DON’T look at horses that are priced more than 20% over your horse-buying budget, unless you have good reason to believe that the seller will negotiate the price to fit within your budget.

(5) DON’T try to negotiate the price before you have even seen the horse.  Wait until you have thoroughly tried out the horse, THEN negotiate.

(6) DO call and make an appointment with the owner before coming out to look at a horse, and try to be on time.  If you will be late or need to cancel or postpone the appointment, call the owner as soon as you know.  Getting a horse ready to show to prospective buyers can be hard work, and the owner deserves your courtesy.

(7) DO make sure you have good directions to the horse’s location.  Mapquest can be somewhat unreliable in rural areas, so get backup directions from the horse’s owner. DO get the owner’s cell phone number so you can call if you get lost.

(8) DO leave non-horsey friends and family members at home, including small children who won’t be the primary riders of the horse.  This includes infants in strollers.

(9) DON’T bring your dog, even if he’s on a leash.

(10)DO make sure each family member wears appropriate clothing, even if they are not going to ride, and that means jeans (or breeches) and boots.  Your child should bring and wear his or her safety helmet.  For safety’s sake, no one should wear shorts, flip-flops or sandals.

(11)DO look around the facility.  Observe what is in the trash cans (tubes of calming paste?) and what condition the other horses are in.

(12)DO have the horse’s owner ride the horse before you or your child ride the horse.

(13)DON’T be afraid of offending the owner if you decide the horse isn’t right for you.  As soon as you are certain of this, you can simply politely inform the owner that you don’t think it’s a good match and say your good-byes.  This will save both your time and the owner’s.

(14)If the horse appears suitable, DO have your child perform all of the tasks listed above under “Temperament, Temperament, Temperament” when you go out to look at the horse.  If your child can’t perform these tasks with this horse, it’s time to move on.

(15)DON’T ruin your negotiating power and tempt yourself to buy too soon by showing up with a horse trailer in tow.

(16)DO bring your video camera or regular camera and take plenty of photos and video.

(17)DO take notes about what you observed before you forget.

(18)DO have your instructor come out in person and pre-approve the horse before you purchase.

(19)DO talk over the horse’s price with your instructor to make sure that he or she feels the horse is priced fairly (and if not, what a fair price would be).

(20)DO listen to your instructor! If he or she says a horse is unsuitable, be prepared to move on, no matter how beautiful the horse is or how much your child wants it.

Negotiating the Price

DO NOT be influenced by the seller who tells you that another prospective purchaser is making an offer, coming out to see the horse or otherwise tries to pressure you into making a decision before you are ready.  If another purchaser does actually buy the horse before you make an offer, you will find another horse.  Counsel your child (and anyone else accompanying you to look at the horse) not to discuss price or your horse-buying budget.  Also counsel your child not to be overly enthusiastic about the horse in front of the seller – save that discussion for the truck ride home. Make sure that your child understands in advance that you will not buy any horse until your instructor has approved it.

Once you have identified what you think is a suitable horse, have your instructor come out to evaluate the horse.  You should expect your instructor to charge you for the time that he or she spends in looking at horses for you to buy.  You are seeking his or her professional opinion, and that opinion is worth paying for.  Be sure to ask up front how much this service will cost so that there are no surprises.  If your instructor does not approve of the horse, do not buy it, no matter how much your child may want it – your instructor is a trained professional and you should trust his or her opinion.

You can expect most horse sellers to negotiate on the asking price.  A lot like buying a used car, how much the seller is willing to negotiate depends upon market conditions (how likely is it that they can sell the horse quickly at full price), how long the horse has been for sale, the seller’s personal financial circumstances, and, to a certain degree, how much the seller likes you and thinks you will provide a good home for their horse. Before you make any offers, ask your instructor what they think a fair price is.  If the horse is fairly priced up front, you may not even want to negotiate. Keep in mind that you are not at a swap meet – you don’t want to insult the seller by offering a price that is ridiculously low (more than 20% less than what they are asking).  If the seller won’t negotiate on the price, perhaps they would agree to deliver the horse or provide some other concession that would be helpful, such as sending the horse’s winter blanket along with him.  Only in unusual circumstances is any tack included in a horse sale, although most sellers do include a halter (some states even legally require horses to be sold with a halter).

Sales Commissions

Your instructor may charge a buyer’s commission on any horses that he or she selects for you, and this charge may be in addition to, or in lieu of, any fees that he or she charges to look at horses for you.  Be sure to ask up front how much the commission will be.  Commission rates for buyers typically run from 10-20% of the purchase price and are typically paid by the buyers.  Note that a single horse sale may involve two commissions – one to the seller’s instructor (paid by the seller) and one to the buyer’s instructor (paid by the buyer).

After you have selected a horse, if your instructor does not want to charge you for his or her help in buying your horse, consider presenting him or her with a nice token of your appreciation, such as a gift certificate to a tack shop or restaurant, or even some homemade cookies.

DO NOT Buy a Horse without a Vet Check!

Once you and your instructor have identified a suitable horse, you should make arrangements with the seller to have the horse checked by a veterinarian.  Choose a veterinarian who has not seen the horse before (ask your instructor for a recommendation).  Both you and your instructor should be present for the vet check to hear the vet’s comments firsthand.  Rarely will a vet outright “pass” or “fail” a horse on a vet check. Instead, they will relate their observations to you and you will be responsible for making a decision based upon those observations.  Your vet will check the horse’s soundness and general health, and may recommend further testing or X-rays for a more complete evaluation.  Because it is fairly common for sellers to administer painkillers, sedatives and other drugs that can mask lameness or enhance performance, I highly recommend having your vet draw blood at the time of the exam.  Your vet can store that blood back at the clinic and test it for various substances if the horse’s behavior or soundness changes abruptly after your purchase.  A typical vet check will cost $200-500 (more if X-rays or further tests are recommended), but it is the best way to make sure that you do not buy expensive or heartbreaking health or soundness problems, so well worth the price even if it costs more than the purchase price of the horse.

Get It in Writing!

After you have negotiated the purchase price, enter into a purchase contract with the seller.  Your purchase contract should clearly state the terms of your purchase, including any representations and warranties that the seller has made about the horse.  ELS offers a variety of purchase forms that you can download and complete.

We wish you the very best of luck in finding a horse to become a member of your family!

[1]Ranges from full care, which includes feeding and stall cleaning, to self-care, which includes only a place to keep the horse and the boarder does all of the work and provides all of the feed and bedding.  Boarding rates are highly dependent upon the local market in your area.  If possible, you should choose a boarding facility that is no more than 20 minutes from your home so that it will not be a hassle to be there every day.

[2] Even if your child has already had several years of lessons, you should plan to continue instruction so that your child can continue to develop his or her skills.  Having an ongoing relationship with a professional instructor can help prevent problems and solve those that do arise, all in an environment that helps your child stay safe. 

[3] Whether your child is in the local Pony Club or 4-H, they will likely want to participate in at least some modest forms of competition, which involves entry fees, transportation for the horse, and special outfits and equipment.  Consult your trainer or instructor for more guidance on this expense item.

[4] Your horse will require regular farrier care every 6-8 weeks, and the cost will depend upon what type of trimming and shoes the horse requires, as well as your local market.  Older horses may require special or corrective shoeing to keep them sound, which typically costs more than regular shoeing.

[5] Your horse will require shots at least twice a year and worming approximately every two months.  Ask your veterinarian to recommend a vaccination and worming program for you.  Your horse will also require emergency or special care from time to time, and you should plan the cost of this care into your budget.  To offset the cost, you may wish to purchase a major medical insurance policy on your horse.  Some horses may also require medications or other treatments, such as acupuncture or chiropractic work, to maintain their health and soundness.  Your horse will also require dental care approximately once a year.

[6] When you buy a horse, you will have an initial investment for a saddle, bridle, grooming supplies and other basic items.  You will also have ongoing expenses, such as fly spray, grooming supplies, horse blankets and replacement of equipment that wears out or is damaged.  Ask your instructor or trainer for guidance in choosing equipment and supplies that are good quality and long-lasting, as price is not always a reliable indicator of quality.

[7] Many families wisely choose older horses for their first horse purchase.  Older horses do often require extra feed and supplements to keep them healthy and sound.  Consult your veterinarian for more specific nutrition advice.

[8] Many boarding facilities provide bedding as part of a full-care program.

[9] There always seems to be some unexpected expense that arises – just part of horse ownership!

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