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
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
These clubs are designed as family
activities and as a parent, you can (and
should!) volunteer and learn along with your
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
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.
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.
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:
Tack and Equipment
Feed and Supplements
should ask your instructor to help you create
a realistic budget, and you can benchmark with
other parents as a reality check.
Kind of Horse Should You Buy?
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
your instincts be your guide – even you as a
novice can tell a lot before anyone even rides
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?
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.
parents ask whether they should buy a pony for
their child because it is more
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
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
the horse is too large for your child to mount
or saddle without help, they can use 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.
Breed Should I Buy?
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.
Much Does Age Matter?
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
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
often, the young horse runs roughshod over the
inexperienced family, and becomes a 1200-lb.
dangerous spoiled brat.
itself, age is not always a reliable indicator
of training and experience. You want a horse
who has been there, done that - well-trained
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
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!”
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
I Care About Color?
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
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!
Can I Find Old Reliable?
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.
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.
are so many ads – how can you narrow down
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:
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
Horses not suitable for a beginner.
If the ad says the horse needs an
intermediate or advanced rider, believe it
and move on.
Code words for this include:
“spirited,” “has a lot of go,”
“barrel prospect,” “gymkhana
prospect,” “endurance prospect,”
“needs strong rider,” “needs quiet
Horses that are a pain in the a$$.
Code words for this include: “can
be stubborn at times,” “needs a firm
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
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.
what DO you want to see in an ad?
Horses with a good temperament.
Code words to look for include
“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.”
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.
Translation Guide,” while meant to be
funny, also includes more than a kernel of
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
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.
to Look at Horses: 20 Dos and Don’ts
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
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.
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
DON’T rely too heavily on email –
it’s often quicker to make a call then ask
lengthy questions in email.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
DO leave non-horsey friends and
family members at home, including small
children who won’t be the primary riders of
This includes infants in strollers.
DON’T bring your dog, even if
he’s on a leash.
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.
look around the facility.
Observe what is in the trash cans
(tubes of calming paste?) and what condition
the other horses are in.
have the horse’s owner ride the horse before
you or your child ride the horse.
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
This will save both your time and the
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.
ruin your negotiating power and tempt yourself
to buy too soon by showing up with a horse
trailer in tow.
bring your video camera or regular camera and
take plenty of photos and video.
take notes about what you observed before you
have your instructor come out in person and
pre-approve the horse before you purchase.
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
NOT Buy a Horse without a Vet Check!
you and your instructor have identified a
suitable horse, you should make arrangements
with the seller to have the horse checked by a
Choose a veterinarian who has not seen
the horse before (ask your instructor for a
Both you and your instructor should be
present for the vet check to hear the vet’s
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
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.
It in Writing!
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.
wish you the very best of luck in finding a
horse to become a member of your family!