“So, what kind of horse should I get?”
Since most of my acquaintances know I’m an experienced equestrian, it’s a question I get frequently in various forms from those looking to get into riding. My answer, most of the time, is, “Don’t.”
Let me explain. I rarely see a situation where a beginner rider is able to properly assess their needs in a horse during a private sale. Even when a professional tags along, the match sometimes sours weeks or even days down the line because the new owner is unprepared for the challenges they’ll face alone.
Here’s what I mean: Horses are 1,000-pound animals with minds of their own. I saw a meme on social media recently that urged people to buy a horse if they desired a bicycle that could make detrimental decisions.
That sentiment sums the situation up well. Novice riders and horses, even well-broke ones, don’t mix well without supervision from an experienced horse person.
Let’s look at a few scenarios:
An older horse with a million trail miles on it may seem like the perfect choice for a new rider at first glance, but I’ve seen inexperienced riders at a complete loss when the half-ton of livestock under them refuses to cross a puddle. Often, the rider hops off and tries to lead the animal around the water. Best case, the horse walks around and the rider hops back on. Worst case, the horse hops across the water and lands on the rider.
Then there’s the plastic bag situation. Horses are flight animals, so even older ones who have seen and done a lot of things can become frightened when they see things they don’t recognize. Unfamiliar litter beside the trail like a plastic bag gently billowing in a slight breeze can frighten even the most seasoned mount.
Sometimes, the animal will spot the new object, freeze and then bolt.
A novice rider will likely not know how to stop a bolt, and falls with varying degrees of injury are often the result.
Sometimes, these things happen with seasoned riders, too. The difference is they know when it’s time to short circuit these situations.
For instance, I’m comfortable pulling a nervous horse in a circle until it calms down, but sometimes that’s not enough. I was riding my 5-year-old Thoroughbred mare on my property a few weeks ago, and she’s typically very calm. I knew I was in over my head when she completely froze as we walked toward my house. I couldn’t get her to move, and I felt her huge body start swishing from side to side under me. At 16.3 hands, her shoulder is even with the top of my head when I stand beside her. I knew I was on top of a very nervous, very large young animal, and that she didn’t have enough education under saddle to listen to me if I began circling her, so I did a quick emergency dismount and walked her to the barn. I didn’t make a huge issue out of her loss of focus, and I didn’t feel like it would present as a behavior problem later, but I knew my comfort zone, and we were suddenly out of it for reasons I couldn’t identify at the time. Later, as I walked toward my house, I realized my husband had built a small fire outside, and she had smelled the smoke. No wonder she was frightened!
So, yes. Horses are very large flight animals that make decisions based on their instincts, and you’re at a significant disadvantage if you’re on top of one that decides to override your authority and you don’t know how to set things straight. I hope any prospective horse owners aren’t completely turned off at this point because there’s an antidote to this flight animal/ novice rider scourge: it’s called formal riding lessons.
If you’re thinking of buying a horse and you have very little previous experience, I highly recommend you look into a structured learning situation.
Your friendly neighborhood stable likely offers some type of teaching in a structured atmosphere, and if not, the owners probably know someone who does. Even if you have to drive 45 minutes to reach a facility, it’s worth it.
Before swinging up into the saddle, you’ll likely learn how to handle a horse on the ground, along with basic grooming and medical skills. You’ll start out with basic riding maneuvers like steering at the walk, and the tasks will become more complicated the longer you stick with the program. After two or three years of weekly lessons on a seasoned mount, depending on the rider’s agility and the instructor’s skill, I don’t think jumping two-foot-high obstacles or a balanced gallop in open fields would be out of reach. Lesson barns are also a great place to meet other horse people. You will almost certainly develop a unique and lasting camaraderie, and you’ll have somewhere to turn if you ever do own a horse and have questions related to behavior or health that you wouldn’t necessarily call your vet to answer.
And at that point, a rider would probably have ridden enough school horses to know what kind of character, height and ability they’d need to look for when purchasing a horse. I enjoy welcoming new riders to the sport, but I’d rather see them pay for a few years of lessons than for a horse they don’t really know how to pilot. So, if you’re thinking of beginning a riding career, I’m thrilled for you and I hope you’ll consider investing in education before horsepower!