Horse shopping 102: What kind of horse should you get?

Before I can answer the question of “what sort of horse should I get?,” I have to ask: who am I and what do I want to do with this horse? What is my ability, experience and budget? What are my goals? What are my limitations? What kind of horse can I handle?

Horses vary in size, age, temperament, ability, price, talent, training, experience, show record, looks, gender, and more. Most of them are lovely, and while I might admire them greatly for someone else, they may not be right for me. Before I begin shopping, I have to honestly evaluate who I am today, in this stage of my life.

When horse shopping, many of us are tempted to buy horses that would have been great for younger or imagined versions of ourselves, and then we end up “over-horsed.” We become intimidated by the gorgeous, athletic, usually young, hot thing we fell in love with, wishing we had the ability to ride it. Unfortunately, all too often the owner gets hurt and the horse is resold; or the owner sits on the sidelines watching the trainer do most of the riding.

Too much horse?

Too much horse?

CHOOSE CAREFULLY for who you are RIGHT NOW; not who you used to be, or who you hope to become.

If you currently think you might have the wrong horse…you may find it helpful to read the post, “When it’s time to part company with your horse.” Sometimes it’s just best to find a different owner for your horse, and then you are free to find a better match for yourself.

Once I have figured out what kind of rider I am these days – with my limitations, fears, injuries, issues, and experience, strengths, too – then I can proceed to think about what I should look for. Here are some questions I ask myself when horse shopping:

What do I want to do with this horse? Trails, dressage, team penning, driving, endurance, jumping, eventing or ? I’m sure I left some discipline out! Think about your current riding interests and needs. Six years ago, my husband and I went to a Dude Ranch in the Colorado Rockies. While there, I rode an agile, somewhat hot 14.2 hd Arab/Quarter pony on the trail, and fell in love with him. I wanted to bring him home with me! but I knew he wouldn’t be happy in the confinement of my barn in California.  I realized that I really loved riding agile little horses – ponies! – and that I wanted a safe, fun trail horse. I so longed to ride on the trails and I hadn’t been doing it for years because my dressage horse was too spooky and just not fun or relaxing on the trails. I convinced my husband to let me have a trail pony in addition to the dressage horse (yay! lucky me!), and I began researching large pony breeds. So my answer to “what do I want to do with this horse?” at this time was: Trails! and maybe a little jumping.

Colorado Rockies

Colorado Rockies

What kind of horse would I need in order to do this successfully? I needed something safe, fun, and sound. If it jumped, too, that sure would be nice, because I thought I would enjoy doing some jumping (hadn’t jumped in decades, but why not?).

What kind of horse do I most enjoy riding? For me, it was something small and cute, agile and forward but not hot or spooky. Sensible and safe without being lazy. Hopefully low maintenance (ha ha), didn’t have to be very fancy, and for this horse, I didn’t want to spend much since it was mainly going to be my trail horse. Pretty would be nice, too, since it’s always nice to enjoy looking at your horse, but my daughter reminded me: “pretty is as pretty does.”


What size range will I consider? I’m a big believer in adults on large ponies (that’s another article), but everyone can come up with a size range that feels right. I would simply say here: be open minded. Too many of us think we “have” to ride a certain size, usually quite large, when we might be much more comfortable on a smaller horse. Give yourself a generous size range (a little smaller and larger than you might think) so that you can include many horses in your search. Old ideas about your height and the height you “need” to ride might need to be revisited. Try some sizes you may not have previously considered and you might be surprised!

Which gender? I always look at both geldings and mares (I own one of each). Mares can be very sweet and nurturing and bond deeply to their owners. Generally, they take more tact to ride, but they reward it. Some mares can be difficult when they are in season, while others have no problem. I hardly ever know when my mare, Ellie, is in season. Geldings, on the other hand, are generally considered a bit more predictable. Both are great! Unless you are very experienced, I would not recommend stallions or a horse that has been very recently gelded as these can take some special handling skills.

My mare, Tatiana, gives me a horse hug

My mare, Tatiana, gives me a horse hug

What age? Take into consideration your experience and life stage. If you are “older,” get a mature horse, 8-14 yrs old. Sometimes an even older horse can be appropriate if you are looking for something with a lot of training or experience. The older, still serviceably sound schoolmaster has a lot to offer. If you can handle a young prospect and have experience with green horses, by all means do it! They can be fun, but they are not for the fainthearted.

What breed? Some people have strong breed preferences either pro or con. They will ONLY get a certain breed, or they will NEVER own a certain breed. I’m more flexible, although like everyone I have my biases. While there are variations within each breed, certainly there are tendencies, too. Unless you are an expert and have really researched the breed, try to be open minded about breeding and look at the individual. You might be surprised. That said, if your dream horse is a blonde Haflinger and you really understand the breed characteristics, then get one 🙂 My dream trail and jumping 14.1 hd horse turned out to be the beauty at left.

How much training does this horse need to have? Depending on my goals, the horse needs to already have a certain amount of experience and training invested in it. This will likely be reflected in the price, but it could well be worth it to me. A green (untrained) horse is not always a bargain. When you start to consider how many years (and how much money in board and training) it will be before you can do what you wanted to do – whether that is going safely down the trail or competing at shows – spending a bit more up front to KNOW that your horse can do these things begins to seem worth it. Generally, I encourage people to go for a horse with experience and training unless they are experienced at training horses themselves.

How far am I willing to travel in order to see horses? You can drive certain distances, or get on an airplane and fly hundreds or many thousands of miles…even to another continent. It depends on your stamina and your budget, of course! Remember that each trip costs you time and money, so you’ll want to plan them wisely and get as much information as you can up front. I have a rule that I won’t even get in a car without seeing video and asking a lot of questions if the drive is more than 20 minutes. Why waste my time and energy? Or the seller’s? Of course rules are made to be broken and if someone I knew well told me the horse was worth seeing, I might drive to see it anyway. But I certainly would not get on an airplane without a lot of video and conversation.

What temperament does this horse have?

What temperament does this horse have?

What sort of temperament do I want? Horses, like people, come in all types of personalities and temperaments. Some use a temperament scale of 1-10 (1= very laid back and 10= very hot), while others speak more about personality types such as dominant, submissive, challenging, fearful, and so on. It’s important to think carefully about your own temperament and style and pick the right match. If you tend to be cautious, a reactive or fearful horse will not be right for you. If you are new to horses, a challenging horse will rapidly take over and things will go badly. A horse that needs a strong leader will fare badly if you are not able to be that leader. Even if you are experienced, you may know by now that you like calm, submissive horses, and that’s fine. Look for one. On the other hand, maybe you like them hot and reactive. If you can handle it, fine. Just know what you’re getting and be realistic.

What most people dream of is a horse that is sensitive and forward, but not at all spooky or reactive to “that thing in the bushes.” I do not believe they exist.

Yes, you can train them to be sensitive and obedient to the aids. But in my experience, a horse that is 1-3 on the temperament scale tends to have a laid-back attitude towards everything (including your aids at times). Good news: she isn’t spooky or if she spooks, it isn’t very big and it’s over very quickly. She returns to calm quickly and is generally very sensible, keeping her brain engaged. Bad news: when you want to activate energy, you have to keep reactivating that energy. She tends to return to calm very quickly because that’s her temperament. Great for ambling down the trail, maybe not so great for doing upper level dressage, but pick your poison. Spooky reactive horse? Or safe horse that you have to reactivate frequently? At this stage of my life, I’m picking calmer horses and I’ll work a little harder. When I was younger, I would have picked hotter. Know who you are, what you want to do with the horse, and pick accordingly.

How much can I spend? Recognize that horses that are in the prime age range (8-12), sound, with good temperaments, trained, with experience in the discipline of your choice, good movers, attractive, etc. are usually in high demand and do not go cheaply. Horses that fall outside these parameters – a little older or younger, less trained, perhaps with an issue of one sort or another – will generally be less expensive. We will talk, in another article, about pricing and negotiating.

If you want it all, most likely you will have to pay a premium for it. That said, occasionally you will luck out and find a horse that is a good value for one reason or another.

The owner may be motivated to sell, or the horse may not be an expensive breed, but still able to do everything you want. You don’t HAVE to spend tons of money; but remember: It’s not the buying, it’s the keeping! Board and training very quickly add up. Do not be “penny wise and pound foolish,” buying a horse because he’s a bargain, only to find he was not a good match for you and now you’re stuck with him. Better to spend a bit more upfront and have the right horse, or to wait and keep shopping.Expensive Taste

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