So Your Kid Wants a Horse…What Do You Do Now?

Do I know what the criteria should be when looking for a horse that is suitable as a mount for a child and/or beginner adult rider? How about what is a fair price for that animal? Do I have the knowledge and the experience to be able to evaluate the potential candidates for purchase and if not, do I have access to a trustworthy, reliable professional to help me with that decision or can I help my child when a problem arises with the horse we chose? These are some very important questions that anyone who is shopping for a “steady eddy”, dependable riding partner should be asking themselves while looking.
While planning this article I tapped my equine connections for their opinions. I wanted to hear from those who had been in the market for this kind of horse as well as the professionals who buy and sell horses as part of their business. I got a lot of responses, anywhere from a mom who has bought horses for her children through the years, to a novice horse owner showing on the national level, to instructors and trainers, as well as a broker (not a kill buyer). They all, for the most part, agreed on what to look for when purchasing a horse for the beginner rider.
Several stated that “bombproof” was high on their list of priorities…I want to say before we go further that there are no truly “bombproof” horses, that is unless it is a dead one. If a horse has a pulse, then flight or fright instincts can and will kick in at some point under any number of circumstances. That being said, a horse can be desensitized to his environment and to things he may encounter in his life, but remember there is no way to foresee everything that may cause him to react.
The overall consensus was that suitable temperament is the most important trait to consider when purchasing a beginner’s horse. This is where unflappable or “bombproof” comes in as well as good-minded, and willing. Tolerance is another quality that ranks a close second. An ideal horse for the beginner has to be tolerant of tugging hands, off balance riders, thumping and bumping at the faster gaits…any of the typical beginner rider errors. A true beginner’s horse should be able to tolerate when kids forget basic safety around them; especially the random, quick movements that aren’t a good idea when they are handling horses. A horse like this has the ability to instill confidence and trust in their riders. In choosing a first horse, you need to remember that the first few experiences with a horse can make or break a beginner’s future riding.
The horse should be well trained and have impeccable ground manners. It should be easy to tack up with no bridling or girth issues and it should tie. A horse with an easy, balanced canter along with the ability to stay steady without the riders help is a plus. When choosing a horse for the beginner you need to have a zero tolerance policy on kicking, biting, bucking, etc. It should also be kept in mind that the horse needs to be an appropriate size for the rider…a 200 lb. rider obviously needs a sturdier mount than a 100 lb. rider. It is not necessarily about height but about the build (muscling and bone structure) of the horse and its ability to carry its rider comfortably. However, a heavier rider with impeccable balance and self carriage can be mounted on a much more slight horse than that same heavy rider with less self awareness, balance, and core body control.

Another thing to keep in mind is the value of the “been there, done that” individual and this folks comes with a bit of age. Too many potential buyers are convinced that the late teens and early twenties may be “too old”…they could not be further from the truth. Many of my sources agreed that a perfect beginner’s horse will be in their late teens and really, even 20 years is not too old! Typically nowadays horse can live well into their thirties and have useful lives into their late 20’s because of the greater knowledge available to owners regarding their care. This gives that beginner rider plenty of time to learn from their more experienced equine partner. However, when considering that older horse it is essential that you have him evaluated by your vet through a pre-purchase exam. The vet will be able to tell you what health/soundness issues the horse may have, if any, and if it is “serviceable sound” and can be managed within your budget. Something to keep in mind is that most people starting out riding are not going to wear out a horse like they think they will. Although it is true that there are great minded younger horses, hands down, a horse with more experience is the better choice for a rider just launching their equestrian pursuit.
Some good advice to remember when looking for a first horse for your kid or beginner adult:
1. Consider a retired or semi-retired show horse. They’ve been places and seen things a typical “backyard” horse has not.
2. Consider leasing before purchasing a horse…either one you are interested in or before you even begin to look at a possible purchase. This is a good idea for a lot of reasons, especially if the horse is for a child. It will establish whether or not your child is really committed to owning a horse by giving them responsibility for that animal. Horse ownership is labor intensive and if they are not committed then leasing will let you know this and there will be no need to buy a horse. Leasing at a boarding stable with lessons included is the ideal situation. As one of my contacts said “The cheapest part of owning a horse is the purchase price…which is why someone should lease and experience the expenses before committing to buy a horse.” I would have to agree.
3. Take a reputable trainer with you when evaluating potential purchases, preferably before you bring your child/beginner with you. Only after prescreened suitable choices have been found should the rider be brought along to help with the decisions. Be sure the trainer works well with kids/beginners. That being said, parents should not be oversold by trainers looking to make their commissions, if in doubt don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. Take the time to check a trainer’s references thoroughly. Anyone can claim to be a trainer, be sure they are reputable!!
4. Avoid the freebies listed in sources like Craigslist, and I do not recommend purchasing from auctions…I am not saying that there are not good horses in bad situations but those are not the places to find suitable horses for children/beginners. There is way too much risk…behavioral, disease potential, there is a limited time to evaluate the horse, and there is always the possibility that the horse has been sedated or given pain medications to mask problems.
Pricing horses is subjective and is determined by several factors. The right price for that “perfect beginner” horse is a tricky question. We’ve all seen the “Horse Wanted” ads: Wanted: broke, walk/trot/canter, sound, safe, kid’s horse, less than $500. I am always amazed at how little people want to spend on a horse that really is worth its weight in gold. Hey, I love a good bargain as much as the next guy, I am not saying they are not out there…but…if you are looking for a horse for your child, or for that matter any beginner rider, their safety is of primary importance and you cannot put a price tag on that. I feel sometimes that parents may base buying a horse too much off price without considering what they are getting for that price. These are not four wheelers, bikes, etc. they are living things with a mind and the horse they purchase had better come with a good one…too often, you get what you pay for. Due to the sheer size of the animal and the fact that a horse can injure its rider through no fault of its own, the need for advanced training is important to help it be aware of itself and the need for it to look out for its person.
Price depends on what you are looking to do with the horse. Is it going to be a “backyard” horse that is ridden on trail rides or are you looking for one that can be taken to shows from the local open shows or up through national breed shows? There is a huge gap in price depending on what you’re looking to do with the horse. There are horses that are suitable for the beginner who have less talent in the show ring and these would be more economical to start out with.
When asked about pricing horses one of my contacts who buys and sells horses responded: “Typically I tell people that for a basic, well mannered, beginner friendly, probably not registered horse, they need to plan on a minimum of $2500. Of course there are some great horses available for a lot less and many bad choices for lots more money. I frequently get calls for kid safe, 4H or open show horses for $800. I don’t see that happening unless it’s from a friend or family member. That $2500 can come down to $1500-$2000 if they will consider late teens…18-19 years old. Of course, there are many 18 year old show and performance horses actively selling for $10K all the time, but it depends on what type of horse, training, etc.” It also goes without saying that she gets plenty of calls looking for a horse that has to be registered, not too old (under 12), will do English/Western pleasure for an 8 year old, run barrels for the 16 year old, pack grandma on the trails, able to be barefoot and sound, prefer Paint or Palomino. Price range $1,000 or less. Who doesn’t want that right? Price wise…those horses are hard, if not impossible to find and they are worth their weight in gold.
Another responded: “My first horse was about $3500. He was a Quarter Horse I could do anything on…dressage, western, hunters, jumpers, and fox hunting. These horses are hard to find and they are amazing. My first horse would probably cost around $12K today.”I also want to point out that one of my friends who is a trainer, stated “I will (and have) paid top dollar for a good lesson/kids’ horse and I’m a trainer. Nobody gives a horse like that away.”
The point here is that so much work goes into making these wonderful horses. They are trained, time and money goes into making them what they are and if they are suitable for children/beginners then they are worth more than $1,000. Often and while a younger horse may have the same level of training as the older horse, the older horse will have the years of experience which allows that training to become solid. The horse has gained the confidence needed to fill in for the novice rider and to know that the things that might rattle a younger horse are not a threat. The problem is that most people want all that we have discussed for too little money. We all love a bargain, but too many times when we are talking about getting a horse for an inexperienced rider, that inexpensive horse you just bought is not a bargain. So when you are looking for that kid/husband horse please consider this when shopping. Be educated, be realistic, be fair and be reasonable. You will be ahead in the long run.