Recently I learned that a neighbor was planning to get a horse for his young daughter – and realized that it was the second “first horse” I’d heard about in just a few weeks. This can be a daunting experience for a first-time horse owner, resulting in so many questions, beginning with “Where to find a suitable horse?”

Word-of-mouth can be very helpful, by letting friends and relatives who may have a connection know that you’re in the market for a first horse. I once received a call from a cousin who knew I had horses and was looking to find a home for a Thoroughbred horse that she could no longer care for; I only needed to pay to transport the horse to our farm. And my favorite horse came from a stable in New Jersey that needed to find a home for a registered Morgan that was no longer being used.

A visit to a local stable or riding academy may also prove fruitful, in addition to checking ads posted at your local feed store or tack store or even at your veterinarian’s. In my neighbor’s case, they had a relative who worked at a stable. They were able to go and choose from a couple of horses before deciding which one they would take home.

Another useful tool for finding a horse is the internet. You can enter all the parameters you’re looking for – size, age, temperament, breed, discipline and location of the horse – to streamline your search. There are many online horse classified sites to choose from.

You might also want to consider a rescue horse. Sites such as A Home For Every Horse or the ASPCA will have horses listed for an adoption fee (or in some cases for free). But as with any classified ad, you’ll need to read “between the lines” with the description of the horse.

I’ve been fortunate to have owned several horses over the years. The first was a “camp horse” that came from a local YMCA camp. The horse was a present for my 14th birthday, and on that happy day in August we drove up to the camp stable to choose from a few that had been picked out for me. Squire was a perfect fit – he was beautiful, calm and very patient with this first-time owner. The last horse I purchased (and still have today), Morgan, came from an internet search.

It’s important for a first-time horse owner to be sure that the horse they’ve chosen is suitable for the level of experience of the person who will be riding it. Oftentimes a horse is bought because of its appearance, such as its color and markings, or breed. But for a beginning rider it’s important that the horse has a calm temperament and is not flighty or spooky. A common term for such a horse is “bomb-proof.”

Another misconception is that a first-time horse for a youngster should be a young horse so they can “grow up together.” But a middle-aged or older horse, such as my first horse, that has a lot of experience may be less apt to be flighty and will have more patience with a new young rider. A very young horse may not have had enough training and time spent riding to be trustworthy. Generally, a horse that is “middle-aged” (8 to 15) is ideal, but there are always exceptions.

Horse Tales: Your first horse

Remember that owning a horse means caring for the horse every day, no matter the weather. Photo by Judy Van Put

Another important consideration is what the horse will be used for. Will it be ridden at a stable or in an arena? Will the rider be taking lessons with the intent to ride in shows or learning dressage or how to jump? Will it be used as a 4-H project, or will the horse be more of a “backyard horse” and ridden on trails? Each of these disciplines will dictate what type of horse you should be looking for.

Once you find a horse that seems to be a good fit, ask someone knowledgeable about horses to go see it with you. You’ll need to prepare a list of questions to ask the seller. In addition to “Why are you selling the horse?” you’ll want to know more details about it. A very important consideration is the health of the horse – and the condition of its feet. Ask the seller to pick up the horse’s feet (a horse’s feet should be cleaned/picked out every day to keep them healthy, and you’ll want a horse that picks up its feet without a problem). Find out if the horse normally wears shoes or is barefoot and ask how the horse behaves for the farrier as well as the veterinarian.

Ask for the horse’s record of vaccinations. The horse will need to have certain vaccinations depending on where you live, as well as proof of a negative Coggins test. This is a blood test that determines if the horse is a carrier of equine infectious anemia, a viral disease found in horses that is fatal in most cases. A negative Coggins test is required for all travel between states and at most equine facilities and shows. A horse that tests positive for EIA must be euthanized or be strictly quarantined at least 200 yards away from any other horses for the rest of its life.

You’ll want to know when the horse was last dewormed and had its teeth checked. Most vets can file or “float” a horse’s teeth but an equine dentist does a more thorough job. If the horse bolts its food or has difficulty chewing, or even if it’s difficult to bridle, the problem could be its teeth.

If you plan on riding the horse, have the seller groom it and saddle up in front of you, taking note if the horse is touchy when the girth is tightened or when the bridle is being put on or taken off. Ask questions about the horse’s behavior when saddling or unsaddling. I remember helping a friend untack her first horse after going for a ride. She had forgotten to tell me that the horse was difficult to unbridle, and as soon as I started to take the bit out of his mouth, he threw his head up violently, taking me with him.

Owning a horse is a great responsibility. In addition to having a wonderful companion to ride, it needs to be fed, groomed, cared for and cleaned up after every day. Be sure that you are completely comfortable around the horse and satisfied with your choice, and don’t be pressured by the seller if you don’t feel that it is exactly the right fit for you. Some horse dealers and stables will honor a request to try out the horse for a period of time and will take it back if it doesn’t work out for you. But in most instances, especially with a private seller, once you purchase the horse, it’s yours.

Owning a horse has been one of the highlights of my life, bringing great pleasure not only to me but to friends and family members who visit. Take your time and do your “homework” in preparing for this exciting event – and enjoy your new horse.

by Judy Van Put