Ask the Experts: How to Avoid the Pitfalls of First-Time Horse Ownership

stick horseNot everyone who has an interest in the western lifestyle wants to be a horse owner, and that’s ok. Horse ownership is not for everyone.

But for the majority of the cowboy-loving population, horsemanship and also horse ownership is at the core of that affection. There is something so romantic about owning your own horse. Being able to say, “that one is mine.”

I grew up surrounded by horses and rode all the time, but even that wasn’t quite enough for a horse-hungry seven-year-old girl. I wanted my own horse. And I wished on every star and asked Santa Claus year after year to make it my reality.

Fortunately, I had my dad to make decisions for me when it came to what kind of horse was suitable for my aspirations and skill level. I realize not everyone has that luxury.

Horse ownership is not something to be rushed into. It is not a decision that should be made based purely on emotions either. There are many important considerations to be made, from finances to horse care to scheduling riding time to finding a great coach.

And unless you are very experienced, choosing the right horse it is not a decision to be made solo.

Today, I asked a few horsemen that I admire to weigh in on the most important considerations to be made before buying your first horse.

Van Hargis

Van Hargis – Horse Trainer and Clinician specializing in Ranch Horse Versatility

We all make countless mistakes in getting involved in and in working with horses. If we are lucky, like horses, we’ll learn from the mistakes. However, as intelligent and logical human beings we have the ability to learn from the mistakes and the experiences of others.

Nonetheless, one mistake I see repeated all too often is a new yet very enthusiastic person getting involved with the horse industry with a little too much vigor but no proper guidance.

I applaud folks seeking out and pursuing involvement with horses. They can truly be a blessing to us. However, there is so much to learn and know in even the basic care of an a horse.

Too many times I see folks get the horse bug and as quickly as they can without proper guidance buy a horse based on its looks, or price and status. Often time these individuals will seek out rescue horses which isn’t a bad thing IF they have guidance in selecting a good horse for their skill level and setting for which the horse will be transferred to after leaving the rescue facility.

I also see new horse folks inclined to “get a piece of our western heritage” by adopting or purchasing a feral horse or otherwise know as a wild horse or mustang. These horses are frequently very difficult for top professionals to work with compared to the selectively bred and handled domestic horse. Yet it can be very enticing to be lured toward them especially in these days and times of so many “makeover” type competitions making the mustang look so easy and willing to work with.

My advice? Take time to research and seek out the assistance of a trusted and respected horseman in your area. Carefully evaluate your skills, your time availability and what you’d like to do with your horse. To help answer some of these questions lend your hand at a therapeutic riding facility or equine rescue facility to get a taste of the work and responsibility that goes into horse ownership before an investment in horse flesh is made.

Perhaps consider leasing a horse for a while prior to accepting full ownership. Any truly reputable seller looking for a good match for his or her horse for sale would gladly work out a lease/purchase plan for a trial. This helps in making sure the horse will be a match for you beyond the “honeymoon” phase of ownership.

Cutting Horse Trainer, Personal Performance Coach, Author, Clinician and Equine Consultant

Barbra Schulte – Cutting Horse Trainer, Personal Performance Coach, Author, Clinician and Equine Consultant

Whenever I meet someone who is very excited to get into riding horses, I always have a silent wish that they will have a great experience.

My hope is that they will discover good, honest, knowledgeable people to guide them. I pray they will find a quiet, gentle, well seasoned horse who is suited to be a great friend and a wonderful teacher to them.

The worst mistakes I see are just the opposite.

I often see too much eagerness on the part of the new horse person to jump in and make lots of decisions without appropriate guidance … or poor guidance.

I think another discouraging result can happen when the prospect buys a horse that is not suited for his or her goal. This can result in injury or poor experiences that can cause a huge lack of confidence, or even deciding that horses aren’t for them.

Allison Trimble - Willfully Guided Horsemanship Cowhorse Trainer and Clinician

Allison Trimble – Willfully Guided Horsemanship Cowhorse Trainer and Clinician

A large part of my business is horse sales, specifically matching riders with the right horse so that they can have a long and successful relationship. This is similar to finding your human partner. It isn’t about finding the perfect individual, it is about finding the perfect individual for you. There are a number of characteristics I consider in both the horse and the rider, but finding the right fit and ideal chemistry is most important. The following points are key to finding that ideal partnership:

 Goals: The goals of the rider must be clear and the intended use of the horse needs to be as defined as possible. Even if you match a person with a very suitable horse, if the horse cannot meet the vision of the rider, today or somewhere down the road they will not have satisfying partnership.

Experience of horse versus experience of the rider: I very rarely recommend a young horse to an inexperienced rider. The price of a younger horse is typically lower, but with the offset of potential hospital bills it is not worth the risk. Horses 2 and under are great for experienced riders who are looking to learn about the process of starting and training a horse. It should be emphasized that an older horse is not necessarily more broke than a younger horse.

Aligning energy: I have found that horses and riders tend to have an idle energy. What I mean is that they either tend to be cooler or hotter by nature. The goal is to have the combined pair have a neutral nature with not too much “go” while still being responsive and attentive. This is an optimum training environment. I have found that a rider who tends to make a horse doggy or lazy will often suit a horse with a little more life. Riders who tend to be quick handed, high energy, or have an “electric seat” tend to clash with horses that also have a lot of life. They typically do better with a more reserved horse.

Forgiveness: There is a certain quality in horses that I like to call a “sense of humor.” If I am looking for a beginner rider, or a person trying to train their own horse, I am looking for a horse that can take a joke. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way; everyone makes mistakes. But when learning, a person makes more frequent and offensive mistakes then they will down the road. I want a horse that appears to be more forgiving. I will rank this quality higher for many shoppers than talent or breeding. As the trainer, and often the person selling the horse, I am in a unique position to observe both horse and rider. Additionally, I know their individual histories and tendencies and am able to narrow down potential partners to a couple of finalists. Herein lies the intangible part of matchmaking. For some reason, there will be one horse that just jives with a person. Often he is the wildcard you threw in the bunch that maybe had some, but not all of the qualities you were after.

You can’t explain what makes it work, but as a professional, when you see it you just know. I never discount the essentials, but some of my greatest matches only revealed themselves the moment the right person swung a leg over that special horse.

(This piece originally appeared in NWHS magazine and can be found in its entirety at

Cliff Schadt Jr

Cliff Schadt Jr – Common Thread Horsemanship

When shopping for a first horse there are many mistakes or pitfalls that are made. These mistakes can include but are not limited to buying a horse that is too green, buying a horse that is too advanced in its training buying a horse sight unseen over the Internet or from a horse sale…

Many folks think that buying a young green horse is a great way for horse and rider to “grow up together.” In my experience green on green equals black and blue. Most beginner riders don’t realize just how much training a young horse needs and this is almost always a recipe for disaster.

A lot of people go to the other extreme and they want to buy a horse that is very advanced in its training  holding to the ideal that the better the horse the better it will make them look. The problem is, horses like this have far more buttons than they are able to master at this early point in their journey in horsemanship, resulting in a poor partnership where both horse and rider are unhappy.

The third major mistake that I see is people who get online and purchase horses sight unseen without a trial or  a vet check off of the internet. Very seldom have I seen this work out for people especially for the first time buyer. Shopping for a horse online is a lot like shopping for a used car from any random dealership. Unless you know who you’re purchasing from, it’s very hard to just look at a picture or a video and select the right mount for yourself.

Falling into the same category as internet sales is the first time owner going to an auction and trying to buy a horse. Again, very similar to the internet sale in that seldom are they purchasing what they were told they are purchasing .

I would say the best way to avoid all of these pitfalls of the first time horse buyer would be to seek out reputable honest help from a horse professional; someone who has years of experience selecting the right horse for a specific rider. Many first-time buyers shy away from this because they believe it will cost them more money, but in the long run this upfront fee will often save money down the road. Any fee paid to the professional is going to help ensure that you get the right horse and you’re not stuck owning something that is not suitable for you (and often difficult to resell). Not to mention the probability of future hospital bills.

It helps for the rider to be realistic about what his or her goals are as a rider whether they want to show and compete or if trail riding is where it’s at for them. Until you have your goals in order and you have the help of a professional it’s a very wide open world of horses out there. Unfortunately there are a lot of less-than-reputable sellers and a lot of horses out there that just aren’t the right fit for a specific person.

With a little bit of guidance a first time horse owner does not need to be afraid of the wide world of horses. They can be an integral part of the purchase process but have the professional input necessary for success.


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