"Can I have a horse? Can I, please? I promise I'll feed him and brush him and ride him every day. Please ... PLEASE ... PLEASE?"
How many hapless parents have been relentlessly bombarded with this urgent cry; the tearful, pleading eyes; the overwhelming burden of withholding from one's own child that most essential element sure to guarantee the joy of his/her youth (or so they would have you believe)? Regardless of your location, it's unlikely that you can fall back on the handy excuse of having nowhere to keep a horse. Even if you don't own enough acreage or adequate stabling yourself, you can no doubt locate a commercial stable or sympathetic landowner with suitable facilities to house the beloved animal for a reasonable boarding fee. So parental guilt has at long last worn you down, you're seriously considering buying the beast, and you're out of excuses ... or are you?
Before you take the irreversible step of telling your child that his/her equestrian prayers are about to be answered, there are a few things you must know and think through thoroughly:
- Horses are horses. They are neither huge dogs nor four-legged humans. Horses are large, powerful, free-thinking animals with a strong instinct for personal survival. The right horse can wonderfully complement the knowledgeable owner's life. A first-time owner unschooled in the workings of the equine psyche, however, is little more than an accident waiting to happen. Learn as much about these animals, and spend as much time as possible around them before seriously contemplating ownership.
- Horses are expensive. It is likely that the least you will ever spend on a horse is his initial purchase price. Feed, veterinary care, farrier, tack, equipment, and stabling are only a few of the ongoing expenses incurred in the proper daily care of the equine.
- Horses require the investment of a considerable amount of time. Even if you board your animal with a reputable facility which tends to his daily needs, you must provide regular exercise and supervision of his condition. If you take on full responsibility for his care, here are a few of the highlights: feeding regularly at least twice daily, providing fresh water at all times (including those -10° winter days), cleaning his stall every day (don't forget the pickaxe on those -10° days), and learning the fundamental veterinary skills necessary in emergency situations. One more thing, it's tough finding a qualified horsesitter, and horses don't give vacations or days off ... not even Christmas.
- A child should not be expected to be the primary caretaker of any animal of great size and whose needs are as varied as those of a horse. As parents, you must be ready and willing to assist in the care of the family horse. Even if paying for full board at a commercial stable, you will most likely be responsible for regular transportation of your child to and from the barn. You will also be responsible for decisions regarding emergency situations and most likely the scheduling of routine veterinary and farrier care as well.
Having taken more than a day or two to mull all of this over, you have reached your decision. If you've decided this is all a bit more than you bargained for, you can stop reading here, and be glad to have avoided getting in over your head. If you're still ready to take the plunge into equine ownership, however, you can now begin the nine step process toward that ultimate goal.
Step one involves directing your attention to a whole other set of considerations, this time dealing specifically with the horse of your child's dreams. It is time to make a wish list. Take a piece of paper, fold lengthwise, and write "Absolutely Must Have" on the top of one side and "Absolutely Will Not Tolerate" on the top of the other. Sit down with your child and fill out these lists using the following considerations as a guide. Fill in only the "absolute musts" and "absolute will nots," though. You want to leave as much middle ground as possible so as not to restrict potential equine candidates to an impossibly narrow definition.
- Price. Research the equine market in your area. Backyard pleasure horses begin in value at the current slaughter price and escalate according to the animal's individual merits. Show horses, on the other hand, may cost as much as a moderately priced home. Be as generous as you can with this investment. Cheap horses tend to be so for a reason. Determine the upper limit of your purchase price, and be prepared to stick to it. If you seem uncommitted to your limit, don't be surprised if a seller tries to talk you into paying more.
- Temperament. Horses' personalities vary as greatly as do ours. If you want calm and quiet, say so. Inquire about vices. Biting, kicking, or other forms of aggressiveness are out of the question. Stable vices such as wood chewing and weaving (continual swaying back and forth from one front leg to the other) are annoying and may lead to physical ailments.
- Training. There are, in most rural areas, many tame and rideable horses but comparatively fewer trained ones. For a novice to intermediate rider, a professionally trained horse is the best option. Consider the ability level of the rider and the intended use of the animal. For what is the horse trained? By whom and for how long? Has the horse been shown? In which classes? With what success? Is the horse easily handled and ridden by men, women, and children? Some horses have definite preferences concerning their riders.
- Soundness. The most sweet-tempered and flawlessly trained animal in the world is going to have little value as a riding horse if lame. However, an animal that cannot quite handle the physical strain of barrel racing or cross country jumping may make an ideal trail horse for the weekend rider. Determine all possible uses for your horse, including potential future breeding, and question the seller about his horse's suitability.
- General health and condition. Avoid horses exhibiting signs of long term and ongoing neglect such as animals who are grossly under or overweight, stunted, or possessing of flagrantly overgrown hooves. Inquire about past major illnesses or life-threatening conditions as well as about frequent or repeated problems such as colic and founder. Ask if the horse is current with routine health care such as vaccinations, deworming, teeth floating, and hoof trimming or shoeing.
- Size. Horses should be of adequate size to comfortably carry any potential rider in the family. Parents are prone to considering ponies as first mounts for young riders. These small equines are easier for children to handle, groom, tack up, and mount on their own. They are also generally significantly cheaper to buy and to maintain. Unfortunately, they do have a frequently well-deserved reputation for stubbornness and willfulness. In addition, ponies' riding gaits tend to be rapid and choppy due to the animals' short leg length,. Horses, on the other hand, usually offer smoother gaits, a more cooperative attitude, and a longer useful riding career for a rapidly growing youngster.
- Conformation. While not a major consideration for horses being used lightly and infrequently, this becomes a more important issue when the equine body is asked to perform increasingly demanding work. Show horses and those used for breeding should come as close to ideal body structure for their type as possible. In all cases, it is best to avoid major flaws such as short, upright pasterns, tiny hooves, and an excessively long back which may herald future weakness or debilitating lameness.
- Age. Buying a young animal that your child can grow up with is a dangerously tempting and decidedly bad idea. A young horse is just as playful, energetic, and rebellious against discipline as any ten-year-old child, only twenty times bigger. Common sense dictates that these two might not make the safest playmates for one another. It is much the wiser decision to find an older, settled animal who will tolerate your child's youthful silliness without adding any of his own. Older animals will generally have been exposed and grown accustomed to many of the "spooks" and situations which may cause a younger horse to head for the hills, with or without his rider. Though varying greatly from individual to individual, horses generally mature and settle around age seven. If well cared for, horses can remain rideable well into their twenties.
- Gender. Never consider a stallion for a child. Stallions are preoccupied, unpredictable, and dominant by nature. Male horses who were gelded improperly or after having been used for breeding may be no better. Memories and behaviors of stallionhood are sometimes hard forgotten by such animals. Geldings castrated within the first year or two of life often make the most even-tempered choices. Mares, also, make wonderful mounts but may become grouchy and temperamental when in heat.
- Less important are issues of breed and color. Of course, if your intended purpose or style of riding requires a particular breed, then restrict your search to members of that breed. However, for the casual rider, purebred or registered animals offer only unnecessary credentials and expense. Color, while often your first impression of a horse, is neither grounds for purchase nor rejection of any equine prospect.
You have now completed your wish list and the first step on your way to happy horse ownership.
Step two involves identifying the horse markets in your area. Horses for sale can be located through contacts in your equestrian community. Get in touch with stables, trainers, instructors, pony and saddle clubs, 4-H horse clubs, and other horse owners. Horses are often advertised for sale at horse shows and training clinics, on tack shop and feed store bulletin boards, and in newspapers and equestrian periodicals. Professionally trained animals selling at competitive prices will be concentrated in more urban areas where trainers tend to set up shop. Be prepared to travel to such areas to broaden your options. Auctions are fraught with danger for the uninitiated horse purchaser. Be advised that many horses sold at public auction are there because they are not readily saleable elsewhere. Buyer beware.
Your next step, step three, puts you in direct contact with the sellers you have identified. Here, you will use your wish list to question sellers and screen out horses which do not meet your "absolute" criteria. Take complete and careful notes during these conversations, including the full name of the individual with whom you are speaking. In case of future purchase negotiations, do not allow yourself to be pressured in any way by these individuals or to sound too eager.
Step four is the point at which you may want some professional assistance. You are ready to schedule appointments to try out likely prospects. Unless your equestrian experience and knowledge is substantial, you may need someone in whose expertise you have faith to help evaluate your choices. The fee charged for this service varies but will surely be worth its weight in your piece of mind. If traveling out of town in your search, schedule to see as many horses as practicable in a day or weekend. Even if looking locally, always evaluate several horses in a day to avoid the ever present danger of falling in love with the first and only horse you try. Tell each seller that you wish to see his horse fresh from the stall or pasture.
Step five, and you are in the barn. The seller is doing his best to hustle his horse into your stable. You, in turn, are spinning with doubt and apprehension. This is no time for confusion, however. This is your first opportunity to evaluate a potential mount for your child. Hopefully, the horse has not yet been prepared for your arrival. Observe him at liberty in his enclosure for awhile. Note any behaviors you deem unacceptable. Watch as the seller readies him for you. This is your chance to see how the horse responds to being handled, tied, and groomed. As the horse is tacked up, note the type of bit and any supplemental equipment used on him. Watch, also, for any objections he may have to being saddled or bridled.
The horse's regular rider or trainer should be asked to ride the horse for you in step six. Here, you will see what the horse knows, how he has been trained, and how cooperatively he responds to appropriate cues. Ask to have all of the horse's abilities demonstrated. Inquire about the horse's current activity level. It is reasonable to expect a horse who has not been ridden regularly in a number of months, or perhaps years, to be a bit rusty in his responses. If you have hired a professional to help you with this evaluation, ask that individual to ride the animal. He or she should be able to quickly assess the horse's suitability for your child, as well as evaluate the animal for obvious structural problems, weakness, or unsoundness.
Assuming the horse passes muster with your hired professional, it's now your turn in step seven. You know nearly as much about this animal as you can know without riding him yourself. At this point, all potential riders of the family horse should have the opportunity to try him on for size. It is one thing for the regular rider to demonstrate this horse's virtues; it is something else to have a hired professional evaluate the horse's merits; but it is an altogether different matter to place a nervous youth on an unfamiliar equine and wait to see how things click. This step is essential. Don't rush the process. Unless the horse tries to kill your child, it is likely that the youngster will dismount with starry eyes and a conviction that this is the one. As parents, though, your voices must remain those of reason. Make no commitments now. Discuss this prospect with your professional. See other horses. Take your time.
Step eight finds you and your child smitten with the perfect horse, approved by your professional, and ready to move into the final phases of purchase. It is time to draft a purchase agreement with the seller, to be signed by all parties, stating the price and terms of sale. Having this written document is the easiest way to avoid misunderstandings and complications should problems arise later. If possible, arrange to purchase the horse on a thirty day trial basis, or lease the animal for a month with an option to buy. This will afford you the final and best opportunity to try this horse in your home environment, allowing him to be handled and ridden to your family's standards, and assuring that this union will serve all parties well.
Step nine concludes the purchase with one last order of business. To assure that all is fit and well with your new companion, it is prudent to schedule a pre-purchase veterinary exam. Have the examination performed by a veterinary equine specialist of your choice. Discuss with the vet all potential future uses of your horse. Request a Coggins test to determine the presence of equine infectious anemia. A negative Coggins is required for interstate transportation and may be required by some boarding facilities. Examination fees may be negotiated with the seller and included in the purchase agreement prior to the exam. The seller should be responsible for the cost of the Coggins, and perhaps for the cost of the exam if the horse doesn't pass.
At last, the purchase is concluded. The dream horse has been located, tried, tested, evaluated, negotiated, vetted, and is now standing in the barn nickering softly for his evening meal. A responsibility? No doubt. An opportunity? To be sure. But beyond all, he's the answer to those most urgent hopes and dreams of youth. Enjoy!