“Are you pony shopping? I LOVE PONY SHOPPING!!!!!!! You totally need a small, or a mini, oh minis are sooo cute” Slow your roll. I am not pony shopping. “But the title has the words ‘pony’ and ‘buy’ in it…” Ok, that is fair. As it turns out, I am not pony shopping, the title is a bit misleading.
My kid is destined to spend some time with horses, I rode a week before she was born, and her favorite time of day is when we go “Heed” which roughly translates to “Feed the horses”. She goes to the trailer door (where there is a bag of treats) and hits it saying “Heet” because she wants to give the ponies “treats”. Heck, for my birthday about 2 weeks after she was born, a neighbor brought me a leadline saddle for her. So it goes without reason that even before she was born I was getting asked “Are you going to get her a pony?”
As luck would have it, a few months after we moved to the farm, I went to the SPCA and picked out a mini donkey. He was the only mini so the selection didn’t take long, it took 3 of us to catch him. Who knew a 200lb donkey could pull 3 women around a paddock for 20 mins. We literally had to drag him out of the paddock and lift him into the trailer, first the front end, then the back end. His purpose was to keep coyotes and loose dogs off the property and keep the husband horse company when the show horse went to shows. He wasn’t even halter broke when we got him so I put him in a small pen for the first few days so that I could “work with him”.
Not only did we get him halter friendly rather quickly, my husband got him used to brushing, pets, and treats. Over the years we have worked on haltering/leading, and I sat on him a few times, just for funsies. He is a pretty tolerant guy posing for our Christmas card every year in some ridiculous outfits. “We all love Buddy the donkey but where is this going?” Well Buddy is Mini Engineering Equestrian’s (MEE) first “pony”.
Although he is not highly trained, more like barely trained, he has a tendency to stand still or move minimally. He also weighs about 350lbs. when he is at his fattest, thus if he does step on MEE, it won’t kill her. At a towering 9 hands tall if she does manage to slip off, it’s a short fall to the ground.
The best part about Buddy the Donkey? He is already here. “Oh, I was going to say that he is super cute.”
Well that is true but, as tempting as it was to go out and buy her a pony, even before she was born, I refrained. In all honesty, for the first year, MEE had no interest in riding. We propped her up on Buddy a few times but most of the time she was scared or wanted to do something else. She showed some interest in a donkey ride around the barnyard when we were doing our Christmas card picture, I’m not sure if that was because she really enjoyed the riding or just enjoyed attention from both parents.
About a week ago, I tacked Buddy up in one of the 2 leadline saddles that we now have, a tiny one and a bit bigger one. I put MEE’s little dino bicycle helmet, we were ready to ride. Surprise, surprise, surprise, she was fussing with the helmet too much to even want to ride. Note to self, get her used to the helmet prior to tacking up the donkey. Moral of this story is, as tempting as it was to buy a pony, I am glad I didn’t.
“Is she going to ride the donkey at horse shows? I want to see that!” Probably not, the donkey doesn’t really load, or trailer, or really lead well. When it is time to do a leadline class, she can either borrow a quiet horse, or we can take Lily who is happier to walk on a lead than actually jump.
“Are you ever going to buy her a pony???” I have gotten this question a bunch after people ask me if I am going to get her a pony and I respond with the “Buddy Solution”. The answer is maybe, but one thing you learn if you have a lot of horsey friends, you can almost always find someone that has an old pony that needs a new home/kid. “Old pony, why an old pony?” My kid’s first pony will hopefully have 3 hooves in the grave and the last one on a banana peel. I wholeheartedly believe in the idea that green riders and green horses do not go together. I want my kid to have fun and feel safe, she doesn’t need a fancy, expensive pony, especially to start out. If she shows an interest in doing more than just playing in the pasture, then we can start looking into a slightly younger pony for her to compete with. Some people avoid older horses, I welcome them, I look for them, I want them, especially for beginner riders. I have seen so many people lose confidence, stop showing, even stop riding all together because a horse has scared them.
I worked at a Girl Scout camp for 3 summers helping with and eventually running the riding program. At the beginning of the summer, 20 rented camp horses were dropped off at the corral for the summer. The owner would rank them 1 or 2, 1 being the quietest, 2 being a little stronger. None of these horses were wild, but some were going to be tough for little girls to manage. For the first week of the summer, we had staff set-up and training. Those of us at the corral had the job of getting on all 20 horses and assessing their behavior, mannerisms, and personalities. This has taught me to get on and quickly
assess a horse for a beginner rider, and even an intermediate rider. You advanced riders can fend for yourselves! The experience years listed below are just a guideline, they all depend on rider age, level of commitment, maturity, and riding goals.
If you are headed out to buy a horse a few pointers for all riders no matter the level:
- Never shop alone! If you are a beginner or intermediate rider, bring a knowledgeable person, if you are an advanced rider take a friend. Do not however show up with 20 of your closest barn mates.
- Be courteous to the people selling the horse; you may not realize it but selling a horse is a lot of work.
- Avoid buying a horse just because it’s a specific color, or it’s pretty, or it’s big, or it’s fancy.
- It is not really a joke about never finding a horse that is cheap, sound, sane, and pretty, is not a thing, you get 2, or 3 of those not all 4.
- It costs anywhere from $2000 (if the horse lives at your house and is extremely low maintenance) to $15,000 (if your board is $1000 a month plus regular shoeing and vet bills) a year to care for a horse. Be prepared for these expenses prior to purchasing a horse.
- Get a pre-purchase exam! I have gotten flak for doing a PPE on a $1500 horse, I spent $1000 on PPEs between 3 horses to buy a $1500 horse. I could only afford board on 1 horse and I wanted something sound so I could jump. It doesn’t guarantee a sound horse for life but it’s better than buying the horse, only to find out it has arthritis in all 4 legs which was the case with one horse I vetted.
- Go to the PPE if you can! You will learn sooo much.
- “Free Horse” is an oxymoron. There is usually a reason it is free, like it is a nutcase, isn’t sound, needs a ton of vet work, etc. Also, see above about the annual cost per year to care for the horses. If you are going to be spending $10k a year in care, it’s worth spending money on a quality horse that will make you happy.
- Sometimes, the first horse you meet is the perfect one! Most of the time, it isn’t, sometimes it’s not until the 15th or 20th horse that you find what you are looking for. See above point about vetting 3 horses and having to pass on 2 of them. It’s very disappointing but in the end, the perfect partner is worth the wait.
Tips for beginners or timid riders (one year of riding to about 5 years):
- TAKE YOUR TRAINER! I have seen so many people go look at horses without their trainer, they buy the horse, no one is happy. Your trainer has to work with this horse along with you, your trainer will help steer you to a good partnership for everyone.
- If you are not comfortable on the horse when you ride it before you buy it, you probably won’t ever be comfortable riding it. There are a few caveats to this but I tried one when I was a kid, I didn’t like it, it was cheap so my mom and a friend tried to talk me into it “with all the money you save, you can put it in training”. As a kid who had been waiting 6 years for a horse, this was a tough spot, I stuck to my guns though, I was glad. Also, see above comment about not taking the trainer.
- Pretty is as pretty does, more to the point above about buying the pretty horse. I remember a beginner rider admiring Emma the “Dragon Mare” and my trainer described her as a firework, she is pretty to look at but she will burn you.
- At this phase in your riding, don’t overlook the older guys an 18-20 year old horse is not too old to be doing things. This is especially true if you tend to be a more timid rider. There is a lovely lady that events her 25 year old gelding. She is comfortable with him, he packs her around like a pro, and they are Beginner Novice rock stars!
- A little Maintenance should be ok. Trust me, maintenance is cheap compared to being scared of your horse, no longer riding, and then paying for a pasture ornament.
- If you have aspirations of Olympics and don’t want to deal with having to sell a horse in 3-7 years (depending on your current level, level of commitment, and desire to move up), consider leasing a horse, there are a lot of great horses out there and now with social media, you have access to tons of opportunities. Your trainer may even have one you can lease, and if you do get scared of a lease horse, you just cancel the lease, end of commitment.
- Dear Parents, I know it sounds like a good idea to buy a horse so the horse and your kid can “Learn Together”. This is a terrible idea. It’s like showing up for your kid’s first day of kindergarten and finding out your kid’s teacher is another 5 year old driving a bulldozer. “Why a bulldozer?” Because a normal 5 year old can’t cause major injury, horses are strong and heavy, they can seriously hurt someone.
- If you have unlimited money, please send it to me… actually the world is your oyster, most of these rules don’t apply except for the first one. Depending on your sport, price tags can get up to $250,000 or more for a very pretty saint that will pack you around whatever course you want. Even then, those usually need some kind of maintenance or sports therapy.
For Intermediate Riders (4-10 years):
- Taking your trainer is still a good idea, again, all 3 of you have to work together.
- Now is not the time to buy a “dragon horse”, it may be fancy and a pretty mover but constantly fighting the dragon can wear you down and take the fun out of riding.
- Buy a horse that is within your commitment level, some horses need to be ridden 7 days a week, see above about dragon horse. If you have school/work/kids/life, and can only ride 3 days a week, either buy a horse that is ok with that level of work or be prepared to pay a trainer to ride the horse the other days.
- This is also not time to buy a foal that you will grow with and train yourself, you might be able to handle a restarted OTTB if it is a quiet one and you have help from your trainer. Do not go to the back of the track and pick one up. Lily is super quiet and very well trained and handled, the first few rides were teaching her that there are gaits other than walk, canter, and gallop. Mostly we did a lot of halting. This takes patience and knowledge that most intermediate riders are not ready for.
Advanced Riders (10 years +):
- First of all, most of you even with 15 years of experience or more are not what I would consider advanced. Most advanced riders have been working students, have taught lessons, can/will/have ridden just about anything. This group of riders tend to be looking for a horse for performance purposes, prelim eventing, 4′ jumpers, Prix de St. Georges levels at a minimum.
- If you are at this level, you should be able to assess the horse on the conformation level. When shopping, conformation does not guarantee soundness but it goes a long way to helping it. Ensure the horses you purchase have no major conformation faults.
Inspect legs for blemishes that can cause lamenesses in the future. Some blemishes are merely cosmetic, such as an old leg scar, some are signs of problems like bone spavins. Emma has thoroughpins, they have never bothered her they are more of a blemish, Lily has osselets “racing jewelry”, so far we haven’t had problems but it’s something that I will have to watch.
- You will want to be more discerning about “Maintenance” issues, usually if a horse needs joint injections, there is something going on in the joint that is not good.
- You will look at “prospects” more when you get to this phase in your riding. There is a chance the horse you go to ride doesn’t know how to steer, halt, or pick up both leads, you need to be prepared to ride this and discern whether you are capable of handling those situations and train them to become the horse you want. Some of these horses will be unpredictable and may buck, rear, bolt, etc. If the idea of this has you quaking in your shoes, it is probably best to steer clear of the “Prospects”.
You will get to meet some interesting characters looking at prospects especially off the track horses. The man I bought Emma from was still riding at 72 and he quit breaking horses at 68! His place was not fancy and he “caught” Emma for pictures using a bit of twine he picked up out of the pasture. Lily was literally bought off the back of the race track, I never rode her. A friend who works at the track looked at her, said she liked her, then I looked at her, watched her jog down the aisle and bought her on the spot. The trainer that had Lily showed me the chiro and stretches that he used on her, then showed me every horse in his barn, for sale and not for sale, told me about all of them, I was there for about 2 hours, it only took me about 10 minutes to “buy” Lily. Being polite is the best way to go “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”.
“I have been riding for 18 years but I don’t think I want a horse that can’t steer. That is why I have Fluffy Pony. He is the best, and his steering works…most of the time, when there isn’t a gate nearby.” Like I said the years are more of a general guideline, some people will get a prospect after 5 years, some people would rather have a beginner horse for 40 years. You have to be able to assess the situation you are comfortable in. A person that takes 4 lessons a week will advance much faster than a person who takes 1 lesson a week. A person that has ridden 50 different horses will tend to have more experience than a person who has ridden 3-4 different horses. Each person’s situation is different, you should assess your situation with your trainer/coach/riding aficionado.
“I noticed that your beginner rider starts at 1 year, why you gotta exclude those that have been riding less than a year? They are people too!” For the less than a year crowd, I don’t recommend you buy a horse. I had a friend that decided she was going to get her concealed handgun licence and buy a gun. I told her to take a class at a local gun range. She took one class and decided she hated shooting. Some people will fall off a horse for the first time and decide they are done riding. They may be excited about it the first few months, then decide it’s hard work that they don’t want to commit to. A lot changes in the first year, remember that $2000-$15,000 a year cost commitment to taking care of a horse? You don’t want to be on the hook for that kind of money if after 3 months your kid decides they like soccer better, or you find out that work keeps you too busy to ride more than once a week.
At the end of the purchase, the goal is to have a horse that you will enjoy. Be honest with yourself and your trainer as to what your goals are. Trust me, it’s not worth the hassle and headache of buying a horse that is not the right fit.
Disclaimer: I am not a professional horse shopper/trainer/jockey, nor donkey trainer, these are merely observations upon purchasing horses for myself and helping others.