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Finding the right horse

From: Joan

Dear Jessica:

When you signed my copy of Riding for the Rest of Us at Equitana last year - you invited me to write. Although I read all the list mail & have learned SO much - I haven't had anything to write about 'til now. So in order to make up for not writing for a year - I submit this simple question and its epic length background.

I need some advice.

After taking weekly lessons for almost 2 years, I moved into a 1/2 lease on a sweet older Arabian gelding this fall. I love him dearly and he is a good learning experience for me - his mom & I get along well and ride at about the same level --- he has wonderful manners and puts up with my learning with/on him and even though he is in his late teens - he still has a lot of get up & go (often more than I wish he did).

I now know how much: the farrier costs, boarding costs, blankets cost, extra shavings cost, supplements & wormers cost, & vet visits cost. I also know how to pick & strip a stall, feed, lunge, medicate, groom,  bring in, turn out, and why people in the midwest (even posh dressage/CT people) live in farmer's insulated coveralls and rubber insulated boots in the winter. I understand that it is sometimes necessary even a full board barn to give meds for an owie - BEFORE - going in to work.

I have a super vet, farrier & teacher and an available stall at a wonderful barn full of a few kids and a bunch of great adult riders from their 20's to ? who give advice --- and are encouraging - not condescending to a beginner.

I have come in to a little extra money which frees up enough in my budget to meet all expenses on my own. So, finally........ the QUESTION:

How in the heck do you take conflicting advice & figure out what kind of horse to look for....

My barn friends know pretty much what my goals, "conformation" and abilities are. Middle aged, stocky, timid, riding again after 20 + year gap, not completely balanced, hands not independent yet -- but getting closer and less timid & more able to be pushed --- starting to ride through bumps rather than freak out & cry - not anticipating stuff yet -- but starting to feel & react to what the horse is doing --- My goals- mostly dressage -- and some trail riding --and I'd like to eventually do some cross rails & little jumps too -- Riding is starting to be FUN and I want my own horse partner to "bond" with.

Part of me wants a companion horse for life -- but part of me hopes that I will be able to move to a higher level horse in a few years --- and everyone is advising me differently ---- on everything from how much I should pay, how old the horse should be, to what breed and color he (the consensus is gelding) should be....

I would love to find a "too short' warmblood or draft cross --- or a calm Morgan or Quarab -- but what seems to be around in my price range is TB off track or Quarter Horse -- I know that I am nowhere ready to deal with retraining a race horse -- so it is starting to look a lot like a quarter horse ---- ( I met a darling Arabian 5 year old filly -- but EVERYONE is in agreement that she would not be my confidence builder). I know that a halter Quarter horse with little feet is NOT what I want ---a balanced not to large Quarter horse seemed like a possibility --- but a friend's very good trainer -- just lectured me extensively on why I don't want to consider a quarter horse at all -- downhill, unable to extend (at this point I'm thrilled with any sort of rhythmic trot)  Of course, 10 minutes later- friends who are pretty serious (adults doing prelim. eventing )- said a Quarter horse is just what I need to start out.

I love my lease guy, so I am not in a super hurry -- I've contacted Internet sources, local papers, and have farrier, vet & other people on the lookout --- "networking"

Now, My biggest question is how do you determine what to look for in the first place???

Uh oh --- Addl complication alert!-- just saw a tape of a really pretty young, quiet quarter horse -seems nicely put together & in proportion on the tape - also seems sound on tape (3 of last 5 tapes have had horses with obvious limps). He is being shown in 1/4 horse circles -- so all the gaits are real slow, but he seems to be stepping under -- and showed signs of potential for "impulsion" -- Can a quarter western pleasure horse learn to carry his head "properly" -- this guy appears to be pretty even on top -- but could trip over his lovely nose -- or I could get ahead & slide off over his ears!! He seemed to move quietly & willingly - but under both English & Western tack - carried his head low -- he did however stay in a 3 beat canter, which everyone seemed to think was a very great thing -----Enough people besides me  thought he looked nice on tape that I am going to try to get an in person visit with him.

Yes, I know this is more than one question -- but I'm pretty taken by the horse described above - he looks like a kind happy guy -- or maybe... I'm just in horse search shock & any tape that has a half decent looking horse on it is starting to look pretty darn good!!!

Your thoughts will be appreciated.  Thanks

Joan  Hi Joan!  I'm glad you wrote, and I hope I'll see you again at this year's Equitana USA.

Your problem is one that a LOT of riders face, but very few of them think it out in as much detail as you've shown me. Well done!

Let me begin by reminding you that you like your leased horse. Hold that thought -- it may take three months, six months, or a year or longer to find exactly the horse you want to own, and in the meantime, you can go on learning and improving as long as you have access to the good horse you're leasing. That horse is going to save you from the impatience that results in bad decisions -- the "Oh, I just HAVE to buy a horse NOW" feeling. That leased horse is your best friend.

ONE of your best friends, I should say. Your other best friend is -- or should be -- a competent, safety-oriented instructor whom you trust. The single most important ally you will ever have in your horse-hunt is a trusted instructor, someone who works with you, knows you and your riding and how you interact with horses, understands your fears and physical problems and goals, and will be able to advise you on whether you and a particular horse will be a good match.

There's no reason that a good, sound horse can't be a companion for life AND a move-up horse. Horses move up to match their riders' abilities. Unless you're looking for a Grand Prix jumper or dressage prospect for competition, you can be assured that the sound, solid, sane Training Level/trail/crossrail horse you buy today can be the First Level/trail/small jumps horse you want in a couple of years. Horses aren't "fixed" in one place when it comes to their training. If you buy a horse today, and continue to learn and make progress, you'll find that you are actually re-training that horse every year or two. This will go on happening throughout the horse's life, as long as YOU are making progress with your riding and with your understanding of horses and horsemanship.

Don't worry that it's an "either or" situation -- it's not. Your horse will change, sometimes dramatically, as your skills improve. I've seen riders change their riding style, start taking lessons with a really good instructor, and completely transform their horses in a year or two, even when those horses are in their late teens and have less than wonderful conformation. ;-)

Obviously there are exceptions in extreme cases: if your first horse is a benevolent elderly semi-sound draught horse that lets you ride him anywhere at a walk in a halter and lead rope, you WILL need another horse if you're planning to pursue active riding in the dressage or the jumping arena. But that's an extreme case, and if you find a pleasant, reasonably well-built, sound, experienced horse for your first mount, you will find two things: first, it will take you several years to reach your horse's stage of training; and second, once you are able to do with him everything that he knows how to do NOW, you and the horse will be able to move up TOGETHER.

Again, this presupposes the presence of a good instructor. ;-) Many riders make the mistake of buying a horse that is many levels ahead, hoping that the horse's knowledge and experience will somehow "rub off" and cause a huge leap in their riding skills. In fact, unless that rider has constant competent HELP, the horse's training will simply drop back to match the level of the rider's ability. This is something we see all the time at the upper levels of dressage: riders with more money than sense will try to buy their way up the levels by purchasing horses that are many levels and years beyond them. If such a rider has a good teacher and is willing to do an immense amount of work, the rider MAY eventually catch up with the horse. But in most cases, this isn't what happens, and the horse drops down through the levels until the frustrated rider sells it, purchases another expensive upper-level horse, and the process begins again.

Color shouldn't matter unless you're obsessed with a particular appearance -- and you should be aware that colour and markings can drive a price very high. Pinto Warmbloods, for example, are presently "flavour of the month" and in great demand, and there are a lot of horses selling for high prices on the basis of their colouring and not much else. ;-)

Size shouldn't matter terribly much either. If I remember correctly, you would be best off with a compact horse of 15.0 or 15.2, possibly an old-style Morgan or a QH or QH cross.

There's no reason to avoid Quarter Horses -- a good QH is a sane and sensible animal! But look amongst trail horses and "using" horses, not WP show horses, for a riding prospect. Many WP horses are trained using methods that damage their bodies permanently, all are started very early, before their bodies are anywhere near maturity, and it's better to avoid that whole issue if you can. It can be heartbreaking to fall in love with a horse that has been damaged, and to find that he'll never be able to do what you want him to do. If you find a good QH that's been a trail horse or a working ranch horse, you'll have a MUCH better chance of getting the movement, mind, and soundness that you want. Not all disciplines within the QH world require that a horse be built downhill or unable to extend! Watch a reining horse competition: you'll see balanced, UPhill horses with the ability to extend and compress on demand. The world is full of athletic Quarter Horses -- you just have to look for them in the right places. If you look in the wrong places, you may find an exceptional individual that has the right build and ability for your purposes and that can be salvaged, but be very sure that you and your instructor understand what's going to be involved in the process. If the horse you mention is one of those exceptional individuals, you may be able to retrieve it, but the process will take time and may involve putting YOUR progress on hold. Since your progress is what matters most right now, and will continue to matter most for the next few years, it's probably better to find a horse that can teach you NOW. It's a good idea for you and your instructor to go and see the horse together, but don't let yourself fall in love until you've had some reassurance that it's likely to work out. Another horse WILL come along, and YOU HAVE TIME.

For your purposes, it's best if you find a horse that is already doing what you want to do. If you want to do elementary dressage, trail riding, and small jumps, look for a horse that is already doing these things. You won't have to wonder whether his body will allow him to do them or whether his temperament will make him happy doing them. Someday, you may want to take a green horse or a horse that's been used for something else, and train it to do what YOU want to do, but don't try to do that with your first horse. You should be looking for an equine TEACHER, not a student. Your first horse or two will teach you, and then, with your instructor's help, you'll be able to think about teaching your third horse. ;-)

Don't worry about the conflicting advice you're getting; most riders have a particular breed, colour, gender, or age that they favour. If I were looking for a horse for you, I would be looking for a ten-to-sixteen-year-old gelding of 15.0hh or so, sound, balanced, quiet, and willing. I would HOPE to find one that was already experienced at basic dressage, trails, and small jump courses. Those would be my priorities, and the "pool" of suitable horses would be much larger if I didn't have to restrict myself to a particular breed or colour. It's possible to find this sort of horse -- but it becomes very difficult if, in addition to what I've listed, the horse also must be a bay Arabian with a blaze and four socks, or a black Morgan with a star. There's an old saying that "a good horse is never a bad colour". Keep it in mind. ;-)

You're doing exactly what you should be doing: homework and networking. You'll be ready when the right horse appears. Accept input from everyone, but remember that every rider has unique preferences, just as every driver has unique preferences, and you need to be sure that you're buying a horse (or car) for yourself, not trying to find one for a friend. With a good vet, farrier, and above all a good instructor helping you, you'll find the right horse if you're willing to be patient. You need a cheerful, sane, sound, confidence-builder that can help you learn, and that can move on WITH you in a few years. Don't look for the horse that you think you'll want in five years' time. For one thing, your ideas and goals may change. For another, you want something to ride and learn on and enjoy NOW.

So enjoy your leased horse, learn as much as you can from him, and ride other horses whenever possible (talk to your instructor) and learn from them. Everything you learn about horses and about yourself will help you add to your "want" list, and will make it easier for you to recognize the right horse when he appears.

Good luck!


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