In my previous article I wrote about choosing the right training ‘path’ for your interests. That subject had many inherent potential pitfalls as far as upsetting folks by coming out as against someone’s heartfelt or long held belief; but it was nothing compared to the one I am tackling here.
Let me begin by saying that if I ever come across as sounding like I prefer one type of horse, or even breed, over another it is because I do, but this is only a personal preference based on my experience with horses over the years. I have come to understand that particular types of horses have different strengths and weaknesses and so, like everyone, I prefer those breed that have shown specific suitability to the equestrian activities I prefer.
Throughout history Man has altered the form of animals, through Controlled Breed, from what Natural Selection alone had produced. This process has allowed us to create specific breeds, for specific purposes. The more specialized the purpose, the more pronounced the difference between breeds. Early on, horses were identified by the region where they were breed. For example, the “Spanish Horse” was well known as a prized and highly sought after warhorse. During the Middle Ages, horses in Europe began to be identified by the job they did best; The Destrier was a powerful, charger exceptionally trained for heavy armored combat; The Courser was an agile, fast warhorse more suitable for broken field battles; the Palfrey was a beautiful and highly trained horse for ceremonial and other special occasions; a Jennet was a standard, reliable riding horse and so on. Each of these terms were applied to a horse once it was decided what classification its conformation and training best it suited for, though obviously the people raising the horses probably had a direction in mind when they bred them.
Now clearly there were horses which today we recognize as unique breeds dating back a couple millennia. The Arabian is one commonly known, but there are other less well known breeds that can be traced back as long or perhaps longer. However, it has only been in the last several hundred years that the specialized breeding of horse has led to most of the breeds we see today. This specialized breeding was aimed at producing an animal with superior natural abilities in specific activities. The longer a breeding program has been around the greater the likelihood that it will be noticeably different from other breeds in conformation, especially when compared to other older breeds intended for quite different activities. Some of the more highly specialized or unique breeds define their own classification, such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians. Conversely, recognized breeds participating in similar activities will tend to fewer differences between them. These similarities are what is used to categorize breeds into ‘types’. Some of these types would be “Draft”, “Baroque”, “Warmblood”, “Stock Horse”, etc. It is my hope to talk more about types here than breed, though as I have mentioned, some breeds literally define a type.
Deciding on a horse for yourself is decision with many factors beyond physical suitability. Cost, color preference, and availability tend to weigh more in the decision making process than physical suitability for most people. “I want a big black horse.” “Oh isn’t that colored horse flashy?” “Why would I pay 5 grand for a horse when there are a dozen on Craig’s List for $500?”. The first piece of advice I give people is make color the LAST factor in your decision making process. The second has to do with purchase price; while obviously important initial cost should be less of a factor that many others. After all, the real cost of horse ownership begins after you have purchased the horse. If a few hundred dollars are so important to your budget as to keep you from chosen a better suited horse over a lesser one, then you probably can’t afford to own horses in all reality. See, I told you I was likely to upset someone. So now that I have alienated folks who love a specific color of horse and those who work two jobs so they can have the horse they love in their back yard, let us move on to what I think are the really important factors in choosing a horse.
The important factors when deciding on the suitability of a horse for purchase are:
Mind – What sort of mind do you want your horse to have? Calm? Subordinate? Dominate? Fiery? Steady? Smart? Brave? Every horse is a combination of these factors and many more. Smart horses are not always preferred by people new to horse ownership. Dominate horses can be a challenge for those lacking presence and experience. Calm can mean lazy. Brave can be very situational. I personally like smart, engaged and brave horses because that suits my training best, but this might be the very worst combination for someone with different needs.
Conformation – It is important to choose a horse with the conformation best suited to your intended use. For instance, generally speaking stock horse don’t make great dressage horses because of their neck and head set; Warmbloods are not great endurance horses because they are too thick; Forde horses are not great jumpers; Shires are not great gaming horses, etc. But remember that each horse is an individual. There are often greater differences in conformation between individual horses of the same breed than there are between two horses of different breeds. Not sure what conformation is best for your needs? Ask a professional.
Training – Purchasing a trained horse is of course a huge plus, but a well trained trail horse is not the same as a well trained dressage horse, which in turn is not remotely like a well trained cutting horse. I personally believe a good solid ‘foundation’ training, including bending, conditioning and balancing work is a must for any discipline, but beyond that, things can get pretty specialized pretty fast. Not sure what sort of training the horse might need to get it to the level you want? Ask a professional
Health – Now we are going to assume the we don’t need to talk about health issues here. None of us are going to purchase a horse with an injury or developmental flaw right? I mean this would never happen, right? Yes, it happens all the time. Someone falls in love with the look of a horse or its personality or some other factor important to them and then they start overlooking the bad hoof or clear sign of pain or whatever. “Oh that is not bad, we can fix that.” Well sometimes this is true and sometimes people buy a lovely, friendly animal that it turns out they cannot ride. Not sure about the health issues of a specific horse? Ask a professional
Age – Baby horses are very cute and a lot fun, but it can be four or five years before you will be able to ride it. Older horses have experience, but sometimes that experience has been bad. The younger the horse, the longer you will have it, but a mature horse, depending on what it has done in its life, might get you to your goals faster. As a rule of thumb, the more difficult the equestrian activity the longer it will take to prepare the horse for it, therefore the more training needed and the younger you need the horse to be. Not sure what the pros and cons are about a horse’s age in relation to your needs? Ask a professional.
Detecting a theme here? Yes, it is impossible to cover all the factors involved with picking a horse, in any detail, in a written article. All I can do is help you to know what knowledge you should have available to you before approaching the horse buying process. So how do we factor all this in?
Picking a horse that has other factors that recommend it, but with a wrong mental makeup, will make your life far more difficult than getting one with the right mind, even if it will require work to condition or train it. Wrong conformation may have you end up with a horse that is just fine to ride, but simply cannot ‘win’ at the activity most important to you. Limited or no training will cost you after the purchase; either in actually money if you pay an expert to do it for you, or in time if you do it yourself. A badly or incorrectly trained horse will cost you more. Some health issues are worse than others and sometimes you CAN fix a problem yourself. If you are not sure, error on the side of caution. Too young and you have to wait to train; too old and the sooner you will be looking for a replacement.
So you are seeking a horse with a good, undamaged mind, with correct conformation for your activity, a level of training you can work with, in good health and of a age suitable to your timeline. Those who know what they are doing when it comes to horses can weigh all these factors and balance them against the budget they have to work with, to pick the right horse for them. Those who ‘think’ they know will often make really bad decisions. My advice is before you go look at a horse to purchase, rope the most horse knowledgeable person you know to go with you. Preferably this should be someone who knows a lot about the equestrian activity you are interested in taking part in.
In the end I will add this… Trust your instincts but be wary of your heart and never go look a horse by yourself. Weigh all the factors before investing in a horse because they can be will you for many years, so you want to pick the right one for you.