Thursday, December 2, 2010

Int/Adv Purchasing your first horse

I've been doing a lot of horse shopping lately - both for the school and for clients, so I figured I'd address the things I've been explaining most often (ie, no the 4yo OTTB is not appropriate for your novice daughter :) So you've been in lessons for a while, maybe part-boarded for a bit, and now you're ready for your first horse! Sweet.

Or are you? Owning a horse is far more expensive than part-boarding and you can't just ride another one if it's off for some reason. Some expenses to consider before purchasing:

- board. This varies greatly from location to location. Some day there'll be a theory thursday on finding a good boarding facility :) Cost could be anywhere from $125 to $1025/mth -- and yes, I know people paying both those rates within an hour of where I live. Neither are exaggerated. This cost may or may not include things like: changing blankets, putting boots on for turnout, holding the horse for the vet or farrier. If it doesn't, you'll have to add those costs in as well or be prepared to take time off work to take care of it.

- supplements. If your horse needs anything extra in his feed, it's usually not an included cost. Certainly not all horses do, but enough do that it's worth mentioning.

- tack. You'll have to buy and maintain your own. Also boots, blankets, fly mask, brushes etc etc etc

- farrier. Every 4-6 weeks. Cost again varies greatly and depends in-part on what you need done. What kind and how many shoes does your horse wear? If they're light-weight aluminum on all four w/ pads on front, expect to be paying a small fortune. If your horse can go barefoot, it'll be significantly cheaper.

- vet. At least two annual preventative trips and be prepared for the emergency bill should something go wrong. Vet calls are not cheap. Whenever possible schedule them when somebody else needs a vet too to split the call fee.

- wormer. A small expense, but the little things eventually add up.

- lessons. Sometimes included in board but not often.

- trailering. Want to go somewhere? It's likely to cost.

- blankets. If you live somewhere it gets cold, plan on buying blankets. (See Blankets :) These are not cheap, and depending on your horse may need to be repaired or replaced regularly (I've had horses wear the same blanket for years with nothing other than cleaning, I've had others completely destroy several in one year.)

Still interested? Ok then what do you need to consider when shopping for a horse?

First - what do you want the horse for? Somebody interested in western pleasure is going to look for a very different horse than somebody who wants a jumper. What does the horse need for that job? What skills? What experience? What conformation? What personality?

Second - what is your price range? There's usually some negotiation room with horse prices so you can inflate a little, but be realistic -- there's no point looking at an $80,000 jumper if your budget is $5000.

What size do you need? If you're 6'4" and 250lbs, you're probably not looking for a 14.2hh pony. Otoh, if you're 4'nothing and 90lbs soaking wet, a 17.2hh warmblood is going to be an awful lot of work to ride. Not that, in either case, it can't be done (look at all the tiny women riding MASSIVE horses at the Olympics!) but in general, it's a good idea to find a horse who suits your size.

What level of training do you need? It is *not* a good idea for a green rider to get a green horse. "Learning together" while sounds cute, generally tends to be a bad idea. At least one of the pair should know what they're doing. Green on green leads to black and blue. Let me repeat, if you have never trained a horse before do NOT buy a green horse. Owning your first horse is challenging enough without adding first training experience to it too! That being said, if you have lots of experience, time and patience - bringing along a green horse can be an excellent experience. But if you're in that category, you probably already know that :)

What temperament do you want? Rarely will an uber-fit endurance arab compete well in dressage. Likewise the sainted quiet hack horse probably isn't going to be winning any races. If you're tense or nervous you need something quiet. If you want to compete in games, you need something a little quicker. If your sport requires patience and attention -- look for a horse who has those traits. It'll be a very different ideal horse than the for the sport that requires boldness and bravery. If you're a novice or low intermediate rider who just wants to do some of everything, consider looking for something that's been ridden in lessons or pony club. These horses have often seen it all and adopt a "been there done that" attitude. Just be sure you know why the school doesn't want them any more -- good schoolies are worth their weight in gold and rarely sold. "Rider off to university" and "More horses than space" are two of my favourite reasons -- I'll usually go look at those. Admittedly most sellers know that too, so as always, buyer beware.

Then you can start looking! Hit the Internet and call all the horse people you know. Somewhere, your horse is waiting for you. And once you've narrowed down the choices, get your coach or another experienced horseperson to go shopping with you. Let me repeat that -- take someone with you who knows what they're doing! While you're thinking "oh yeah I found my perfect horse! Look how pretty he is! And he nickered at me!" they'll realize the horse has a bowed tendon that's clearly not healed. Or the horse is blind. Or he's 4 x the age they're advertising. Or she's pregnant. Yes, I've seen every one of those before at some point -- although the pregnant one we didn't discover for several months - till she was nearly ready to deliver! 2 for 1 is only good if you're in a position to raise a foal. And let me clarify this for you - if you're new to horses, you are *not* ready for a foal. Remember the green on green discussion? Yeah, times 10.

When you go see the horse, try to get there a little early (although not so much as to inconvenience the seller). It's always good to see the horse being handled, groomed, tacked up. If the horse is nasty in the stall - do you really want to deal with that every day? If they can't catch her -- how much of a pita will that be when you're short on time to ride? You'll usually get to see the owner (or somebody) ride the horse first. Watch the horse's personality -- does it match what you decided you needed? How hard is the rider working to get results? If she has to hit it to get a walk, it's probably not going to be the most willing partner. How does it move? Is it sound? Is it tripping? Do it's legs move in a straight line? No horse is perfect, but you pick the traits that are the least harmful to your chosen discipline to live with. This is a huge part of why you're bringing a knowledgeable somebody with you!

Then if you feel safe and reasonably confident, get on the horse yourself. How responsive is she? Do you have stop/go/turn installed? Can you adjust your tack without him losing it? Does she stand quietly while you get on? How does the trot feel? The canter? Can you pick up both leads? If you're jumping - is the horse honest and confident to the fence or hesitant and not quite sure? Depending on your level of ability some of these will matter more than others. And mostly, is this a horse you want to ride every day? A horse that once you owned you would wake up each morning saying "yeah I get to go ride today!"

When you think you've found that one, get the vet out. Be prepared for the vet to tell you no. Be prepared to walk away when they do. It can be heartbreaking. But if the horse is going to be unsound most of the time, it's not going to be a fun match.


Beginner: Where Should I Learn to Ride?

So you (or maybe your child?) wants to learn to ride, but you have no horse experience. What now? How do you find a good place? What should you look for? What should you watch out for? What questions should you ask?

So how do you find a place?

Ask! That seems so obvious, but really it's the best place to start. If you have friends, family, random acquaintances who ride, ask! I've never met a horse person yet who isn't happy to talk to somebody who might be interested in riding. Just have a good excuse ready for when you've heard too much and need to escape!

And/or call your provincial organization -- they can point you in the right direction.

Once you have those lists, google. I put google last because of course you'll get the very good with the very bad. But if you're starting with a list of "potentially good" then you can flip through their sites and see what you think.

Once you have a reasonable number of schools to consider, visit them! And time the visit so you can observe a lesson.

While you're there things to watch for:

- general organization - are things organized? Do people know where to go and what to do? Is there help in the barn for any who don't?

- cleanliness - while barns with a lot of people through them (as lesson barns tend to be) are rarely spotless, it should be clean and in good repair. If there's junk lying all over the place, you have to wonder if they might be as sloppy with care or safety.

- tack - does each horse have their own? Is it clean and in good repair? Tack doesn't need to be fancy, new or expensive, but it does need to be safe! There should be no broken leather parts or fraying elastics. Bits (the part that goes in the horse's mouth) should be clean.

- horses - do they appear to be in good health? A new horse-person won't be able to evaluate on sight, but things to look for: are they alert, do they have some weight and muscle on them (ie not a ton of bones poking out everywhere), is the coat in good condition (soft, thick, shiny, consistent -- obviously when they're growing a winter coat or covered in mud after coming in from the paddock the shininess goes away, but the overall health stays).

- safety - everybody mounted should be wearing helmets. Even the adults. If they're not, run.

- do students tack up themselves? Students should be expected to groom and tack up and taught to safely handle the horses and perform these tasks.

Ask to meet the beginner horses. Beginner horses will probably not be the flashiest ones in the barn -- they're usually older and are chosen because they are kind and patient. Flashy and athletic usually requires more skill to ride! Any horse used to teach beginners should stand quietly while you pat them or move around them. If they're flinch or appear nervous, they're not likely a good match for a new rider. The horse should pick up its feet easily when asked. It shouldn't be particularly concerned about what's going on around them (noise, dogs, kids, etc). It should be at least 5 years old, preferably older. Horses become teenagers somewhere between age three and five -- and new riders should not be dealing with them, no matter how quiet they might've been at two! Be aware that even the quietest horse can have a bad moment -- they're living beings, and no horse shy of a stuffed-toy is absolutely 100% reliable. But you can get to about 99% and that's what you want for a new rider. Young and excitable horses are for experienced riders only.

Find out if the coach is certified. Certification is not mandatory in our industry -- you could hang a shingle out tomorrow claiming to be a coach. If you've watched a couple dvds you might even trick someone into hiring you. And unfortunately there are those who do. Note that certification alone does not a good coach make, but it *does* help weed out some of the bad ones! And until you have some experience in the industry, you won't be able to make that call. About the only time I wouldn't require certification from a coach is if they are currently producing top-level competitive riders. And realistically, that's not who you're going to for beginner lessons!

You will be able to get a list of current certified coaches from your provincial organization (ie in Ontario: That being said, keeping "current" is a bit of a pita, so don't discount somebody just because their name has dropped off the list. If they're certified, coaching regularly, and producing good riders, that's a good start.

Watch a lesson. Preferably more than one (I'd like to see a beginner lesson and a more advanced lesson as the dynamic can be quite different). Is the coach in control? Does she seem aware of all the horses in the ring and is she able to keep them organized. This requires more skill than you might think -- not everybody has it.

Are the riders mounted on appropriate horses? Do they seem to be under control? Can they stop/go/turn? A horse that won't go is a challenge every beginner faces and not a reason to avoid a facility. A horse that won't stop is inappropriate for a beginner rider. Although keep in mind it *might* be ok if you're watching an upper level lesson; for example, if an advanced student is learning to retrain a race horse.

Are the horses sound? If a horse is limping and still used in the lesson I would consider that a warning sign. There is the odd exception in a beginner lesson -- older horses may be arthritic and a modest amount of movement will actually help them. But if it's an advanced lesson, stay away.

How does the coach teach? Does she treat all the students equally? How does she deal with problems? Is her coaching style one that would work for you? Does she encourage questions? How do her students react to her? Keep in mind that different styles work for different people -- a coach who's great with four and five year olds may have an awful time trying to teach teens and adults - and vise versa.

Talk to the students. Ask what they like and what they don't like. What is a huge issue for one may be a non-issue for another. Every place has its pluses and minuses -- the trick is to find one whose minuses don't matter so much to you. Ie, a barn that has a zillion little kids around is great if you're looking for a place for your own little kid but potentially less good if you're looking for adult lessons.

Ask about the lesson program. Cost? Teacher/student ratio (if it's over 1:6 you're wasting your time). Cancellation policy? Commitment requirements? Extra opportunities available?

When you think you've found the right place, go for a lesson! See if it suits you. And have fun :)