Choosing a first horse: Avoiding behavioural problems

Everyone has ideas about what they want their first horse to be like… Prioritise what is most important to set yourself up for a successful partnership.

It’s very tempting when you’re looking for a horse to buy or loan – or even to share – to dream big. Whether you have been riding for years or are fairly new to the activity, you will have some idea of what kind of horse you’d like to have and what you would like to do with your equine partner.

For some people, the dream is to have a fairy-tale steed: a proud Friesian stallion, or a spirited Arab. For others it’s all about nurturing a foal from its first tentative steps to adulthood, fostering a close bond and doing everything yourself. Some may dream of becoming a top competitor, to have an athletic, powerful Warmblood who can jump at Grand Prix level. Even those with more modest goals can easily get swept up in the concept of a specific breed or type, or be swayed by emotion to rescue or rehabilitate a ‘problem horse’.

Belgian Warmblood free jumping
It is better to choose a horse that suits your current abilities and can help you achieve your current goals, rather than one which matches what you hope to be able to achieve in the future.

But if you have limited experience with horses – and it is important here to be very honest with yourself – then these may all be terrible choices.

Before choosing the horse that’s right for you, consider what you want to get out of the experience of owning a horse. The vast majority of horse people would likely say that, most of all, they want to enjoy themselves and cultivate a strong relationship with their horse that is reasonably stress-free.

Each of us will also have some specific additional requirements – we may need a horse that can carry our weight or is forgiving enough for a child to also ride.

And then we will also have some longer term goals. Some may wish to develop their riding. Some will want only to hack or school at home. Others will want a horse that can be their partner in various competitive endeavors. And some will simply want a companion they can fuss over and admire. There are probably as many different goals as there are people with horses!

A good idea is to sit down and make a list of requirements. Then go through that list and remove any requirement that is purely aesthetic. By this I mean anything that isn’t really about the horse’s ability to fulfil the role you would like them to fill. For instance, if your goal is to hack, it doesn’t matter what breed or colour the horse is. You might prefer a certain breed or colour but set that aside for the time being.  

buckskin Lusitano
Setting aside colour preferences and other superficial criteria will ensure you don’t miss out on the perfect horse for you… You will end up loving them all the same, whether they are buckskin or bay.

Then remove any criterion that is ‘for the future’. That is, cross out anything that you cannot currently do but hope you’ll be able to do. If you’re currently only trotting poles, cross out ‘Grand Prix show jumper potential’ for instance.

When searching through ads, use these most basic criteria to filter the ads first. This will prevent you from making decisions based on factors that should be secondary.

By all means, once you’ve narrowed it down, you can pick out the horses that happen to fit your less important preferences more closely as well.

But don’t go out and buy or loan  a 2 year-old if you’re after a schoolmaster. Or go for a 17hh warmblood that can jump 1.60m when your only experience is of school horses and trotting poles. Or a beautiful palomino colt when you’ve never handled youngsters or stallions.

Go out and find the horse you need now… That you could get on and ride – or do whatever it is you want to do – the very next day.

Of course there are dozens of exceptions where someone ended up with a horse that was less than suitable and managed just fine. Even instances where they felt they learned a lot, were rewarded for their efforts and have no regrets. But for every one of these cases there are also dozens where things went terribly wrong.

The problem with horses is that when things go wrong it is the horse that is likely to suffer most. So as people who care about horses, it is our responsibility to put ego aside and choose a horse that is truly suitable. Even if there’s a small chance that things would work out just fine, the risk is not worth it for the horse.

Falling for a sob story or buying into a fantasy could mean that you are passing over a wonderful horse that you could have a real partnership with. There are always suitable horses in need of a home so take your time to find that special one that fits your individual situation so that you can truly enjoy your time together and build a solid, low stress relationship that you’ll treasure.

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