What do you do when a student or your child says “I want a horse”? Buying the first horse can feel like jumping into a crater lake when you only know how to dog paddle. Buying one too soon can be a disaster, while buying the right horse at the right time can increase skills and character, while enriching your child’s life. But how do you know when it’s “time”?
If you’re an adult who has waited since childhood to be in that spot that you can finally achieve horse ownership, you’ve probably done the required leg work to determine when to take the plunge.
But if you’re a parent whose 10 or 12 year old is relentlessly begging for a horse, you have my sympathy because that’s a whole new scenario. “I want a horse” can become a mantra for a horse obsessed kid.
Horses are good for kids, right? They teach responsibility, right? We all want to give our kids good things. . .
Horses are Expensive….right
Before you start searching for a horse, you should ask yourself, “Can I afford it?” The following is written to give you the opportunity to walk into horse ownership with our eyes open, increasing your potential for successful horse ownership.
I usually suggest that the parent give their child the project of “counting the cost”. Ask her to research the cost of a horse, including vet exam, equipment and how much it will take to care for it for a full year. Let her add in the price of riding lessons, and any other horse activities she’s hoping to participate in. After you read this blog post, you and your child can go over her research and discuss the cost of horse ownership.
My information on prices is only a guideline. You’ll have to research your own area. There can be a huge difference in all of the prices depending on whether you live on the East Coast, West Coast or in the MidWest or South. But this will give you a place to start.
Under normal circumstances, the initial price of the horse is only a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of its care and maintenance. What should a good horse cost? Although there is always the odd, free horse or the great buy, cost usually depends on your child’s skill level and what you want the horse to be able to do.
When I look for a lesson horse that will be safe and well trained for a 12 year old who walks, trots and is beginning to canter, I plan on spending up to $5,000. Past $5,000 I want that horse to have a few “bells and whistles”. Every instructor has their own criteria but I would never consider pairing an untrained horse with an untrained rider or a young horse with a rider who is starting out. This is never a way to save money, nor is it the place to save money. Choose wisely. I prefer to put a beginning rider on an older more experienced horse. After all, the first horse is the introductory animal and it will help cement a rider’s foundation. There will be time for young, green, or fancy later on.
I repeat, the purchase price is only the beginning. The horse will need a vet exam to be certain he can physically do the job. In my area that can cost several hundred dollars. And he’ll need to be transported from point A to point B, usually payable by the mile, unless you can arrange for delivery to be included in the purchase price.
Once the horse arrives at the new home you’ve chosen for him, maintenance begins. Unless you have a piece of land on which you can build a shelter and fence, and provide clean water, you’ll likely board the horse at a stable. The average price for boarding in stable in my area is $400 a month. Unless you have the knowledge to care for and feed a horse, boarding is your best bet.
Your horse will need hoof care every 6 weeks ranging from $45 for a trim to $105 for shoes. Yearly shots, coggins test, and periodic worming will cost $350-$500. Add in another $200-$300 for yearly dental care.
My horses always manage to get sick after hours, which of course, costs more. Lately, each of my emergency visits from the vet has cost around $500 for basic things such as choke, lacerations, pigeon fever and colic.
Horses Require Stuff. . . lots of Stuff
You probably have already experienced the “stuff” your child needs for riding, so you won’t be surprised that horse “stuff” is expensive. Used horse “stuff” can save some money. There’s the “stuff” the horse really needs, the renewable “stuff”, like fly sprays, and then the “stuff” your child will want to be cool. We’ll deal with the necessities in this list. You and your child can check the internet for prices. A low side estimate for new is about $2000.
The minimum needs for your horse are:
- Lead Rope
- Stirrup Pads
- Stirrup Leathers
- Saddle Pad
- Curry Comb
- Body Brush
- Dandy Brush
- Hoof Pick
- Stable blanket or turn out rug (Depending on your climate)
So It’s Just The Money?
Actually the money is not the most important factor in buying your child a horse. It’s just the easiest to quantify.
Buying a family’s first horse will seriously change the dynamics and responsibilities in your family. It will change your activities, as well as your child’s. Are you ready for the change? You’ll be adding a new member to your family, even if he lives at the trainer’s barn. He’ll have “needs”. No longer will you just head out for weekly or twice weekly riding lessons. Your child’s horse will need daily attention and regular riding. He’ll need to be groomed and exercised even when he’s not going to be ridden. Dinners, trips and holidays may be interrupted by the horse. The phrase “I want a horse” effects the entire family.
# 1 Consideration in Purchasing Your Child’s First Horse is…
Your child. Is she really ready? At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that horses teach responsibility. That’s only partially true. Horses teach responsibility to children who have a sense of responsibility. It’s really parents who teach responsibility. The horse can be your partner in developing responsibility in your child. Or you could end up with all the responsibility heaped on yourself. So, is your child ready to take on the day in and day out responsibility of handling and caring for a horse?
The following are guidelines that should help you decide if your horse crazy child over 10 years old is ready for a horse of her (or his) own. The child I’m thinking of will want to spend lots of time with the horse, occasionally riding without the instructor watching and sometimes riding with her friends. My guidelines are not a recommendation on what to buy, but rather when to buy.
Your Child’s Riding Skills
Every horse purchase and horse/rider situation is different but our end goal remains pretty much the same. You want your child to be safe while she expands her horsemanship skills and lives the dream of owning her own horse.
Living with the first horse is a learning process. Your child needs to have the maturity to take on responsibility, develop critical thinking skills, keep a cool head if trouble arises and control an animal that is about 10 times her weight.
If you buy a horse before your child is ready; even when she insists she is, you run the risk that she will lose interest in the horse. Children loose interest when they become scared, feel inadequate, become discouraged, find the work too hard or the commitment too much. In that case, you’ll have a horse and all of its equipment to sell.
If your child maintains interest but isn’t ready to do things for herself, guess who will end up doing them. You. (Or you’ll pay a trainer to do it.) Once a child becomes dependent on another person to do the things that are required in horse ownership, their potential for becoming independent and self sufficient diminishes. In this case, buying a horse too soon has set your child up to learn to pass the scary, difficult or unpleasant jobs to someone else and you’ll quickly become the horseman in your family. Choose wisely, both in timing for your child and in purchasing a horse.
Your rider should be able to walk, trot posting, and canter (or walk, jog and lope) with control, in the arena before she rides without supervision. Her skills won’t be perfected but it’s important to know that she can manage the horse if it breaks into the canter or spooks while she’s on her own.
IMHO, a timid rider needs to have more developed skill sets before horse ownership because she will be more apt to allow the horse to be in control. A more assertive rider will, in general, be quicker to correct her horse and become its leader. In either case, children need gentle, well trained, mature animals; not greenies, training projects or something to grow up with or into.
Being able to ride her horse whenever she wants is one of the driving factors for horse ownership. We want to be sure that the child’s skills are such that she is safe in the arena riding with others. Your child should be comfortable riding in a group lesson and in a practice arena, observing the courtesy, safety and skill required for riding with others.
Your Child’s Horse Handling Skills
A child should be mature enough to take on responsibility and work on her own. Her ground skills should include catching the horse, haltering, leading, tying, grooming, cleaning all of the horse’s hooves, AND putting all of her equipment away, under no more than a watchful eye. She also needs to be able tack up by herself from putting on the saddle pad, saddle, breast plate, bridle with bit, all the way to adjusting her stirrups. If she has that much command over the horse and equipment she’ll have more confidence and control during riding. Choosing a size appropriate horse makes it much easier to hand and manage.
Your Child Should Be Under the Guidance of a Riding Instructor.
Your child should continue with riding lessons even after you purchase a horse. Dropping the horse and your child into a boarding barn without a good instructor that you are paying for lessons, is a recipe for injury and discouragement. The first horse is a huge step in your child’s riding life and she still needs guidance and education. Your child’s riding instructor will teach her the correct way to deal with the issues that arise with her horse. The instructor will also guide her toward improvement in her riding skills.
Your Child Needs to Respect Your Guidelines and Restrictions.
She must know, agree with, and be able to demonstrate basic safety rules. Establish clear rules and guidelines. Examples are: ride with a helmet. Don’t ride alone. Don’t jump unless your instructor says you’re ready. Don’t go out on a trail ride alone and never without telling your instructor that you’re going. Your child’s riding instructor can be a valuable source for establishing riding rules with your child.
Horse ownership is likely the biggest commitment your child has had to make so far in her life. She needs to understand how it will change her life and what things might be left behind. Having a horse means less time for hanging around with non horse friends, less time for the mall, less time for school activities and even homework (make every minute count!). Talk with your child about expectations. Use the opportunity to turn “I want a horse” into a stage of growth and development for your child.
Take the Advise of Your Child’s Instructor
I can’t say this too often. Take your child to a good riding instructor; one who shares your goals for your child and is well trained. A good relationship (translate- able to discuss and ask questions) with your child’s instructor will benefit both of you. Kids (and parents) often have stars in their eyes about their dream horse. Your child’s instructor will be able to tell you if she demonstrates the skills necessary to become a horse owner. If she tells you that your child is not ready yet, please listen. Ask how much longer the instructor estimates, or what skills need to be mastered before she believes your child is ready.
When the perfect time arrives, the riding instructor can define the type of horse your child is capable of managing at this stage of their riding. They also know which type of horse will help develop your child’s riding skills and has the ability for the actives your child desires to pursue. It is important to have an instructor who can advise and help you with this huge step.
In A Nut Shell
Here it is in my simplest terms:
- Count the Cost
- Know your Child
- Seek the guidance of a riding instructor, and follow it
- Don’t get into a hurry, now matter how convincing your child is!
Sometimes parents have to develop a thick skin for the phrase “I want a horse” until the child is really capable of managing a large animal. Everyone wants to make their children happy but we’re with you on this. Stay strong until the time is right!
Here’s hoping that, someday, your child will have the perfect horse for many successful years of riding.
Thanks for reading!
Barbara Ellin Fox
Thank you for posting, what an excellent article. Rings true for me on so many levels. This year I lost a 5 year old student, the parents went ahead and bought him a pony and didn’t ask me for advice about it after I had taught their son for the past year. They did find another instructor but their child is very challenging to teach, so I hope it works out for them. I started to get concerned when I heard comments like, “the person (also the new instructor) who sold him to us had to show me (the mother) how to ride this pony”, “he’s a performance pony, very sensitive to leg and hand”. Meanwhile in his last lesson with me the kid was kicking my lesson horse constantly. Argh! So I am concerned this little boy is going to lose interest and possibly fall off this new pony. Thanks for posting. I will be sharing this with another students parent who wants to buy ther daughter a horse after only riding for 6 months. Way too soon in my opinion!
I feel the pain in this and see it so often. It’s a heart breaker for so many reasons. Thanks for your comment. Barbara
This was a very thorough blog post! I couldn’t agree more! It is an absolute blessing when a child has the opportunity to grow up with horses, but it has to be the right child, the right parent, and the right horse… at the right time. 🙂
Hey TK, how many people have you had look at your horse that claim to be experienced riders and when they get there, it’s clear that they don’t even know how to properly steer a horse? It’s amazing how people think they can ride because they’ve taken a few trail rides or they had a little Shetland pony when they were little….
Also, I completely agree with your thoughts on your child’s first horse! Personally, I believe that your first horse should always be a deadhead, a plodder, and/or “bombproof”! I am currently trying to sell a very hot barrel mare (who’s being started in dressage) that is very sensitive to mouth and leg pressure. She will go 0 to 60 in no time whatsoever. I expressly said in her ads that she needs an experienced rider; no young children… You wouldn’t believe how many parents have emailed and said, “My son/daughter is 5, but they ride very well. We’d like to try out your mare.” I even had one mother with a son with Down’s Syndrome that wanted to purchase my horse for him to ride. Needless to say, I declined every single offer such as those because this mare is not a babysitter, has too much speed for a child to handle, and could ruin a child’s love of horses (at best), or injure them!
If you are a parent, please, please, PLEASE don’t look at your child’s riding abilities through rose-colored glasses! It is SO important to be honest with yourself and your child! You could get them killed if you aren’t!!!
I’m lucky enough to have a mother that begged for a horse, and finally got one around the age of 8 or 9. She didn’t have money for a saddle, so she rode bareback, and took her mother’s guidance in caring for the horse. There were no instructors around her those days, and she wouldn’t have had the money anyway. She learned via trial and error.
Growing up with a parent that knows horse-care, and thrived under a family that had horses for generations, is a great advantage over those that don’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve argued with people over something so simple, or something I’ve done thousands of times to help a horse in some way, and the people I’m telling will blow me off because it “didn’t say that on the internet.” While I’m not saying that my advice is always the right action to take, I am saying that it never hurts to try something as long as it won’t harm the horse or rider.
Sometimes this first generation of horse ownership will take the advice of a trainer, and sometimes that trainer is a first generation themselves! That scares me the most! I knew of one lady (first generation) that had a horse with EPM, and her trainer (first generation, though you wouldn’t know it from how authoritative and opinionated about everything she was!) recommended they inject the horse with her own “EPM cure.” So they gave the horse an arsenic injection (without consulting a vet or having one there to administer the drip) and the horse was dead within 24 hours. I’ve also known plenty of instructors that ruined a good horse because they were horrible riders themselves. So really, getting the advice of a professional just depends on the professional! It’s the sad truth, but you can’t always trust those you think you should be able to trust!
It’s too bad there aren’t more children growing up in families that have roots in horsemanship. I’m afraid though, the majority of children that ride today come from families with no horse experience at all. It’s so important for them to find an instructor who is grounded and well trained. Thanks for your comments.
Thank you for your advice…I’ve tried and tried. The poor girl (she’s 15) knows that she cannot push her horse because of the lack of fitness. Her hands are tied worse than mine with a mother who is extremely strict and seems to know everything…from the internet!!! I had to jump through many hoops to get them to agree to a chiropractic adjustment for their horse (the horse clearly had some back issues) and then had to twist a few arms to get the agreement for the dentist to do her thing! I tear my hair out on a consistent basis!
Great article! I especially like the part where you say that your horse will change your family activity schedule. I have students that only come on the weekend to ride. That poor horse has no chance to develop any sort of fitness level. I offered to use the horse in lessons to keep her in tune but they declined my offer…afraid of liability. Geez, what’s a person like me to do with people like this? Explaining to them doesn’t work….
The scenario you mention happens way too frequently. Maybe if you talk to the parents about the need for their child to practice between lessons instead of focusing on the horse. When I board a student’s horse I make it clear that the horse has to have a certain amount of exercise and if they don’t provide it I will at a certain fee to them. I can get by with that because I’m not in the boarding business. I’m in the student business. Everyone has to set their own standards and stick to them or else there is a certain amount of “trembling underfoot”, if you get my drift. The best advice I have is that you have to decide what you can live with in your own place, and then be firm about it in a kind way…be assertive!:-).