Knowing When it's Time to Buy a New Horse

Knowing When it's Time to Buy a New Horse

Breaking up is hard to do, but it's important to know when it's time to change horses. Plus, read five tips on how to buy the right horse for you.

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By Charlie Cole with Sarah Wynne Jackson

You thought you’d have moved up to the next level by now. Instead, you’re still struggling to get into the ribbons in a division you’ve been in for years. You’re so frustrated that you don’t want to go to the barn anymore – every time you ride, it seems you’re having a constant argument with your horse. You wonder if he’s really the right horse for you.

AQHA Professional Horsman Charlie Cole of Highpoint Performance Horses in Pilot Point, Texas, is an AQHA Team Wrangler member. He has had numerous successes, including being a four-time AQHA Superhorse trainer and world champion in several events. He also coaches riders and locates horses for them, putting a great deal of effort into finding the right horse for each client. He offers tips on figuring out why your partnership with your horse isn’t working and what you can do about it.

Start With Your Goals

If you’re having difficulties with your horse, begin by reviewing your own riding goals. Where would you like your riding to be in one year, three years or five years? Perhaps you want to rise to the top of your discipline, such as western pleasure, or to learn to cut or rein. Maybe you want to become a good enough rider to take on a young horse one day.

Your individual situation will affect your goals. For instance, an older junior who will soon age out of that division might want to qualify for certain destination events. Your finances and the time you have available to ride also come into play.

Now, look at your horse while considering your goals. Maybe the goals just aren’t realistic for this horse. Some people shopping on a budget buy a horse with a previous injury that appears to be healed, but it might limit his performance ability more than they had originally thought.

Others decided to take a chance on a horse with a training issue, hoping it can be solved. But sometimes the training doesn’t go well, it’s more expensive than the owner anticipated or the owner doesn’t have the skill to maintain this particular horse’s problem after training is completed.

If you have a seasoned horse that knows his job and is physically capable, the problem might not be with him. Could it be that your goals are not appropriate for your skill level or the time you have available to commit to riding?

Things don’t always work out like we think, so it’s not unexpected that our goals must be occasionally adjusted. As a non-pro with job and family responsibilities, maybe you have less time and money to spend on riding and showing than you did in the past. Or perhaps you’ve made some accomplishments and now want to aim for higher goals, but your horse doesn’t have the conformation, athleticism or training to take you there.

Are You Mismatched?

As you investigate the reasons your partnership with your horse isn’t working, remember that it’s probably not your fault or your horse’s fault. People and horses are individuals with different preferences, styles and personalities. Not every pair will be a good match. The same horses can perform completely differently with other riders, even different riders of the same skill level.

If you’ve been riding for any length of time, you know that horses are individuals. Some would rather go slow, so they need more assertive riders who use their legs and keep them going forward. Other horses tend to rush or get nervous. They need sensitive riders who can instill confidence and self-control. There are also a few “professional horses” that know the job and will do it happily if you don’t interfere. Those horses need riders who sit still and balanced in the saddle and let them get to work.

There are also different kinds of riders. A soft rider might not be able to get the slow horse going but will calm the tense one. The firm rider might make the spooky horse even more edgy but bring out the brilliance in a laid-back animal. Similarly, someone who is apprehensive probably shouldn’t be riding a timid horse but one that has “been there, done that” and is confident in himself and the task at hand.

Because learning to ride well is a process that takes time, it may be that your horse is not appropriate for your current skill level. Being overmounted will only make learning to ride more difficult and dangerous for you. A novice rider certainly shouldn’t be on a highly sensitive or anxious horse. Ideally, that novice would be paired with a made horse that is self-assured, so the rider can focus on riding instead of responding to the horse’s needs.

Use Your Resources

Whenever we’re dealing with a problem, it’s always wise to consult someone knowledgeable. Ideally, you’ve been working with a trainer who has gotten to know you and your horse. Ask your trainer to help you analyze your personality, natural manner and tendencies so you understand your own riding style. Then ask him or her to compare that with your horse’s temperament. Does your trainer see any conflicts there?

It can also be helpful for that person to ride your horse. If that person has the same issues that you do, maybe the horse needs more training in that area or has a veterinary problem causing that behavior. 

For a recently purchased horse, talk to the previous owner.

If you’re having a problem that wasn’t an issue before, go back to the person you bought the horse from and ask whether the previous owner had that problem with this horse, how they solved it and what they did differently. That’s one reason it’s important to maintain a relationship with the person you bought the horse from.

Five Ways to Buy the Right Horse

1.    Ride as many different horses as you can, under the watchful eye of your trainer. Even if a particular horse isn’t for sale, knowing what type and temperament of animal you work best with is important. Then your trainer can find you a similar horse that is available.

2.    Work closely with your trainer and take his advice to heart. That’s what he’s there for. If you aren’t sure about a certain horse, don’t be afraid to ask your trainer to ride him first, so you can see how he behaves. If your trainer knows by riding him that the horse is not the right one, you won’t waste your time looking and can move on to some other possibility.

3.    Take the time to choose carefully. Instead of buying the first horse that comes along or the one that’s winning all the ribbons, look at the nitty-gritty details. Does his personality mesh well with yours? Does he have the education and athleticism to do the events you want to do? Are there any issues or gaps in his training that could be potential problems? Do you feel comfortable riding him? Do you and he “click”? It might sound trivial, but it can be important to a strong working relationship.

4.    Buy realistically, not emotionally. To those who get caught up in the beauty and brilliance of those high-octane horses you often see in the show ring, Charlie says, “Compare it to buying a car. You wouldn’t buy a kid a car that had bad brakes or one with lots of horsepower. As a new driver, he would be an accident waiting to happen. You’d get him something safe.” Similarly, novice riders aren’t safe on a horse that has holes in its education or is flighty and strong.

5.    Consider an older horse. “One of the biggest mistakes I see people make (especially beginners) is getting a young horse,” Charlie says. “I do the opposite. The younger and greener the rider is, the older the horse I get for them. Those older, well-trained horses are invaluable. There’s nothing better than to have a good teacher underneath you. Then you can eventually move up to a more difficult horse, like a youngster or a step-up horse.”

Create a Plan

Before you place a “Horse For Sale” ad, you owe it to yourself and your horse to do your best to make the partnership work. If, after reviewing your goals and personality, you and your trainer think you know what the problem is and you both think it’s not insurmountable, it’s time to formulate a plan.

Break it down into doable steps to limit the frustration for both horse and rider. If the problem is the lead change, you and your trainer might start off with counter leading and asking the horse to move over. Then you might add one lead change each direction. Always go back to the previous step before you go on to the next step so you know both you and the horse are solid enough to move on. It’s all about building and working toward resolution, not forcing it or demanding your way through it.

Get Back to Basics

If you can’t pinpoint a specific issue to address, try reviewing the basics to be sure both you and your horse know them well. Many of us aren’t patient enough to take the time to thoroughly learn the basics. As non-pros, we have limited amount of riding time in our schedule, and we want to make the most it. Unfortunately, that might mean that we try to move ahead to more advanced skills before we have fully established the fundamentals.

Simply put, the basics establish the system of communication between horse and rider that is the foundation of all the riding we do. If your horse doesn’t understand that he should move sideways when you press his side with one leg, you can never expect him to learn how to spin. Similarly, until you understand how your seat affects your horse’s balance, you have little hope of doing clean lopeovers in trail class.

If you’re reviewing the basics and find gaps in your own skill set or your horse’s training, work with a professional to improve those areas. When you and your horse really know the basics, suddenly everything will work better.

Make Some Changes

When you make corrections in your riding, give your horse some time to catch up with the new game plan. If a horse avoids going into the lope because is rider catches him in the mouth, the lope transition will need to be ridden correctly more than once for the horse to believe he won’t get caught in the mouth. We have to ride that transition correctly over and over, consistently giving him the reward of the absence of discomfort.

We also need to make these changes a constant, whether we’re riding at home or in a competition. If we always ride accurately and never cut a corner, it becomes second nature. But if we only try to ride well when we’re in the show pen, our performance will fall apart when we’re under pressure.

Sometimes we forget that attitude is important to riding well. If we think we can, we probably will. If we think we can’t, we certainly won’t. If you’re scared, it’s kinder to your horse not to ride him. We don’t have to be perfect, but we do have to give our horses our confidence. That means believing in yourself and expecting the best outcome.

If there’s enough feeling that this is really the right horse, you might take some time apart from him so you both can make some improvements. Stay off your horse, but ride and take lessons on other horses. Meanwhile, your horse can spend time with a trainer, getting tuned up. This can a good way to fill in the holes in both the rider and the horse’s education while increasing confidence in both. When you ride your horse again, you both will be fresher with a new perspective.

When to Say When

At what point do you do decide you just can’t make it work with this horse? It’s a personal decision. If you’ve struggled for six months to a year, you’re not enjoying your riding, you’re constantly frustrated, you’re spending too much time and too much money, and you’re not getting out of your riding experience what you’d like to, it may be time to let that horse go.

At that point, it’s better to cut your losses and find a more appropriate horse. It’s important that riders don’t stay in such a situation. If it seems that you’re doing more harm than good to your riding and to the horse, or it’s dangerous or not fun, don’t do it. Listen to your gut feeling, which is often right. If you spent a significant amount of money on this horse or if he has a reputation as being a great horse, it can be even more difficult to let him go. But if you aren’t happy, your horse probably isn’t either. There are so many other horses out there that could be perfect for you and there are so many other places where that horse might fit really well.

When the horse you have just isn’t working out, it can be difficult emotionally and financially to move on. But if you keep the best interests of yourself and your horse in mind, you’ll make the right decision for both of you.