Horses are complex creatures – herd animals first domesticated by man 3-4000 years ago to provide food, labor and transportation. Over the years, we have bred them for specific purposes and to survive in specific environments. Speed and endurance were prized in the desert. Strength and calm temperaments were prized in the forests. Small, sturdy Shetland ponies were bred to pull heavy carts out of the mine shafts. Paso Finos were bred to be sure-footed, had small hooves to better travel the narrow mountain paths, and smooth gaited to make trip easier on the rider. Andalusians and Lippizans were bred for their agility and strength for use in battle. Draft horses were bred to pull heavy loads. Saddlebreds work on the farm and then impressive your neighbors when you went into town. Tennessee Walkers were bred by plantation owners to be able to inspect their lands in comfort.
As we approached the mechanical age, horses were more frequently used for more leisurely pursuits. Thoroughbred were bred to run fast; Standardbreds to trot or pace quickly while pulling a cart; Quarterhorses were bred to be sprinters. Over the last couple of decades most breeds have been bred to be larger, more colorful, and flashier – often sacrificing the conformation and temperament that were originally characteristics of the breed.
What breed is best for you? That depends on what you want to do with your horse and your temperament. I am an experienced rider (have been riding for over 40 years), want to do a little of everything and am very low key. Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking horse are a perfect match for me, but may not be the right breed for you. For more information on horse breeds, their evolution, and conformation visit Dr. Deb Bennett’s http://www.equinestudies.org/
Carefully evaluate your own abilities and needs before buying a horse. If you are a beginning rider, leasing a horse at a lesson barn is a great idea. You will get a chance to improve your riding skills, gain confidence, and learn the details of horse-ownership before you make the 20-30 year commitment of owning a horse.
Guidelines in purchasing a horse:
You do not need a horse that is more athletic than you are.
When mounted, the bottom of your foot or ankle should be even with the bottom of the horse’s barrel.
If you are 5 ft tall, you do not need a 17 hand horse. Very talented riders can ride horse of any size, but it is easier to ride a horse that matches your height. Threes and Sevens was an amazing Grand Prix Jumper: a quarter horses standing only 15.2 hands. It was amazing to watch him compete and win against the much larger horses. Don’t think the horse’s height limits their athletic ability. It is often just the opposite.
Make sure your horse’s rear is wider than yours. If you are heavy, look for a wider, stocky mount. Limit the duration of your rides and pay close attention to your balance. Taking your horse for walks (both of you walking) is a good way to bond while getting you both in shape.
Do not buy a horse that is a challenge for you. You will spend more time and money trying to turn the horse into your perfect mount then you would buying a horse ready for you to ride and handle. Spend the money on horse suitable for you today and invest in training to improve your own abilities.
Pay attention to the horse’s personality. Do you want a pet? Then buy a horse who is interested in being with you. Just want to show up to the barn and ride? There are horses who prefer to do their job and then be left alone to be a horse. I have had horses with less than perfect conformations, but with personalities that allowed them to be great trail and fox hunting horses. I have seen plenty of halter champions that could not be ridden despite years of training.
Do not get distracted by a pretty face or flashy color. Hire a vet of your own (not the seller’s vet) to do a pre-purchase exam. Tell the vet what you are looking for in the horse. The horse that is physically suitable as a trail mount and lower level dressage, but not up to fox hunting or jumping a 3 ft course. You may also just need a basic exam for a pleasure mount than you would for a show jumper – which will determine the cost of your pre-purchase exam.