It seems to me that everybody I meet has always dreamed of having a horse. Often, when they find out that I do in fact own a horse, they immediately begin quizzing me. They’re not typically seeking actual answers to any questions of substance, but rather reassurance that surely, by now, their childhood pony-dream could become a reality.
(First lesson for the prospective horse owner: Don’t treat every horse-owning yahoo you meet as an expert. They usually aren’t. And you probably haven’t learned yet to distinguish knowledgeable advice from complete nonsense.)
Don’t get me wrong: I get it. I can’t say I ever had a particular attachment to dreams of horse ownership, only because I never imagined myself being able to afford a new pair of jeans, much less an equine. Instead I sort of woke up one day and had one in my possession. It wasn’t the ideal situation: I was young and stupid, she was still half-wild, and I’d only recently decided to quit my job and go back to college. It’s not really a combination that leads to a great deal of financial security. We made it through some very lean times, and there were days when I spent my last dime on a bale of hay and ate pancakes with mustard because it’s all the food I had.
It’s not a lifestyle choice I’d generally recommend.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re rich enough to maintain a horse, but not quite rich enough to hire a full-time staff to take care of it for you. You’ve wanted a horse since you were just a tiny wee person, and though you’ve never really learned much about horses, you want to buy one. You spend all your free time fantasizing about cantering down the beach with your hair streaming behind you, and your horse running to meet you in the field Shadowfax-style, and all of the marvelous adventures and exploits you’ll get up to when you finally, at long last, have a pony of your own. So, are you ready to own a horse? I have some helpful questions for you which may help you come to that decision.
Are you ready to pluck embedded ticks from your animal’s body with your fingers? Are you ready to clean smegma from your horse’s teats (or his sheath, if your horse is a male)? Are you ready to scrub water buckets, even when they’re thick with algae, drowned insects and horse slobber? Are you ready to spend a good chunk of your time smeared with horse snot, covered in a fine layer of dust and horsehair, with manure on your boots? Are you ready to haul water into the field, bucket by bucket from the kitchen sink, because the barn pipes are frozen? Are you ready to stay up all night trying to nurse him through a colic? Are you ready to take rectal temperatures, shovel manure, engage in all-out warfare against flies, and get up in the middle of the night just because you heard a strange sound and you want to make sure the horses are okay? Are you ready to funnel all of your money into feed bills and vet bills and equipment and trailers and trucks and boarding and supplements and farriers and trainers and transporters and more vet bills? Are you ready to be frustrated, kicked, bitten, ignored, bucked off, or otherwise defeated?
Are you ready to challenge yourself, to learn new things, to discover exactly how emotionally fit — or unfit — you are? Are you ready to put your own ego aside and ask for help? Are you ready to always push to better yourself for your horse? Are you ready to throw yourself into becoming a better rider, a better horseman and a better human being?
If you can answer yes to all of those questions, congratulations! I still wouldn’t recommend getting a horse. Not yet, not if this would be your first real horse experience. Here’s what I would recommend, first.
Take horsemanship lessons. Whether you’re going to a local hunter/jumper barn, taking clinics with your local natural horsemanship trainer, or joining the Pony Club or 4-H, you really should spend some time with horses in general before you even think about getting your own. If you’re thinking about getting a horse and you’ve never been taught how to pick up a hoof, how to lead a horse without being run over, how to tell if your horse is unhealthy, and how to ride (or drive, if that’s your sport of preference), what exactly are you planning to do with your own horse when you acquire one? You need to be prepared to keep up on your horse’s training, exercise and general care before you bring one home. If you’re thinking about an equine that doesn’t have a lot of training, you need to have more skills than it does in order to progress with it. (And do not even say the words “we’re going to get the kids a baby horse so they can grow up together” in my hearing, or I may have a coronary.) If you don’t have those skills, you’re best off with a horse who does have skills, who can make up for your lack of same. Take this from someone who didn’t do that. Horses can be great teachers, but they can’t stand there and explain to you how to take care of them. A good lesson barn or other organization can help you go into horse ownership with much better preparation.
Lesson horses are particularly great teachers because they’ve been there and done that, and most of them won’t kill you. (The ones that will are good teachers, too, and they’ll make you question whether you’re really up for the task of horse ownership.) And a good lesson barn won’t just teach you how to climb on and ride; they’ll teach you how to catch, groom, and tack up as well, at the very least. They’re also usually more than happy to have volunteer labor doing chores around the barn, so you can gain more horse experience that way. And the more you take lessons, the more you’ll begin to get a feel for what sorts of pursuits you’d like to engage in, and what kind of horse you’ll need to do that. If you want to compete in endurance, you don’t want a draft horse; if you want to learn to do farm work with horses, you aren’t going to be shopping for an Arabian. Before you go horse shopping, you need to know all of that.
If you don’t have the money or the time for horsemanship lessons before getting a horse, then you don’t have the money or the time for a horse of your own. Period. I wish I’d been able to afford many more years worth of lessons before I got my own horse; I’d be a better rider and better equipped to deal with the completely unstarted horse I was adopting, and if I’d have been smart I’d have recognized my lack of money for that pursuit as a sign that I was going to have serious financial trouble ahead trying to maintain my own horse.
If you do take lessons but lose interest after a few months or a year, then you’ll probably lose interest in your own horse, too. The nice thing about discovering that before you buy a horse is that you can stop taking lessons. You can’t just stop taking care of a horse of your own, and in the current horse market, you might have a hard time giving away a horse that you’ve decided you don’t want anymore.
Attend meetings and events of local horsemanship clubs. Groups like the Back Country Horsemen, Pony Club, and other riding clubs have regular meetings, playdays and events. These are great to attend just to see what’s going on in your area, and to start acquiring knowledge about horses. They’re also good resources if you want to ask around about how much it might cost to keep a horse in your area, what boarding and feed options are available to you, and what sort of things you might be able to do with a horse when you do have one. You’ll also often find people willing to let you ride their horses, though if you want to keep your brains in one piece I’d generally advise doing your riding in a controlled environment under the supervision of a qualified instructor.
Again, if you don’t have time for this, you don’t have time for a horse. The time spent on working, riding, training and maintaining a horse of your own is (or should be) an even more significant output than the amount of money you’ll spend.
Volunteer at a horse rescue. Horse rescues can be tremendous places to learn all about horse care and training. I learned most of what I knew before I got my own horse by volunteering at a rescue. I also learned first-hand what happens to the horses that people decide they don’t want anymore; it’ll keep you from making this decision lightly.
Rescues can be tremendous places to learn and they can also be good places to look for a suitable horse for yourself. Before I adopted Juno, I was also the one who worked with her at the rescue, and I did most of her training myself (after having learned quite a bit working with other horses there). So by the time I did decide to adopt her, I could be pretty certain of three important things: that I’d be able to continue making progress with her (our challenges weren’t completely beyond my skill level), that she and I were very well-matched in personality, and that her temperament and breed were suitable for the sort of things I would eventually want to do with her. Mind you, when I brought my horse home I was still pretty clueless, but I can’t imagine how screwed we would both have been if I had simply walked in, adopted a horse and walked out again.
(I’ll add a caveat to the volunteering idea, though. A lot of rescuers are a little crazy, in over their heads, or just clueless about how to properly care for horses. There’s no harm in being selective about where you’re going to spend your time, and it’s no use learning very bad horse management skills. A person doesn’t have to have any particular qualifications in the US to run a rescue, and I can’t even count the number of times that animals have had to be rescued from rescues; just because a rescue exists doesn’t mean it’s a good one. I recently visited a rescue which had too many horses for its non-existent resources, and worse, several horses that had been there for months but were still emaciated. The rescue owner’s explanations for this were appallingly inadequate. That’s a person you don’t want to learn horse husbandry skills from. If none of the rescues in your area give you a good feeling, just go for a good lesson barn or another local horse organization instead. I posted a few tips about how to recognize a rescue that is perhaps not worth your time over here: Horse Rescue Warning Signs.)
Lease a horse before buying. This is a tried and true way to get the horse ownership experience without going all-in. Depending on where you live, what sort of horse you’re looking to lease and what owners are leasing in your area, you could get anything from a half-lease on a high-dollar show horse to a free lease on somebody’s tried and true trail horse. Particularly in this economy, many people are willing to lease a horse out to someone who will pay for its care — feed, board, shoes and the like — so the owner doesn’t have as much of a financial burden and doesn’t end up having to get rid of the horse. If you do like the horse you end up leasing and it seems like a good match, it’s not uncommon for people to end up buying the horse they’ve been leasing, and you get a sort of extended test drive of the relationship to make sure it’s going to work out before you commit.
I’d also recommend, before you start this whole process, that you really ask yourself exactly why you want a horse. The answer, for too many people, seems to be merely, “Because I’ve always wanted one.” I’ve known plenty of horse owners who’ve had horses just to go hunting, or to stand in the yard, or to pack around the grandkids once a year, and are no more interested in their animals than they would be in a moped, which really is the sort of mode of transport they should’ve invested in in the first place. And I’ve known tons of people who’ve gotten a horse “because they’ve always wanted one,” without realizing that horses are big, and they can be scary, and a single trip to the vet can bankrupt you. In all of these scenarios, it’s the horses who end up on the losing end of things.
I absolutely love being a horse owner; I find all the work that I put into it very rewarding, and I get a huge kick out of constantly learning more and more about training and animal behavior. My horse has been an anchor for me, whether she knows it or not, at times when if I hadn’t had her to care for, I would’ve been in a very bad place indeed. I find just being around her to be the best brand of stress relief there is. If you had asked me before I got her why it was I wanted her, I would’ve told you it was because I couldn’t imagine not having her around. If you had asked me what I wanted to do with her, I would’ve said everything. I got a horse because I loved that specific animal, not because I wanted a horse. But that’s just me. It’s turned out well for me, for the most part. I wouldn’t change it.
I offer this advice not as an expert in the field of horse ownership, but as a person who has made a lot of these same mistakes. And if you’re going to get a horse of your own, I’d love to help you avoid some of the stupider things that I’ve done in my life.
I would merely advise you, if you are thinking about getting a horse, to really understand yourself first. Know what your priorities are and make sure that your horse will be right up at the top of the list, because they’ll give a lot back to you, but they demand a lot too. Do some soul-searching. If you want to do your horse justice, you’re going to have to do a lot of it later, so you might as well start getting used to it now.
If you’re a horse person, what advice do you have for all those people out there who are considering getting a horse of their own? And if you’re one of those people, what’s your deal? Let’s hear from you in the comments!