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Your First Horse Part 1
Your first horse should give you positive experiences that will carry over into the rest of your life. Your first horse should be safe, have the ability to bond with you (not always possible as we’ll learn later) and be able to do many of the things you want to do with him/her.
Before you venture out to look, think this over well:
“What do I expect to get out of horse ownership?”
In my many years of retraining horses, I have seen too many people buy the wrong horse. These are not animals you should buy because you fall in love with them immediately. Very few people can feel a bond that quickly, and even they make mistakes in their choices. Bonding right away is not the reason one should override other problems the horse may have.
I have only had 2 long-term horses in my life: a big black jumper in my teens and an Arabian stallion. The stallion, Spike, was the greatest horse I have owned to date, but I also know that great horses are made first, and ‘gifted’ to you second. I have trained countless horses with talent and bonding ability, but the previous owners were not able to see this (often through lack of experience, time, training, general ‘horse sense’ ).
Finding the right horse means that you have to answer the above question with honesty and integrity. Another life depends on it.
What Can You Expect From Owning a Horse?
I would not be where I am today without having had them in my life, and I don’t mean the website and the riding experience. Horses supply valuable worldly skills at any age; it’s just gets a little more interesting when you’re older. My patience came from the horse: my gratitude came from the horse: and my compassion came from the horse.
Horses ask us to change the way we think. They need us to speak their language first. The road to learning this new language opens up the creative thinking side of a human, and challenges us to explore deeper within.
Adiva Murphy says it well: “Horses are intensely emotional, intuitive, intelligent beings. They are a true reflection of our deepest soul. Over time I have discovered their extraordinary ability to awaken intuition in humans, and their ability to mirror the authentic feelings people try to hide. This makes horses powerful therapeutic teachers.”
All Parents Should Read This
When I was young, I was trouble looking for a place to happen. I did not fit in at school, as I was too tall, too skinny and too geeky. I would never have made it through school without my horse.
For young people, growing up means learning to find your place in the world, or society. When parents tell me that horses are too expensive, and you see the look on the child’s face, I always ask them “How much does it cost to rehabilitate a kid on drugs, or raise a teen’s baby?” I’m not saying that kids without horses will go that path, but there are more than the obvious things that make horse ownership for youngsters a valuable tool for life.
By the end of grade 10, I was pinning in almost everything I went in, and jumping heights that scared me silly in grade 1. My courage to go places and advance was unstoppable, and I absorbed every detail I could about the horse.
In elementary school, I use to run home as fast as I could, to avoid the rocks the kids threw at me every day after school. I was never invited to play sports, even though I could have whipped just about everyone there. I always sat at the front of the class, as close to the teacher as possible. When I hear of bullying now, the things I endured as a little kid would have locked up many guilty youth today.
But as my horse knowledge grew, and I became stronger from having this highly positive experience in my life, I began to fight back. In grade 10, I found myself surrounded by ‘unpleasant’ girls in the bathroom. I was able to negotiate my way out of it (learning other language skills – the horse) and after taking off my jacket to reveal some rather strong arms, they left me alone, revering me the rest of the school year. It was better than the abuse.
Being a bit of an outcast at school also didn’t matter much as I went through Jr. and Sr. High. My attitude was “Go ahead, bug me all you want, but you can’t ride a horse as well as me.”
At the barn, I was surrounded with kids my age and all sorts of interesting horsey people. I fit in there, and was well respected. I met lots of new friends at the shows, and my memories of youth now are filled with happy tales of great adventure: sleeping in our horse’s stalls overnight at the shows; riding bareback through miles of endless trails; riding my first Rothman’s Grand Prix at the Northwest International and not having any recollection of the entire thing at the end from being so scared (but brave enough to do it).
How Horses Teach Us
Not all kids are like I was. But the point is, the horse taught me that I could excel in something (I was good in school, but back then that was ‘geeky’, so I never tried), gave me hope, showed me another way to communicate, and challenged the anger that could have grown out of proportion inside. My confidence soared, I took on any challenge and learned to nurture and respect all life. The things horses teach us.
Horses often take the place of a best friend, and that was my experience growing up. I cried with my horse, I laughed with my horse, and not once did he ever call me stupid (perhaps in a subtle way, when you ask them to do something and they tell you to ask another way).
Horses are incapable of learning our language. They are herd animals, and ‘precocial’, meaning they are born with the immediate response of being mobile and bonding to the mare. Precocial exists in prey animals, where as predators are born ‘altricial’, where the young are born helpless and bond with the parent(s) later. Horses have very limited verbal dialogue and use body language as their main way of communicating.
This forces humans to change their thinking patterns and physical behaviors around horses (if the human wants to get anywhere with the horse). As humans, we now are asked to bring down our walls and ego, and speak a dialogue that’s transparent and honest.
Find that course in grade school?
What Parents Should Look For
The trick for parents is to be able to judge whether or not horses are a passing fad for the year, or a way of life that the youngster will take with them. Not all young people stick with horses their whole life. In my world about 1 in 10 did. As parents, what you need to feel out is whether you are going to get into this, and have the child find interest in something else ten months down the road, after you have purchased the horse, equipment, lessons, trailer, truck (you get the message). But the child needs to ride in lessons first, for you to be able to judge this.
The best way to proceed is to get lessons at a reputable barn. How do you know a barn is reputable? Find two or three top trainers in the area and ask them. Top trainers and coaches know what and who to avoid. Spend time around a place and get a feel for the instructors. Are they in it for the kids or the paycheck, and with horse people this will stand out plain as day. Teaching youth is a gift and you either want to do it or you have to. The difference between the two is easy to distinguish. Also, do the horses look well fed and happy? Are they turned out daily? Is the facility managed by responsible people who show up? What are the qualifications of the instructors (they should at least have insurance)?
What if you don’t have any lesson barns close by? Many kids get their start by cleaning stalls and working in facilities. These kids are lucky, for they earn the right to be with horses, and usually stick with it long after all the ‘stuff’ is bought. The drawback is that many of them learn by trial and error, and that means broken bones and the odd concussion, and the price the horse will pay in the process. Just go into a horse forum and start reading. You have to feel for some of those horses.
There is nothing that takes the place of lessons and good training from the start. It’s not a sport like hockey where you learn to skate and balance. This sport has a partner: a living, breathing entity whose survival depends solely on the owner/rider. I cannot stress this enough: there are far too many unwanted and abused horses. If you don’t have the ability to keep an animal, do not get into this in the first place. If you have no intention of learning from the start, take up something else. Horses have no place in the ego of mankind, and do not exist solely for our pleasure.
I suggest that your child take lessons on at least 3 horses before you even think of buying one. This allows the child to get a feel of what different horses are like, so that they are better able to judge the right horse for their own when they finally buy one. They should have had enough lessons to become comfortable with each horse, and enough time in to gain confidence.
Your child’s age is another factor. I rode my own pony Dusty at the age of 4, but looking back on it one could have called it child abuse. I was bitten and bucked off daily. I either landed too many times on my head, or this way of life was for me and nothing was getting in the way. I believe a child will know when they want to learn. Size and age does not matter (no younger than 4 please) but it’s even more important that you find the right horse or pony for a younger enthusiast. Dusty may not have been the best example, but was small enough to not scare me during the rough moments (about every two minutes).
Long Term Considerations
Another thing a parent has to consider are restrictions: does the child or YOU have the time to put into this: are you as a parent able to help out: can you afford it: can you go the distance when the child wants to progress with this animal in the future (shows, clinics, lessons)? Horses are time consuming and not for those who like to get out on Sunday. They can really eat up time when they are sick or injured. Your weekends are given over to the horse. Life can change also, leaving Fluffys life with you in the balance.
The commitment to horses is enormous, and buying the animal is often the easy part. Most kids grow out of Fluffy in a few years, and you either end up owning 2 horses or Fluffy gets sold. It’s not always easy to sell horses, taking weeks or months to find the right home. But it’s all part of the experience, and as a child, I learned to absorb the pain of my favorite horses passing on, and being sold.
This is yet another way that horses teach us. Being sheltered from the natural movement of life just means you will have to go through the lesson later. What you resist, persists. I am so grateful I had the chance to understand these things early. I had more time to move through the process.
If all that information helps you, and you’ve now gone through this ‘discovery’ period, it’s time to find the right horse.
The Mature Rider’s Guide to Horse Ownership
Most mature riders have ridden in the past at some point. I commend anyone who takes on this challenge without prior experience. You have my full respect.
As I said above, horses come with a level of responsibility you won’t find in any other sport or pet ownership, so if you glanced through the youth/parent section, go back and read it thoroughly. As adults, we need to evaluate the same things that parents are asked to: time, ability, finances, available stables and long term ownership.
As adults, we have different reasons to own horses than children do. Perhaps it was a dream from youth, or the desire to return to a more natural way of living (farms/land ownership). Horses can add to our years with an enjoyment you won’t understand until you live the experience. There is no money in the world that can buy the enjoyment a good horse can give.
We don’t often buy show horses as adults. We often spend our lives in business, competing for jobs and salaries, fighting our way up the ladder, and the last thing we want from our experience with horses is more of the same. The pleasure horse is more the choice of later years. Unlike children, we usually don’t have to work at a barn or take lessons before we know we want to do this. Adults have pondered the idea for years. Many of us have the income and means to pursue the dream. From here on it’s full steam ahead to find one.
Looking for a horse now requires a bit more time. Quality horses with the level of training to be safe can also cost a bit more, but here’s where the show horse comes in. Older show horses often have good training on them, and have been exposed to many distractions and spooky threats. Often, people move on to newer younger animals, and the old show horse gets the back pasture, or worse, left in isolation. While they may cost a bit more they can become loyal companions and reliable trail buddies.
Always try out a horse you’re interested in at least three or more times. Show up at the horse’s barn unexpectedly and see how the animal lives when you’re not there. Ride the horse in an enclosed area (arena, ring) and out on a trail or roadway. If the owner balks at this, it’s likely the horse is incapable of being safe in these places. Watch others ride the horse. We will cover more of this in future articles in this series.
What’s Next in Horse Purchasing?
As a parent, by now you will have come to a decision about how your child is going to learn. Maybe you have gone through the lesson circuits and the child is ready for ownership.
As an adult, you are hot on the trail of horse hunting, and have found a potential horse or so. Next comes the decision: which horse is going to be an enjoyable experience and lifelong partner?
In the next chapter, we will look at the difference between ponies and horses: pros and cons. Which is right for your child.
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