Cooperative Extension Service

Purdue University

West Lafayette, IN 47907

Selecting The First Horse

Mark A. Russell,
Ingrid A. Schoenlein, and
Debra J. Albright,
Department of Animal Sciences


Before deciding what type of horse to purchase, perhaps it is best to consider whether to purchase any horse. The time it takes to care for an animal, the facilities needed, the knowledge needed for caring for a horse, and the money to pay for all the maintenance of the animal are all important considerations. There are numerous alternatives to owning a horse such as taking lessons, renting a horse at camps or parks, and leasing a horse and boarding it elsewhere.

If the decision has been made to purchase a horse, this publication should help you evaluate the criteria for selecting an animal for an enjoyable, safe, and affordable first experience with horse ownership.

Consider the circumstances when selecting a horse. If the primary user is inexperienced, then disposition, soundness, and training become the most important factors. If the owner is investing in breeding stock or performance prospects, then the pedigree and performance records are crucial.

Investment or Pleasure

The first decision must relate to the reason the horse is being purchased. If the horse is an investment, then the personal experience of the buyer may not be as critical as the knowledge and experience of the advisor. If the horse is a young race or show prospect, or a breeding animal, it will be managed by a professional horseman. Investors should not pretend that they can manage breeding animals or train performance horses without extensive experience in these areas. Investing in horses is risky business. Although there are some shining success stories, the odds of making enough money to pay the bills and get any return on the investment are very poor. Be cautious with the first investments, and be sure that the advisor, breeder, or trainer involved has respected credentials and is someone who is trusted.

If the horse is intended for personal recreation for yourself or the family, then the ability of the horse to cooperatively perform for all members of the family is essential. Owners eventually want to care for the horse themselves, so the disposition, training, and soundness is important. Also, the recreation animal should be considered like any other form of recreation: money spent is done so for enjoyment and not expected to net a financial return. The upkeep of the animal in money and time is ongoing and much different than buying a boat or a set of golf clubs. Selecting the right horse that owners can enjoy working with daily is the key to finding continued recreation from the horse.

The following criteria must be prioritized differently for each situation. There may be additional criteria uniquely important to you.

Experience with Horses

Very experienced horsemen may purchase a young horse successfully if they have the skills and knowledge needed to train the horse. Inexperienced owners and young horses are a dangerous combination. The best horse for a novice owner to use is a mature animal that is well-trained and accustomed to the variety of situations.

If the owner intends to pay someone else to board or train the horse, then the owner's expertise is not as critical; however, they may not enjoy the horse as much once they bring the horse home. Be sure to take into consideration the primary user. Just because an adult can make the horse obey, does not mean that a six year old child can enjoy the horse safely.

Expected Use

The type of horse purchased determines how easily it can perform the intended use. Any type of quiet horse will work for a trail and pleasure horse as long as it is sound (physically capable of performing). A relaxed, mannerly horse that has a prompt, flat-footed walk will be best for trail riding.

If a horse is being purchased for show purposes, then the quality and type become more important. Western horses tend to be lower headed, quiet, and most often heavier muscled than the English horses. Hunters have longer, flatter strides and move forward with more impulsion and a higher head carriage than western horses. English or saddle type horses tend to be much higher headed, with their neck coming higher out of their withers. They move with more hock and knee elevation. Success in the show ring directly results from the horse's breed type and ability to perform. The type of horse selected should be based on the type of show situation.

Performance horses such as polo horses, dressage, reining, cutting, and roping horses need more specialized training and qualities. These skills make the horse higher priced because more training needs to be invested in them. Success in these activities is a function of athletic ability and training rather than a specific breed of horse.

Breeding should be reserved for those horses of a quality that can improve the breed or type. If the primary purpose of the purchased horse is to breed, then the success of the ancestors in the horse's pedigree and the horse's own performance record is important. Purchasing quality breeding stock is expensive, and the outcome of breeding horses is unpredictable, so spend as much as possible to obtain truly superior mares. Purchasing a breeding stallion should only be done for income purposes, and only the very best (top 5 percent) of the horses should stand as sires.


Horses must be sound enough to perform the expected activities. Horses that are lame in their movement may have permanent problems that will limit the performance or make it inhumane to use the horse. Horses with blemishes (scars or marks that do not interfere with their movement) should be less valuable as show horses, but blemishes should not be a consideration with breeding or pleasure horses. Horses should also be sound in their breathing, vision, and reproductive capacity if for breeding. A soundness examination should be done if much money is being spent or if a doubt exists. The more athletic the horse has to be, the more sound it must be. A race or competitive show or event horse must be very strong and sound. Pleasure trail horses and backyard horses must be sound enough to perform the expected activity, even if not perfectly. Soundness should always be measured in light of the expected performance of the horse.

Grade or Registered

Grade, or nonregistered horses or ponies can be successfully used as trail, pleasure, and performance horses. Resale value will be greater for registered horses (those belonging to a specific breed with known ancestors). If disposition and comfort of a recreational horse are the most important criteria for you, don't overlook a valuable grade horse. If the purpose is to produce foals, then only registered horses should be used. Many performance competitions such as dressage, reining, competitive trail riding, combined training events do not require registered horses. One can often buy a registered horse as cheaply as a grade horse and the resale value is much greater. Open and 4-H shows provide excellent areas for the nonregistered horses to compete. If you are interested in participating in breed shows, races, or other activities, owning a horse of that breed should be a priority.

Breed of Horse

The breed will dictate to some extent the activities and performance abilities of the horse. Usually Saddle-type English horses are of Saddlebred, Morgan, Arabian, and saddle-type Pintos. These horses lend themselves to the conformation and action to do well in English. Tennessee Walking Horses, Missouri Fox Trotters, Paso Finos, Peruvian Pasos, and Racking horses do not trot. They are very comfortable for trail riding and showing in breed events, but will they not be competitive in English, Western, or Hunter classes requiring a walk, trot, and canter.

Most hunters are of breeds including Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, European warm-blooded breeds, and ponies like Welsh and Connemara. Western event horses most often are the stock-type breeds (Appaloosa, Buckskin, Paint, Palomino, stock- type Pinto, and Quarter Horse). Western ponies include the Pony of the Americas (POA), and Welsh.

Race horses are bred to trot, pace, or gallop. All harness-race horses either trot or pace and are Standardbreds. Horses that are ridden and gallop are most frequently in the United States Thoroughbreds.

All breeds of horses have calm, quiet horses as well as anxious, dangerous horses. The training and handling styles affect manners more than does the breed.

Figure 1. Silhouettes of three breeds of horses.


The color of the horse has nothing to do with disposition, performance ability, or soundness. Color is, however, a significant determining factor in many people's decision. Many breed registries such as Buckskin, Pinto, Appaloosa, Palomino, Pony of the Americas, and Dominant Grey are based primarily on color. If you are breeding or involved in these breeds, then color should be high on your priority list. Otherwise, the training, disposition, and soundness of the horse are more critical.


The conformation or shape of the horse will dictate the athletic ability and the ability to stay sound. Straight legs, especially through the knees and hocks, suggest that the horse will not breakdown as soon as a horse with crooked legs. Body conformation and the angle at which the neck ties into the shoulder determine whether the horse is capable of being a saddle type English horse or is more suited to be a lower headed Western type horse. Good body conformation is illustrated in Figure 2. Short, strong-backed horses, horses with good angle to the shoulder, horses with long hips and strong hind quarters are desired. A bright, alert head and eye, a long neck, and a deep heart girth makes horses more athletic and consequently, attractive.

Figure 2. Characteristics of good body conformation.

Some unsoundnesses in the feet, legs, and eye sight are serious and permanent. Horses with sight only in one eye are more easily frightened and are of less value. The diagram in Figure 3 shows the normal straight legs of a healthy horse. Horses with their feet splay footed (turned out) or pigeon toed (turned in) are more prone to unsoundness than are horses with straight legs. A horse's pasterns should be set at about 45-52 degrees angle with the ground and the toe should be the same angle as the pastern. The steeper the pastern, the more concussion on the foot and the rougher the gait for the rider. The lower the angle, the more comfortable the ride, but the pastern will be weaker and more prone to tendon damage when worked hard. As with anything else, the importance of conformation depends on what use the horse is intended. Less than ideal conformation can be tolerated if the animal is sound and will not be shown in halter classes at shows.

Figure 3. Normal and abnormal feet and legs.

Size of Rider and Horse

The horse is capable of carrying a tremendous amount of weight. The only time the relative size of the rider and the horse is important is when showing, then the suitability of horse to rider becomes an issue. Small children are better off on quite dispositioned large horses than on small ponies that are wild. Likewise, a small, quite pony may be ideal for some; however the child will likely outgrow this mount. A rider's leg ought to fit down the sides of the horse's side in order to give leg cues (signals to the horse), but not be so long that the leg from the knee down does not touch the ribs. Most adults would do well to buy horses (over 58 inches at the top of the withers). As long as the mount is quiet enough for the child to work around and mount, the size of the animal should be considered secondary.

Age of Rider and Horse

Basically, the younger the rider the older the horse needed. This is a function of training, calmness, and experience that comes with an older horse rather than with age itself. For a novice rider, it would be rare to find a horse under five that is trained and quite enough. Horses live to be 25 to 30 years of age, so the purchase of a 6 to 12 year old is wise for amateurs and novice. Older riders or those with more expertise and experience can buy, handle, and train yearlings or two year olds. These young horses do not make predictable mounts for beginners.


The willingness of a horse to respond to the handler's cues is a result of training. Horses that have "been around some" increase in value for the beginner. As more intricate maneuvers are desired for higher levels of competition, the more training is needed. Sometimes, highly tuned horses are so responsive to the riders' cues that the novice confuses the horse and gets no response. It is also possible to have a horse trained to the point that you get more response than you want, ie. too fast a spin, too quick a start, too hard a stop, and the rider gets hurt. Adequate training for the intended use combined with an experienced disposition is important.


Mares and geldings (castrated males) are the only good choices for horsemen with limited experience. Mares often look more refined and prettier, but can have dramatic behavior changes when in estrus. Geldings are often quieter and more consistent but more difficult to show in halter classes. The only reason to own a stallion is to either breed mares or performance test a potential breeding stallion. Sires in the horse industry should be of superior quality and have successful performance records. Only those able to improve the breed should be bred. Nonregistered males should be gelded within the first ten months of life to minimize stress on the horse and handlers.

Disposition and Vices

The manners of the horse may be changed with training and handling, but the natural disposition is genetic and/or acquired from the dam. Bad habits such as kicking, biting, wood chewing and leaning on the handler can be corrected with firm, consistent, humane handling. Vices (bad habits) such as stall weaving, cribbing, digging, and being afraid of its own water bucket are likely part of the horse and not fixable. Horses that have been exposed to trailering, clipping, shoeing, and trail riding are usually quieter and have better manners. The less experienced owners should try to select horses with minimal vices. A good disposition should be near the top of the priority list.


Housing for horses must be safe and adequate to contain the type of horses selected. Build or select housing that is suitable to the type of horse needed, rather than selecting an animal that can be housed conveniently. If the facilities are not available, then board the horse elsewhere or don't buy one. Facilities should not be a priority when selecting a horse.


The buyer determines the price that will be paid for a horse. The performance record, the breed type and conformation, the pedigree and the degree of advertising will influence the price. Realize that regardless of how much you spend to purchase the horse, you will spend $60 to $400 per month keeping the horse. Horses do not appreciate with age, rather they depreciate. Don't expect to get everything out of the horse that you put into it financially. The value of horses can be increased with training and subsequent race or show success. Put priority on the criteria that are important to the expected use of the horse. Don't pay extra for pretty if that is not the most important criteria for your use.

Most horseowners have their first horse less than three years. Either they gain interest and expertise and want to get a nicer horse, or they loose interest and get out of the horse business. Purchase a horse with the plan of selling it in three to four years, or plan to care for the horse until it dies. The nicer and more appropriate horse you can buy, the better the resale value.

Adopting Wild Horses

Seldom does this alternative prove to be a good one for first time horseowners. It may sound as if you are buying a piece of the American wild west, but the natural "wild" instincts of these wild horses and burros are very strong. Only yearlings and occasionally two year olds should be considered because they are not as set in their ways as the older horses. This means that the new owner will work with the horse or burro for one or two years before they can be ridden. Most of these horses have been under fed and their health management nonexistent before they were gathered up by the Bureau of Land Management. They have been kept in large groups of horses and have very little exposure to humans. They are often underdeveloped for their age and take a lot of extra patience, discipline, and training to be useful.

Experienced horsemen could consider adopting horses if they have the expertise and energy to invest in a project horse. The horses are of very mixed breeding and seldom do you find a refined, quality animal in the group. Even when properly trained, the horses are seldom suitable for show purposes.

It is a worthy cause to want to adopt these gathered-up wild horses, but the low adoption and transporting expenses should be balanced with the likelihood of a successful experience. For the money, purchasing domestically raised horses represents less risk, but it does not include the emotional benefit of adopting a wild horse or burro from the public rangelands of American West.


Horse ownership can be a very rewarding experience if the appropriate horse is selected. The criteria discussed here should be prioritized for your situation and situations change with time. As experience is gained and interest grows (or changes) different types of horses will be needed. Don't hesitate to find help when deciding on what type of horse is right for you. Evaluate thoroughly whether you should obtain any horse at all. Regardless of the horse selected, consistent and firm discipline and proper management is vital to maintain the animal. Horse ownership is a big responsibility, and the more knowledge you can continually gain, the more rewarding your experience.

Related CES Publications

AS-440 Should I Buy a Horse for my Child?

AS-434 Introduction to Horse Management

AS-429 Nutritional Management for Horses

New 9/93

Cooperative Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics, State of Indiana, Purdue University and U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperating. H.A. Wadsworth, Director, West Lafayette, IN. Issued in furtherance of the Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914. It is the policy of the Cooperative Extension Service of Purdue University that all persons shall have equal opportunity and access to our programs and facilities.