The Christmas Horse

Just hear those sleigh bells jingling
Ring-ting-tingling, too
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a ride together with you…

You’ve been thinking about it for a while now. You, your daughter or son have been taking riding lessons and are now substantially “hooked” on the lifestyle. The lesson horses at the barn are fine, but you or your offspring have been giving serious consideration to getting your own horse. One that nobody rides but you (save the possibility of your trainer). One who knows you are the one, the caretaker, the human responsible for his/her well-being. You have fantasized about going to the barn on Christmas morning, leading the horse out of his stall and presenting him to your son or daughter, or pointing with pride to this paragon of equine pulchritude and declaring, “This one is mine.”

OK. This is all well and good. But let’s take a step back for a few minutes, analyze the situation and apply some good, old-fashioned horse sense, if you will, so that all goes smoothly and your Christmas Wish may come true.

First, let’s determine where you are going to keep your new four-footed friend – boarding stable or at home? Each facility has a different set of parameters you need to investigate. If you decide to board your horse, do you prefer a large facility of many horses numbering 100, or is a smaller barn of 20 or so more appealing? Will your new BFF be housed in a box stall or pipe corral? Depending on the animal’s size and personality, some do better in pipe corrals rather than box stalls and vice versa. If you do decide on a box stall, does it have a run out the back so your horse can step outside and see what the other horses are up to, or will he be confined to a 12-foot by 12-foot enclosure? Remember, they are herd animals and do not do well in total isolation. Also, inquire as to daily turn out, blanketing services and the feeding of supplements, should your horse require them. More often than not, these are charges levied in addition to your monthly board fee.

Also, how are the animals being fed – cubes or hay? If hay, what kind? (This is very important, as not all horses can eat the same kind of hay depending on breed, gender and workload.) What are the times your horse will be fed and what if he needs to eat three times a day as opposed to two? How often are the stalls cleaned? Is there a veterinarian and farrier who visit the stable regularly? Are the barn stalls and tack rooms in serviceable condition? Is there ready access to trails? If you decide to keep your horse at home, then tag – you’re “it” – and you will make all these decisions. There are advantages to both situations; it just depends on how you choose to handle it.

Now, let’s consider your goals. What is it you or your child wants to achieve with your horse? Is it a matter of relaxation and trail rides? Do you or your child want to compete and get involved with student programs such as the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) or breed shows? (Fast forward: Equestrian colleges and some universities offer scholarships to students who compete on their equestrian teams.) Both ideas – or a combination of the two – are perfectly viable options. Much can be gained by involving oneself in friendly competition; for example, the discipline necessary to prepare both horse and rider for a show, how to support other riders with a positive, “we’re all in this together” attitude, and how to win – and lose – graciously. These are all valuable lessons learned in the equestrian arena that have a direct and positive application to the arena of life – no matter your age. And of course, everyone, including your new equine family member, occasionally needs to stop going in circles and enjoy some “down time” out on a trail.

While all horses – and riders – should have good “foundation training,” which allows them to ride any horse at any time in any saddle, there are preferences. What are yours? Do you like the challenge of going over jumps? Do you get a charge out of cutting or roping cattle? Or perhaps you enjoy the accomplishment of riding an accurately performed dressage test? There are specific horses bred for these purposes and while being “breed specific” amounts to sweeping generalities, it does provide a kind of guideline as to what type of horse you should be investigating.

There are literally hundreds of breeds of horses, each one developed for a specific use. Quarter horses were bred to run the quarter mile and settled the American West. Arabs were bred to be swift war ponies and survive in the harshest of conditions. Thoroughbreds were bred for racing and cross-country riding, and they prove handy over fences. Friesians were bred to quite literally pull a plow in the morning then carry a knight into battle in the afternoon. The list goes on and on. Again, these are generalities and the individual personality of the horse must be thoroughly taken into consideration. No two horses of any breed are alike; no two horses are alike.

Where to look? There are websites such as Equine Now and Horse Clicks. Equine magazines such as The Horsetrader, Riding and breed magazines will carry ads both in print and on their websites. And assuming that you are involved in some kind of riding program on a regular basis, ask your instructor for his/her opinion as to where to look and who to contact. Chances are very good that your instructor will be able to provide some valuable guidance.

The amount of training you or your child has had, as well as the amount of training the horse has had, are important factors. You don’t want to be “over mounted” and you certainly don’t want your son or daughter to be over mounted. (Check your ego at the gate, folks. A horse with breathtaking bravura may fulfill your fantasies but is undoubtedly not the choice for your 9-year-old.) Generally, you want to match a less experienced rider with a more experienced horse. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but more often than not, that is your safer bet. For this reason, you should give due and valuable consideration to an older horse. Depending on breed as well as discipline, type of training, frequency and severity of use, a horse 10 years old and above is a good investment in you or your child’s riding future. The animal has “been down the road” a few times, perhaps been exposed to the show ring, maybe even has a winning record. This can be a good, stable (double entendre intended) choice.
By all means, order a vet check. Your riding instructor will, no doubt, encourage you to do so and the seller should, as well. A professional, unbiased opinion as to the horse’s state of health is essential in making your decision.

Then there is the ephemeral element of “chemistry.” It can neither be described nor clinically defined. You – and the horse – either feel the connection, or you don’t. It doesn’t necessarily strike like lightning, although it could. More than likely, it will develop over time as you work together. Unless you are a highly experienced rider (and even if you are), it is generally beneficial if you, the horse and the current owner or trainer work together a few times to enable you to “tune in” to how this particular horse is accustomed to being ridden.

Whether the new addition to your family is for you or your child, considering these facts, asking the right questions and approaching the situation with logic will ensure that your Christmas wish will not only come true, but fulfill your expectations of what owning your own horse can be. Congratulations. May you have many happy and rewarding moments in the saddle.

Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a ride together with you…

Happy Holidays!

Laurel van der Linde is the owner and trainer of Avalon Arabian Farms in Castaic specializing in relaxed, balanced, centered foundation training for horse and rider. For further information, email [email protected] or call (661) 600-3365. See ad below.