Buying a horse – especially if it's your first – is a big step. Horses vary widely in temperament, ability, size and price. They can be eager to please or stubborn; relaxed or high-strung; affable or feisty; easy to control or a challenge to handle.
Depending on your needs and riding abilities, some horses are better suited for you than others. Remember, horses have experienced a chain of events prior to your consideration, including training, conditioning, feeding and human contact, that have patterned their behavior. This process of preconditioning along with their genetic makeup, although not irreversible in the long run, will determine the horse's short-term abilities to deal with exercise, stress and the environment.
There is often no way to know anything about the horse's history beforehand, so first impressions can be misleading. Generally speaking, you don't want to fall into the trap of buying a horse, especially for riding, just on first impressions. If you feel pressured into buying a horse, take a second look. Take your time, consider all aspects of the horse and try him out first. If you do your research and take your time understanding thoroughly your purchase, chances are you'll pick the right companion for you.
Different breeds display different temperaments. "Before you buy a horse, it's important to understand something about that breed's heritage and where he is coming from," says Dr. D.L. Proctor, an equine veterinarian in Lexington, Ky. "If you know what the tendencies are for the breed, you'll be able to anticipate what type of behavior problems you may have to deal with down the road and whether or not you're up to the challenge."
Another factor to consider is how you plan to use the horse. A horse ideally suited for cross-country competitions or harness racing, for example, probably won't be the best choice for trail rides or for a "backyard" horse for children to learn to ride on.
Of course each horse is an individual and you may see some variation among horses of the same breed. "You might meet a thoroughbred who is extremely calm or come across a Morgan who is a grouch," Proctor says.
Popular Horse Breeds
Here's what to expect, in general, from some of the most popular breeds of horses:
Appaloosa. The Nez Perce Indians of the Pacific Northwest first bred the Appaloosa, known for a willing temperament, gentle disposition and all-around athletic ability. They excel in Western events, three-day eventing, jumping and long-distance riding.
Arabian Horse. This is the most ancient of all equine breeds. "They are known for their beauty and elegance as well as their fiery and fractious personality," says Donna Ewing, founder and president of the Hooved Animals Humane Society. "They have great staying power and soundness and are ideal horses for long-distance or endurance riding." Many of the Arabian horses bred in the United States or recently imported have hot personalities. Because of this, Ewing only recommends Arabians for experienced riders. Of course, Arabians vary considerably around the world, and the Arabian horse encountered in the Middle East, for instance, would surprise you, as he or she is often quiet and tractable, stoic and even-tempered, quite unlike the stereotypic breed developed in the United States.
Morgan Horse. First bred in Massachusetts in the 1790s, Morgans are known for willing dispositions, gentle demeanors, great stamina and strength. They're a versatile pleasure horse and can be ridden Western or English style. The breed is also popular as a light carriage horse and as a show horse. Morgans are ideal for both novices and experienced riders.
Paint Horse. A popular American original, the paint horse is known for his characteristic color pattern. Referred to as tobiano or overo, the paint horse has a variety of white spots over a darker background color. Intelligent and versatile, the paint horse is an excellent riding horse, stock horse or show horse.
Quarter Horse. English settlers in Virginia and the Carolinas are credited with developing the quarter horse in the 17th century. Their sturdy, athletic build and calm nature have made them the most popular horse in the world. A quarter horse is generally less likely to frighten and bolt or stress over a small cut or bruise. For this reason, the breed is ideal for beginning or young riders who need a relaxed and forgiving horse as they learn. On the flip side, they also tend to be more stoic when it comes to illness and pain, and you have to have a sharp eye to read them. Their uses include: showing, rodeos, cattle-working competitions and pleasure riding.
Saddlebred. The saddlebred was first bred by settlers in the southern United States in the late 18th century and was originally used for carrying riders over the Appalachian trails. They can travel great distances at high speeds and are often used for general and endurance riding, as well as for showing.
Standardbred. Able to cover a mile in just under two minutes, the standardbred is the world's fastest harness racehorse. The breed got its name in 1879 when a speed standard was set and then entered into the register. Most standardbreds are used for harness racing, but they're also seen as show horses, endurance competition and pleasure horses. For many years, they have also been used as steady work horses in the farm and in cities.
Tennessee Walking Horse. Developed by cotton and tobacco farmers in the 19th century, the Tennessee walking horse was originally bred to transport farmers to the plantations where they worked. The breed is known for its kindness and gentle disposition. "They have a smooth gait and don't jar your bones, which makes them especially popular among older people," Ewing says. Tennessee walking horses are popular both as show horses and as trail horses.
Thoroughbred. The English first bred the thoroughbred in the 1700s for the sole purpose of racing. Today, this breed is the fastest and most valuable horse in the world, known for its athletic ability, stamina, courage and – sometimes – a high-strung and feisty demeanor. "As a rule, only really experienced horsemen should get a thoroughbred because they can be far more difficult to deal with than other breeds," Ewing says. "Inexperienced riders often have trouble handling thoroughbreds because of their testy personalities." On the other hand, their grace, speed, and willingness to work is outstanding, and their personalities can be more vibrant and expressive, as they are less prone to subtleties.
Grade Horse. Don't discount the worth of this mixed-breed. "Grade horses do not have registration papers, but that shouldn't matter unless you want a horse to enter in breed shows or to use for breeding," says Timmerman. "Grade horses often have a lot of quarter horse in them and take on many of the same wonderful personality characteristics that breed is known for." If you're a novice or just want a pleasure horse to do some riding, a grade horse may be a perfect choice.
Regardless of breed, it's most important to choose a horse that's healthy and safe to ride and in good condition, without a lot of bad habits. "Most any horse, no matter what the breed," Ewing notes, "can be an excellent companion animal if properly trained and cared for."