Farm Horizons, May 1999

Learn to ride before you buy that horse

By Andrea Vargo

Would you purchase a pick-up truck for your 10-year-old child before she knew how to drive, hand her the keys and go on about your daily business?

Probably not!

But often this is just what parents do with their children and a horse.

Karen Clark of Rainbow's End riding stable in Buffalo has seen this happen time and time again.

Clark explained, "Today, it's not like when I grew up in Hamel. I belonged to a gang of kids that had ponies or access to them.

"We rode all day long. We fell off, occasionally, but never seemed to get hurt seriously."

However Clark does have scars on both elbows and knees from "doing everything we shouldn't have done."

"I was a pony groupie. We lived close to the Pink Pony Farm on Highway 55. It was a landmark, then," she said.

The kids who didn't have their own ponies would go over every day. The owner would hand us each a bridle and say, "If you can catch it, you can ride it."

They did ride, and it was nice because there were just gravel roads around then and little traffic.

Now, kids don't have the safe spaces without traffic, said Clark.

"Everyone had the family horse or pony in the pasture with the cows. Now, kids and adults never get the chance to ride until the big decision is made to purchase a horse," she said.

Learn to ride

Yes, lessons are an expense, said Clark. She has probably heard all the reasons people give for not taking lessons before getting the horse that is supposed to carry the child safely in all situations.

Clark said, she would love to talk with the neighbor who told you that your child is a natural rider and doesn't need lessons.

Bring along the horse dealer from down the road who said that correct leads are insignificant to a good ride. Invite over the expert friend from the office that told you to buy a young horse, and eliminate everything over 10 years old.

Bring your wise old aunt that knows every old wives' tale floating around about every breed of horse known to man.

Invite over the local saddle shop owner who said to avoid the horse dealers, and for good measure, throw in the beauty shop operator who said to consider only a gelding.

"Let's sit these people down at my kitchen table and discuss the situation," she stated.

Clark has a little scenario she likes to use.

She tells a story, using names from her horses, pet fox, dog, and two hamsters.

So Harold, the neighbor, said your young rider is a natural and doesn't need lessons, she begins.

Okay, I'll grant you, this particular young rider may not need a quantum amount of lessons.

Clark continued, "If through books and close observation, this rider can correctly identify leads, diagonals (real cowboys do post a trot at times), can identify and perform extended gaits, can collect a horse at all three gaits, can brush, lead, clip, and care for a horse . . . I stand corrected."

However, if any of this basic knowledge is lacking, the results are not attractive. You end up with a scared rider and a sullen or spoiled horse, she goes on to explain.

Many instructors can schedule a lesson for prospective buyers/clients just to cover the basics.

She encouraged young people to get involved in their local 4-H program. Many things in 4-H can be done without a horse: clinics, seminars, tours, etc.

Parents attend these with their children and learn right along with the youngster.

The right horse

Assume you have taken the time to learn horse care and how to ride. Now comes the time to look for that perfect horse.

Remember the neighbor, Harold? He also told you not to buy a "show horse" because they are more expensive.

Not necessarily!

Said Clark, "Most show horses are pros at hauling, know their leads, have been clipped, aren't afraid of crowds, are traffic wise, have heard public address systems and maybe a siren or two. "

Just what is all that experience worth?

Isn't Harold the same guy who boasts he rode his first horse home from Maple Grove to Rockford?

Did he tell you it was because the horse had never been loaded in a trailer before?

Experience counts!

If your mare hears a clipper for the first time, breaks her halter in a panic, and clears the Dutch door in your barn to escape the scary sound, you will know experience counts.

Riding down the road, a semi comes rolling by and your horse knows it is going to kill him and leaves. Who knows what horses think, but experience counts.

Older horses

"If this is your first horse experience, don't look at anything younger than six years old, if that," stated Clark.

Give the older horses a break. Value the experience and the personality already developed in these individuals.

The perfect scenario is a 15-year- old rider and a 15-year-old horse. Add 15 more years to the horse, and it will be carrying toddlers.

Give that same rider a four-year-old, green broke horse, and the rider may very well be scared silly.

But he or she is afraid to tell mom and dad, because this may be the only chance to own a horse.

This rider is frustrated and can only watch as other riders and friends go to the park to trail ride as a group, or enter the county fairs and shows, enjoying their older, more experienced horses.

Match the level of experience of the rider to that of the horse. The less experience the rider has, the more experience the horse should have, said Clark.

Maybe Rocky, your office expert, told you that you don't want to deal with an impending death or breakdown with an older horse.

Well, young ones can colic.

"So it can and will happen at any age," she said.

"Personally, a 10-year-old gelding, one of those rare ones that knew more than I did, died in my arms from a veterinarian-administered drug, a fluke reaction," remembered Clark.

She said that young riders can overwork young horses before they have a chance to mature, ruining legs permanently.

Horse dealers

There are good horse dealers, and then there are some not-so-savory types. Use your common sense, said Clark.

"I've never liked the hairy-belly- button, no shirt, no belt (how do the pants stay up?) type," she said.

Good horses are hard to find, but it is better to let one slip away, than get stuck with a lemon.

"So, Julio, the shirtless dealer says that leads aren't important. I won't get into a discussion on riding with balance," she said.

Clark explained, "Perhaps for flat out riding with no turns, one can survive with one lead. But what about resale?

"How marketable will 'Single-sided Sally' be with only one lead?" she asked.

"I'm assuming you've lucked out with a fully clothed, 30-day guarantee or your money back, type," Clark said.

Understate, rather than overstate, your riding ability to the dealer. It will soon become apparent when you get on the horse, anyway.

Now that we know there are good and bad dealers, remember to also be wary of the ads you find in the paper or on a local bulletin board.

Many people can write a good ad. Some of these horses may have been some other owner's lemon.

Don't be lulled into believing the medical records will substitute for a check by a veterinarian. Talk to the vet who regularly cares for the horse.

The most glaring mistake a person can make as a buyer is to assume the person selling the horse knows more than you do, she said.

What breed?

Remember your aunt who knows all the old wives' tales about every breed of horse?

"Well, some of the best dogs are found at shelters. Here's my poodle theory. There are good poodles and there are bad poodles.

"Those bred for disposition and trainability will always outshine the "flippant" breeder's pup," said Clark.

The same thing applies to horses, she said.

"Learn to ride on various breeds before you buy a horse. Let the great pool of instructors show you their favorite breeds and combinations.

"Make up your own mind. Play the field. You are in the drivers seat, now, and we all want to show you why we're in the part of the horse industry with the particular breeds we've chosen," Clark said.

Clark stated that riding a horse, owning a horse, can be an indescribable new facet in your life.

"You're never too old to ride, and if you think you are, try driving a pony or horse.

"Step into the network of professionals and look for your niche. Start with the Extension Office/4-H Office, your statewide horse council or the American Horse Council," she said.

If prospective horse buyers call Clark at Rainbow's End, she said, she will help them find the direction they want to go in the horse world.

Clark says, "It's never too late to live the dream, but learn to ride before you buy."

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