Finding the Right Horse


Riding for Life


Syndicated columnist and physician Rallie McAllister offers women riders the tools they need to get maximum enjoyment through healthy lifestyle choices.

 An equestrian herself, McAllister includes real-life examples of women who have overcome challenges, including physical and financial, to pursue their riding dreams. McAllister also includes the "Riding for Life Diet" and "Riding for Life Fitness Program" to help start women riders on their way to a happier and healthier way of life--both in and out of the saddle.

Purchase a copy of Riding for Life at


The activities you plan to enjoy with your horse will, to a large degree, influence or even determine the breed of horse you end up buying. To spare yourself a few minor hassles--or even a major heartache--ask to see the horse's certificate of registration early on, and make sure the owner's name on the document matches the name of the person you're dealing with, either directly or indirectly, through a trainer or a sales agent.

If competing in breed-specific shows isn't your goal, you can be far more flexible in your search for a suitable teammate. While certain breeds are better suited to certain jobs, horses of many breeds are remarkably versatile and can perform well in a variety of different equestrian disciplines, including dressage, Western pleasure, English, hunt seat, and trail riding.

With that said, you'll probably be happiest and most successful if you select a breed that has a proven track record in your chosen discipline. If you plan to ride Western, your best bet is to choose a mount of stock horse descent, such as a Quarter Horse, American Paint Horse, Palomino, or Appaloosa. If you're interested in competing in dressage, you'll probably be better satisfied with a horse of warmblood origin, such as a Hanoverian or an Oldenburg. If owning a horse with a smooth ride is your primary goal, you may lean toward a Paso Fino, a Tennessee Walking Horse, or a Missouri Fox Trotter. While American Saddlebreds and Morgans are known for their versatility, they're often used exclusively as show horses. Arabians are not only excellent show horses but also competent trail horses and very competitive endurance mounts.

Although there are dozens of popular breeds of horses from which to choose, you'll undoubtedly find yourself drawn more to some than others. You can learn a great deal about various breeds by reading books on the subject, checking out the Web sites and publications of breed associations and registries, attending horse shows, and visiting area breeders. The more knowledgeable you are about the various breeds, the easier it will be to choose the one best suited for your purposes.


Depending on its conformation, pedigree, level of training, show record, and dozens of other factors, a horse can range in price from several hundred to several million dollars. The good news is you'll undoubtedly be able to find a horse that meets your needs at an affordable price. The tradeoff is time and effort. The less money you have to spend, the harder you'll have to search to find the right horse. Before you begin your horse hunt, it's important to determine how much you're able and willing to invest. Then buy the best horse that you can afford. The purchase price of the horse you end up buying will likely be far overshadowed by the cost of his upkeep in the years to come. As the old saying goes, it costs just as much to keep a bad horse as a good one.

Age and Training of the Horse

No matter how long you've been riding, the age and the level of training of the horse you're thinking of buying are key considerations. While a young, green horse may be perfect for a skilled equestrian, the same horse might prove too challenging for a novice. If you're a beginner, your best bet is to search for a mature, mild-mannered, and well-schooled mount. Even with regular riding and schooling, a well-trained horse isn't created overnight or even within a year's time.

Among inexperienced equestrians, it's a common misconception that buying a younger horse is preferable to buying an older one. Many beginners think if they buy a weanling or a yearling and raise it themselves, they'll share a stronger emotional bond with the horse than they would if they acquired him when he was older. Some fearless beginners are determined to train their own mounts while others believe that buying a youngster is less expensive than buying a well-trained horse in his prime. Finally, many novices worry that if they buy a mature horse, the animal will succumb to the frailties of old age before they've had a chance for a return on their investment.

An experienced horsewoman will shake her head at any of these examples of beginner's logic and provide you with dozens of reasons why none of them are sound. While you're still perfecting your riding skills, it's critically important to have a mature, well-trained mount beneath you. If you're an inexperienced rider, choosing a young, green horse can have disastrous consequences. At worst, you could sustain a serious injury. At best, your ability to advance as an equestrian undoubtedly will be curtailed.

Training a young horse is as much art as it is science, and it takes years of experience with dozens--or even hundreds--of horses to become good. Buying a young, untrained horse may seem cheaper in the short run, but it's likely to be far more costly in the long run. It's relatively easy to find an older horse with years of training and experience for a reasonable price. If you buy a young horse and pay for those years of training along the way, you can easily end up doubling or tripling the purchase price of the horse.

An older horse may not seem like a good long-term investment until you consider several issues. First, if you buy a mature horse that is healthy and sound, and if you take good care of him, chances are excellent he will remain a good mount until well into his twenties. It's also important to remember that as long as you continue riding and learning, your skills as an equestrian will improve. In the span of a couple of years, you won't be the same rider you are today, and you probably will "outgrow" your first horse, regardless of his age. With this in mind, it makes sense to buy a mature, capable horse you can begin to enjoy immediately, so you can continue to develop your confidence and competence as an equestrian.

Ideally, the horse you buy will be doing what you want your horse to do. If you're a beginner looking for a trail horse, the right horse already is carrying his current owner on regular trail rides. Not only will he be calm and confident by nature, but he'll be accustomed to stepping over fallen trees, walking quietly alongside other horses, and wading through small creeks.

On the other hand, it doesn't always make sense to spend a lot of extra money buying a horse so advanced in his training that you're not able to ride him effectively. A well-trained horse is like a complex machine--its optimal performance is almost entirely dependent upon the operator. If you randomly push buttons and pull levers, you may get some unexpected results. The same is true of the exceptionally well-trained horse. He's likely to be highly sensitive and responsive to the slightest changes in pressure and position of the rider's seat, legs, and hands. If you're still perfecting your seat and learning the proper use of leg aids, you may end up "pushing buttons" without meaning to. Because the horse doesn't understand what is being asked of him, he may become confused and frustrated. Eventually, he'll learn to ignore your unintentional signals, and as a result, his sensitivity and skill will decline.

No horse is permanently trained--training is always a work in progress. For a horse to maintain mastery of a specific skill, he must practice and perform that skill regularly. While it's tempting for the beginning rider to believe she'll quickly advance to match the horse's level of training, the opposite is usually true. In most cases, the skills of a highly trained horse fall to match those of his novice rider.

Gender of the Horse

After agonizing over far more complex considerations, deciding on your horse's gender will be relatively simple because choices are limited. Most horses available for purchase are mares and geldings, although it's entirely possible to buy a stallion or a neutered mare.

Any experienced horsewoman within a hundred mile radius will tell you--emphatically--that your first horse should not be a stallion. Under the influence of testosterone, stallions are instinctively driven to breed mares. As a result, their behavior can be unpredictable, aggressive, and, at times, downright dangerous.

In the presence of any mare, and especially a mare in heat, a stallion's primary goal is to win her affections. At the very least, he'll want to get involved in some heavy petting, even if it's a one-sided affair. Under these circumstances, it takes a highly skilled and experienced horsewoman to command the respect--and even the full attention--of a stallion. In some cases, it may even require a little brute strength.

Riding a stallion effectively can be challenging, but boarding him can be even more problematic. Owners of many boarding facilities don't accept stallions at their stables as they require special handling and must be kept apart from other horses. If you manage to find a suitable home for a stallion, you'll likely end up paying more for his care and accommodations.

As a rule, mares tend to be far less aggressive than stallions, but as they're still at the mercy of their reproductive hormones, their behavior can be less predictable than that of geldings. Some mares become especially temperamental and distracted when they're in heat, which generally occurs once a month, except in the winter. Because their monthly mood swings can interfere with their ability to concentrate and perform to their full potential, some trainers and riders take measures to keep their mares from cycling. It's not an uncommon practice with mares to administer drugs that will prevent them from ovulating during the show season. Although it's far less common to spay mares surgically, it is certainly possible.

If you're searching for a well-mannered, predictable horse, you'll probably be happiest with a gelding. Minus the influence of reproductive hormones, geldings are generally far more consistent in their behavior than mares or stallions. Because a gelding isn't as easily distracted by the promise of romance, he's usually quite happy to co-exist on strictly platonic terms with other horses. Even better, he's more likely to devote his full attention to you and the work you have in mind for him.


To a large degree, the size and shape of your own body will influence the size and conformation of the horse you choose. Matching the body type of the horse with that of the rider is important. The horse and rider need to be physically compatible to make a good team.

While the height of the horse might be your first consideration, it's also important to pay attention to the length of his legs and the shape of his body and his barrel. Ideally, the horse's height and barrel size will be such that when you're properly seated, you can easily apply pressure with your lower legs to the horse's sides, both at the girth and behind it.

If you're tall and have a large frame and long legs, you probably won't be able to ride your best on a shallow-bodied, narrow-barreled horse, as your upper body may dwarf the horse and your feet may dangle below his belly. If you're a short woman, you'll have more trouble mounting a 17-hand giant, and once you're in the saddle, you may feel like you're on a pedestal. Even a 14-hand pony with an extra-wide barrel may be too big for you to ride comfortably and confidently, especially if your legs reach only halfway down the horses' sides.

With that said, plenty of petite women manage to ride tall, big-barreled horses successfully, and it's not impossible for large-framed women to do very well astride smaller horses. What's most important is that you and the horse are safe and comfortable as a team, and you're able to use your legs, seat, and hands to control and communicate effectively with your horse while you're riding.

If you're not planning on competing in the show ring, how you feel on the horse is far more important than how you look. You should feel secure, comfortable, and confident, especially while you're learning. If you're going to be showing, on the other hand, you'll have to consider the aesthetics of your team, and you'll want to make sure that you and your horse are appropriately matched and properly balanced in size and other physical characteristics.

If you're a little heavier than you'd like to be, you may wonder if your weight is too great for a particular horse to carry. In general, heavy riders should look for wide-bodied or stocky horses that are not only sound but are also in good physical condition. In general, horses with good legs and feet; short, strong backs; and deep bodies are most suitable for heavy riders. Regardless of the horse's build, you may have to ride him lightly at first if he's out of shape. As his strength, stamina, and level of conditioning improve, you gradually can increase the duration and intensity of your rides.


Some experienced horsewomen will tell you that you should strive to be as color-blind as possible when you're buying a horse, as there's no such thing as a good horse of a bad color. While this is generally true, a horse's color can make a difference in a few instances. If, for example, you want to buy and show a horse that belongs to a particular color breed, including a Palomino or a buckskin, color is of major importance. Even within some breeds, certain colors and markings are discriminated against in the show ring. An exceptionally wide blaze or a bald face may be a desirable attribute for a Clydesdale, for instance, but it may be considered unattractive or even unacceptable on an American Saddlebred. If you're serious about showing your horse, it's a good idea to know about these preferences and prejudices prior to making your purchase.

If you find the right teammate, and his color and markings are acceptable for his breed, you should think long and hard about passing him up simply because his coat is gray instead of chestnut or chestnut instead of bay. The more determined you are to have a horse of a particular color, the greater your risk of ending up with a horse that's less suitable for you in other ways, including level of training and disposition.

Nature and Disposition

Like people, horses have unique personalities formed and influenced by a number of factors, including genetics and past experiences, both good and bad. Never buy a horse with the belief that you will be able to change his personality. Although it may be possible, it's just not all that likely. If a horse is, grumpy by nature, chances are excellent he will remain grumpy no matter how kind or patient you are. If a horse is high strung and nervous now, he'll probably continue to be high strung and nervous. A horse's personality, nature, and disposition are deeply ingrained, and it is not always possible to change these characteristics under ordinary--or even extraordinary--circumstances.

The horse's body language will tell you a lot about his personality, his attitude toward people, and his willingness to work. When you approach him in his stall or paddock, does he seem happy to see you? If he turns toward you with his ears forward, it's a good sign. If he ignores you, or even worse, if he puts his ears back and walks or runs away from you, you can bet that he's not all that interested in--or happy about--seeing you. When you lead him, does he respect you and your personal space or does he try to walk all over you? Does he stand quietly and accept the bit readily while being saddled and bridled?

It is true that with enough love, patience, and proper training, even a sour, resistant horse can be transformed into a pleasant, willing mount, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Owning a horse is challenging enough, even under the best of circumstances. If you start out with a problem horse, there's a good possibility that horse ownership will be so challenging that it's no longer enjoyable.

There's no doubt that adverse circumstances can produce temporary or transient changes in a horse's attitude and behavior. If a horse is uncomfortable or stressed, either mentally or physically, he may behave very differently than he would in a more secure setting. There's no way to know for sure without removing the horse from his environment. If the current owner will allow you to take the horse for a trial period, it may be worth the effort. If this isn't a possibility, it's probably best to assume the horse's personality isn't going to change much, if any.

For beginning riders, it's important to choose a pleasant, patient, and relatively quiet horse. He should be willing to work and tolerant of your honest mistakes. A horse that is mean, flighty, or fearful may have perfectly good reasons for being so, but that doesn't make him any less unsuitable or unsafe for a novice rider.

About the Author

Rallie McAllister, MD

Rallie McAllister, MD, grew up on a horse farm in Tennessee, and has raised and trained horses all of her life. She now lives in Lexington, Ky., on a horse farm with her husband and three sons. In addition to her practice of emergency and corporate medicine, she is a syndicated columnist (Your Health by Dr. Rallie McAllister), and the author of four health-realted books, including Riding For Life, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More