A day on the trail is one of life's great joys, if you have the right horse for the job. And finding that horse isn't easy. Among the most debated questions in the horse-buying business is whether it's better to purchase a young horse and train it yourself, or buy an experienced more mature horse that will happily carry you over hill and dale without so much as a blink at life's distractions.
Here, we'll look at both sides of the debate, discussing the pros and cons of buying a young, mostly untrained horse, versus an older, trained prospect. We'll also discuss another top buying priority, the horse's mind, and address whether or not you should "breed your own."
The Young Horse
First, by young horse, we mean an unbroken 2- to 4-year-old, with little or no training. You may've always dreamed of raising and training your own horses, but let's face reality: Very few people have the time, energy, skill level, and patience to take a completely green horse and turn it into a reliable trail partner.
Training a youngster isn't for the novice - or even intermediate-level - horseperson. So it might be worth the extra couple of thousand dollars to purchase a horse with training and experience. You might end up spending that amount - and more - in training costs to mold a young horse to suit your needs.
Audrey Pavia, author of Trail Riding: A Complete Guide (Howell Equestrian Library) advocates experienced mounts. "You need to know how to train a horse in the arena first," she says. "When you're on the trail, you have a lot less control. You also need a lot of confidence to train a horse for trail riding. Many green horses are insecure when they're out on the trail. A confident rider helps instill confidence in a horse. If you're a nervous rider, you'll communicate your fear to the horse, and make it hard for him to relax and learn."
Fred Mau breeds Tennessee Walkers and trains trail horses in the mountains of northern New Mexico. He notes that even when you send a horse to a trainer for 30 days, you'll likely get 30 hours of training, not 30 five or six hour days. In a horse's overall education, that's not very much time, so you'll still have a lot of work to do at home.
You're also gambling on the kind of horse that youngster will grow into. "It's like hiring a child to be your employee when he grows up," says Mau. "You just don't know what you'll get when the horse matures."
That said, there are advantages to training your own youngster, especially if you have the requirements listed earlier. The partnership that develops between a horse and his trainer is one of the joys of horse ownership. Watching him develop into a confident partner is satisfying.
One of the primary reasons to purchase a young horse and then train him, say experts, is that you avoid encountering training problems others have created. Making your own from scratch means that you know the origin of every quirk your horse develops.
"A well-started young horse has his whole life ahead of him," says Cindy Smith of Circle B Stables, which trains and sells trail and family horses. "They generally have fewer health and leg problems and, in most cases, fewer bad habits. They aren't barn sour, herd-bound, or hard-mouthed. They're generally more of a blank slate, and they'll learn what you want of them quickly."
Jo Fanelli, an avid trail rider and endurance competitor from Albuquerque, New Mexico, sends her horses to be started by a professional, then works them at home. "I think the main problem I've had with already-trained horses is that they've spent time with riders who don't enforce manners," she says. "Getting a horse from a professional trainer is one thing, but getting a horse after he's spent a length of time with a rider who let the horse walk over him is another."
On the health front, a young horse might save a little money in veterinary bills, because he'll have less wear-and-tear on his joints, bones, and muscles, and will be less prone to arthritis than an older horse. On the other hand, a young, lively horse may be more likely to injure himself gallivanting around. And a horse of any age can develop expensive health problems.