What skills to have before buying your first horse?

I’m thinking about buying my first horse sometime in the next five years and I’m trying to come up with a list of what skills I need to learn (or refresh) prior to buying the horse so I can be an independent horse owner without relying on my trainer/barn staff to do everything. I’ve been in lesson all growing up and currently, so I’m very comfortable tacking up, riding, blanketing, hosing off, etc. but less so with many other aspects of routine horse management.

Here is the initial list of things I would like to learn, that I’m hoping you can add to:

  • Lunging
  • Clipping (I can braid ok, but then braiding skills aren’t really make-or-break it)
  • Taking a horse’s temperature
  • Riding independently (on trails or in arena–I’ve only ever ridden in lessons so right now I’m a bit intimidated at this prospect)

What would you add to this list? Is there anything you would take off it? Any and all advice is appreciated :slight_smile:

I would pick up a copy of the Pony Club Manuals and read them. There is lots of basic first aid in there, and good discussion of signs of illness/that you need to call the vet. There is also a discussion of shoeing frequency, and what to look for to determine if your horse is trimmed in a balanced way.

I’d also add how to apply standing wraps (and polo wraps if they are used at your barn) to the list.


Interesting question. If you plan to board (not keep horses at home) then I wouldn’t actually say that there’s much more you must know before you buy. First and foremost you must be comfortable with the care, instruction, and business practices of the barn you intend to board at, but a lot of stuff you’ll learn as you experience it or need to. You would expect to pay your instructor to help you learn how to lunge, for example, but you can learn that with your (future) horse. When you get your future horse, you can ask your trainer for ideas on what exercises to work on before your next lesson, so that you have a little structure to your independent riding.

If you don’t know much about horse care in general, then you can spend some quality time reading good resources. Be tactful with this - not many BOs or trainers are going to want to be told how to do their job! The pony club manuals, How to Feed Your Horse Like A Horse, a good one on hoof care and on functional conformation (sorry, other threads will have names), Horse Keeping On Small Acreage, etc, will introduce you to generally-accepted best practices and help you evaluate your horses and care providers in the future.


Equine nutrition. Once you actually own a horse, it will put put many fears to rest if you understand what to feed your horse and, just as importantly, why.

I recommend “The Horse Nutrition Bible” by Ruth Bishop. It’s a British book, so the feed references are British, but she does an incredible job of explaining the digestive system and why one might feed this as opposed to that.


I think these are great things to be thinking through on your timeline. Depending on the level of care and the type of horse you acquire you could learn a skill and never use it. However, feeling equipped with the knowledge is very empowering. If you have the ability (post covid) to watch some farrier work you may find one willing to teach you how to pull a shoe. Again, not a skill many people use but if a shoe is sprung, it’s stressful to not know what to do or have the tools.

Checking vitals is another one that comes to mind along with applying standing wraps and the very basics of saddle fitting.


You need to know enough to evaluate the care you are getting in a boarding barn.

I agree, longeing and other ground handling skills are skills you can pay your coach to teach you.

I think you are rushing things a bit if you have never ridden outside of lessons, even in an arena.

I suggest you first do a half lease of a horse on your barn or at least pay to do practice rides outside of lessons. If the barn thinks you are still too beginner to do that, don’t get a horse!

Also have you thought about whether you have the time and energy to ride 5 or 6 days a week with your own horse?

The next logical step for you is a halfease or paying for practice rides without lessons 3 days a week in addition to lessons. It’s really important to make that move because you need to learn to set your own routine on the horse and become self directed.

Some of us find lessons a necessary evil :slight_smile: and are happiest riding alone. But I’ve also seen beginner riders especially kids get very attached to the highly directive group atmosphere of a riding lesson and feel a bit lost without a coach. Realize that most advanced adult riders take at most one lesson a week, sometimes once a month or even less frequently. You need to make sure you feel comfortable riding alone at least in the arena before you take the next steps.

If you have never been on a trail ride I suggest you find a local dude string and go out for a guided trail ride. You will not get to do much “riding” and will be a passenger mostly. But you will get the feeling of being out of the arena.

Many competitive riders never go on trails or hack out. They feel their horses arent safe, they themselves are a bit agoraphobic about trails, or they find trails boring. I grew up trail riding and love it, but it is very different from arena riding. And you need to be in control of your horse

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You would benefit from helping out at the barn if you could. Having hands on experience in leading and handling a variety of different horses ( just leading to & from turnout) is helpful.

Having hands on experience in daily feeding and learning how to see the need to increase or decrease a horses feeding amount on an as needed basis. Because it does change for many horses depending on the seasons, horses age and exercise routine.

Knowing when a horse is just not right. From the way they look to the way they act and so much in-between is invaluable.

Most of your list can be taught by your instructor and some you will only learn when you own your own, but you can learn a lot by daily barn work , if you can do that.

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I’ve definitely been looking into half-leasing options but between options being limited due to COVID and the enormous price tag associated with leasing a horse in conjunction with a training program in my area (the quotes I keep getting are about $1500/month for 2-3 days lease), I haven’t made a lot of progress there. There are horse owners out there who are willing to do a private lease for a lot less than that but I’m not really sure how to evaluate the quality of those offers without them being attached to a lesson program. (any advice?)

Re: practices rides outside of lessons, I just have never ridden at a barn where that was the culture. The lesson stables I was at growing up just didn’t give that option for liability reasons and the barn I was at (and left, partly because of this) more recently didn’t even have horse owners riding their horses outside of lessons or outside of the arena, let alone students on schoolmasters. The place I’m currently at only has one lesson horse available at the moment so very limited rides, but the trainer offered me ground schooling lessons to supplement the riding so I’m working on developing a list of goals for those. This barn will eventually include trail rides and the trainer is very willing to work with me, it’s just a different breed of horses than I’m used to (Icelandics) so step one is mastering the tolt and then we can move on to the trail riding, solo riding, etc.

I definitely wouldn’t say I’m so much of a beginner that a trainer would look at me and not trust me to ride alone, more just that I’ve never been in a culture where that was the norm (or even an option). I’ve done some dude-ranch-y trail rides before as a kid and got the trail ride experience from those, but that’s different in my mind than hacking out with just me, my horse, and a map. I’d love to eventually do that, it’s just the intermediate steps that are hard to locate.

Regardless, horse ownership probably isn’t in my future for at least a year (I’d say I’m looking to buy in 2-5 years) which is why I’m trying to figure this all out now.

Learn everything you can about how to evaluate a prospective horse so you can choose the best one for you when the time comes. Think about what you want the horse to be able to do, and then look for a horse than already does that.

As for learning the nuts and bolts of caring for a horse, can you find a part time gig where you can actually muck out stalls, feed hay and ration, learn basic first aid and other routine skills?

In addition to lunging, learn how to load a horse onto a trailer, how to teach a horse to self load, how to hook up and tow a trailer (if you plan to have one), how to calm a skittish horse, and other basic ground skills. There’s so much more to good ground work than just lunging. You need to be able to move each part of the horse forward, back, and sideways.

Finally, like others have said, find a way to start riding independently apart from your lessons. If you want to trail ride, start doing that in a group and work up to taking a solo ride (if you can find a steady mount).

Also, re: price tag–I’m planning on moving to an area where horse ownership is much more affordable (which means pretty much anywhere but where I am right now) so the cost will be much less of a problem when that happens.

Make sure you learn proper lunging with side reins that are never pulled in. Running neddy around at the end of a rope or in a round yard is not lunging.

To not need a trainer you need to understand contact, be able to teach a horse contact and be able to walk, trot and canter 10 m circles that are balanced. Otherwise your trainer should be your best asset. Yes even to be safe on all types of horses for trail riding.

I agree with picking up a pony club manual. We used the New Zealand one although we are in Australia. But other than that remember there are no stupid questions to ask. Ask away.

The most important thing is not to buy a horse that ends up with you being overhorsed.

Sometimes that does not happen until weeks or months after buying said horse and that comes down to your management of said horse. If this happens get professional help sooner rather than later.

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OP, in my part of the world I have never heard of horse owners being limited to only riding in lessons. Does that mean they have 5 lessons a week or only ride once a week? In any case that model is not going to produce quality independent riders.

You say $1500 to lease a horse in a program. I guess that includes lessons?

If you owned a horse where I live, with $800 a month typical board, and had to pay for 5 lessons a week at low ball $50 an hour, up to $75 an hour, you’d be well over $1500 a month. So that actually seems a bargain.

I agree with above. Lesson horses are great but they are not real horses.

You probably know most of this, and I didn’t mean to write a book, but here are my thoughts.

  1. Learn to write checks. Lots of them. :wink:
  2. Learn to walk into a barn and assess the care provided to the horses. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Horses need good quality hay, feed for their nutritional needs, clean water, sufficient clean bedding (not necessarily 8 inches deep, BTW) and a safe environment in the barn and turnout. Barn staff should be reasonably cheerful and good at handling horses. The horses should appear to be relaxed and happy. There are the occasional stressed horses, but in general, a well run barn is a happy barn for horses and humans.
  3. Learn who the go to service providers are in your area, and watch them work so you can make up your own mind. I mean veterinarians, farriers, and whomever else your horse might need you to have on speed dial. And treat them and (if boarding) the barn staff with courtesy and respect.
  4. Learn some basic vet stuff so you know if something isn’t right and you need to call a vet. Stuff like to find your horse’s lower leg pulse (above the fetlock or in the pastern), normal respiration and heart rate, capillary refill, gut sounds. You don’t have to check these every day but should spend a few days figuring out what normal is for your horse so when you have to call the vet you can give them a clue as to what is abnormal.
  5. Learn how to bandage a leg whether for a wound or for support and to make a bootie for a hoof. (Watch a few different people because there might be differences in technique.)
  6. Learn what essential tack and equipment is, how to care for it, and when it fits well.
  7. Learn to stay out of barn politics.
  8. Always know what you don’t know and keep an open mind for those who do know more.

I’ve owned horses for a long time and managed a barn for over 30 years. I don’t clip. So don’t spend a lot of time on that one if you’re willing to pay someone should it be necessary.


Yeah, I think the horse culture is a bit weird where I am–as far as I can tell, there’s a lot fewer independent owners and a lot more lessons or horse ownership heavily mediated by a trainer. The horse owners I know ride anywhere from 2-5 times a week, tho that could be the result of less riding opportunities due to the pandemic.

To answer your question about number lessons/week, that varies a lot. Growing up, I took weekly lessons which I think was most common for kids. Returning from college, I’ve been taking 2-4 lessons/week, and I know some other students in my lesson program were taking 5 lessons/week. I’d love to end up having a combo of solo-rides and lessons–I think only riding in lessons means you never really get a chance to practice what you’ve learned before you move on to whatever the next lesson topic is.

The $1500 is to ride 2 or 3 times a week, so about $125-$180/lesson but that’s in a program associated with a trainer. (A full lease in a program like that would be more like $3000/month). In general in my area, unless you are willing to ride at a sort of lesson-mill-ish type place which might be in the $70-80 range, individual lessons on school horses are in the $90-$120 range. If I was just leasing a horse from some random person on the internet, I could probably get a half-lease for about $400/month which is much more doable, but then I would have to pay for lessons on top of that and I’d be working on my own with the horse a lot more without any sort of trainer to ask questions or back me up on a regular basis.

Tl;dr, there are many great things about where I live but the price tags aren’t one of them!

Where (generally speaking) are you, and what is your discipline of interest? Perhaps this audience can suggest other barns/trainers that might be good options for you to check out. I will echo Scribbler in saying that that is a oddly limited situation that you are describing. I assume we are in different markets but it is much more unusual to find a lesson/training program that can give 5 lessons a week than it is to find a barn/trainer that has a couple of horses for half-lease floating around. And a half lease (1 lesson and 2-3 independent rides per week) is nowhere near $1500/mo. More like half that.

I don’t disbelieve the challenges you have encountered, but I will say that I select barns/trainers based on their ability to accommodate my needs and goals. So I have left or passed on otherwise lovely programs that could not accommodate regular lessons and half leasing with no particular future date at which I expect to be able to buy or full lease my own. Plus, what’s your end game here? In your shoes I might be very leery of buying my own (even after learning the skills you are listing) and then not having access to a flexible training program, or a variety or training programs, that would work with me and my horse.

Then again, if you’re moving to a different area in the near future, then you will most likely be in much better shape overall.

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I’m guessing that OP is either not in North America, or is in a niche discipline like maybe saddleseat where trainers can have total control of horses and owners just turn up once a week, or to show.

I can’t evaluate the OP’s skills yet. However if they are able to walk trot canter safely, and steer a school horse, they might be well served finding a half lease at a lower cost barn that allows independent riding. If the OP can find a quiet well trained horse to ride independently they can continue with the lessons at the main barn and practice on their own.

They may find also that there is access to other lessons from the new barn. The owner might also be very helpful. You never know until you start looking. You might discover a whole other barn culture out there. Go visit some other options. Always have the owner ride the horse first, then if you feel safe, do a trial ride with the owner watching and giving tips. Then do a one month lease to see if it works.

Where I live there are lots of well broke semi retired horses looking for halfleases. There are also lots of unbroke horses who scare their owners. I don’t know how back yard your privately owned horses are. But I think you might find something workable if you look around.

You certainly won’t find anything without looking around.

I should add that not jumping except in lessons is a very reasonable rule. But horses shouldn’t be jumped every day anyhow.

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(also in response to @Scribbler’s comment, and thanks to both of you for your thoughts)

I’m in the SF Bay Area (on the Peninsula) where it seems like everything is just really expensive. My lessons growing up were jumping/equitation and now I do dressage. (I am able to W/T/C safely and independently). Part of the reason for shifting to dressage was just the price tag associated with jumping, though now I really enjoy it and will likely continue with dressage for the foreseeable future.

I’m liking the idea of a low-cost barn for a lease and sticking with my lessons with my current trainer. (Or else just stick with my trainer until I move to a lower cost area and then go from there).

There are a lot of programs around here but my budget is pretty prohibitive. I’m a part-time student right now and while my part-time job is pretty lucrative as part-time jobs go, it can’t compete with the families out there working full weeks at tech companies or investment banks. Between that clientele and the cost of land around here, it’s not surprising that barns are as expensive as they are. I’ve looked at programs pretty much everywhere else in the country (possible exception NYC area, where I went to college) and things are just more expensive here.

I’ve certainly done my research on barns in the area–it feels like there is a map permanently open on my browser of equestrian programs. Finding the right fit for my training needs and budget (or, frankly, a barn that will call me back) is the hard part.

I completely agree that moving will help! I think living and growing up here has definitely skewed my perceptions of what is normal/reasonable and it’s only in the past year that I’ve found out that there are people who own horses in the world who don’t only ride in lessons and who get to be the primary decision maker for their horse and equestrian life in general. I want to be one of those people, which is why I’m asking folks who are closer to that situation how they got there. Right now it still feels super distant, but I figure every skill I learn and person I talk to makes it that much more of an option for me someday.

Those leases you mention outside of a riding program, your trainer should be willing to help you evaluate. Especially if you will be keeping the horse at their barn. They will probably expect a fee for that, but it’s worth it to have knowledgeable eyes on the ground who can help you find a suitable match.

From what I know, you’re living in one of the most expensive areas there is!

My first question would be, what are your goals? Do you want to show? A lot? Twice a year? Not at all? Go trail riding? Just be able to bop around and hop over a few jumps from time to time?

It sounds like you’re currently riding at a barn where there are schoolies, but there are also some fairly high-priced performance horses. Being in that kind of company is always going to cost a lot, no matter what.

So, if you want to own a horse, you first need to decide what you want to do with the horse, and what you can really afford to do (and whether those two things align).

This will also determine what skills you really need.

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