What skills to have before buying your first horse?

If you are not staying in a boarding situation…

Shadow a vet for a few days. Learn what your willing to treat and when to call a vet. Having that decision in place before something happens is extremely helpful.

Find someone you respect to mentor you so they in essence are on speed dial so you can voice ideas and thoughts off them.

If you are staying in a boarding type situation make sure the trainer or manager is willing to educate you as you go. Have this conversation ahead of time so they and you understand the kind of support you are looking for.

Best of luck!

Ok OP, good to hear you are in North America and in one of the larger disciplines! It sounds to me like you have found your way to the more expensive and high end of horses, even for your area. You might (or might not) be getting excellent instruction on good horses, but if you are trying to run with millionaires on a student budget, you just aren’t going to get very far.

Realize that if you want to buy a horse to compete in this world, you are looking at upwards of $100,000. Then you are going to have to pay thousands of dollars a month to a trainer to keep the horse tuned up for you to ride in one or two lessons a week.

Knowing you are in the USA and in California, traditionally a big area for horses, makes me confident you can find DIY owners if you get out of millionaire’s row and start looking.

You are not going to find a $150,000 Prix St George school master in a focused lesson and showing program for $400 a month but you should be able to find a broke safe horse with a sane owner who is happy to show you the ropes.

It sounds like your riding is more advanced than I assumed! The only ever ridden in lessons bit made me think you could be 11 years old and only riding once a week for the past year :).

It really depends what your goal is. If you want to step back from a lesson only training barn and get some more well rounded horsemanship I think you can find that. If you are really committed to the dressage lesson and competing progression at your training barn, you might not be able to find that outside the program.

Anyhow from the added information I am sure you are advanced enough to go looking for other options!

Ah yes, that makes sense. I used to live on the Peninsula and what the OP is describing is accurate. Being horse-less there as hard as there are not many leasing opportunities and even leasing an old schoolie in a structurally unsound barn will run you over 1K a month. @katmarcra feel free to PM me - you might have to go coastal or east bay to find what you are looking for.

I think that you are approaching this situation really well - so kudos to you for that. What helped me fill the gap between riding in lessons and owning a horse are:

  1. part-time working student. At the time I worked Mon-Fri 10 hour days, so I spent all day Friday helping a small trainer in exchange for lessons. Like many working student experiences, you end up doing lots of hard work that is not always rewarded equally to saddle time, but the learning experience was worth it. Showing, grooming, lay ups, working with young horses, seeing the realities (dos and dont) of running a small barn was really invaluable.

  2. volunteer at local horse shows/ events to get plugged into the local scene. This will be difficult due to COVID, but not impossible since shows in some areas are still running (unsure of the peninsula). Look into the California Dressage Society peninsula chapter or I think there is a woodside horse association if you live near there. Try to get plugged in and expand your horse network. Most good lease or “come ride my horse for free” options are word of mouth. Once people know and trust you, riding options will open up.

  3. reading lots of books/ articles. When I got back into riding and focused on dressage, I got a subscription to Dressage Today and Equus. I think now are both only on digital platforms, but both had so much good info, even if I didn’t understand everything in every article, it will start to broaden your knowledge so you can ask intelligent questions from your trainer/vet/farrier. Obviously Coth and Practical Horseman are good ones as well.

  4. Lucking out and finding good half leases through the network I built. Try some different trainers. Some are better at expanding their student’s independent riding capability than others who may work out of a stricter - lessons only type barn. Be honest with your goals, a good trainer will try to help you with them. But if that fails, you’ll have to take some initiative. I found my first 1/2 lease by cold-emailing the owner of a barn and explaining by riding history and what I was looking for. She hadn’t planned on 1/2 leasing, but had more horses than time so we met, she watched me ride and we worked out a great agreement for one of her horses who needed a job. None of this would have happened if I had not emailed her out of the blue.

Good luck! You certainly are on the right track, prepare to spend a few weekends driving and meeting some trainers and looking at barns. Not every situation will work out. Some will still offer to lease a horse at crazy high prices even when you were very clear about your budget, but just keep trying.


Are you on FB? If so, try joining the Bay Area Horse Leasers group.
I also agree with the poster that suggested looking outside the peninsula. I’m in the East Bay and just saw an ad for a half lease well below the prices you’re looking at. You may have to travel a bit to save your wallet.

If you have experience jumping and you enjoy dressage, I would encourage you to look at eventing barns If you haven’t already. I don’t know about the Bay Area, but where I am the adult ammie event culture is MUCH more laid back than what you are describing. It’s not hard to find a part lease, and in our discipline these are usually care leases or “free” leases, where you are simply paying your portion of the horse’s boarding and vet/farrier costs, along with whatever lessons you take. Eventers ride on their own even when in a real program, because the discipline is more independent by nature.
You are right to want to find a barn where, whatever the discipline, you are able to be hands on in your lease (and I agree with everyone else, start with a lease!). All the things everyone has mentioned in this thread - from wrapping to trailering to checking pulses - are all useful to know, and you will get exposed to some of them just by caring for a horse yourself at a barn where the staff and fellow boarders can show you what to do when something new comes up.

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I think it is so important to have a network of people who you trust for advice and opinions. Don’t rely on just your coach, vet, etc. Because everyone has different perspectives and experiences that inform their advice. Do your research and trust your gut. I’ve had horses at home for over 20 years and I am always learning.

Also, learn everything you can about hoof care and trimming. So many horse owners blindly trust their farriers and I have seen quite a few horses crippled from years of shoddy farrier work. I went through 3 farriers before I got to the one I’ve had for 15 years. Over the years I have occasionally called another farrier for a second opinion when we couldn’t solve a lameness issue. My farrier is humble enough to know that she doesn’t know everything so she’s fine with that. Giving your horse the best possible care is more important than hurting someone’s feelings.

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Learn to recognize good hay, tolerable hay and unhealthy hay, and make yourself familiar with how much a given class of horse, in a given level of work, needs to maintain good health. If your horse is on pasture, learn about that too.

If there’s one truly depressing thing I see over and over again in boarding barns, it’s the well-meaning owner who puts up with inadequate or poor quality hay because they don’t know any better. And, really, the number of problems that arise from this really is amazing, from ulcers to behavioral issues to mysterious ailments that never seem to be diagnosed correctly.

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Yes!! I really agree with the importance of good hay. And expensive doesn’t necessarily mean good. I have left beautiful boarding facilities because they were feeding garbage hay. I always say “you can pay for the good hay now, or you can pay for the vet bills later” - it’s like insurance.


I only read one person mention trailering. If your goal is to own, you need to know how to confidently trailer/transport your horse. Especially in an area where it’s known that you may have to evacuate at some point, you need to be totally confident in your ability to hook up a trailer, load a horse safely, and haul them without having a panic attack. And, You need to be able to do this alone, not with a team.

I was a little shocked recently when seeing a post on Instagram about a person who has multiple horses at home but was terrified to haul them anywhere. In my eyes, Hauling is a non-negotiable for having horses at home(or even not at home). In an emergency(natural disaster or horse related), the last thing you need is the extra stress of not being confident with the truck and a loaded trailer.

Otherwise, I will echo the prior comments on nutrition and good hoof care. Wrapping legs as well. With the use of boots for everything, the art of wrapping legs seems to be dwindling in the people who just show up to ride their horse and not do anything else.

How to actually clean a stall and do it well.

Basic 1st aide - knowing how to check heart rates and respiration rates. Keep a record of their resting rates/Base metabolic rates for reference. Knowing how to medicate or give injections.


No kidding!

It’s funny though: I used think people who’d put up with garbage hay for the sake of a fancy facility were just shallow and silly, but now I realize that many people honestly have no idea what good hay is, or even how much hay a horse should have.

This really is a very sad situation.


I recommend Julie Gettys book Feed Your Horse Like a Horse. It’s a good solid primer in line with current best practices. I don’t recommend her website so much, she is selling nutrition products and dabbling in pseudoscience. But the actual book is good.

I don’t find myself needing to wrap legs at all. I did learn to do home abscess treatment without involving a knife happy vet. I also can rasp my barefoot horse between trims.

A basic first aid course would be useful. Treatment of scrapes and cuts, abscesses, how to recognize colic, when to call a vet, routine care (annual teeth and vaccinations, appropriate to your area).

Also learning to see lameness. There are some online resources for that.

As far as clipping, there’s always someone around who will do it for a fee. Most horses just need one clip a year in late fall. It’s specialized enough that most one horse ammies don’t do it themselves as it takes rather fiddly equipment and some skill. Our barn expert does a nice job and works otherwise as a pet groomer!

Ditto braiding. You can certainly spend time practising on your own horse. But honestly if you are going to a big deal rated h/j show and you need professional braids sewn in, it takes a couple of hours early in the morning. Hire someone to do it while you have breakfast and polish your boots, etc.

Braiding for schooling shows is much more casual. You can even get away with a running braid in a naturally long mane.

Taking a step back from the care of the horse, as an owner and rider it is useful to develop a really acute BS meter! The horse world is filled with self-defined experts. One can learn from anyone but sometimes the lesson is what NOT to do.

Observe widely, think critically, ask questions and evaluate the answers, learn, learn and always learn some more and continue to observe closely. Yes indeed, people skills rather than horse care. It isn’t discipline specific and cross-discipline learning can be very enlightening.

IME it is infomative to watch a horse in relation to it’s handler, whether trainer, groom or ammy owner. The horse will tell you all about the emotional and physical relationships, if they like their humans, if they are happy with their care and in their job or bored, stressed, even miserable. Happy horses tend to be found where people know what they are doing, in any equestrian discipline. That is not aways in the fanciest barn with the biggest trophy cabinet, the greatest number going to shows or the highest fees. The best horsemen from whom I have been privileged to learn tend to be problem solvers, highly observant, focused on details that work for individual horses and always learning, always open to new ideas. They look to the horse as much as the horse looks to them.

The horse world is undoubtedly very traditional but “Because we’ve always done it that way” is a most disheartening response to a question asked.

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Thanks for confirming that what I’m seeing is standard for the Peninsula! I was starting to worry that somehow I’d be looking at things with the wrong glasses on and just missed a lot of opportunities that don’t really seem to exist. It’s nice to hear that it isn’t just me. I’ll have to take a deeper look at the East Bay options–right now I’m a bit skeptical of crossing the Dumbarton bridge on a regular basis (I’ve heard the traffic horror stories, and my work schedule doesn’t leave a lot of room for commuting) but maybe there’s something closer than I had thought. I’ll definitely shoot you a message to talk further :slight_smile:

Thanks for all the great suggestions! I wanted to compile the list into something I could use as a reference, and I’m adding it below in case others in my situation could also benefit.

Here are the books/resources referenced:

  • Pony Club Manuals
  • How to Feed Your Horse Like a Horse (Julie Gettys)
  • Horse Keeping on Small Acreage
  • The Horse Nutrition Bible (Ruth Bishop)
  • Dressage Today
  • Equus
  • Practical Horseman
  • www.horse-care.co.uk
  • Horse Brain, Human Brain (Janet L. Jones)
  • Leg and Hoof Care for Horses (a Knack Guide)
  • Threshold Picture Guides Series on First Aid, Lungeing, and Worms and Worming

Here are the skills:

  • Applying standing wraps, bandages, booties, polo wraps
  • Care and fitting of tack, including saddles
  • Checking vitals (lower leg pulse, respiration and heart rate, capillary refill, gut sounds)
  • Basic medical care (recognizing colic and lameness, how to give medication, how to give injections)
  • Basic hoof/shoe care (pulling a sprung shoe, hoof care, trimming)
  • Understanding feeding (whether the feed is good quality, if it is the correct feed for your horse, and the correct amount for your horse)
  • Trailering skills (how to load a horse, how to teach a horse to self-load–I’m not anticipating having my own trailer in the near future (I’ll reassess in 10 years), but if I was: also how to hook up trailer and drive with trailer)
  • Lunging with side reins
  • Assessing the care and quality of service providers (including having a BS meter)
  • Learning to write a lot of checks (step 1: get a check book…I’m very much a Gen Zer and so I’m definitely behind on the checkbook train!)

How to get these skills:

  • Talk to trainer about learning them
  • Shadow a vet and farrier
  • Part-time working student (I’ve actually done this and mucked plenty of stalls as a result, but I really wouldn’t put the place where I worked in the category of horse management that I’d like to emulate, which is why I’m looking for suggestions from you all)
  • Volunteer at horse shows or events
  • Go to clinics and lectures (audit if horseless)

Also, get an easy horse! Thanks for the reminder that this helps a lot.

I hope someone out there is able to find this helpful! This is definitely going to be a living list for me, so if there is anything else to add, let me know! Thanks again for all your insight :smiley:

Added to the list on 1/28 and 2/1 to reflect comments after I posted this.


I’d also add in going to clinics and lectures as they arise. There are clinics on groundwork horsemanship (mostly from Western trainers), on hoof health, on first aid, on nutrition, etc. You can audit horsemanship clinics if you don’t have a horse to participate.

Also just finding a lease in a more DIY situation will let you absorb a lot.

My barn is 100% self board. My first horse as a teen was self board and as a 14 year old I figured out how to do impeccable horse care, first aid, order hay and call the vet and farrier. Getting professionals you like and can trust is important. Anyhow, my horse then was easy care, and there was nothing a conscientious teenager couldn’t do. Routine and attention to detail is important.

Also getting an easy care horse, a healthy sane one with no pre existing issues, makes life easier.

Absolutely! This should be underlined in red.


I went many many years without needing to wrap legs at all. But I am glad I know how. All it takes is one injury or cut that needs to be wrapped and there you go. I would rather learn to wrap and practice a few times when there isn’t an injury/cut involved to add to the stress. I have also learned to keep a good set of standing wraps around just in case.

I did figure out how to wrap for injury as a teen, as I recall using a giant roll of cotton batton under beige tensor bandages. I just haven’t touch wood needed to do it yet as a returning rider. I don’t ride in polos or sports boots.

I agree as a first aid thing it’s totally necessary.

Just thought of the many distance learning courses on horse skills e.g. www.horse-care.co.uk, and many others, based often on BHS curriculum.

I got a new horse book for Christmas, “Horse Brain, Human Brain” by Janet L. Jones PhD. When I got through the first section I decided that this was the book I had hoped to find over 50 years ago when I got my first horse as a beginner.

I showed it to my riding teacher this morning and flatly told her that EVERYBODY who leases or buys their first horse needs to read it. It explains how the horse’s brain works, how it is different from how the human brain works, how the horse perceives the world and how that is different from how humans see the world. My riding teacher looked through it and said she had one person at the stable who just got a horse and she was going to recommend it.

If you read this book there will be fewer scary occasions in your riding life, you will be much less likely to abuse your horse through ignorance and you will have a much better chance of starting off with a horse on the right foot and avoid making several of the first time horse owner mistakes.

Horses do not see the world the same way we do. Their intelligence is vastly different than ours. This book will guide you to a non-abusive way to relate to your horse because you won’t waste time trying to get the horse to do stuff it just cannot do.

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