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Buying Your First Horse by Lisa Wiseman

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The label of “warmblood” covers a variety of breeds, so it’s impossible to generalize in about them.  Sometimes they’re called “dumb bloods”, but some are very smart indeed.  Breeds that fall into the “warmblood” category are Trakheners, Cleveland Bays, Appaloosas, Quarterhorses, Paints, Stock Horses and many, many more.

A word of warning about buying a “colored” horse: anything with a skin that would make a good mat is usually going to cost more than a plain horse (bay, black or chestnut), unless there’s something wrong with it.  Sometimes people breed for color rather than functionality and soundness.  Grays are also “solid colored”, but be careful.  Grays are prone to melanoma.  Usually they’ll die of old age before cancer gets them, but you never know.

“Coldbloods” include the draught breeds.  If all you want to do with your horse is pull very heavy weights, then they’re ideal.  I’ve known some wonderful “draughties” that were saddle horses, but their action is designed for pulling weight, rather than covering ground.  They’re also often very large and eat like, er, very large horses.  Shoeing them can also be expensive.  If you’re not using them for their pulling power you might as well buy something lighter.

If you want a horse to do some harness work with and ride there are other options.  Having read this far, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get to the “best kept secret” part.  Here it is.

“Where can I find a horse that the kids can ride safely, drive in harness around the farm and to town to get the groceries?” you ask?  Don’t look further than a Standardbred.  I highly recommend the Standardbred to first time horse owners and anyone wanting a genuinely versatile all-rounder.  Standardbreds are harness racers.  They are also athletes, but their temperament is usually not as “hot” as that of the Thoroughbred.  Sadly, too many Standies end up as dog-food when they finish racing, because of silly prejudice.  But talk to any horseman and most will admit to having owned or known a Standardbred that they adored.

The average "Standie" off the track is cheap or free, he’s harness broken, if not saddle broken.  He’s usually seen races, crowds, been transported all over the country, had all sorts of gear flapping around him, been shod etc many times, jogged many miles per day as part of his training and if he comes out at the end of all that physically sound, (which a large number of them do), not much will worry him.  Thoroughbreds are bred to go fast with a jockey on top.  Standardbreds race with a gig attached and more horses and gigs around them, which means they have to be sensible and controllable.

Standardbreds are cheap, but many of them are laterally gaited, efficient at covering ground and comfortable to ride.  Fashion is only just catching up to them.  You have a choice of the laterally gaited or “conventional” model in the Standardbred.

Not all Standies are gaited.  Some are “square gaiters” which means they walk, trot and canter rather than pace.  Some race as pacers wearing hopples, but don’t gait naturally under saddle.  Some are “free-leggers” and prefer to pace or gait laterally.  To dispel a myth about Standardbreds; even the “free-leggers” can learn to canter well under saddle. 

My Standardbred “Australian gaited horses” are much in demand for novice riders or people who need a gentle ride.  I joke that the riders of the Peruvian Pesos (gaited horses) carry a glass of wine on their hats, but the Australian Standardbred rider can carry a schooner of beer on their akubra! That’s a joke: please don’t EVER get on any horse without wearing a sound helmet which is approved to the current appropriate safety standard!

The horses that have the intelligence, athleticism and sound conformation to make a top harness racer are the ones that contribute to the gene pool.  So Standardbreds are sane, sensible, slower reacting than a Thoroughbred, an athlete that’s been bred to take the physical pounding that is harness racing and what’s even better, they’re affectionate and  lovable! With any breed there are exceptions, but in over 25 years around them I’m yet to meet a Standardbred that’s truly “flighty” compared to some of the “Terrorbreds” I’ve known.

People are now discovering just how great Standardbreds can be.  There are societies in Australia and the US that list horses and find homes for them.  The Standardbred Pleasure and Performance Horse Association adopts horses out after racing.  Or go down to your local track and ask around.  Someone will always know of a good horse that needs a home.  The horses that trainers like best and take the time to find homes for are usually the ones that make good family horses.

I know many people who have taken on Standardbreds that have never been ridden and gone on to ride them with no problems without having the horses professionally started under saddle.  As a teenager I bought a horse that had his last race start on Wednesday, picked him up on Thursday, started him under saddle on Friday, showed him successfully on Saturday and rode him to Pony Club through city traffic on Sunday.  He went on to have a long and successful competition and pleasure career under saddle.  Nowadays I know better than to do that sort of thing, but people still do similarly stupid things with Standardbreds and survive.

There is an old saying “green and green equals black and blue”.  A better option to finding a horse straight from the track is to find one that has already done some work and is proven to fulfill your criteria. 

If you choose to buy a horse off the track you should, ideally, have your Standardbred started under saddle by an experienced person who likes working with the breed, then work with the trainer as your horse progresses.   In the long term, that will save time, stress and possibly injury for both you and your horse! It’s still also much cheaper than buying a ready-trained horse of a more fashionable breed.  Be aware though that working with a newly started horse takes time, patience, skill and common sense and must be done on a regular, frequent basis.  If you haven’t got the time to work with a green horse, buy something that’s had more education and experience.

Currently, I own nine Standardbreds.  At any time, day, night, in any weather, I can go and put a saddle or harness on any of them and take them anywhere reliably with no drama.  I can ride all of them bareback with no bridle safely.  No matter whether they’ve been out of work for months or not, they’re always calm and keen to go places and do things.  They love attention, learn fast, and are often very good with children or nervous riders.  Mine have done street parades, shows, trail-rides with groups of over 50 riders, all sorts of things, and nothing worries them.

What’s even better is that they come in many sizes and colors! They range in height from under 14hh to over 17hh.  While bay is the most common color, there are also chestnuts, grays, blacks, duns, piebalds and skewbalds.  Standardbreds are also performance horses.  They excel at harness events, but many of them show talent for jumping and dressage.  Some compete successfully in Endurance or speed events like barrel racing.  They’re the true all-rounder of the horse world.  The ultimate in practical recycling is to take an unwanted Standie and give him a home for life where he can be useful and enjoy his work.  The bottom line is that Standardbreds are sensible, affectionate, sound, easy-keeping, intelligent, hardy horses and just fabulous to be around.  They are especially good horses for families.  Standardbreds are THE horse you should consider as your first horse, or your farm’s work-horse!



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