Selecting a Horse

ByJohn A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD;Susan Aiello, DVM, ELS
Reviewed/Revised Jul 2011

Choosing the right horse takes time and can be difficult. Horses come in many different sizes, breeds, colors, temperaments, and states of health. All these things should be considered, while keeping in mind how the horse will be used (pleasure riding, barrel racing, showing, jumping, and other sports) and the rider’s skill and comfort level around horses.

Breed, Temperament, and Use

More than 150 breeds of horses and ponies are commonly found in the United States. Size ranges from large draft breeds, such as Percherons and Clydesdales, to mid-sized Saddlebred and Quarter Horses and smaller Morgans and Arabians. The size of the rider relative to the size of the horse should also be considered. In addition to size considerations, each breed has different physical characteristics to consider during horse selection. For example, breeds that have “feathering” around the hooves are not a good choice for someone who lives in a muddy area and does not have time to groom the horse every day.

Horse breeds

Different varieties of horses have different temperaments and have been bred to excel at different activities, so it is important to match the horse to both the rider and its proposed use see Table: Desirable Characteristics of Horses for Selected Uses. Draft breeds are usually calm and steady, while Arabians and Thoroughbreds are often more skittish. Placing an inexperienced or beginning rider on a fiery Thoroughbred would be a mistake, as would purchasing a slow draft breed for flat racing. Many good books on horse breeds are available to help you decide on the breed that is right for you. It is also wise to seek out opinions from experienced horse people (breeders, trainers, veterinarians) before you make a decision.


Sex and Age

The sex and reproductive status of a horse are other factors to consider. Mares are generally smaller and calmer than stallions within the same breed. Males that have been gelded (castrated) are generally calmer and more easily handled than stallions (intact males). Obviously, horses kept for breeding purposes must remain intact.

Older horses are usually more docile than young ones. However, older horses may have medical conditions that affect their disposition (for example, arthritis), or they may have developed bad habits, such as cribbing, biting, stubbornness, or rolling. Breeding horses should be sexually mature and experienced enough to mate successfully but not so old as to be infertile or afflicted with conditions that inhibit mounting, such as arthritis.

State of Health

Before deciding to buy a particular horse, you should have a veterinarian perform a prepurchase examination. A prepurchase examination involves a complete evaluation of the horse, including observation during movement. The prepurchase examination is a good investment of time and money, because it not only provides you with some assurance that the horse is healthy but also makes you aware of possible problems. You should discuss your intended use of the horse with your veterinarian so that he or she can give an opinion of the horse’s suitability for that purpose. However, although your veterinarian can identify problems and render an opinion, the decision to purchase is yours.

Finding the Right Horse

Take some time when looking for the horse that is right for you. You can watch competition horses perform at shows and races. Trainers, instructors, and farriers (horse shoers) may know of horses for sale that fit your needs. Asking around at your barn or riding stable can also be helpful. 4‑H clubs are often good sources of available horses. For specific breeds, the breed association may be able to provide a list of breeders or owners in your area. Horses are often advertised in newspapers and equine publications, which may also have information on horse auctions in your area. Be prepared to make a lot of phone calls and shopping trips before you find the horse that is right for you. You can also hire a horse broker for a fee to do most of the leg work for you.

Typical Veterinary Prepurchase Examination

  • Detailed history, including examination of medical and reproductive records.

  • Thorough physical examination in the stable, including hands-on palpation, listening to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope, and eye examination.

  • Observation at the walk and trot on lead.

  • Observation at the canter and gallop, then rest and re-examination.

  • A Coggins test, which is a blood test for equine infectious anemia, should always be performed. A Coggins test is also almost always required by state regulation if a horse is to be transported across state lines. Your veterinarian can advise you of the current regulations in your area.

  • Other special diagnostic tests, such as soundness x-rays, blood tests, or examination with an endoscope, may be recommended based on findings of the physical examination. Regional requirements and conditions may also dictate certain tests.

  • State or country regulations may require vaccination for specific diseases before purchase. These are performed after the decision to buy has been made.

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