by Laura Crum
A recent post on a popular horse blog featured the statement—“Its easy to say that a beginner needs to ride a 12 year old been-there-done-that horse. Good luck finding that one.” This statement made me roll my eyes and laugh out loud. I am one of the folks who is always advocating that beginners need to ride older been-there-done-that horses. And guess what? I do know where to find them. If said blogger would like to learn, I’m happy to share.
First off, you can’t have your heart set on twelve. Many of the horses that will fit your needs are older than that. I bought my son’s horse as a 19 year old, and Henry is still going strong at 24. The main thing you want is sound and gentle—and certain sorts of arthritic problems, such as bone spavin, can be tolerated.
There are certain “pools” of horses that offer many good older horses for beginners. One of the best is team roping horses. Now if you’re an English rider, you may think this tip won’t work for you, but you’d be wrong.
Remember we’re talking beginner horse here, or horse for an older re-rider with fear issues. We’re talking babysitter. We are not talking something that you are going to win a dressage contest on, or a hunt seat class, or a three day event. We are talking about a horse that can teach a kid to ride well enough that said kid might be able to move up to a horse that COULD be competitive at these events. But you have to learn to ride first—without getting so badly hurt or scared that you don’t want to ride any more. And this is where your older bombproof horse is invaluable.
Team roping horses are good bets for a wide variety of reasons. The biggest one is that in order to become a solid, competitive team roping horse, the horse has to be able to handle a lot. You name me another event where the horse must stand flat footed in an open space until signaled, then run as hard as he can, staying focused on the object (the steer), make a sudden turn, tolerate the whirling ropes, erratic cattle, hard jerks…etc, and then walk off (well, most of the good ones walk off). It’s a lot of adversity, and if a horse can put up with all that, there’s not much that rattles him. Now this is a generalization, of course. There are plenty of dingy team roping horses, just as there are dingy horses in all disciplines. But there is a very high proportion of unflappable bombproof horses among the older team roping horses I have known.
Also, since team roping requires that a horse run hard…etc, a team roping horse may be retired from roping if a kind-hearted owner feels he just isn’t up to this work any more—and the horse may still be quite sound enough for light riding. My son’s horse, Henry, is perfectly sound. He was retired because he was 19, not as fast as he had been, and the owner didn’t want to break him down. This scenario is not uncommon.
Team roping horses are mostly QH’s or QH types, and such horses are often pretty laid back and steady. I do not mean that all QH’s are this way. Certain lines are ridiculously flighty. But these “airhead” types are not the sort of QH’s that mostly become rope horses. Rope horses tend to HAVE to be mentally tough—or they just don’t make it.
Anyway, this is the place I would start, if I wanted to find my next been-there-done-that horse. And yes, this is exactly how I acquired Sunny and Henry, the two bombproof geldings my son and I use for trail riding. And neither horse was terribly expensive—both horses have stayed sound.
Now the fact is that I know a lot of team ropers, and if you don’t, you may be saying that its all very well for me to talk, but how is someone else supposed to find these horses? My answer would be to look for western trainers in your area and ask them if they know any team ropers. Keep asking until you get the names and contact info of some ropers. Contact them and ask if they know of any older, sound, gentle rope horses, suitable for a beginner. And if they don’t know of anything like that, can they give you contact info for someone who might. Keep on persisting in this fashion. Persistence is key.
I would not be too excited if the western trainer wanted to sell me someone’s old show horse. Not that these are never a good bet, but such would not be my first choice. I am also not very keen on buying a horse through someone who is making a commission on the deal (trainers usually are).
When looking for your “bombproof” horse, be aware that no horse is perfect. My son’s horse, Henry, is pretty close to perfect, but he is lazy and has the bad habit of persistently snatching at vegetation. My Sunny horse is genuinely bombproof—he’s also strong minded, and inclined to testing for dominance—lazy and rough gaited, too. Its best to decide before you set out horse shopping what kind of faults you’ll tolerate. I suggest being tolerant of the lazy horse if you’re looking for a babysitter.
The thing you really need to be clear about is you want a “broke” horse. This does not mean that you need a “well trained” horse. Most team roping horses are broke in the sense I mean. A “broke” horse is a horse that will do what you tell him, even under pressure. Sometimes the horse only understands pretty crude signals (this is true of many rope horses), but he stays obedient when the going gets tough (or scary, or whatever). That’s broke.
A broke horse may spook, but he’ll stop when you pull on the reins—he won’t bolt. A broke horse may crowhop playfully when he feels good, but you can pull his head up and holler at him and he’ll quit—he won’t bog his head and buck you off. A broke horse may balk if he doesn’t like the look of something, but he won’t rear or spin or bolt away. And in the end he will follow your directions, though sometimes you might have to be firm, persistent and patient. A broke horse may jig a little but he remains under control. That’s broke.
A “well trained” horse of any discipline is one who has been taught to be responsive to the aids. Such a horse gives his head, and moves easily off cues from your leg or seat. A well trained horse is (often) a pleasure to ride, but what the beginner or anxious rider NEEDS is a broke horse of a laid back temperment. Its best to keep this clearly in mind when horse shopping. Many great been-there-done-that horses, perfect for your use, are not all that well trained and respond somewhat sluggishly to the aids. But they are broke in the sense that counts (Sunny and Henry are in this category).
In general, sensitive, reactive, or hot horses are a poor choice for a beginner/anxious rider, no matter how gentle, well-trained, and broke they are. You want the calm, laid back, stoic, and (usually), somewhat lazy horse. But he has to be broke. Not just ignorant and lazy (such horses cannot be trusted to stay obedient under pressure). Thus team roping horses are a great place to start. They can’t become competitive without getting broke (in the sense I am talking about).
The other great resource when it comes to finding your older-been-there-done-that horse is horses that people have outgrown, or need to sell for various reasons (divorce, death, loss of job…etc). It sounds callous, but my uncle used to say that the first thing he did when he heard a roper had died was to call the widow and ask if she wanted to sell his horses. And the very best been-there-done-that horse of my childhood was a sorrel gelding named Tovy that uncle Todd acquired in just that way. (Tovy was the name of the departed owner).
My friend Wally recently bought a sound, gentle nine year old gelding, absolutely suitable for a beginner (and very cheap) because the owner had lost his job and was behind on the board bill. Wally didn’t actually need another horse, but both he and I figured the horse could come in handy if one of our horses got hurt.
And we bought our pony, Toby, when the neighbor girl outgrew him and moved on to a horse. I saw this pony pack the girl and her friends around for years, and when they told me he was for sale (they could only afford to maintain one equine), I jumped on it. My little boy was five years old and getting too big to ride with me on my horse. Toby was twenty and perfectly sound (and very inexpensive). And Toby taught my son to be a competent, confident rider—in two short years. Yes, Toby died of cancer at twenty-two—we only had two years with him. But he was perfectly sound the whole time and we rode him on average fours days a week. He was only sick for the last two weeks of his life. Toby gave us a HUGE gift, and if I had it to do over again, I’d do exactly the same thing.
So, look for good older horses that are being sold for a “legitimate” reason—due to no fault of their own. They are out there.
And finally, a lameness issue that is a stopper in a competitive rope horse can be not a problem in a horse used for light riding. My friend Wally’s six year old blue roan gelding, Smoky, was injured such that the vets said he would never be sound enough to be a team roping horse again. Wally gave the gentle, well trained Smoky to some friends of ours who spent a year rehabbing the horse. Smoky is now eight years old, sound at the trot on soft ground (will bob a little on rough ground on his “bad” side) and is used for walk trot work with beginning riders and short trail rides on good ground. They LOVE this horse. And he was free.
Some of you may remember that about three years ago I was trying to find a home for a rope horse that belonged to my uncle. Harley was a been-there-done-that twelve year old gelding (I’m not kidding—he really was twelve), who had suffered a suspensory tear. He’d been rehabbed and returned to rope horse work and reinjured himself. My uncle rehabbed Harley again—a year later Harley was sound and my uncle wanted to give him to a home as a light riding horse. I had a friend who was very timid and had not ridden since she was a teenager, but she wanted to “get back into horses” and she had an appropriate horse property. Harley was as solid as he could be, but he was not a complete deadhead. I wasn’t sure if it was a good fit. I put this question out on the blog and most people said to give it a try. So I did.
Three years later I am happy to say that this has been an absolutely wonderful success story. My friend went from being so timid that she wouldn’t even handle the horse without her instructor being present to someone who told me yesterday (with a grin a mile wide) that she had saddled and ridden Harley on a breezy day when he was “feeling good”, all by herself. Not only no one with her, but no one on the property at all. She said both she and the horse had a blast. How’s that for a happy ending? And contrast this to the sad stories we’ve all heard where the person buys a younger, greener horse, gets hurt or scared, and the joy in horses is diminished or gone forever. And again, Harley was free.
So, yes, dear fellow horse blogger, beginners or anxious riders do indeed need to get that older been-there-done-that horse. And those horses ARE out there and they are often very reasonably priced. More than that, many of them need that good forever home as much as the gentle rider needs their steady nature. You don’t even need good luck to find them, just persistence and a little common sense.
OK—climbing off my soapbox now. All comments on this subject are welcome.