If you are buying a youngster just because you want to learn how to break and school for the first time, I would suggest that you buy a sturdy pony. For your first attempt, a smaller animal is easier to control and cope with in every way. lt is also cheaper to buy and should be fairly easy to sell on if you do a thorough job.
If you want something to keep for yourself, think carefully what you intend to use it for and what facilities you have for winter care. Will your horse be stabled or will it have to live out? On the whole, geldings are more amenable in temperament than mares, so I would suggest that you choose a gelding for your first experience of breaking. Consider your own height and weight and look for an animal that is capable of carrying you but will not grow too big or strong. Remember that the horse you buy at two years old will grow and also fill out! If you are only five feet tall you will not be giving yourself a fair chance if you pick an Irish Draught cross that is going to make 17 hh.
If you are buying an unbroken youngster you can only assess it from the ground. You must look carefully at its conformation and see how it moves.
An intelligent head and a large kind eye are assets. A neck that grows up from in front of the withers and is naturally convex in the top line will give a good natural head carriage. A big, heavy head, neck and shoulder and a low head carriage will bring the horse’s centre of gravity too far forward and the horse will be on its forehand.
If the horse’s natural head carriage is very high and it has a concave top line to its neck (and often a big bulge of muscle underneath the neck), this is called a ewe neck. Because of this conformation the horse will have a natural tendency to throw its head up and back when excited or when having a difference of opinion with its rider. Unless dealt with very carefully from the beginning by an experienced person, this conformation fault tends to get worse, so it is best avoided in the first place.
A thickness where the neck joins the head can cause two problems. The horse may find it difficult to flex at the poll when, eventually, you ask it to come on to the bit. The thickness may also cause a restriction when breathing. The horse may ‘make a noise’ a slight whistling sound when breathing in. This is classed as an unsoundness and would affect the horse’s value.
A flat, wide forehead is considered a sign of an honest, generous temperament, whereas horses with a ‘bumpy’ forehead have the reputation for being nappy.
To be a good ride, any animal you choose must have a good, sloping shoulder behind which the saddle will sit well back. To assess the shoulder, draw an imaginary line from the highest point of the withers to the ground. If this line comes well behind the forelegs, you should feel that there is plenty of horse in front of you when you eventually sit in the saddle.
If this imaginary line comes from the wither straight down the foreleg, you will probably feel that you and the saddle are sitting over the horse’s forelegs and that there is nothing in front of you – a most precarious position. A straight, upright shoulder also produces a shorter, more stilted stride which is less comfortable to sit to, especially in sitting trot. A horse with a sloping shoulder has the freedom to swing along.
The horse should be a comfortable ride, so look for a sloping pastern to give a soft, springy step. A short, upright pastern gives a more jarring, jolting ride because it is not such a good shock absorber. A cobby type of horse will usually have a more upright pastern than a Thoroughbred type. One is built for strength; the other for speed.
There should be the same amount of slope on the hoof as on the pastern. Your imaginary line through the centre of both hoof and pastern should be straight and unbroken. A horse is said to be ‘back at the knee‘ when the front of the foreleg, viewed from the side, appears to have a backwards curve. This puts additional strain on the tendons and is best avoided.
Looking at the horse from the front, there should be a good width between the forelegs; they should not look as if they both come out of the same hole. An imaginary line should go straight down through the forearm, the centre of the knee, cannon bone, fetlock, pastern and hoof. A twisted or crooked foreleg is a weakness. It puts extra strain and jarring all down one side of the leg. Toes turned out mean that the horse will be likely to brush – knock the opposite fetlock joint with its hoof or shoe as it brings its leg forward. Toes turned in mean that the horse is likely to dish – swing the forelegs outwards below the knee. This is not as serious as brushing as, unless it is extreme, it is merely ugly, not troublesome.
‘Bone’ is the measurement taken around the cannon bone and tendons below the knee. A big, heavyweight hunter may have more than 23 cm (9 in) of bone, whereas a small Thoroughbred could have only 15 cm (6 m). The horse should look as if its legs “fit’ with the rest of its body.
Look at the place where your girth will lie. ls the horse deep through the girth? If there is a sharp, uphill slope under the horse’s belly just behind the girth, the horse is said to be herring-gutted. On a horse of this type the girth will slip back and take the saddle with it, so you would need to use a breast girth or breast plate. The ribs should be deep and well rounded to give plenty of room for the heart and lungs.
The horse must have the strength to carry its rider forward, so look at the hind legs from the side. Draw an imaginary line from the back of the hindquarters to the ground. This line should run from the point of the hock via the back of the fetlock joint to the ground. A horse whose hocks and fetlock joints are behind this line will not be as strong in its hind legs. It will be more difficult to get the horse to step under its body with its hind legs and to make it really use itself. It may tend to hollow its back and ‘leave its hind legs behind’ when it moves.
If the hock is slightly in front of your imaginary line, and the fetlock joint even more so, the horse is said to be sickle hocked. In this case there is a great strain on the back of the hind leg from the hock downwards and this horse may, with work, develop a curb – a sprain 10-15 cm (4-6 in) below the hock.
Stand behind the horse and look at its hindquarters. When it is standlng square with both hind legs level, are its hip bones at the same height and level? Is there a straight line through the centre of the hock, cannon bone, fetlock joint, pastern and hoof?
If the hocks turn in towards each other and the feet turn out, the horse is said to be cow hocked. This is also a weakness because the joints that support the horse and propel it forward do not lie underneath each other. If the toes turn out, the horse may also brush behind.
The feet should be round, with wide, open heels and a well-developed frog to act as a cushion to prevent jarring. The sole should be slightly concave and the weight should be carried on the walls of the hoof. A flat sole can make a horse very sensitive on stony ground and lead to bruising of the sole.
Temperament is going to be of prime importance to you so watch the horse’s ears and eyes. Are the ears moving slowly backwards and forwards? Is the horse calm and relaxed in its eye or are the eyes very wide open, perhaps with the whites showing?
As you approach, does the horse prick its ears and stand calmly, or does it back off with raised head and ears flicking quickly backwards and forwards? When you handle it, does it ever lay its ears back? ls it nervous or jumpy with people or sudden noises?
Lay your arm across the horse’s back and gently lean against it. Does the horse look back at you in a tense way with a raised head? You should hope to find that the horse is totally unworried by your action. You are looking for a calm, confident horse that has been well handled. A nervous, jumpy or bad-tempered animal is not for you.
If the horse will trot out in hand, you can stand behind it to see if it moves straight and then stand in front of it to watch it coming towards you. As it goes past you, stand to one side to see if its action is long and low or round and high.
If the horse will not lead, it may be possible to see it loose in the field. Here, as it stops and turns, you can also see if it is naturally well balanced.
Remember that a young horse still has a lot of growing to do. Some youngsters look gawky and awkward, just like growing children. At one time their withers look higher than their rumps, at other times their quarters will be higher than their withers. Try to look at the skeleton under the coat and skin to make sure it is straight and strong. If you are unsure of your own judgement, ask a knowledgeable friend to accompany you and also consider having the horse checked by a vet if you are going to spend a lot of money on it. Do not forget to ask the breeder about the youngster’s dam and ask to see her if you can. Consider her temperament which she may well have passed on to her foal. Does she have any hereditary problems? What sort of work has she done? Has she won any competitions? Ask the same questions about the sire and, if possible, get his stud card.