Buying that first pony is usually fun and exiting, but there are also many pitfalls. Bringing home a pony which doesn't meet your needs and expectations, particularly if children are involved can be a costly and heart breaking exercise.
There are a few tips which can help you make an informed decision:
Be aware of "love at first sight".
Its very easy to be seduced by large brown eyes and a pretty head and fall in love! This can easily happen when you are new to the business of buying a horse. Most horses will be friendly and inquisitive towards people, but this doesn't guarantee that they will be good to ride. Unless you are in the market for a top show pony, looks should be of secondary importance to temperament and suitability. Its very common for the kids to fall in love and want to take the pony home despite being too frightened to ride it, but remember no matter how cute, ponies are not toys and safety is far more important.
Buying the first pony you view.
Its very common and we've done it ourselves, only to get the horse home and realise that the pony is not what we needed. In many cases, especially if you have done your research and are clear about what you need, the first pony you see may well be perfect for you. But don't be afraid to walk away without the pony if you are uncertain, there are plenty of ponies out there.
Buying it and taking it home on the spot.
Unless you are experienced, this can also be a risky undertaking. Some owners are in a hurry to get rid of their horses and will pressure you into making a decision, often telling you that there are lots of other buyers just ready to snap up the pony. If that really is the case then it shouldn't matter to them to them whether or not you take the pony. While it can be frustrating and time consuming to view a lot of horses and not buy any of them, there will always be other horses to see and its worth getting one that meets your needs. If necessary, arrange for a second viewing to make sure it is what you are after. Taking the time to go through the pros and cons of a prospective purchase can assist you to make a considered choice.
Letting your child make the decision or ignoring your gut.
We see this a lot, a family comes out to trial a pony, the child is a bit scared of the horse and rides it for a short time and hops off at the first opportunity, mum or dad asks them if they want the pony and the child says yes, parent tells us they will take the pony. Or the child is obviously scared of the pony but bursts into tears when the parent suggests its not the right pony and then the parent offers to buy it. We are in no way wanting to tell buyers how to parent their children(!) but we will say that younger children are rarely the best judges of what will make a good pony for them. We won't sell ponies to buyers if we don't feel their child can confidently ride it at our place, unless there will be an experienced adult to supervise. No matter how much the child may have fallen in love with the horse and even if the pony is very quiet and suitable for kids, if its not suitable for that child its not worth the risk.
The experience of going to a strange place and getting on a new pony can be daunting for the kids and many do get stage fright, getting unusually nervous and hiding their talents. We know that what we see on that first ride isn't always going to be indicative of what will happen at home. What we do know is that kids who get over the nerves enough to walk, trot and maybe canter off the lead on our pony, at our place, normally get on very well with their new horse, whereas our only trial returns have come from children who were too nervous to go off the lead at our place, even at a walk, but had fallen in love with the pony anyway. In that case, while the tears may be upsetting for all, it is much safer to walk away and keep looking unless you have the skills or access to help to keep training the pony so that it is suitable for your child. By the same token, we also see parents try to convince their children that the pony is right for them despite the child not taking to the pony. Obviously parents know their kids better than us, but a number of our consignment horses have came to us after the parent bought the horse despite the child expressing their anxieties about the horse when they went to view it. There has been nothing wrong with the horses, just that they were never going to be suitable for the families involved.
In most cases, the pony will be at its quietest and most obliging while in its own usual environment, so if you have concerns or uncertainties about the way its behaving it is wise to listen to these as the pony is not likely to be easier to manage when you get it home. A secondary consideration is ignoring your child's gut (see above!) -unless you are in a position to school the pony yourself, if you are buying for your child its important that they feel confident and can demonstrate they can handle and ride the pony while you are trying it out.
Not asking the owner the right questions.
Most people will say that their horse is quiet but "quiet" is a matter of degrees. If you are buying for a beginner child rider you need to know how the pony reacts in unfamiliar situations and under pressure. A truly quiet horse will react with calmness in all situations. A horse that is quiet to handle on the ground can still be very nervy or forward under saddle. Some horses are quiet through water but get panicky if ridden through boggy ground. Questions we always ask include: what does the pony do when it is stressed or is exposed to something scary or novel (something they haven't seen before), what are they like when on their own-at home and on trails or out, what are they like when taken away from home, what are they like to ride after a long break, do they have any vices, bad habits, issues that will be a problem for kids. This is not an exhaustive list and your list should also include questions which will assist you to determine the pony's suitability for the activities you want to use it for.
Not seeing the pony groomed, tacked up or ridden.
We always like buyers to witness us groom, handle and tack up the pony. Where the children are competent to do so, we like to get them involved with brushing and handling the pony. Depending on the day, we often leave the pony out in the paddock so buyers can see what it is like to catch and we often get the kids helping to catch and lead it. We also ALWAYS ride the pony first, no matter what. This allows buyers so see what the horse is like when ridden and can assist them to decide if the pony is likely to suit their child. We've had some viewings where the buyer has decided after a short ride by us that the pony is not what they are looking for. While this can be disappointing for all concerned, we'd much rather avoid the risk of putting a child on a pony they are not ready to ride. If the seller, or the seller's children won't ride the pony and there is no-one else available to try it out before you put your child on don't go any further with the purchase. We've heard some worrying stories from buyers who have put their child on first with bad consequences including a broken arm.
"Vices" and "bad habits."
We get asked about "vices" alot. And we always reply that the vast majority of unwanted behaviour in horses is created by the handling and treatment that the horse has received. There are very few truly nasty horses. In most cases the horse will have been rewarded for performing the unwanted behaviour or will have been confused by its training and learned how to switch off or avoid the task by performing an unwanted response. Unwanted behaviours that can be difficult to manage when children are around include biting, kicking, napping and loss of steering (the most common problem we see in kids' ponies). We would strongly recommend against any pony that has learned to kick out at people and some ponies can get aggressive around food and threaten to bite. These latter ponies can be suitable for children provided care is taken during feeding. Some ponies can get very sour around kids because they (correctly) associate children with hard work. In this situation its best to follow your gut and if concerned about how the pony responds when handled by your children, even if it goes OK when ridden it may not be the pony for you.
Green but quiet.
We often sell ponies with this description and in confident hands, a green pony with a quiet and unreactive temperament can be a suitable mount for a child, though an experienced home is usually required. "Green" simply means that the horse has either only recently been broken in or has not had much formal education (for example, taught to jump, go on the bit etc). Green ponies are not suitable for beginners because beginners are not skilled enough to give the pony the consistent signals and aids which communicate to the pony what behaviour or action is desired. If your child is a beginner and you do not have access to regular expert help, avoid buying a green pony, no matter how quiet.
"We want the child and pony to learn together".
We hear this often and it is a recipe for disaster unless the child or parents are experienced and have access to regular riding lessons. If your child is still a beginner (and not for example confident to walk, trot and canter on their own) don't buy a young inexperienced pony for them. Buy a pony that can teach them, is tolerant of inconsistent signals and aids, wants to stop when things get messy rather than take off, and knows the ropes for activities such as jumping, mounted games etc. Your child's riding skills and confidence will improve exponentially if they aren't scared of falling off or the pony bolting.
Ultimately, this issue is usually a judgment call. Older ponies (even into their twenties) can be very suitable first ponies because they have been around, are usually very unflappable and put up with beginners' riding issues. However, as with humans, older ponies do often come with health issues, most usually arthritis which causes lameness, and founder (laminitis) problems. Usually these can be easily managed with appropriate medication or diet. If concerned about the health of a prospective pony, get some advice from a vet or horsey friend.
Whether or not to get a vet check usually depends on the cost of the pony. For a top priced animal which you are wanting to use for high intensity activities such as showjumping, barrel racing or eventing, we would always get a vet check. There is no point paying a big sum for a pony that can't do what you need it to. For pony club, pleasure or trail riding mounts which are usually in the low to mid range price brackets, a vet check may not be necessary as the kind of activities you will ask of the pony are not likely to put too much pressure on the pony's existing niggles. If you do get a vet check, get a blood test as this will show up any medication (especially sedatives and anti-inflammatories) the pony might have been given.
It is very rare but some sellers will give their horse a sedative or an anti-inflammatory to mask behavioural or soundness issues. It can be very hard to tell if the pony has been given a light dose of sedative. If the pony is very dopey, with a drooping head and lower lip and seems a bit uncoordinated when it moves it might have been given a sedative. In geldings the sheath may also be dropped down and the pony won't retract it even when walking. It can also be very hard to tell if the pony has been given an anti-inflammatory-checking the legs for obvious signs of injury which don't appear to make it lame could be a sign. The only foolproof way to tell is to have a vet take a blood test as soon as you get the pony home-any drugs will show up in the blood test. Many people believe a horse they have bought was drugged because it became very anxious and hard to handle when they get it home. This is most likely due to the normal uncertainty a horse will experience when taken away from its friends. Check out our new pony tips for how to manage this.
If you can, take a more experienced friend or instructor along with you when you view the pony. They should be able to pick up on the obvious and hopefully the not so obvious, including seeing through any questionable explanations for any bad habits or misbehavours the pony might exhibit. For example, a pony that "tests out a new rider but calms down when ridden by the same person" is likely to require some major retraining as it has obviously learned some bad habits and is not likely to be suitable for a beginner or young child.