Choosing the Right Horse for a Child

Choosing the Right Horse for a Child

Choosing the Right Horse – Putting Principle Number 7 into Action

By Mattie CowherdParelli 3-Star Instructor and Horse Development Specialist

Principle #7: Horses teach Humans and Humans Teach Horses

There is never a time more important for Principle #7 to come into play than when a parent, grandparent, or guardian goes looking for the perfect horse for their child. So many people new to horses think “a horse is a horse… so why should it matter WHAT horse I get for my child? Aren’t they all the same?” While that may work for a beginning bike or car, it does not extend to animals, and certainly not to horses.

So, what should you look for when searching for that perfect “kid’s horse”?


One of the funniest things about the horse industry is that the best horses for most kids are NOT the most expensive ones – though, in my opinion, these are the ones worth their weight in gold! Though the industry prefers the fancy bloodlines, high spirit levels, and attitudes that can produce competition winners, a beginner’s horse is not going to be any of these things.

The perfect kid’s horse:

  • Is older (i.e. teens)
  • Has been there, done that – with lots of positive experiences
  • Is mild mannered – no bad behaviors; will go a little and whoa a little (balanced)
  • Thinks like a partner, and is aware of that partner on their back
  • Doesn’t make assumptions – the kid THINKS it wants to go fast, until it IS going fast!
  • Is obedient and dependable – willing, soft, and steady
  • Is a confidence-builder
  • Knows its job and does it well

In other words, the perfect beginner’s horse is one that isn’t going to win the blue ribbon at the National Show, but it will win its child’s heart every day. It will be a horse that takes responsibility for its emotions and is responsive without being super-charged. It will be the horse that looks back at the kid pretending to be a jockey at the Kentucky Derby and then jog off slowly so it doesn’t jostle its rider unnecessarily. This kind of horse will take care of its rider, which builds a beginner’s confidence.

Once the new rider has built some skills and wants more, there are plenty of horses out there to fit the bill, but that perfect first horse is a rare catch – and worth millions (in hearts).

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When your child starts to say that they want a horse, it would be wise to take them to a safe, kid-friendly facility that can show them around, give them solid beginning lessons (on grooming, feeding, handling, and riding), and give them a taste of a safe experience. Make sure that all lesson horses are safe and that your child is always confident at the end of a session. If there are injuries, accidents, or “bad horses,” this can be an indication that the horses are not ready for beginners, or that the trainer/instructor is not used to teaching kids. Both should be happy about their job.

Before you take your child to the facility, go yourself. Watch a few lessons, meet the trainer/instructor, and watch him/her handling horses. Really observe how the people at the facility operate. Are the horses happy (ears pricked, soft eyes, love to see their humans) or are they afraid or upset (ears back or pinned, high heads and staring eyes, and hiding in the backs of stalls/paddocks)? I have found that often non-horse people are better at picking up on things like rude handling behavior and unhappy animals, because they aren’t used to seeing an animal handled this way. You should be comfortable with the trainer and handlers and see that their horses are happy campers.

When the child has gained enough confidence, and when your pocket book is ready (believe me, horses are expensive – hay, supplements/feed, hoof care, dental care, vet care, tack… it can all add up quickly!), it may be time to look for your child’s first horse.


So many parents with a horse-crazy kid find themselves in a quandary. First of all, there are a lot of horses out there. It’s like looking for a car – so many breeds, colors, heights, etc. Where should you start?

When you decide to go horse-shopping, do your homework first. Have your child write a list of the color, size, and energy level that they want. Also, make a mention of any sports/activities that your child wants to do with the horse. Then, talk to their instructor. Have the instructor give you a similar list. Have them determine what kind of horse your child gets along with, such as one that moves its feet more, one that slows more, one that is very confident, or one that is a little more sensitive or spooky. Have the instructor determine what “spirit level” your child is most comfortable with.

Next, do some research. Find horses at your local barn that may fit the bill from the above lists. Search online for nearby horses for sale. A great hint for internet searches: choose horses that are a spirit level of 1-3 for a first horse (scales are usually 1 – 10). Avoid listings that say “advanced rider only” or one that indicates any injuries. Add horses to your list that are a decent age (say, over 10 years old), that have been in training for a long while, and ones that are considered dependable in their chosen sport.

Ask lots of questions. Ask what the horse has done before. Ask if the horse has any previous injuries and limitations from them. Ask if the horse has been used with beginners before – and if so, how does the horse do with them?

Once you have a few candidates, you will want to visit the horses. Take an experienced horse person with you – they can be a voice of reason. If your child’s instructor will help you search, that is even better, because they know what your child can ride and handle. Watch the horses during handling, grooming, saddling, and riding. If the horse is already saddled or sweaty, ask why. If you sense that there is something up, ask to see the horse re-saddled.

NEVER ride a horse that the current owner/trainer will not get on.

Once you have seen each horse ridden, ask if your instructor can ride the horse. If that goes well and your instructor feels that it is safe, have your child ride the horse. Please make sure to bring your child’s helmet, boots, and safe riding attire to all showings.

Choose the horse that both you, your child’s instructor, and your child feel safe to be around. It is also good to choose the horse that is social, enjoys human interaction, and has a connection with your child.

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The Parelli Program is a great way to prepare a horse for the day it needs to be the teacher. Principle #7 is “Horses Teach Humans and Humans Teach Horses.” The first part is for the human – a horse that knows something well can be a great support for a person who is learning it.

A Level 3 or Level 4 horse is ideal for someone new. A horse at this level is calm, respectful, light on the aids, and has great rapport with humans. However, even with an experienced horse, the person should still be taking lessons. Even the best-trained horse can only operate as well as the communication it is given – and even a great horse can get bad habits and behaviors simply through ignorance.

A “perfect” beginner’s horse is one that has been well-prepared for the human world. It understands how to pick up its feet. It can be saddled, bridled, and mounted safely. It catches the human in the field and the stall. It is responsive to a person’s request on the ground, and stays connected to the person – even if that person is small, such as a young child. When it is ridden, it is responsive to the reins and legs and can be light to cues. This is especially important for children’s horses. Lastly, it is a horse that is good at going and slowing… it won’t run off when frustrated, but it also won’t stop unless something happens. And the real gems are horses that will stop and assist a falling rider by “catching” the rider if it goes out of position.

In other words, it’s a Parelli horse with a good foundation, a centered Horsenality, and a great relationship with people!

Once a person has the general understanding of a horse’s foundation (Level 4 in all Four Savvys), they can take that knowledge to the teaching of a “green” or “new” horse. By this point, your skills are solid and you are aware of what the foundation looks like in completion. This is the “humans teach horses” part of Principle #7.


What if you have to start over again with a new horse? In reality, you aren’t starting over if you have had a great start with a dependable steed. Instead, you can start at the level you left off with – working back in the levels (since you know how to start and then retrace your steps to your current level) until you have solved any issues that have come up.

The search for any horse can be enjoyable; safety, realistic expectations of your skills and your child’s, and the goal of finding a partner is achievable. The most rewarding part of getting into horses is the chance to experience their powerful bonding nature, and the relationships that can form from having a horse in your life can be amazing and fulfilling. With a little homework, and some key lists and desires, the perfect horse is just around the corner!

You don’t have to put your child’s horsemanship journey on hold just because you may not be ready to buy a horse yet!  Children of all ages love Mini Magic!

Mini Magic is the debut release from Parelli’s new educational program, Mini Parelli! The purpose of Mini Parelli is to educate and encourage young people about horses in a fun, safe, and imagination-driven environment. Visit for the latest information, along with interactive games and activities!

Bring home your own Mini Magic HERE!

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