When buying a horse, what is the best age

When buying a horse, a common mistake is buying a horse which is too young or too old, with buying too young the more common error. A horse which is too young for your requirements may be more expensive and also have less maturity physically, mentally and in terms of training. A horse which is too old can be inflexible, difficult to train and be unable to give you as many years of riding as you would like. The following table provides a brief summary of the most common considerations, with further discussion in the subsequent text.

Age Advantages Disadvantages
0-6 Months
  • Lots of fun to watch it play and develop
  • Should not do much with it except watch and get it used to being handled
  • Should not separate it from its mother
  • Somewhat higher risk of illness (vet costs) or death in first 6 months
 6-12 Months
  • Again, lots of fun to watch
  • Can be separated from its mother after 6 months, if you wish
  • Can do basic behavorial training (e.g. used to being handled, haltered, standing for farrier)
  • Cannot do much except for basic behavorial training
 1-3 Years
  • Lots of fun to watch
  • During this time horse can learn good manners (how to behave with people, how to behave with other horses). Further behavorial training.
  • Horse gets to know, trust and understand you.
  • In the case of race horses, can start racing some breeds as early as 2 years (although with risks to the horse's health)
  • Normally one does not start to ride a horse until near the end of this period. The exception is certain race horses (although early training increases risk of various injuries, or even permanent damage to bone structures).
 3 Years
  • This is the age at which most horses have the physical and mental maturity to start riding
  • You can start training with the horse and start riding
  • Some people like to learn riding together with their horse. In other words, both of you learning at the same time
  • Although a 3-year old is more expensive to buy than a younger horse, it is typically cheaper to buy a 3-year old than to purchase a younger horse and pay for the stabling until the horse is 3 years old.
  • An untrained horse or lightly trained horse is much more difficult for first-time riders and children
  • Horses are mentally and emotionally still young (like a human teenager) so are less predictable, less reliable, and more likely to spook at noises or surprises than an older horse
 4 Years
  • One can purchase a horse which has completed its basic training and you can start riding and enjoying immediately
  • Horse is still young enough for advanced training, if you decide to go for advanced riding or competition events. 
  • As the horse is physically mature, you know what its final appearance will be.
  • Having completed basic training, the existing trainer should be able to advise you on how easy or difficult the horse is to train. However, as the existing trainer probably works for the seller, you may be better off getting independent advice on this point.
  • You do not have the experience of training the horse yourself
  • A trained horse is more expensive to buy. However, the cost of buying a trained 4-year old is probably cheaper than buying a 3-year old and paying the stabling and training costs for a year.
 5-7 Years
  • One can purchase a fully trained horse
  • The  horse is more emotionally mature and calmer. As such, it is easier to manage and more reliable than a younger horse. Therefore, it is more suitable for new riders and children.
  • As a horse becomes older, it becomes more difficult and more expensive to train. Although slow-maturing breeds may not start riding until 5 years of age, for most breeds one should be concerned if the horse has not completed its training by this point.
Over 7 Years
  • The older a horse gets, the calmer and more dependable it gets. Consequently, an older horse is great for children and new riders. 
  • With older horses, their personality and character is relatively set (for good or bad). Unless there are big changes to its environment, or they have injuries or illnesses, they are unlikely to change much. Consequently, you know what you are getting.
  • If you are uncertain as to how many years you will be using a horse, an older horse may be wiser.
  • Older horses are less popular and consequently less expensive to buy.
  • If the horse has not completed its training by this point, one should probably get a different horse.  The exception to this is sports such as dressage which can have a very long and continuous training period.
  • As horses become older, their become less able to do long distance and endurance events. If you are doing normal pleasure riding, this should not be a problem.
  • At some point, the horse will become too old to ride. Consequently, if you are intending to ride the horse for many years, a younger horse may make more sense.

Children and New Riders

For children and new riders, we would advise a horse of 5 years or older, in good health, which has been well trained. 

Such a horse is ready to ride, without needing to invest in training the horse (although the rider may still need training). Consequently, one can start to enjoy the horse immediately, which is important when starting off.

More importantly, an older horse is calmer, less likely to spook or run off. A child lacks the physical strength to control a spooked horse and a new rider lacks the experience. When first learning about horses, it is important that one is not put off by bad experiences, so the more mature horse provides a better start.

Another point is that learning on a trained horse is easier than learning on a partly-trained horse. Learning to ride requires concentration and if one is trying to train the horse at the same time as one is learning oneself, it can be more difficult.

Serious Competition

For local and junior competitions, the age of the horse is not that important (except for competitions which have age restrictions).

For national and international levels of competition, the training schedule in terms of when training starts and how intensive it is, is very important. Consequently, one needs to either buy a horse which is on the correct training schedule or buy a horse young enough to implement same.