Here at Lucky Star Horsemanship, we recently have had lots of questions come in about our “project horse experiences” and if we think getting one is a good way to enter into the world of horse "ownership." This article is the culmination of our experiences over the past several years combined with some unique encounters, long conversations, many miles travels and some success stories with our “project horse” program.
Each experience has been rewarding in its own way. We have learned a great deal and helped some horses in the process. Still, we don’t recommend it to anyone who is not willing to REALLY think about what they are getting into. It takes a certain level of dedication, commitment, and focus, which many folks are not, for a variety of reasons, unable to truly have no matter what their intentions of the heart may be.
Getting a “project horse” for the first-time horse owner:
When considering a project horse, especially if this is going to be your first horse experience as an owner, keep in mind that a “project horse” needs consistent and steady work, consistent and steady communication and consistent and steady love.
If you only have one day a week to work with your “project horse” you are not going to make progress. If you do not have the time to keep a training journal where you make observations on behavior, improvements, and health then you are not in a position to have a “project horse” in your family. Sure, the “cheap cost” up front is alluring, but a “project horse” is a long term investment of time, energy, focus and resources that you need to be ready to make.
Rescue horse or general sale horse?
Well trained, well cared for horses are NOT cheap. Just look at any of the social media forums if you want to see what the market in your area supports. An experienced, safe and well-trained horse that is suitable for the novice rider may range anywhere from $3000.00 to $9000.00 or more. Why? Simple. They are safe, well-trained, and in good shape. Not only are you paying for the horse but all the time, energy, and care that went into helping this horse be awesome! You need to acknowledge that “you get what you pay for” and you need to keep you “wish list” realistic when looking at a rescue over a general sale horse purchase.
Why is the horse classified as a “project” and not simply being sold?
This is a valid question to ask. Sometimes it comes down to “life”, time and finances. Horses are not cheap to own (especially in California). If a household loses income or faces some major hardship they may need to re-home said horse quickly for the sake of the animal’s well-being. Selling a horse for fair market value takes time and preparation. Making sure the horse is looking good and is well trained takes real effort.
In a “project” or “rescue” situation this may not be the case. Sometimes the horse and human simply don’t fit well together. It happens. Horses, like humans, have personalities and aptitudes. If the team does not work it is tough to want to keep it together. Sometimes there is health issues or behavior issues that come up. Sometimes the horse needs more care, training or time than the human has the capability to give. Sometimes it is a combination of all of the above and more. The bottom line is this: There is some “issue” and the human needs out of the relationship quickly. If you are thinking of adopting a “project” horse keep this in mind!
Is cheap/free really cheap/free?
The answer is no. While the upfront investment may be appealing because of the low to no cost to you, the reality is that horse is going to cost you money and time! Besides the normal feeding, housing, hoof care, and vet visits, you may be looking at additional supplements and special health care needs to help the horse be happy and healthy.
You may need to increase your tack and saddle collection (your gear and tack need to fit the new “project” horse) on some level, especially if the horse is young and growing! In most cases, there is some gap in the horse’s training or there are behavior issues that need to be dealt with. An investment of time, money, training/conditioning, (even if you do it all yourself) or is going to be needed to help fill those gaps to ensure the horse has a solid foundation.
This is a commitment that has to be acknowledged and made. If you can’t budget for additional training, either by you several times a week, or by a reputable trainer, then do not get the horse. Remember you are taking on a horse that for whatever reason could not be a “general sale horse” (see above) and you need to be ready for the experience. You are going to take on whatever baggage that horse has and will need to commit to the process of helping it become a good equine citizen. Keep this in mind.
“Wishlist” versus reality – can I get what I want?
As was stated, you get what you pay for. Ask yourself what you really want and what you can really handle. If you need a pasture pet or companion horse then your needs are easy and finding a “free to a good home” horse is too. However, if your “needs” call for a well-trained, well adjusted, kid safe horse that is good for the novice rider but your budget is less than $500.00 you are, quite frankly, being unrealistic!
Think about it. If you had a horse that met those criteria would you sell it cheap or give it away? No, you would not. You would want a fair market price. Project horses do not fall into the fair market price category (see above). If your needs are realistic, like the horse should be rideable, broke to saddle, in overall decent health and have no major abuse/neglect issues you can find some wonderful horses out there.
You can begin your adventure together as you add weight through good nutrition and care and as you craft a bond through building a solid foundation of trust through good training and conditioning. Your “ideal” horse may simply be a diamond in the rough and with time, training and good health care you can have a real treasure. The reward comes from hard work, dedication, and focus. You either buy the diamond already polished and set or you take on the challenge of mining and crafting the diamond yourself.
Examine your needs, your skill set, your network of support and your time/money budget before making a commitment. Ask yourself some tough questions. The answers you get will help you determine if a project horse is the best option for you.
Is it time to go shopping?
If you asked yourself all the tough questions, if you have a support network to help you should you run into issues you are not able to handle alone and if you have developed a flexible game plan for helping the project horse achieve its best potential (or at least begin the process) then it is time to start meeting some horses!
Avoid taking home the first horse you see. Take notes on each horse you meet which highlight the positives and challenges of each candidate. Be willing to walk away and think about it or bring someone who can do that for you. The various social media sites like Facebook have some great rescue horse forums. Craigslist is also another easy to use resource for finding leads on rescue horses.
Of course, your local/regional large animal rescue organizations are awesome as well. Be willing to travel a little bit (say 100 miles from home) to find a horse that fits your realistic needs list. Be willing to spend time with the horse, getting to know it on the ground and if possible, under saddle. Use your brain, trust your instincts and leave your heart in the truck (for now).
If the horse responds as you would like and if it is in a condition you can deal with then it can go on your Possible List. After you have met a few horses, review your notes, speak with your support network and then make a choice. Remember that once you load that horse up and begin heading home the responsibility for its health, training and happiness falls on you.
Prepare for success
Educate yourself and do your homework. Be sure that you are very clear about what you can and cannot handle at this time in your life and horsemanship journey. Be ready to be flexible and adapt to the needs of the horse.
There are some REALLY wonderful horses out there in need of a second chance. If you are willing to work a bit you can help create a great relationship and a great horse that will never need re-homed again or will be able to secure a fair market value if they have to be re-homed. The journey is a rewarding one if you are prepared to take those first few steps armed with a good plan! You will be glad you did.
Thanks for reading!