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Last night, while I was sitting at my computer trying to decide on a subject for this month’s blog, I received a phone call from a fellow farm owner. “Please”, she begged me, “I need you to do me a favor and write an article on why parents shouldn’t buy their kid a pony for Christmas”! I laughed as we lamented on the trials and tribulations of trying to explain to parents that horses and ponies aren’t overgrown dogs that can live in your backyard for junior to hop on occasionally. Then a little while later I received a text from another horse mom, telling me that her family had decided to purchase the horse I had for sale that they’d tried the day before for their ten-year old daughter – of course at that news I was overjoyed! Hypocritical, perhaps? Not really, when you realize that the two families in question are completely opposite on the “horse ownership scale”. What’s the difference you ask? What makes one family ready for horse ownership and another not? This can be ascertained by answering a handful of questions.

christmas cuteness1.Is one (or both) parents a current, or former, experienced horse owner? If you can answer “yes” to this question, then by all means go ahead and buy the Christmas Pony and pass this blog on to an inexperienced horse family. The problem with deciding to purchase a horse or pony as a Christmas gift is that its too easy to get caught up in the spirit of the holiday, and the image of arriving at the barn on Christmas day only to see your child’s eyes light up at the pony with the Christmas bow can be all too overwhelming. Generally speaking, if the family is already experienced in horse ownership, then the thought to purchase an additional member of the family is something that’s already been thought out carefully and won’t be an “impulse” purchase.

2.Has your child been regularly taking lessons, or for that matter has he/she ever even sat on a horse? If the answer is no, you are better off purchasing a package of riding lessons at a reputable stable before jumping into horse ownership. Yes, many of us grew up with fantasies of finding a gift-wrapped pony “under” the Christmas tree, and we want to make that dream come true for our children. But again horse ownership is an expensive and time consuming activity, and there is nothing worse than having your pony end up as a discarded “toy” after a couple of months when your child realizes how much work riding really is. Again, if your child hasn’t gotten to experience the bumps and bruises of regularly being around horses, opt for the riding lessons and/or horse camp before purchasing the pony – that gift can wait another year.

3.Do you have proper accommodations for said Christmas pony? While keeping your new family member at home in the backyard can be an appealing idea, the average horse needs more than a fenced in yard and a shelter. Contrary to popular believe horses and ponies are pretty sensitive creatures and can be high maintenance: the so called “easy keeper” ponies may not require a lot of feed, but too much grass or an improper diet can lead to laminitis and expensive vet bills; horse manure piles up quickly and attracts flies (and disgruntled neighbors!); curious ponies can become mini Houdini’s breaking out of pastures and wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. Not to mention the fact that horses are HERD ANIMALS, which means they are much happier living with companions. Some will be content with goats, llamas, or donkeys; others need other horses. Which adds to the expense and time commitment. Also remember that children tend to be herd animals as well – how much fun is it to ride your pony all alone when all your friends are out riding bikes, four wheelers, or riding their ponies together at the local riding stable? If you aren’t prepared to have a few horses or other animals at home, then there’s the matter of boarding at a reputable riding establishment, adding on to the original cost of the pony as well as your time commitment.

4.Do you have reputable help in finding an appropriate horse or pony? It doesn’t matter how much experience you may have with horses, we all need professional assistance when finding the right equine partner, whether for ourselves or for our children. Horses have a habit of tugging at our heartstrings, and often even experienced equestrians make snap decisions rather than choosing a horse that really meets our needs. There are also, unfortunately, a lot of unscrupulous people out there, who will sell inappropriate horses and even go as far as drugging untrained, wild, or lame horses just to make a sale. I’ve seen way too many inexperienced horse owners get duped, so it only makes sense to have a reliable professional help you find the right match for your child and your family.

5.Do you have a relationship with the professionals who will help take care of your Christmas pony? Just like you wouldn’t take your child to any random doctor or enroll him/her in a preschool you know nothing about, you don’t want to trust your new horse to unqualified caretakers. You will need an experienced equine veterinarian and farrier, a good feed dealer (that sells quality HORSE feed, not “all stock” or feed inappropriate for equine consumption), a hay dealer, and a trainer/riding instructor for your child. And this is the bare minimum for a pleasure pony – if your child desires to start attending horse shows the number of professionals needed will increase. And if you are dead set on keeping said pony at home, who will care for it when you go away on vacation? In addition you also need to have a good working relationship with these people – while veterinarians are put on this earth to help our horses, nothing angers one more than being called out in the middle of the night to treat a suffering animal who’s ailment could have been prevented from proper and knowledgeable care.

6.Do you have all the equipment needed for the pony? At the very least you need a saddle that fits both your child and pony, a bridle, saddle pad, girth, halter and lead rope. Your child will need some sort of riding boot and an ASTM/SEI approved riding helmet. And while all this can be given as complimentary gifts under the tree, you need to make sure all of it fits properly and is appropriate for both child and pony.

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7.Are you fully prepared for the expense of horse ownership? Growing up I never could understand why I couldn’t get a horse – after all, I knew horses that were available for FREE. My parents always explained to me that “acquiring” the horse was always the cheapest part – it’s the supplementary care that costs the most! Even keeping a horse at home, the minimum average cost/month is $100-200 (this is just for hay, grain, farrier, and minor annual health care). Add in riding lessons, extraordinary health care, blanketing, and board if you can’t keep your horse at home…the cost adds up quickly. Also, are you fully prepared for what it costs to purchase an appropriate, SAFE horse for your child? While there are many horses out there that can be purchased for a bargain, oftentimes these horses have health issues that will cost later in supplemental care, or they have training/behavior issues that make they unsuitable for a child’s first horse. Buy cheap now; pay later in training or vet bills (and hopefully not in child’s hospital bills!)

I once had a farm manager tell me that as a sport, horses aren’t horribly expensive, but they are extremely expensive pets! The lessons learned from horse ownership, the responsibility, the compassion and camaraderie – makes the expense well worth it. The majority of children and teenagers that grow up around horses generally stay away from drugs and other risky behavior plaguing youth these days. However a pony bought impetuously for a child who loses interest in a few months will quickly becomes a very expensive pet, and all to often it’s the horse/pony who ends up suffering and being discarded. So while as an adult even I have daydreams of walking into the barn to find my dream horse wearing a Christmas ribbon around his neck, and while I am overjoyed in helping kids (and adults) Christmas dreams come true, I urge all parents to think long and hard before buying that pony for Christmas, and make sure that horse ownership is truly something you are prepared to handle.