When searching for your first horse to buy or lease, it can feel like an information overload. Often students approach me asking for a fool-proof guide to buying their first horse. One of the most common questions is: is “such and such” breed good for a beginner rider? This article examines the suitability of a quarter horse for a beginner rider.
As a breed, quarter horses are good for beginners. However, each quarter horse is an individual, and not all quarter horses are beginner-safe rides. A beginner safe horse should have the temperament, conformation, and movement to teach the rider while keeping the rider safe.
Riding and buying a horse are not simple procedures with formulaic answers. Students and prospective buyers need to understand what makes a specific quarter horse novice-safe while another is ridden exclusively by advanced riders.
Who Is Considered A Beginner Rider?
Horses and horse-riding is a passion that consumes the entirety of your heart and mind. In your enthusiasm, it is easy to get caught up in the thrill of riding and think you have mastered a sport that takes a lifetime to master.
Riding is a potentially dangerous sport, and understanding what level of rider you are is the first step to mastery and, more importantly, to staying safe.
Defining Beginner And Novice Riders
Although there is no formal industry-agreed definition of what a beginner is, most institutions agree that the following is a good approximation of a beginner riders’ skill:
Total beginner: Total beginners are people who have either had minimal contact with horses (e.g., a one-day trail ride or pony party) or have had no contact with horses
Intermediate Beginner: This rider may have ridden for a year or two as a child or perhaps had fleeting contact with riding during a multi-day trail ride but has not mastered the basics and is not riding fit.
Advanced Beginner: These riders are individuals who are currently receiving formal instruction and learning the basics of riding. They are heavily reliant on the horse’s willingness to work and good behavior as they cannot deal with any riding situation in which something is less than perfect.
Novice: These riders have a good grasp of the basics; they can confidently ride in walk, trot, and short canters, they can competently steer and slow their horse as needed. However, these riders remain reliant on the horse’s kindness and patience as they cannot assist the horse in any way. A rider can stay at the novice level for 2 to 3 years if they receive weekly instruction and ride for a minimum of 3 times a week.
Not all institutions distinguish between beginner riders and novice riders; many horse-riding establishments view these riders as belonging to the same category.
The horse that suits a beginner rider should also be a good fit for a novice rider, with only a few minor differences.
What Temperament Should A Novice-Safe Horse Have?
Everyone loves a horse that comes prancing out of its stable like a fire-breathing dragon. These dancing, high-spirited horses know how to catch the attention of spectators and riders alike, but they are certainly not beginner-safe horses.
The best horse for a beginner or novice rider is one who is:
- Willing to work with the rider
- Not too sensitive or reactive
To state the obvious, a beginner rider is learning to ride; it is 100% guaranteed they will make mistakes. A novice-safe horse allows the rider to make these mistakes without over-reacting, becoming frightened, stubborn, or taking advantage of the beginner rider’s lack of skill.
A beginner rider will often kick the horse to go while pulling on the reins to remain balanced. These riders are essentially telling the horse, “go but stop.”
An anxious horse may become frightened by the conflicting signals, while a more confident horse may decide to head back to the barn and not bother with the rider!
A novice-safe horse will stop and wait for the rider to sort out their aids. Once the rider gives the correct sequence of aids, the horse will move forward calmly, thus giving the rider positive feedback on how to use the riding aids correctly.
What Temperament Does A Quarter Horse Have?
The quarter horse is the horse that settled America. These tough little horses could turn their hoof to any of the challenging jobs that the wilderness frontiers threw at them.
These horses epitomized bravery; they were confident, sensible, courageous horses who would follow their riders through a stampeding buffalo herd or wall of fire. Quarter horses also needed the patience and gentleness required to stand for long hours while their riders did footwork or worked a slow-moving herd of cattle.
As the breed evolved, the quarter horse began to compete in events based on ranch work, e.g., roping, barrel racing, cutting, etc. These quarter horses were selected for their ability within a specific discipline, which means many were bred for sensitivity, intelligence, and quick reactions.
The original quarter horse typically demonstrates the temperament traits needed to create a stellar novice-safe horse. However, each horse is different and needs to be selected based on their merit, not their breed registration!
Beginner Riders And Horse Size
Experienced horse owners and handlers often become complacent about the size of the horse; they become so comfortable around their horses that they no longer see how a horse’s size can intimidate a person.
However, a novice handler doesn’t have the skills or confidence to view a horse as anything less than intimidating. Rather than viewing the horse as an old friend and partner, they are painfully aware of how easy it is for these enormous animals to hurt them, even if it is an accident.
If given a slightly smaller horse to work with, these anxious handlers often feel more confident and in control. Ideally, the horse should be able to comfortably carry the rider’s weight without being taller than necessary.
A shorter, compact horse is less intimidating than a taller, leaner horse, even though they may have the same weight carrying limit!
How Big Are Quarter Horses?
Quarter horses are typically between 14.2hh (147cm or 58”) and 16.0hh (163cm or 64”). The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) initially enforced a minimum height rule of 14.2hh.
All stock-type quarter horses who failed to achieve the minimum height requirement were re-registered as American Quarter Ponies. However, AQHA removed the minimum height requirement as the decades passed, and small purebred quarter horses were permitted entry into the studbook.
While quarter horses tend to be shorter than many English-discipline riders want to ride, they are tall enough for most adults. A quarter horse’s broad chest, deep, well-sprung barrel, and rib cage ensure that they “take up” enough of the rider’s leg.
“Taking-up” a rider’s leg is a term used to indicate how much of the rider’s leg is in contact with the horse’s barrel (i.e., the body of the horse in the region of the rib cage).
Narrow, lean horses don’t take up the rider’s leg, causing the rider’s leg to hang too low, almost brushing the horse’s knees. However, the typical broad quarter horse won’t have this problem; their deep well-rounded barrels and wide chests ensure that adults (even taller adults) don’t look ridiculous when riding a 14.2hh quarter horse.
Can A Quarter Horse Carry An Adult?
Recent research has revealed insight into how a rider’s weight impacts the horse’s performance and well-being; various research studies found that two-rider parameters influenced how much a horse could carry:
- The rider’s weight
- How balanced a rider was
A horse can carry a slightly heavier but balanced rider better than a lighter, unbalanced rider.
To understand this concept, picture a mother or father carrying a child on their shoulders. If the child sits quietly with their hands resting gently on their parent’s head, then the parents can carry the child relatively easily.
However, if the child gets excited and starts leaning left or right while bouncing up and down, the parents are likely to struggle with neck and back pain as they become fatigued more quickly.
In both scenarios, the child’s weight remained the same; but their balance changed, resulting in the parent experiencing pain and exhaustion.
The 15-20% Rule Of Quarter Horses Weight-Carrying Capacity
The same principle applies to beginner riders; while most horses can easily carry 20% of their body weight, beginners should not ask their horse to carry more than 15% of their horse’s body weight.
The extra 5% grace the beginner gives their horse accounts for the beginners developing balance skills.
Quarter horses between 14.2hh and 15.0hh will typically weigh between 880 lbs (400kgs) and 1100 lbs (500kgs). According to the welfare rule regarding weight carrying capacity, these quarter horses can carry:
- A balanced adult weighing 176 lbs (80kgs) to 220 lbs (100kgs)
- A beginner rider weighing between 132 lbs (60kgs) to 165 lbs (75kgs)
Taller quarter horses are available, but these often have a higher percentage of thoroughbred blood, which changes their conformation. Appendix quarter horses or quarter horses with more thoroughbred blood are usually taller and more athletic; however, they are also less capable of carrying maximum weight riders.
Movement Matters: How A Horse’s Stride Affects The Rider
Riding is a juggling act of cognitive skills and physical fitness. Riders are frequently accused of not participating in a “real sport” because the “horse does all the work, and the rider sits there doing nothing.” However, this is an illusion, and nothing could be further from the truth.
Horse and rider coexist in a riding partnership resulting in a bidirectional influence. i.e., the rider affects the horse, but the horse also affects the rider.
Big moving, expressive horses demonstrate greater spinal movement than horses who have shorter, more pragmatic movement patterns. The size of a horse’s movement is unrelated to its height; a horse’s movement pattern is dictated by its conformation, i.e., specific joint angles and proportions.
The bigger the horse’s movement, the harder it is to sit and follow. A beginner rider will not yet have developed the skill and fitness necessary to maintain the dynamic balance needed to ride these dressage superstars.
One of the world’s best riders, Charlotte Dujardin, spends hours in the gym each evening improving her fitness after riding 9 to 11 horses each day! That’s the level of fitness and dedication it takes to ride one of these big moving expressive horses.
In the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, each rider spends years developing the skill and fitness required for a “following or neutral seat.” This seat refers to the rider’s ability to passively follow a horse’s movement without positively or negatively influencing the horse.
Once the rider has mastered the neutral seat, they begin perfecting an active or influencing seat. This seat is where the rider can use their bodies to influence the horse for the better. It takes decades to fine-tune an effective active seat.
What Type Of Movement Does A Quarter Horse Have?
Like their conformation and temperament, a quarter horses’ movement results from fierce selection pressures and practicality.
Cowboys and working riders spent hours in the saddle, working the land and covering long distances. The last thing they wanted was a horse that exhausted them within an hour or left them hobbling with pain at the end of a long day of riding.
Cowboys wanted horses that were easy, pleasant, and comfortable to ride. Not because the cowboys were lazy or incompetent but because they could not afford time off work due to riding injuries.
As a result, quarter horses were bred to have energy-efficient, comfortable gaits. A quarter horse should have straight, smooth strides that are not overly long or dramatic.
Their shorter strides and lower swing phase arc height meant that they could turn, stop and accelerate quickly. A quarter horse’s legendary nimbleness has brought them fame as the ultimate ranch-cattle horse!
Quarter horses’ movement is comfortable and easy for beginner riders to learn on. A beginner rider will be overwhelmed by a big moving dressage horse, but a quarter horse will quietly build their confidence while teaching them the ropes of riding.
Are ALL Quarter Horses Good For Beginners Riders?
Each quarter horse is an individual and to say that all quarter horses are suitable for beginner riders is a dangerous misstatement. Each quarter horse is a product of its genetics, age, and training experiences.
Some quarters horses will never have the temperament suitable for a beginner rider. While these quarter horses may excel as competition horses, they are too sharp and sensitive for novice handlers.
Other quarter horses may become fantastic novice-safe rides in time but currently are too green and inexperienced for an equally green and inexperienced rider.
There is an adage that says, “green and green equals black and blue.” This saying refers to the fact that if neither horse nor rider knows what they’re doing, an accident is inevitable; both horse and rider will be lucky to walk away with just bruises.
As a breed, quarter horses demonstrated many of the traits required in a novice-safe horse. However, it’s essential to remember that each quarter horse is an individual and where one quarter horse is perfect for a beginner rider, another may not be.