Ask a dozen horsepeople what breed is the best horse for riding and you’re bound to get a dozen different answers. The breed and type that suits you best will depend on the style of riding you want to do, your ability, your size, and other factors.
That said, these are the most popular breeds in the United States:
Top 10 Horse Breeds in the U.S.
- American Quarter Horse
- American Paint Horse
- Tennessee Walking Horse
- American Saddlebred
- Paso Fino
Data based on 2014 registration trends as reported by the AAEP.
How to Choose a Horse
If you’ve found your way to this article, chances are you’re somewhat new to the horse world and want to know more about finding the best riding horse. The best way to find out what kind of horse you need is to take riding lessons at a barn with a qualified riding instructor and several different lesson horses.
By riding many different horses, you’ll learn whether you prefer the feel of a larger or smaller horse, one that tends to be slow or one that likes to go fast, an upheaded, high-stepping horse or a horse that goes long and low, and other factors. None of these characteristics are inherently better than their opposites. Every rider has their own preference.
Looking for a kid’s horse? Here are the best horse breeds for kids >>
What Makes a Good Riding Horse?
- Temperament. If you’re planning to barrel race at the National Finals Rodeo or compete in three-day eventing at the Olympics, you need a high-energy horse. But you’re not (at least not yet!) so your best bet is to ride a horse with a forgiving temperament who will give you some room for error as you’re learning. You don’t want a high-strung horse who’s going to take off running if you accidentally tap him with your boot while you’re getting on.
But if you have the basics and feel fairly confident, you don’t necessarily need a horse so lazy that you feel like you might need to pick him up and carry him home from your trail ride. Find one with an energy level that feels comfortable to you, but whether you like fast or slow, a horse that isn’t overly sensitive is key for beginning and intermediate riders.
- Training. You might like the idea of training your own horse from the ground up. That’s great! Keep that goal in the back of your mind for several years from now, once you’ve got some steady mileage on horses that already know what they’re doing.
Would you want to send your kid to a Kindergarten teacher who has no formal teacher training or experience because that teacher wanted to learn on the job? Probably not. You want a teacher who already knows something about teaching children, and your horse needs a trainer who already knows how to train.
As a relatively new rider or first-time horse owner, you want a horse who has had that solid educational foundation already put in place by someone who knows their stuff. No matter what level of training your horse has, it’s always a great idea to take lessons with a professional riding instructor or horse trainer when you get your first horse so that they can help guide you through the learning process.
Making mistakes is part of learning, but remember that mistakes can be devastating—even fatal—for horses and riders when inexperienced equestrians try to take on too much too soon.
- Size. Nothing is cuter than a tiny tot up on a big, giant horse’s back. But it’s not a great idea. For one, that fall is a long way down, and it’s bound to happen eventually. Secondly, if you want that kid to ever be able to tack up and care for her own horse, you need one whose back she has some hope of reaching on her own within the next couple of years.
For adults, you want to find a horse that is size-appropriate for you. If you’re fairly small, you might find your ideal match in a large pony or a small horse. But for the safety and long-term soundness of the horse, if you’re a larger rider, look for a larger horse.
As a general rule, healthy horses can comfortably carry about 20 percent of their own weight. An average riding horse weighs around 1,000 pounds, which means they can carry 200 lbs (including the saddle) without any trouble. If you weigh more than that, you are not too heavy to ride! You just need the right horse. Draft crosses, warmblood types, and larger Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds may be good choices.
Keep in mind that a shorter but stouter horse will often be better able to carry more weight than a horse who is taller and with a lighter build.
- Type. Again, every horse is an individual, so don’t get too caught up on breed. BUT, if you have a particular equestrian activity in mind, you’ll have better luck with breeds established for that discipline. For example, if you dream of team penning or other working western events, Quarter Horses and similar breeds like the American Paint Horse are your best bet simply because that’s what they’ve been bred for for generations. If you want to compete in dressage or jumping, you’ll want a sport horse type like a Thoroughbred.
However, at the lower levels of most equestrian activities, you don’t need a super-specialized, purpose-bred horse. You can find a Morgan, Arabian, or a mixed breed to take you out on the trail or to local horse shows and gymkhanas.
- Availability. Maybe you think you want a Friesian. They are beautiful and have a reputation of being friendly and people-oriented. But there aren’t a lot of them out there, and they tend to be quite expensive! The best horse for you is, among other qualities, the one you can afford.
Regardless of what horse you choose, you’re going to be spending a lot of money on feeding and housing it, so don’t eat up your savings on the purchase price. Don’t buy a fancy horse from four states away when the one you’re going to have the most fun with and learn the most from is quietly waiting for you at a barn in your neighborhood.