Finding the right youth horse for your child is no easy task, and starting the process is both daunting and exciting. Sherry Cervi, Nellie Miller and Leslie Kinsel can help you get looking with their best horse-shopping tips for parents.

Grab a copy of the July 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News for more of these experts’ tips for youth success!

Whether it’s your child’s first horse, a step-up horse or an upper-level high school rodeo horse, it’s important to consider your family’s lifestyle, varying ages and experience levels as well as your other horses when shopping.

“Make sure it’s a match not only to your child’s riding style but also your family’s life, because that’s a horse you’re going to have for years,” Leslie said. “It’s going to be at your house and tied to your trailer, whether it sets back or kicks your other horses or not. Does that horse’s style mesh with your family? Do you have little younger children who need to be just as safe around that horse? Or is this your only child and you can be a little more lax on some things?”

Leslie especially stresses the importance of taking your time. Finding the perfect horse isn’t easy and could take months, even more than a year.

“Take your time, look, look, look; investigate, do your due diligence, do not rush,” Leslie said. “If it’s not the right horse and somebody else buys it first, go on down the road—there’s probably a better horse.”

Girls standing with horse in alleyway
Bring along another person for consultation when trying a horse—whether you’re an experienced horse person or not. Photo by Kailey Sullins

Taking another set of eyes and opinions with you when trying horses is also a good idea. Make sure the person is familiar with your family, how your child rides and the most important qualities you’re looking for in the horse. Do your background research into the horse’s records—made much easier today with social media, the Internet and statistical databases such as Equi-Stat—and contact people who’ve ridden the horse before or know it well.

“Always take someone else, especially if you’re not a horse person, and even if you are a horse person take someone with you,” Leslie said. “Rely on your due diligence, call someone who knows the horse and has watched it in other arenas in other years. Really investigate that particular horse.”

Nellie Miller also suggests finding someone trustworthy in your area known for having nice, solid horses with a good reputation.

“My dad trained all of our horses, so I was lucky in that department. If you can’t do that, it’s important to seek advice from someone who has good foundation horses,” Miller said. “Maybe they don’t need to be the fastest thing, but just something that’s broke that your kids are going to have fun with that they can handle well.”

For a young child or an inexperienced rider of any age, all three champions agree that fast or young should not be a quality on the checklist for a youth horse.

“My opinion is that the older horses [are best], if you can find them, to where the kids don’t have to learn themselves and teach their horses—the horse is already been there and done that,” Sherry Cervi said. “I think it’s easier for kids. I would suggest something a little farther along, something safe, to start your kids out on.”

Little girl on palomino leaving the barrel
A safe horse that your child enjoys riding is well worth the investment. Photo by Tammy Sronce.

As the child ages and progresses in horsemanship, a younger, faster horse might be an option, but make sure your child’s foundation is rock solid before moving to a step-up horse.

“When I was really young, my parents put me on the older, solid horses to where I just went and ran barrels,” Cervi said. “Now as I got older in high school, learning to ride those younger horses was a struggle, but I didn’t have bad habits to get over and I could go on from there riding a bit younger horses— just learning really good horsemanship to where when you get older you have something to fall back on, because you have a really good foundation.”

Leslie agrees, and although her daughter Hailey is a world champion professional barrel racer now, she built a solid foundation for most of her youth career on slower, solid horses.

“Many, many times I had the ability to counsel the younger parents coming up behind, because Hailey did have success early on. I reminded them that they didn’t know us back when she was 6, 9 or 12, and she was still on the 25-second pole horse,” Leslie said. “It’s how we did it, and it’s what I believed was important—safety first, never putting her on more horse than was safe and never putting her on a horse that was too much horse for her. I always wanted to challenge her, but never sacrifice control for the win. The win for me was that my child came back out of the arena safe.”

Dr. Charlie Buchanan examining horse
Insist on a thorough pre-purchase veterinary exam before buying any horse. Photo by Danika Kent.

Once you’ve found a safe and seasoned mount you think is the perfect fit, doing a thorough pre-purchase veterinary exam on any horse before signing the check can help ensure you’ve chosen a sound, healthy animal for your child. However, keep in mind that older horses may require some basic maintenance needs, such as injections or additional supplements.

By thoroughly investigating the horse’s past, matching the horse’s style with your child’s riding style, counseling people who know the horse and getting a pre-purchase exam, you’re setting your child up for years of happiness with a partner they can rely on and learn from.

About the Experts

Kinsel family with Hailey's 2018 world championship saddle
The Kinsel family celebrates Hailey’s world championship at the 2018 National Finals Rodeo. Leslie is pictured center left. Photo by Kenneth Springer.

Leslie Kinsel grew up competing in a variety of events through her local 4H club. She developed her love of barrel racing in her teenage years, working as an apprentice for Stanley and Wanda Bush and serving as Miss Rodeo Texas in 1980. Leslie has since trained a string of successful horses throughout her life, most notably having a hand in her daughter Hailey Kinsel’s world champion DM Sissy Hayday, and the two continue to train together and compete alongside each other.

Nellie Miller and her dad Sam Williams with Rafter W Minnie Reba
Nellie Miller and her father, Sam Williams, with her 2017 world champion barrel horse and WPRA/AQHA Horse With the Most Heart, Rafter W Minnie Reba. Photo by Kenneth Springer.

Nellie Miller is a three-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier, the 2017 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Champion Barrel Racer and multiple pro rodeo champion—all accomplished riding horses raised and trained with her father, Sam Williams. Nellie and her husband, James Miller, have two young daughters, Payton and Hadley.

Sherry Cervi with her parents Mel and Wendy Potter
Hall of Fame cowgirl Sherry Cervi with her parents Mel and Wendy Potter. Photo by Kenneth Springer.

Sherry Cervi is a four-time WPRA World Champion Barrel Racer, 19-time NFR qualifier and $3 million cowgirl. She’s accomplished much of her success aboard home-raised and –trained horses from her family’s breeding program Potter Ranch, headed by her parents Mel and Wendy Potter. She produces the Sherry Cervi Youth Championships barrel races three times a year in Arizona, California and Minnesota.


Blanche Schaefer is an avid barrel racer and managing editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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