Not long ago a man asked me for some advice on buying his kids a horse. I told him I didn't consider myself an expert, but I had some opinions and he was welcome to them. For what they're worth, I pass them along to others who might be shopping for a horse.
There are many horse breeds but only two kinds: good ones and bad ones. You don't want a bad one. A bad horse will waste your money, frighten your children, and maybe hurt someone. There are good ones and bad ones in every breed and color, so don't buy for color or breed. Buy a good horse.
So what's a good horse? Opinions vary on that, and it depends on what you want the horse to do: jumping, cutting, roping, show ring, ranch work, and so forth. For a family horse, I think it comes down to three points: honesty, calm disposition, and physical soundness.
Bad horses don't come equipped with signs that say, "I'm a bum, don't buy me," so buying a first horse is a little tricky. I would never buy a horse at an auction or from someone I didn't know and trust. Study the seller, not the horse. You don't have time to become an expert on horses, but you already have experience at judging people. If you wouldn't trust the seller with your money or your spouse, don't trust his horse.
There are two ways to figure the price of a horse: his cost and his worth. The worth of a horse is a lot more important than his cost.
There is a market for horses (cost), just as there is a market for wheat, gold, stocks, and cattle, and it isn't hard to find the going rate for horseflesh. I put another factor into the equation: the cost of stitches, broken bones, and emergency room care (worth).
If you have the choice of buying a bad horse for $600 and a good one for $3000, buy the good one and figure you'll make up the difference in medical bills and mental anguish. A bad horse is never a bargain. His worth is zero if he doesn't bring pleasure.
Little ponies are cute and photogenic, but my experience is that they tend to be risky. They are too small to be ridden by adults, which means that many of them have been educated by children. A nice pony is a treasure, but watch out for the ones that are spoiled and willful.
For inexperienced riders, older horses are better than younger ones. Anything over 15 years is probably too old, anything younger than 6 is probably too young. Training colts is a science and a discipline. Leave it to the people who know what they're doing.
Children should be taught to respect what a horse is and can do. I've tried to teach my kids that a horse is a tool, not a pet. He's not a dog, a cat, or a guppy. A horse can hurt you without trying, just by stepping on your foot or kicking at a fly. He's not a video game or a four-wheeler that can be turned off and on. Horses are not entirely predictable. They are affected by noise, motion, wind, temperature, and what they ate for breakfast.
Each horse has a unique personality, his own quirks, habits, strengths, and weaknesses. He is a living animal who responds to his environment, and he doesn't see the world exactly as we do. A covey of quail, a barking dog, and a squeaky pump jack mean one thing to you and me, and something else to a horse. It falls to the human in the relationship to understand the mind of the other party.
Be aware that keeping horses is not a cheap hobby. The initial cost of buying a horse is only the beginning. After that come pasture, feed, hay, tack, worming, and sometimes veterinary bills. Then you can get into the big ticket items: a horse trailer and a nice pickup to pull it, etc.
Most horses improve with use. The more you ride them, the better they get. Horses that are ridden once or twice a year, then left to stand in a paddock the rest of the time, are being denied a chance to fulfill themselves. They need stimulation, discipline, and a sense of purpose, just as we do.
If you end up with a horse you fear or don't enjoy, sell him and shop for another. There are a lot of good horses in the world. Life is short. Spend it with a good horse.