The been around the ranch, used for everything for the last 15 years, horse is probably amongst the most valuable when you talk about teaching a new rider how to ride, or building a kids confidence under saddle.
We currently have 4 horses over the age of 17 in our string, and boy do I do everything in my power to keep those 4 boys comfortable, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, ache free and their bellies full! We have some young ones too that sure are fun to ride and be around, but those older guys are priceless.
We primarily use our horses for trail riding, and I am not talking about putter a few miles down the trail once a week trail riding, we love to go miles and miles into the back country where there is a large chance we will not see anyone else for hours, sleep on the ground, wake up the next day and go even deeper in to the wilderness. Our horses can make or break this experience. The enjoyment as a parent comes when I can sit on my green broke 4 year old and know that my kids behind me on the trail are solidly mounted and able to enjoy the ride every bit as much, if not more, than me. These 4 older geldings that we have, always get that job done and my kids have a true enjoyment of life in the saddle.
One of the most common problems that I end up working through with people is that their horse is lacking the knowledge they need to move forward, and the human is lacking the education to give them that knowledge. Horses want to be comfortable, they are creatures of flight and want to feel secure, especially the younger or more inexperienced ones. If the handler does not have the knowledge and experience to help out their horse when they feel scared or nervous, that is when things go south in the horse / human relationship. This is why 99 times out of 100 an older more seasoned horse is the wise choice for an inexperienced rider. Even with a trainer / instructor present, the horse will be your teacher when riding, it is far better for the teacher to know more than the student.
Things I am willing to overlook when purchasing an older horse... This is going to be a touchy subject as there are so many variables as to what the horse will be used for, how often it will be ridden, age, soundness...etc. I could go on and on. However, I am more than willing to pay for 'maintenance' (arthritis medication, supplements, chiropractic care, special shoes...etc) on the older horse that is a solid mount for my kids and beginners, than I am willing to pay a higher price for a 'sound' (total at the moment word), younger, mount. While that might not make sense to some, I am wanting the horse that will give my kids the best experience (and yes, anyone can get hurt on any horse) and teach my kids so they are ready for the younger mount down the road. If my kids are wanting to learn a discipline specific way of riding, that I am going to seek a near retirement age horse in that discipline for a first horse, I will overlook ailments in the older horse that I might shy away from in a younger mount, as long as I can keep them comfortable while they do their job. If you are just looking for a all around first horse with no discipline in mind, I highly recommend a seasoned ranch horse that has a good work ethic and is willing to go slow and knows the ropes of keeping the rider in the saddle (no pun intended).
So where do you find these 'been there, done that' type of horses and how do you determine if they are as solid as the owner says they are... I always recommend taking someone seasoned with you when you purchase your horse, even if it isn't your first horse, it is nice to have a second set of eyes. One of the first questions I want to know is, how long the seller has had the horse, this always tells me how well they know the horse, and how much they used / liked the horse. When shopping for horses, I am not too specific about where I look (I have found some really nice horses at a really nice price off of craigslist) but when shopping for a seasoned horse, I want to buy from someone who knows the horse well, has had them at least a year - hopefully longer, and has used that horse in the realm of work that I want the horse to be used for. Its a daunting process, and can be an emotional one, but go slow and take the time to find the right horse, the right seller will feel comfortable to buy from and should be willing to ensure they are finding a good home for their horse as well.
More horse shopping talks coming soon - this is a lengthy topic!