This may seem obvious, but the location of your new home compared to where you work, and shop is an important consideration when choosing a horse property. Commuting takes a lot of expense and time—I know, I've done it. The time alone will leave you with less to spend with your horses and less time to maintain the larger property that you're living on. Even shopping can become more of a chore if you need to drive a long way to get groceries. Consider too, the distance from things like health care providers, entertainment, banks and other amenities.
And if you're off the beaten path, that mile long lane may seem charmingly secluded at first, but will you get to work on time, or will the veterinarian and farrier be able to get in if it gets snowed in during the winter, or is underwater in heavy rains? Will a narrow, winding road with steep ditches be a nightmare if you need to haul a horse trailer or bring a wagon load of hay in? Choosing location is also important to trail riders who want easy access to trails.
In my area, you must have 2.5 acres of land per horse. That means on five acres, you can only have two horses and on anything less, you may only have one horse. This by-law was enforced to prevent the establishment of 'urine farms' where urine is harvested from pregnant mares for the production of estrogen. Even though there is less demand for urine farms, the by-law still stands. Laws of this sort exist for various reasons, and even without the laws the recommended pasture acreage to support one horse is 2.5 acres. Needless to say, if your soil is rocky, dry or swampy, the acreage isn't really going to matter because there won't be good pasture, but your horses will still need plenty of room to move. On smaller properties, you'll most certainly have to supplement your horse's diet with good hay, to make up for the lack of pasture grass. However, do be aware of laws that dictate how many horses (and other livestock, such as swine, goats and cattle) you may keep.
Land zoning can limit the type of animals you may keep on a property. Even though you may regard your horse as a companion animal, chances are zoning by-laws will regard it as livestock. Sometimes zoning by-laws can be altered, but carefully research the chances of doing this before going through with a purchase of property. We bought a property that had some sections designated “Environmentally Protected." This meant those areas could not be touched--including clearing a path for fences, taking out dead wood for bonfires or clearing out dead trees.
Steep mountainsides or swamps do not make good horse pasture! Pay attention to where low spots or other troublesome geography may be on your prospective horse property. I know an area close to me that is largely covered in large flat rocks with spaces between perfect for a horse to catch a hoof in. While it's an interesting outcrop of Canadian Shield rock, and very inexpensive to buy, it isn't good horse land. We also have a large amount of swamp land, that makes poor horse property—the mosquitoes alone are off-putting. Examine potential horse property for land prone to flooding from river flood plains, low-lying areas that are catchment areas for rain, steep cliffs, gravelly areas, very acidic soil or lack of flat spots where you can put buildings, parking areas and a riding ring. And check the well. Many rural properties don't have good wells. I know of an area just north of me that is literally surrounded by beautiful lakes, but wells frequently come up dry or produce salt water.
The pastures look green, but why? Often, unmaintained pastures look green and lush from a distance, but on closer inspection are full of undesirable weeds. Are there a lot of noxious plants? On our hobby farm stood three beautiful red oaks. Although the trees were lovely to look at, their leaves are poisonous to horses. It was almost a deal-breaker for me when we bought the place. We circumvented the problem by situating paddocks away from the trees, and placing our riding ring in that area instead.
While owning a larger property is very appealing, know that you are also buying a lot more work. Are you prepared to build or repair outbuildings? Inspect any existing fences and building for safety. Check things like water piping and electrical in barns or sheds. Take note of the condition of roofs. Check floors. I know a floor that was collapsing in spots because rabbits tunneled under the cement. Check the foundation of old barns—old barns that are used actually weather the years better than empty barns. Ferret out potential trouble areas so you can plan the solution or confidently pass the property up.
Check the neighbors. With luck, you'll have horse loving neighbors that are quiet, and never borrow lawn equipment. Or, they could be quite the opposite. It may be hard to meet the neighbors, but you'll be able to at least take a quick look at their property to get an idea of who you might be dealing with.