You don't need to be 12 years old to have a "horse phase" -- but the tremendous resources required to go from horse admirer to proud owner make the average pet purchase seem like kid stuff indeed. If you've got an equinophilic itch that a few riding lessons won't scratch but can't pony up the cash for your own Mr. Ed, leasing may be the ticket. Horse leases grant riding privileges and one-on-one time sans the expense of buying the animal. Costs vary dramatically, but a decent starter steed (which might run $5,000 to buy it outright) can often be leased for as little as $200 a month -- and in some cases, you can even "lease to own." Many stables and tack shops advertise horses for lease, and Web sites like www.marylandequestrianfarms.com can refer you to local stables. But as with any legal agreement -- or pet partnership -- you shouldn't go into horse leasing with blinders on.

1Find the right horse

As with a car, you'll want to take your prospective horse for several "test-drives." Most stables require potential lessees to take riding lessons first, so an on-site trainer can analyze skill levels and match riders with suitable horses. This is because eager riders don't always make the best judges. Renee Terselic, general manager of the Potomac Horse Center in Gaithersburg, says parents often want to pair their children with an equally youthful mount. "An experienced rider on a green horse is one thing, but green on green -- that's very bad," she says. Those who find their horse through an ad or Web site should bring an instructor or other horse professional with them to the first meeting to help gauge the animal's attitude and physical condition, says Honore Hastings, general manager of the nonprofit Meadowbrook Stables in Chevy Chase. And allow plenty of time to make your match.

2Decide which

lease you want

Horse leases can be constructed in almost any way, says Nicole Fox McCabe, a Richmond-based attorney who specializes in equine law. That said, they usually fall into one of two categories. A half- or share-lease gives the lessee part-time access and partial responsibility for the animal's care, and works well for those just looking for extra bonding time. Full leases are more involved, often requiring the lessee to pay for boarding, farriery (shoeing) and vet care in exchange for unlimited time with the animal. These can be ideal for people baby-stepping toward ownership. Lease terms for each horse tend to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

3Get a pro's opinion

Potential lessees should get their horse a full vet checkup before signing on the dotted line, even if they aren't explicitly responsible for the animal's care. The reason? Lessees need to protect themselves against liability in case the horse should, say, come up lame a few months down the road, says Robert A. Hoffa, a Cogan Station, Pa.-based equine law attorney. Terselic suggests getting a lawyer involved as well, to draw up the lease or, if you choose to do it yourself, to review it before it's signed.

4Get it all in writing

Whether you use a stable's lease, one drawn up by a lawyer or a form from a document Web site such as www.horsecontracts.com, you should make sure it covers everything from the practical (who pays for feed?) to the unthinkable (what happens if Flicka kicks the bucket?). Insurance policies, often a lease requirement, can cover the big stuff, but even a minor medical issue can turn into a major hassle if both parties' responsibilities aren't clearly spelled out.

Jeremy Egner

If you can't afford your own four-legged friend, leasing is simply horse sense.