Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dos and Don'ts of Purchasing a Horse

Purchasing a Horse

On February 2 Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog residing in Pennsylvania, saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter. Not being one to put much stock in what a little rodent has to say, I believe that Spring is just around the corner. With springtime on the way, naturally our thoughts turn to horses. This is traditionally the time of year people start looking for horse prospects to purchase. No one in his or her right mind will purchase a horse before winter that needs to be fed and cared for and have limited riding and training time for an entire season.

Instead of advising on what to do when you begin your search, perhaps it would be better to touch on what not to do.

· Never impulse buy. A horse is not the attractive box of candy beside the cash register; it is a living breathing being that will need care for the rest of its life. To avoid impulse buying, it would be wise not to travel with your horse trailer dragging behind you from farm to farm and have a blank check in your bag. This could be disastrous for both you and the horse.

· By no means, buy a horse because you like their breed, name, color or size. Horses are individuals, regardless of breed, and the old cliché applies: never judge a book by its cover. Maybe the horse fits into the halter, saddle, or blanket you already own; sure this would save money by not having to buy duplicate items, but it’s much easier to replace a piece of tack that doesn’t fit your horse than an entire horse that doesn’t fit you! I actually know someone who bought a horse because it fit the saddle and bridle she already owned; it did not turn out well.

· Avoid at all costs the “dog pound syndrome.” This is when you fall in love with the most pathetic specimen in the lot and take him home out of pity. Of course, there is nothing wrong with giving a needy horse a good home. However, unless you are prepared to rehab this horse and deal with its issues, this may not be a good scenario for you. Rehab could mean huge medical or training costs and, even if you are prepared financially to handle that aspect, some abused horses are so psychologically scarred they can never be brought back to their full potential. Likewise, be aware that a skinny, hungry or otherwise sickly horse will be much more docile than a fit and healthy one; some horses are actually starved intentionally by their owners because they are untrained, unruly or not able to be worked with safely. Once rehabilitated, you may have more horse than you bargained for.

· If you are a beginner (or even if you are not,) you probably don’t need the most athletic horse you can find, or the one with enormous “potential,” as this often translates to “this horse is a handful with the biggest buck and the fastest spook.” Often the horse with the round, scopey jump, the biggest stride, or the most suspension will make a fantastic prospect for a professional or a serious advanced rider, but may be more horse than you need for pleasure riding, adult amateur hunters or first level dressage, for example. You’ll have to work much harder at staying with your super-athletic horse over fences or sitting the trot on that big mover than you might like, and often at the expense of safety. Just as it’s never advisable to buy those jeans you hope to fit into “one day,” it’s best to resist the temptation of buying something green or more advanced that you can “grow into” in favor of buying the horse that is best suited to you here and now. If you are anticipating moving up the levels that rapidly, then you might be better off leasing a horse at each stage and waiting to buy until you are closer to your goal.

· In your travels, of course, you will come across a horse that just seems perfect for you. You instantly feel the special connection; you must have this horse at any cost. Well, the truth is this horse will be there tomorrow or next week or even next month. Do not fall for the hard sell, which could go something like this, “I have three more people interested in this horse, so you better make up your mind today, otherwise, he will be sold to one of the others buyers tomorrow morning.” Take a step back and think why this owner would not have sold him to one of the others before you arrived! Did he somehow know that the perfect partner for this horse was traveling to the beam of light this extraordinary horse was sending telepathically to you over the miles? Oh yes, Mr. Zen can see you have a real connection and he would not want this horse to go to just anybody. Mr. Magnanimous will even take a little less to make sure this prize gets a good home. Chances are the owner/seller has boarded this horse for the winter so lowering the price just to get rid of him might seal the deal. At this point, take another step back, turn and run to the car.

· The horse must be ridden more than once before purchase, by either you or your instructor. You need to evaluate whether or not this is a horse you can handle. If there is any excuse why he cannot be ridden right now; he threw a shoe this morning; the dentist was here yesterday and floated his teeth; he is dirty and needs a bath, don’t believe it. If the seller is not offering a ride on the horse he is selling there is a reason. A horse should always be put on the longe, as most lameness and gait problems will show up on the circle. Always ride the horse more than once and at different times of the day. During lessons, at night, in the morning, ride as much as permitted before money changes hands. Many sales stable will “prepare” a horse prior to your arrival to ensure you have an uneventful ride; if at all possible, leasing the horse or taking it on trial for a few weeks will give you a sampling of his personality and quirks under more realistic circumstances.

· Also, do not expect to buy a horse and have it appreciate in value. Think of it like buying a car - you will never resell the horse for more than you paid for it unless you are a professional trainer and can really improve an already promising horse.

· A green horse is not ever a good idea for a beginner and some non-beginners as well. Unless you can personally train it, never consider a green horse. If you buy green and are unable to complete the job at hand, you expose yourself to the possibility that a trainer will take advantage of you and your horse. Trainers are a dime a dozen and most possess an ego the size of Texas; there is no guarantee that they know how to get the horse from point A to point B correctly. Buying a young untrained horse because of a cheaper price tag, will more than likely wind up costing a whole lot more than the older, safer, more experienced horse for a few dollars more at the outset.

· Try not to over spend. If you must cash in your life savings, re-mortgage your house or really cut back on the family’s groceries, then perhaps this expensive once in a lifetime horse may not be the one for you. On the other side of the coin, “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” may have had some meaning in past times, but it’s always wise to remember a free horse is never free. The board and feed and medical bills are the same price for any horse you own.

· No matter how much the seller guarantees his health, the horse you have selected needs a pre-purchase exam, with x-rays. If the horse has previous x-rays, all the better to compare with the new ones. If the horse is registered with papers, make sure all the markings and descriptions match. If you don’t request the papers for your horse (and make sure they are authentic), many dealers will simply recycle them for the next similar-looking horse that comes into their yard. There are reasons the expression “horse-trader” is used in a derogatory sense.

· Take a knowledgeable trainer/horse person with you. If you are not sure of conformation, lameness, behavior, suitability or general condition issues, some expertise is needed. A knowledgeable horse person can help you ask the right questions and restrain you from making a hasty decision you may later regret. And your trainer should be able to determine whether, depending on what discipline you ride, that 15 hand western pleasure horse is suitable for getting you to Grand Prix level dressage or over a four-foot hunter course. Maybe the 17.3 hand Warmblood is just not the right horse for trail riding (have you ever tried to get on one from the ground?) The bottom line is, get the horse you need for what you plan to do, not the horse you want because it is a pretty color.

· Rescuing horses from a reputable organization is a noble cause. But first, ask yourself if you are skilled and knowledgeable enough to rehab a horse, as this takes much time and effort. We have taken in many horses over the years for rehabilitation and we don’t regret any one of them, since most would have been sent to slaughter if we had not had the time and know-how to rehab an unwanted, abused or seriously injured horse. I am happy to report that they all found good and loving homes (or found permanent places with us.) Just a bit more about this, with all of our rehab “projects,” progress did not occur overnight. Most have taken a long time, including one who needed surgery and a cast on his leg for months; others required extensive physical therapy treatments, re-training, etc.; each horse had a different need. And horses that need to be confined for long periods or gradually re-introduced to work can be difficult if not downright dangerous. Rehabilitation is very time consuming and requires patience, money and skill. Although I enjoyed helping these horses because it was challenging and fulfilling, I would not recommend it for everyone. A rehab horse is always a gamble. Not all of them can be “fixed,” and this is something you need to take into consideration as well. The point here is to not purchase a horse you are not prepared to care for in good times and bad. If you are the sort of person who collects animals, as I do, and know that what you bring home has a home for life, try to get a horse that fits into the program and that you can live with and love, even if it can’t live up to your expectations.

At the end of the day, everyone will buy the horse they feel a connection with and, if it is not the perfect match, they will have to learn to live with their decision. Before you start searching for the perfect partner, ask yourself all the tough questions. You must be very honest about your riding abilities, your goals, what you can afford and the type of horse you need. Somewhere out there is the perfect horse for you and you will find him or her eventually. Keep in mind that you have to be flexible – no horse is perfect.

Until next time

Quote of the Day

A lovely horse is always an experience . . . It is an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words.
- Beryl Markham


  1. My 10yo daughter decided yesterday that she wants a horse. Very much. This was the perfect reality-check for her; she is an animal-lover and sincerely wants the best for every animal (and stuffed friend) she takes in.
    But she is also ten years old, and heartstrings are so easily tugged...

    So this was the perfect blend of tough truths and gracious encouragement. Thank you!

    1. I hope this post helped you in your decision to buy a horse or not to take the plunge right now. Whatever you decide, it is a huge step in everyone's life, especially the horse's.

  2. This is an invaluable post - thank you!


It's so nice of you to take the time to visit. I appreciate your stopping by and commenting on what I've written. Even though I sometimes don't have the time to reply to each comment, I do enjoy reading them.