The Not-To-Miss Essential Tips To Buying A Horse
By Ange Bean
Buying a horse is exciting, whether it’s your first horse or your 20th. Getting caught up in the excitement of the purchase is easy, but in essence, horse shopping is often a lot like speed dating, except at the end, you have to decide whether to “pop the question” or not. But a bit of preparation before you shop, some things to keep in mind when you are shopping, and advice for the first few months with your new mount can help bring things from exciting new relationship to long-term marital bliss.
Before you shop
Before you buy a horse, spending a little time asking yourself questions in three areas can be really helpful preparation:
1) What are your goals/plans for your horse?
Clearly defined goals and plans will help streamline your search. Today’s horse breeders and trainers have become much more specialized than in years past. If you are looking for a horse that can earn you accolades in the A-circuit hunter ring—this is going to be a much different horse than if you want to compete in the NRHA Futurity. Many horses can cross into different disciplines, but searching in the areas that align with how you want to enjoy your horse will make for a more efficient search.
2) How much time and financial resources do you have to devote to your horse after the purchase?
Some horses require a larger time commitment than others. Young horses require consistent, daily training. Seasoned horses, that are well-versed in their job, can often meet your needs with a few days off here and there. Show horses tend to need more time than recreational horses, as getting the details polished takes practice.
If you are juggling a full time job and a family’s worth of commitments, be realistic about how much time you have to devote to your horse before buying a horse. If your time is more limited than your goals, having a good support system is key. That support system may be childcare, a house cleaning service or a trainer to keep the horse tuned up with a once or twice a week rides. Which again plays into the budget—how much will your horse hobby really cost? Looking at all of these numbers, in both the calendar and the checkbook, before shopping will help reduce frustration later.
3) How familiar are you with unfamiliar horses?
One of the biggest challenges of buying a horse is unfamiliarity. Getting on an unfamiliar horse is at best unfamiliar, at worst a bit scary. The tension comes from a number of areas. Regardless of where the stress is coming from, some practice “catch riding” unfamiliar horses can help prepare you for the scary sales situation.
Catch riding, or the ability to get on a strange horse and sort them out quickly, is a skill that develops with practice. Once you decide to shop, start “practice shopping.” Sit on any safe horse you can, whether it matches your shopping list or not, from the neighbor’s ancient quarter horse to your friend’s seasoned show hunter. Pay attention to how your body reacts to different horses. Often, you’ll find you have particular “ticks” when you are uncomfortable. Usually the “tick” is an exaggeration of your body’s favorite bad habit, from a tendency to lean forward, or shoulders climbing up. These unconscious reactions to a horse will tell you if you are comfortable on a gut level, no matter how much your logical mind tells you the horse is suitable or not. If you are comfortable on the horse, and the horse is relaxed with you—that is the start of a partnership that will deepen with time. If that comfort isn’t there early on, no matter how impressive the horse’s resume, the road to happiness may be rocky.
When you shop
Once you are ready to shop, getting some advice from a trusted professional will make the process a bit less scary, as will taking either a trainer or objective friend along. Additionally, a little time creating a framework to evaluate each horse will help you sort through each horse once you are home from the first visit.
4) Seek the advice of a pro before you go buying a horse
In an ideal world, you would hire your trainer to help you with this huge decision. Expect to pay your trainer – some trainers work on a commission basis, some on an hourly rate. Regardless of the fee, it is still less than the cost of buying the wrong horse.
Your trainer will help you clarify your goals for this purchase, and she would help you decide what the road map to those goals looked like. The trainer would then have a short discussion with each of the sellers before you head out to try horses, to see if there were any easy-to-spot warning flags of unsuitability. For example, if you are looking for a dressage horse that is advertised at a certain training level, the trainer can inquire about specific show results to support that advertisement.
Then that trainer, who ideally is a skilled catch rider, would accompany you for the trials, getting on each horse before you ride it to evaluate the training and sensitivity/tolerance level. Then, while you are riding, they would study how the horse reacts to you, and if your “ticks” show up. But that isn’t always possible, in which case you should take an objective horse person with you.
5) Take an objective person with you
The second best alternative to bringing your trainer is to have a horse-savvy friend to accompany you on the test ride. As the one about to make THE BIG DECISION, objectivity gets clouded. A pretty, well-presented horse will cloud your objectivity. But your friend, who isn’t under the same pressure, may not miss the clubfoot below the a beautiful shiny black coat and attractive braids.
Additionally, your friend can watch for your “ticks” when you try a horse and take video of you riding the horse, which leads to the next point.
6) Create a clear framework for evaluating each horse
Whether you are shopping with your trainer or a friend, you will need to evaluate the horse after the high-emotions of the test ride have worn off. A short self-quiz may help you sort out the horses.
The types of questions to ask yourself may include the following:
1) Did I feel comfortable on this horse? Did I like riding him?
2) Did any of my “ticks” show up when I got on this horse? Did they go away after a few minutes?
3) What was my first impression of the “look” of this horse?
4) How did the horse react to the environment?
5) How did the horse react to leg pressure? Rein pressure?
Take a few photos of each horse – from the side, of the front feet, from the hind. Also, shoot some video of you on the horse, because, after all, that is what you are buying the horse for. How well the seller or your trainer rides the horse really should be irrelevant to your decision.
A bit of advice on the video – give yourself a few minutes to relax on the horse before turning on the camera. Also, plan a few movements that you want to see and shoot the same movements on each horse you try. This will give both you and your trainer a more “apples to apples” comparison of the horses.
During and after the purchase
Once you have picked a horse, having an equine veterinarian perform a “pre-purchase exam” on the horse, and going over those results with your trainer will give you a lot of insight into the health and soundness of the horse. After the Bill of Sale is signed, make sure there’s enough left over in the piggy bank for equipment and training, as often these expenses are a bit higher in the first year of ownership.
7) The pre-purchase exam
Once you have decided on “the one,” having a vet go over the horse is always a good idea. Vets cannot predict future health issues, and depending on the age and experience of the horse, some things will be of bigger concern than others. For example, if you have decided on a 15-year-old solid campaigner with a recent show history that can teach you the competition ropes and his x-rays show some changes in his hocks, you will most likely be willing to live with that. But those same x-rays might cause a lot of concern if they were from a 3-year-old who only has 90 days under saddle. So again, take the information from the pre-purchase and go over it with your trainer.
8) Go shopping for correct equipment – body soreness can change your horse dramatically
Once the purchase is done and your horse is finally yours, plan a shopping trip. As you are getting to know your new partner, make sure you have correctly fitting equipment, as body soreness can quickly turn your “love connection” into “love on the rocks.” Most new horse owners spend between $1000-$1500 on equipment in the first year, excluding the saddle purchase. To help stretch the budget as far as possible, Horse Tack Co. has a huge selection of products for new horse owners and young horse products. Don’t forget to use promo code “LoveTheRide” upon checkout to save 15% off your entire order.
9) Budget a bit extra for lessons the first year
During the first 12 months, you will learn a lot about your new horse — how he reacts to changing environments, changing seasons, as well as a change in rider. The help of a knowledgeable trainer can go a long way in sorting out the communication between you and your horse, both mounted and unmounted. For example, you may notice that your horse is more “up” some days than others, and your trainer may connect the weather changes to the “up” days.
In conclusion, after all the excitement of the search, selection and purchase of Mr. or Mrs. Right is over, relax and give both of you time to get to know each other, and turn your speed dating experience into a long-time relationship.