I have gone on quite a few horse-purchasing trips, although, ironically, most of them were not for me and I never went looking for Harley. His previous owner knew my barn owner and he was brought to our future home instead of me going to him. It was meant to be, right?
|Harley and Hubby, shortly after purchase: "I made nice with Val's hubby, too. Here we are posing like a couple of gentlemen. He gave me pretzels and I never forgot that. He did not make me work for the pretzels either. I really like Val's hu-man!"|
I have gone looking for horses with my original dressage instructor, with the director of a therapeutic riding program, for myself, and for my friend. Even though I am not big-time anything, and I have never been paid for my assistance, input, or test-riding, I have had a nice variety of experiences which I feel have given me some practical, useful knowledge. When it comes to horses, that is payment in its own right! I have gone horse-shopping at a huge Haflinger and draft horse auction. I have been to expensive and fancy dressage and jumper stables. I have looked at horses at simple yet busy lesson barns and in people's backyards, some of which were jaw-dropping with luxurious private barns and others were literally a field behind someone's house. I have visited barns where riders come out and make all the horses look awesome and you have trouble deciding which one to try first, and I visited places where you are hard pressed to find a lunge line and the owner is blissfully unaware that the sale horse is not sound.
- Safety First. Require that the seller or the horse's rider demonstrate what the horse can do before you ride or handle the horse. This may include grooming and tacking, groundwork, lungeing, riding, and jumping. Do not get on an unfamiliar horse. If it is not possible for someone else to ride the horse, spend some time on the ground with the animal before even thinking about mounting up. If that horse is an ill-mannered punk, you need to know that before you put your foot in the stirrup. This can usually be assessed from the ground, although caution should always be employed when trying sale horses. I have met a few with Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde syndrome who seem sweet on the ground, but change once the rider is up. This could of course, be pain related, and needs to be noted in a potential purchase horse. Oddly, that can also happen in the reverse. If the safest place is on the horse's back, you do not want that horse! Trust me.
- Wear a helmet and gloves when handling the sale horse, even on the ground. However, remove your gloves to examine his legs and body while the horse is safely restrained. Bring you own equipment (lunge line, lead, etc.), but use what the seller offers first.
- Bring knowledgeable help. The more eyes on the ground, the better. Refrain from verbally criticizing the horse or pointing out his flaws in front of the seller. There is an emotional component to selling a horse, at least for the private owners. It is preferable to just say "He is not what I had in mind" than to imply that the horse is ill-trained, unsound, or old. If you are crafty, you may be able to use some of the less desirable traits of the horse to negotiate price, but that is a whole new topic!
- Handle the new horse with caution. Give him a chance to be a good horse, but protect yourself from harms way and be ready to block dangerous behavior. Be especially cautious of the "teeth" and "feet". Do not put your face near a strange horse, even if he is cute as a button!
- Take everything that the seller says with a grain of salt. Most people do not outright lie, but some will omit information, not disclose information unless you specifically ask, or avoid demonstrating things that the horse cannot do or will cause him to balk. Have you ever watched a sale video online and the video cuts in with the horse already cantering? The transition was not left out by accident! The other side of the coin is that some sellers are not lying, but have a very different perspective or knowledge level. This can come up with horse care and health issues as well as riding and training. In this situation, the seller/owner is not trying to be dishonest, but as the buyer, one must be aware that "things are not always as they seem." A perfect example was a lovely palomino living at a very expensive, private farm. The owners boasted that he was friendly and quiet. I walked up to the horse and offered my hand to smell. After the introduction and some petting and talking, I gently reached for his chest and asked him to shift his weight. Quick as lightning, his teeth flew to bite by arm. Thankfully, I was ready for the unexpected (as ready as one can be) and I blocked his attempt to chew my flesh. I looked at the owner who immediately became defensive and starting making all kinds of excuses. An experienced horse person can find inconsistencies like this very quickly. I look very young, which tends to throw people off guard, but I called this seller's bluff. Or maybe he never asked the horse to follow any sort of cue and had no idea that the horse would refuse even the simplest of requests. Innocently ignorant or decidedly deceptive? Either situation is possible, but from the buyer's standpoint, they are equally hazardous.
- Prepare questions ahead of time and ask all of them. An honest seller will answer everything that you ask and start rattling off the strengths and weaknesses of the horse. An experienced, motivated seller will often also offer vaccination and medical records and identification papers.
- Handle and ride the horse as he is used to being handled or ridden, then introduce something new and judge his response*. The new thing should be reasonable and fair. You are not training him and success is not the point. How does the horse respond when he is taken outside of his comfort zone? How large/small is his comfort zone?
- After test riding, handling, and deciding that you want to move forward with the purchase, request a trial period with a contract*.
- Hire a veterinarian to perform a pre-purchase exam*. If your dentist, farrier, and trainer are readily available, ask them to look at your horse, too. Consider the pre-purchase exam and the cost of any professional looking at your horse part of the purchase price. This will cost you some money up front and there are no guarantees, but it will be well worth the peace of mind if the horse passes inspection and the money saved if he does not. Like people, no horse is perfect or without flaws (conformation, health, age, training, personality, etc.), but since purchasing a horse is such a tremendous emotional and financial responsibility, it is worthwhile to know what you are getting into and decide which flaws you are willing, emotionally and financially, to accept. This is also important if you have a job in mind for the horse. Can the horse do the job that you want for him or her? The safest bet is to find a horse who is already doing the job that you want, but this is usually also more expensive!
- Keep your options open. Try not to set your heart on a specific breed, age, sex, or experience level. Limiting your search is beneficial, but may also exclude very nice horses who do not fit the mold you are looking for to a "T". If you visit a stable to look at one horse and others are for sale, take a quick look at all of them. Try to look at each horse as an individual, keep your priorities in mind while trying to be honest about the horse in front of you. Try not to fall in love, before the horse is yours...
Years ago, I had the unique opportunity to try a horse imported from Europe. This was for my original dressage instructor, who commented that "this is the only imported horse I would ever be able to afford". I guess that granted the horse some tantalizing appeal, although with my college-student idealism, I did not recognize the implications of her statement at the time. I rode the horse and crinkled my nose at his walk and told my instructor that it felt "funny". I also felt like the horse was careening around in trot and when we cantered, I could not find a stop in him. I remember very calmly telling my instructor, as we cantered around her in a smooth, big circle, that "I cannot stop him". She did not believe me at first and gave me some instruction. I tried to use my seat more, half-halted, and did what she said, but his canter would not change. He was not bolting. I can best describe it by saying that he was "stuck in gear". Eventually, we resorted to making the circle smaller and smaller until he had to trot to finish the circle and finally stopped. I was not really scared, but it was unnerving to have nothing change in response to your aids. It was like the horse was playing a record and the record was skipping with a really deep groove in the vinyl. He did not get upset or speed up, he just kept going in a catatonic canter. My original dressage instructor was very tough, so she blamed my riding and told me that his walk felt funny, because he was overstepping by six inches. Despite the wrist-slapping and defensive statements which I received, she did not buy the prized "import" and when I asked why, she hesitated and would only tell me that his walk was "pacey". I knew better than to tell her "I told you so", but that was what I felt! Combined with the odd trot and canter, I think there was something more going on there. Hind end issues maybe?
Always look a gift horse in the mouth, even if that gift horse is a discounted, imported warmblood.