Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tips for Trying a New Horse

Yesterday, my friend and I went horse shopping.  Actually the shopping part happened online.  My friend found a horse that she was interested in and we drove up to check him out.  This is something that we have done a couple times together and I am really hoping that this time she is going to come home with one of the horses.  I think that we found a very nice, kid-friendly gelding, a family horse who my friend can have some fun riding herself, too.  Harley and I might also acquire a new pair of trail-riding buddies.  We would have to trailer out to see them, but we would have hours of trails to explore.  It would be wonderful to ride with my friend again and wonderful for her to finally have her own horse.  Like me, she has spent her life riding other people's horses and dreams of her own special horse.  My small role is helping her find a "good suitor"; I hope that I can make it happen!

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, December 2006: "I was a super good boy when I was on trial.  I did my best to make circles and listen like a dressage horse, then I got to show off my trail horse skills.  I knew that I had a good thing going, so I played it real cool.  I even tried to match Val's clothes."

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?  
  8. After test riding, handling, and deciding that you want to move forward with the purchase, request a trial period with a contract*.  
  9. 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! 
  10. 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...
*I recommend #7, #8, and #9 even for a "free" horse, since those are about as rare as unicorns.  ;)
    This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I would like to include one more as the grand finale of tips!

    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.


    1. Those tips are all so worthy Val- I think it's a great guideline manual! Sure hope your friend does come away with a lovely horse soon. Fun to have a nice riding partner!

      I loved that photo of you and Harley..blending in together!

    2. I was nodding my head in agreement all the way through this post. I had a friend whom I loved to trail ride with but from whom I would never buy a horse. She had an unrideable mare that she repeatedly tried to sell and, well, her portrayal and reality weren't connected. With Jackson, I was fortunate that his seller was honest -- I knew he had lousy feet going into the deal. But what sold me on him was his attitude. He was an awesome trail horse but had never been exposed to dressage. Despite that, he tried his hardest to figure out what I was asking for. Like you, I didn't care that he didn't understand - I cared that he tried.

    3. Awesome post....I know too many that have gotten burned during a purchase. We offer all our students a free eval of horses prior to purchase to try to avoid it, but even I now find myself with a little bit off Arabian because I got swept up in just getting him out of his situation.
      You've won an award over at my blog! Stop by to pick it up!

    4. allhorsestuff- Thank you! My friend is in the waiting game stage of the purchase, so we will see. I like the shadows on our faces in the photo.

      Annette- I looked at a quarter horse who had some dressage training and he was not very fun to ride plus way more expensive. I guess I realized that I wanted a "clean slate" so, like you said, attitude and potential were high on my list. The truth is that any horse that is purchased will have to be retrained in some way, because every rider does things slightly differently.

      Mary- Welcome to my blog! It is really tough to remain dispassionate when purchasing an animal, especially if you do not like their situation. Rescue is as good a reason to purchase as any, but only if that is the intent of the buyer. Finding out that your newly purchased riding or lesson horse is unsound, unhealthy, or a meanie is no fun. I think that a trial period is important for this reason. There is enough time for the bute to wear off and for the horse to get comfortable and show his true nature, good or bad.

      Thanks for the award!

    5. Yep, yep, yep, and seven more! I don't buy horses very often, but when I do I try very hard to make the best decision possible because I tend to keep my guys for quite a while. And when I have sold a horse, I am just as methodical in the selling part as I was in the buying part. It took me more than a year to sell my last Arabian gelding. And it wasn't because no one wanted him, quite the opposite. He was a black Arabian and quite handsome. He caught many eyes, but I was picky about his next owner. Thanks for writing!

    6. Karen- I have never sold a horse, and technically have only purchased one. You should write a companion piece from the seller's point of view!

    7. Great post! I especially stress the first one: Safety First!
      You said it... ALWAYS require the owner/trainer, etc. to ride the horse first!
      I've heard sooooo many horror stories from people getting themselves into bad situations while test-riding horses.

    8. Thanks Jenny!

      I decided on rule #1 for myself after my original instructor's mentor suffered a fatal accident. Thankfully, I was not present when that happened, but the event was unforgettable and I have witnessed some dangerous horse behavior since then. It is not something that I take lightly and unfortunately goes right along with #5. I do not care if the seller claims that children ride the horse, which seems to be a popular selling point. I treat the horse like he could be dangerous until he shows that he is relatively safe.


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