We all know that buying a horse can be a long, difficult, time consuming and expensive process. We can be emotional, leave our brains at home, make mistakes. I have been undertaking this process for two months and have driven thousands of kilometres, had disappointments, become exhausted and discouraged, and finally have found a lovely horse. She is not perfect. She is not a unicorn. She is quite unlike the horse I had in mind for myself. But I believe that she will enjoy me as much as I will enjoy her.
And she has the softest mind I have encountered in a horse.
We each have certain criteria that we look for in a horse to purchase, and they will depend upon our horse activities, size, experience and many other factors. But in addition to those criteria, to help me during the buying process, I developed three golden rules. They have been a big help in these last months, and definitely prevented me from making a regretful decision numerous times. I will use them again in the future, without a doubt.
Rule no. 1. Always sleep on the decision.
On a number of occasions I decided at the viewing that I really wanted this horse, and yet still abided by my rule, which I told the owner of, and said I would contact them in a couple of days. If one night sleeping on it is best, two nights is even better. This gives our mind time to process all the little things that we noticed during the viewing that we were too entranced, or too polite, to consider or question at the time. And once we are away from the beautiful animal which we would love to have taken home on the spot, our mind has the space to review all these little things, and often, the result is that we realise that the horse isn’t suitable at all.
The other bonus of this rule is that it means we don’t take a horse float with us to the viewing. Something I always used to do when I was younger! Two problems with taking a horse float: 1).. we don’t like to take the float home empty as it feels like we have failed in some way (yes we know that doesn’t make sense), and 2).. taking a float means that on some level we have already decided that the horse will be great for us. Before we have met it. Taking this attitude to a horse viewing means we tend to look more for good points and less for bad points. And we make a big decision that can affect us, our family and the horse (not to mention our bank account) in so many ways, really fast. Which is not a good idea.
Rule no. 2. Don’t trust the seller.
They are trying to sell us their horse. Even when they say that finding the best home is more important than the money, they are still trying to sell us their horse (and the money is very rarely unimportant). They won’t tell us all the bad stuff about the horse. They may not deliberately lie, but they will paint the horse with its best attributes, not its worst (naturally enough, we would do the same). Or they might give us a brief glimpse of the worst stuff, but not the whole picture. They may tell us the best way to handle the horse, without revealing the real reason why. And sometimes, unfortunately, they will deliberately lie to us. They will deliberately tell us little fibs, lies by omission, and sometimes big fat whopping lies.
But trusting the seller has another aspect, and that is how well the seller really knows the horse. And I find that it is not uncommon that they don’t know their horse very well. So what we are told on the phone or in an email or on Messenger, can be very different from what the horse will tell us in person. Another reason for not taking that horse float with us! The seller’s training techniques may have been a problem for that horse, rather than a solution. The seller’s outlook, skill level, experience, whether they know how to connect with a horse and how well they read a horse, will all impact on what they say about the horse, and whether it is accurate.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t sellers out there who are both extremely honest and also know the horse they are selling very well. They do exist. But as they are very rare, my golden rule of ‘don’t trust the seller’ remains.
So who do we trust? The horse. The horse will give us the information we need, as long as we are adept at reading horses. If not, take someone with you who is. Get a video of the horse moving before you drive 200km to a viewing. A video can show what the movement is like, how the horse acts, how it is ridden/handled, and can also reveal unsoundness. We can ask around and try to speak with people who have seen the horse out and about, and can tell you something of what it has done, how it has been treated and how it has behaved. If we do our homework, don’t assume the information provided by the seller is correct, and listen to the horse, we can save ourselves considerable time, travel, expense and even heartbreak.
Rule no. 3. The horse must be sound.
Just knowing what is and isn’t unsound is itself a big question. By the time a horse is obviously lame, there can be permanent changes in a joint, so it helps if we can detect problems before there is obvious lameness. If you have trouble picking when a horse is unsound by looking at it move, find someone who can and take them with you. If you don’t know how to feel for signs of unsoundness in various body areas, again find someone who can. Remember a horse can be on an anti-inflammatory such as Bute for several days before we see it, which can help to mask unsoundness. A lot of owners won’t know their horse is unsound, or they might think it is a very minor issue that will go away (remember Rule no. 2). Some owners think that we should be able to detect the unsoundness ourselves. And some will deliberately withhold information about their horse which reveals it as unsound or highly likely to become so.
A vet check can be helpful, but unless we get x-rays and scans, can also be limited. I know people who have sold horses with joint problems which passed veterinary flexion tests after a decent spell. If you get a vet check, use a specialist horse vet. Most vets will do a soundness check, or pre-purchase exam, on a horse. I’m not saying they won’t do a good job. But if they don’t specialise in horses, or don’t do pre-purchase exams frequently, they are outside of their area of daily expertise.
Sometimes we might decide to purchase an unsound horse anyway. If so I would hope that we have thoroughly investigated the health issue, discussed it with a specialist horse veterinarian and other equine professionals, and determined the short term and long term costs and prognosis. My new horse has a slightly undershot jaw. Technically that can be deemed unsoundness but it is a manageable problem. Problems with feet, legs, the spine and the pelvis are common and often ignored, or minimised. I walked away from a perfectly stunning horse in mind, movement and potential that unfortunately had suspect feet.
And remember, unsoundness is not just about physical aspects. A horse can also be mentally or emotionally unsound. Mostly this is fixable by someone with sufficient skill and experience who is willing to put in a year or so of work. Maybe several years. But sometimes, mental and emotional unsoundness is not fixable. Just like children, a horse can be damaged by trauma or abuse sustained during its early years, when the brain is growing and forming. The horse’s brain can be permanently changed (what we would term damaged) in ways that prevent it from being able to normally process both cognitively and emotionally.
I have seen posts on Facebook deriding people who advertise for a horse that doesn’t buck, bolt, rear, kick, bite. But these behaviours are often indicators that there is an underlying problem that will need to be addressed before that horse is safely useable. It might be a minor problem that can be fixed simply and quickly by a change in saddle and some bodywork or a treatment for ulcers, or it might be a major problem that has developed over a lengthy period and will take serious time, effort and skill to fix. If we don’t want to, or don’t really know how to do that fixing, it is certainly better to avoid a horse that displays these behaviours.
So to everyone out there looking for a horse, I wish you all the best in your search. May you find a horse which suits you and who you suit in return, and may you give each other much joy for many years. And I hope that my experiences may be helpful for you in avoiding unnecessary heartache.