When you go to the race track to buy a horse . . .

The shedrow at the track is where many people go horse shopping.
The shedrow at the track is where many people go horse shopping.

It’s very tempting to go to the racetrack for your next project horse. Off-the-track-Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) are often inexpensive, beautiful and definitely in need of a new career once their success on the racetrack has diminished. I’ve owned three OTTBs and have looked at several more during my horse purchasing adventures.

Over the past week I’ve been reading a thread on the COTH forum about a woman who bought a horse from a trainer at Penn National. The horse was advertised as sound, no vices, currently used as a pony horse. The woman looked at the horse, watched it being ridden and chose to leave a deposit on the horse. It appears the trainer told her that PPEs were not allowed at the track (which is not true). The woman, who has ridden for 20 odd years, flexed the horse herself, gave it a once over and left a deposit.

The horse was paid for and delivered two days later. Upon arriving at its new barn, the horse started to crib. Cribbing is considered a vice and is something that the buyer had asked about explicitly and been assured the horse did not crib (sellers are required by law to answer direct questions accurately). Within a few days the horse was diagnosed as lame. A vet exam by the new owner rated the horse as 3/5 lame on one hind leg, found a bony lump on its other hock, and identified muscle atrophy on one side.

The woman is now attempting to return the horse and obtain at least a partial refund.

Legal and ethical issues aside, this story sounds all too familiar to me. Unfortunately I know several people who have purchased horses that have not been exactly as presented. I came across situations like this when I was horse shopping and in two cases discovered significant discrepancies between advertised and actual. With one, I found issues at the PPE and with the other, I found out simply because I knew someone who had known the horse and let me know about a few things the seller had forgotten.

Here are some thoughts based on my own experiences.

  1. It’s hard to go to the track on your own to find a horse. Buying an OTTB off the track is especially tricky because you are very limited in what you can and cannot do. For example, you cannot ride a horse at the track. Not at all. You can arrange to watch a horse be exercised but most likely all you will get to see is the horse jog down the shed row. That’s why organizations like CANTER are so helpful. The volunteers often have seen the horses over a period of time and also know the trainers. They are very good at helping buyers find horses that will suit their needs. I went to the track before CANTER was in my area and I left without a horse. There was too much pressure to buy now, too little information and not enough chance to truly evaluate the horses. I have bought OTTBs off the farm. In that situation I was able to ride them and vet them out.
  2. Don’t buy a horse without a PPE unless you are willing to take the loss. Of course a PPE isn’t a guarantee of future soundness, but they will help you identify existing problems and give you a baseline of soundness. My vet has told me that he accompanies his clients to the track to evaluate horses. Okay, he doesn’t bring his digital x-ray equipment with him, but he’s looked at so many horses that he can give a pretty thorough assessment. All racetracks have vets that are authorized to do exams at the track. Trainers might push you to take a horse “as is” but it is not because you cannot get a vet to do an exam. Do you need to x-ray each prospective purchase until it glows? Probably not. But having a vet evaluate the overall condition of the horse and do flexion tests will help you determine if it’s necessary to delve deeper. Twice when I have purchased OTTBs the owner/trainer has offered to put me in touch with their own vet and they have shared medical records and films. This type of up front honesty went a long way to increasing my comfort level.
  3. Never shop for a horse alone. I always bring a knowledgeable friend to give me a second set of eyes. It’s easy to get swept up in the moment and fall in love with a horse. I used to shop for horses with a friend of mine who was a vet. He never mentioned that he was a vet which was maybe a good way to go.
  4. There are always more horses. Always. Okay, if you want to buy an equitation horse or a Grand Prix dressage horse, that may not be the case. But if you’re looking for an OTTB there are plenty. I never worry too much about the one that “got away”. If the situation is such that I can’t evaluate the horse in the way I want to, then I don’t buy it. As someone who must board their horse I know that a lame horse costs more to keep than a sound one and is far less fun.
  5. Racetrack sound and show horse sound can be different. A vet explained to me once that a very successful racehorse can have an uneven gait that never affected it’s racing performance but which would make it unsuitable for the show ring. A race horse trainer may or may not be aware of what is truly suitable for the job you want your horse to do. Your vet is a much better judge of suitability.
  6. Be very specific in your questions. Rather than asking if a horse has vices, it’s better to ask if the horse cribs or weaves, for example. It’s also a good idea to ask about injuries, medications, or whether the horse has had joint injections and if so, what and how often.

As for the case that sparked this thoughts, I believe the seller should take the horse back. And I hope that the horse finds a soft landing where he can hopefully recover his soundness and go on to a new career.

More resources:

Buying or Selling a Horse: Creating a Contract

4 thoughts on “When you go to the race track to buy a horse . . .

  1. Excellent entry! I would also add: if you do all these things, and bring your horse home, and he seems to go gimpy and have strange hind end lameness, DO NOT PANIC. Really. You want to get it diagnosed, but a LOT of horses come off the track, and the type of work they WERE doing, coupled with the new routine (or lack of one) will show up as nebulous body soreness or hind end lameness (stifles especially).

    This does not mean the horse is ‘lame’ or that you have been screwed over. Always EXPECT when buying a horse off the track to give that animal several months off. And expect him to go through periods of not looking fabulous. Rest, then careful introduction to his new job, can do wonders in ironing out those things (stifles in particular).

    In the COTH case I have mixed feelings. I do feel, very strongly, that her horse may not be as crippled as she seems to think, but I haven’t seen him in person. I do know three horses that came through CANTER that seriously looked terrifyingly lame, like they couldn’t walk normally, that are now 100% and fabulous- they just needed the time and the right work.

    I hope this guy finds a good home, and that they settle things… and in a way that doesn’t put the race trainer off from dealing with the public.

    1. You bring up an excellent point here that hasn’t been raised anywhere else — this trainer is one of the good guys because she is trying to rehome her horses. If she gets sued over this, I bet she won’t go that route again. Then the horses lose.

  2. Of course I should probably also point out that there’s more than one side to every story, and that one person’s dramatic recollection on a bulletin board may not be the entire truth 😉

    1. Yes, it would be interesting to hear the other side of the story. What do they say? There are three sides to every situation — mine, your’s and the truth!

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