Part of my grief response to losing Zelda was the realization that I needed another horse. The problem is, I hate horse shopping. My husband innocently suggested that it would be “fun” to try other horses. Sadly, while some people might enjoy the horse shopping experience, for me it’s right up there with shopping for a bathing suit. I mean, how much fun is it to make a decision about an expensive purchase, which will become your partner in a dangerous activity, after riding them for a half hour?
It’s been a LONG time since I looked for a horse. Freedom and Zelda were both dropped off at my barn. Freedom was a foster for CANTER NE. My friend Ellen, who was the Chapter’s Executive Director, thought he’d be a great riding horse. He’d been adopted once before but that placement hadn’t worked out so CANTER took him back. He needed some calories, muscle, and a rider that didn’t feed into his anxious nature. After about four months, I realized that I didn’t want him to be adopted, so I kept him.
Zelda was Ellen’s personal horse but they hadn’t really gelled. She thought Zelda would be a great hunt horse so she asked me to ride her during the time when Freedom was recovering from a check ligament injury. After a couple of months, I realized I didn’t want her to leave either and my husband bought her as 25th anniversary present (silver is the traditional gift, but a horse is SO much better).
The last time I’d really shopped for a horse it had been frustrating. I’d flown to two cities, ridden about fifteen horses and paid for PPEs for two that I chose to pass on because of issues that I didn’t want to manage. The main problems I’ve encountered over the years?
Not big enough. I’m 5’11” and unless the horse has a really big body, it really won’t work for me. I can’t count the number of horses I’ve gone to see that were advertised as 16.2″ but were actually maybe 15.3″ if they hadn’t been shod recently.
Lame: At least 35% of the horses I’ve looked at over the years have shown some subtle lameness, even before going through a pre-purchase exam. Some were more lame than subtle. While watching one horse limp around the demo ride, I asked the trainer if he always went like that. They sheepishly admitted that the horse looked a bit off that day. I guess I was lucky they hadn’t drugged the horse to mask the lameness, but there are plenty of sellers out there who are happy to cross their fingers and hope you don’t notice. And remember, it’s not your responsibility to figure out why their horse is lame. Never do a PPE on a horse that looks off, always wait until they are sound — even if the seller has a reasonable explanation. I once looked at a horse that felt off in the test ride, something that I could also see in the video my trainer shot. The seller claimed it was due to thrush. I passed on the horse but a friend liked her enough to have her vetted. X-rays showed a fractured sesamoid bone. Did the seller know? Hard to tell but vetting a horse is expensive and it should be up to the owner to figure out their horse’s problems.
Not as Advertised: This is a tougher criteria to evaluate because, in my experience, private sellers, especially those not working with a trainer, don’t know what their horses don’t know (or are not capable of doing). This goes hand-in-hand with lameness. I think some sellers don’t know if their horses are really sound, or great movers, or capable of jumping solid cross country fences. If the horse doesn’t perform as described — won’t pick up its leads, runs around with its head in the air, or stops at a cross rail, the natural reaction is to think it’s your riding. It could be. But it also could be that the horse isn’t quite as trained as described or is in pain. A friend of mine sent me a video of a horse she tried (mid-five figures) who had trouble picking up the left lead canter and consistently fell out of the right lead canter. Big red flags.
Unsafe: I can’t even count the number of people I know who have been injured, some seriously (broken bones, concussions, etc.), while trying horses. Good riders, who knew their limitations and who had screened the horses they went to see to try to weed out the unsuitable ones. Horses are unpredictable and if they are not fairly represented, you can end up in trouble. One of the women watching me ride a horse during my latest search (no problems with him) commented that she’d tried a horse, asked for one last canter and got tossed into the arena fencing, breaking her shoulder and earning an ambulance ride to the ER. I am always grateful to sellers who are honest and upfront about the horses they are selling. There are some buyers who are fine with buying a horse that has a buck, but you need to know before you get on! One huge red flag is if the seller doesn’t ride the horse first. If they have a reason to stay off, so do you.
Unfortunately, most sellers don’t agree to trials anymore (it’s very risky for them to send a nice horse out to someone else’s barn). However, I strongly recommend spending as much time as possible with a potential purchase so you can see how they behave in various situations and over time. When possible, buy from people who are known quantities — if not friends, then friends of friends, or from sellers who have good reputations and stand behind their sales. Do your due diligence. Find out if a horse has been injured, whether they have behavioral quirks (I always ask what a horse does when they are acting naughty), if the seller will release vet records. I try to bring someone with me to get a second pair of eyes on a horse as it’s easy to fall in love with the idea of buying a particularly handsome or really personable horse, even though it might be suitable. And do a PPE with a vet who understands your specific intentions for the horse. Horses don’t pass or fail them, per se, but it’s very helpful to know what potential issues you might have.
Tune in next time to find out about my new horse and find out which of my rules I broke :). And I’d like to know what your horse shopping experiences have been like, good and bad!