Why I Hate Horse Shopping

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?

Freedom 2005
Here’s Freedom in January of 2005. I’d had him for a couple of weeks and he was still looking pretty scrawny. I wouldn’t have picked him for my next horse, but he chose me.

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.

Many horses I've looked at have subtle or not so subtle lameness issues.
Many of the horses I’ve gone to try have subtle (or not so subtle) lameness issues.

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.

Some horses are unsafe
Some horses are simply not safe to ride. The trick is figuring that out before you get on them. I no longer will ride a horse if the owner/trainer won’t ride them first.

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!

7 thoughts on “Why I Hate Horse Shopping

    1. That’s a really good point. There are always some super nice looking horses halfway across the country! But to travel to see a single horse is expensive, time consuming and often disappointing. The horse that couldn’t hold its leads that my friend looked at, required a plane trip. Not to mention, if you do buy one, you then need to add shipping costs to the price of the horse.

  1. I keep ending up buying them young and taking a chance on what I’ll end up with, because it seems like the really good horses here sell without advertisement to people already in their network. Buying young is obviously not a risk free or solid plan either. But I tell myself at least this way by the time they’re ready for a job I’m so attached/invested in them I’m far more forgiving of the inevitable quirks and flaws and questionable vet call outs. I’m excited to hear about your new partner, and I’m sorry it’s been such a tough time.

  2. ugh horse shopping is the worst, i wish you luck, clarity, good fortune, and pleasant ponies! i try to outsource a lot of the work, and rely on the networks i know. i also apparently only buy unstarted ottbs from adoption agencies tho, so…. that’s a very different (and maybe simpler?) game from the (currently overheated) private market for going horses

  3. Horse shopping is the worst. It’s such a huge, life changing decision. So much is riding on it (not meant to be a bad pun). Looking forward to following your journey!

  4. All of your comments are right on target. I’ve accompanied friends on horse shopping trips, usually as the ‘second pair of eyes’. This helps in that the seller is concentrating on the buyer, not me, and I can see things the seller might not want me to. And it’s amazing some of the things that the seller doesn’t know…for instance, ‘what size shoe does he wear?” To me this is a no brainer. But if the seller doesn’t know, or worse, has HAS TO LOOK AT THE shoe to find if, hopefully, there’s a number..that to me is a red flag. When Sue was horse shopping, we unfortunately fell into the hands of a professional seller. She didn’t claim to be a pro, but her horses were all from the other end of the state, and she honestly had no idea what shoe one of the horses she was selling. He was an OTTB, and she extolled how many races, how famous he was, but hmmmm there was nothing on Allpedigree about him. (That, by the way, is an excellent source of information on a horse..if he’s registered, especially a TB, he should be in there). This horse wasn’t.

    THe things I’ve heard:

    “He’s registered but we”: don’t have the papers, never paid the registry, has no neck brand or lip tattoo, the papers were left in the sun to bleach out. If they say I have no idea, at least they’re being honest.

    “All thoroughbreds crib.” No, they don’t.

    “He’s trained to third level”. Really? Please show me.

    If the seller then pressures you with “I have someone else coming to look at him from, better give me some money to hold him.”..run, don’t walk away.

    The worse ones are the people who say, “I don’t remember ever seeing you at: the three day, or a horse show…” etc…that’s just being rude, or trying to intimidate you.

    Not to say I’ve never sold horses myself. I’m honest. I say, “this horse is NOT FOR BEGINNERS”. and yet I had some woman call mea t 11 at night and demand to know if the horse jumped. I said no, I had never advertised him as a jumper, and yet she insisted he was a jumper. What did I mean, NO? her daughter wanted a jumper, he’s perfect for her, and he doesn’t jump?

    Sigh. GOod luck. If I lived there, I’d help you out.

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