Finding Mr. Right
by Nikki Alvin-Smith
Buying a riding horse for the first or umpteenth time can be equally daunting. Buying a horse or pony for your child brings even more angst. Here are some simple rules to help you eliminate some of the trials and tribulations of a horse purchase. It’s time to become the savvy horse shopper you believe yourself to be!
Keep Your Head Straight
This may sound simple but in fact it is all too easy to trot off course from your original plans. We’ve all done it and oft times come to regret it. Your first action should be to make a list of ‘needs’ and a list of ‘wants’. For example, does height matter? Does girth matter? Does breed matter? Does age matter? Does training level matter? Does gender matter. Does the horse’s health matter? Does the price matter?
The answer to all these questions should be a resounding yes.
A rider should fit their horse. Being over or under horsed is a recipe for remorse which will appear on the horizon sooner rather than later. Many riders can fit a range of size horses depending on the horse’s height, saddle position and girth. So be honest with yourself and select a decent sized horse where your leg will land in the correct position with the ankle at the target driving area of the horse. It takes extreme talent to ride a horse that is too big for you and why make life harder than it needs to be? If you buy a horse that is too small you will feel like the Thelwell character cartoon shot and feel as though roller skates are needed on your feet. Plus weighing more than a maximum of 15% of your horse’s body weight is not fair on him, ideally it should be 10% but this does depend on the breed.
The breed of the horse can matter a great deal. A horse developed for the dressage arena may have warmblood or baroque lines to enhance its natural conformation for the sport. A horse bred for reining or Western riding may need to be stockier and work differently across its back. This is not to say a horse of any breed cannot undertake any riding discipline successfully but realize if you are serious about competition and want to have an easier go of it then staying within crossbreds or horses bred for your discipline will help you achieve your goals especially if your goals are ambitious.
The age of a horse is also important. An older horse may be best suited for a neophyte rider as his experience can balance the needs of the rider better. But older school horses can come with a complete bag of tricks that challenge the rider. They have learned a lot of bad habits as they have taught and tolerated their equestrian students. A young horse that has little or no experience under saddle or on the trail may be a great project for an experienced rider but you should be honest with yourself about your level of expertise. Younger horses can be cheaper but the reason is their lack of education or proven expertise in their equestrian discipline, so be aware of this in making your choice of age and training range.
When evaluating training look for a horse with a proven and full track record. Any horse may have a minor injury that sidelines them from competition for a bit but large gaps in performance history need to be explained. A horse that is proven in your preferred discipline will make your job much easier. Also be certain to look at the correctness of the work versus the level. A horse that has correct basics will take less time for you to develop further.
The gender of a horse may or may not matter to you but you should be confident of your skill set and experience if you are choosing a stallion. Stallions may need separate turnout, stabling and trailering so be cognizant of the additional challenges a stallion can present. A mare may operate quite differently during summer months when she is in season, an event that happens every 18 to 21 days, so if you are selecting a mare off season be happy that she is as manageable in the summer months as in the winter. There are various medical interventions that can be administered to help mares cope when estrous makes them physically sore or mentally derelict of all focus but you should budget for these.
Conformation of a horse relates over time directly to soundness. A horse with a good conformation and one that matches the job you’d like him to do is extremely important. The best way to check this is to always take a photo of the horse in profile when you inspect him. Take it home and evaluate it carefully. Be sure to stand him up properly for these shots. A horse with poor conformation will additionally be uncomfortable to ride. A sewing machine trot may be improved with training but it will be always be harder to sit than a trot that is fluid.
The temperament of the horse is sometimes hard to evaluate totally from the ground. It can also be ‘colored’ by the handling the horse has previously or is now receiving. Once you sit upon the horse yourself you will soon ‘get inside his head’ and learn if he is stubborn, shut down, overwhelmed, hot and flighty, nervous and tense or generally stable. If you are an A type personality I suggest a B type horse and vice versa. Certain breeds and bloodlines within a breed have a tendency to be hotter or calmer than others so factor this in the equation.
The health of the horse is paramount. You know how you feel when you are in pain. You do not want to do anything that aggravates the pain and you may become tired and moody dealing with it. If a horse is in pain he is apt to exhibit the same resistances to work, and the same mental angst. On the other hand as we age there has to be some acceptance that all our working parts may be less proficient than they used to be and some medical help may be required to keep us comfortable. For horses the same thing applies and an older horse may require a small amount of affordable medical aid either daily or periodically. Be realistic about how this will affect your budget and how long these medical issues will remain at the same level as you see them now. Medical issues rarely remain at a same level. The veterinary pre-purchase exam and medical record from the owner of the horse will address these issues and your vet is your best advocate in these matters and the health care record is also an important check of health care maintenance practices.
The money issue is one that must be addressed realistically too. There is no point in wasting sellers time or your own for that matter, looking at horses you simply cannot afford. On the other hand once you are out in the marketplace you may discover that you need to sit back and be patient and save some more money so that you can afford the horse that you need. Market research is imperative. And remember, there is no such thing as a free horse. All horses have individual issues and if the horse is free be especially careful if you do not personally know and trust the person offering the horse to you.
The next question is should you go this alone? Should a friend that knows horses
(hopefully)and knows your riding be sufficient to aid you in your quest to meet your perfect equine match? Should you engage the help of a trainer, preferably your regular trainer who you know and trust?
If engaging a trainer ask what commissions are to be charged. A 10% of ultimate sale price finder’s fee is generally acceptable. Sellers can also charge commissions so if your trainer shows you a horse he has in his stable or belongs to one of his clients be certain you know what the fees are and do not succumb to taking on a horse that is too much for you and that the trainer tells you he will develop for your needs. Remember, you want a horse that you can ride right away. You are not buying a horse for someone else.
Regardless of how much a trainer says they know this horse is sound ALWAYS have the horse vetted. The pre-purchase exam is not a pass or fail test. It is an opportunity for the vet to ascertain the overall health of the horse. Personally I always recommend the horse be x-rayed in addition to the basic flexion tests and physical exam. Your vet is the best person to advise you on this matter. Also be aware that there can be a conflict of interest regarding which vet to use. It is always best to avoid a vet that is working regularly at the barn in question to avoid a conflict arising. It is also important to have the vet draw a blood sample at the start of the exam and have him hold the sample at his clinic. If you buy the horse and he arrives home as a different character or of a different soundness than when you tried him, then this blood sample can be run to rule out drug use on the horse used to disguise medical or temperament issues.
Keep Your Heart Straight
A pretty face sells. It’s a fact. But pretty is as pretty does and a horse that may look a bit plainer may be the perfect match for you in all the above mentioned aspects so don’t be fooled into buying something that is handsome to look at but who does not match your criteria.
Emotions inevitably factor into a horse purchase. In fact if there isn’t some level of emotion you should not buy the horse. However it is important to stick to the guidelines you have created above.
The color of a horse is also pretty irrelevant although we all have preferences. This should not be a big consideration. Do not overlook a good horse because he is not your first color choice.
Do not be overly impressed because the present owner of the horse has a fancy stable or rides brilliantly. In fact if the rider is significantly more talented than you take a step back and think about it. When you test ride the horse see how the horse responds to a rider of your level and do not be talked in to buying a horse that does not feel good to you.
Never be rushed in your decision-making but do be diligent. Ask lots of questions. Ask about vices both in the saddle and in the stable. Take notes. When you visit the horse for the first time see it fresh out of the stable not all tacked up and ready to go. Observe it keenly and ask more questions and take more notes. It is important to trust your gut instincts regarding the truthfulness of the seller. It is always useful to have a knowledgeable horse friend come with you to help assess the seller and the horse. Take photos and video and take them home to evaluate. If you decide the horse is not for you be professional and call the seller and let them know. You should not regale them with all negatives that you may have noticed about the horse, just state that you do not feel the horse is a good fit for you.
Also never take the trailer with you. This is a recipe for a rushed and rash decision. If possible try not to visit the horse for the first time in bad weather. It may sound silly but if you are cold and tired then you may overlook going through all the questions you had prepared to ask and take less time than you need trying the horse in the saddle.
Don’t be sold on a horse at an event without riding the horse at his own home in his natural environment. You may not enjoy the same riding experience in both places.
No matter how quiet the horse looks on the ground, never take the first turn on the horse. Always see it ridden before mounting it yourself. Not only does this give you the time to evaluate the horse for soundness and training but it also helps to assure you that the horse is safe to ride. Beware of horses that appear out of the stable that have clearly already been ridden that day. Look for signs of fatigue or sweat marks from the saddle and bridle.
You should not need to give a deposit to hold a horse for a vet check, but do organize a prompt appointment for the pre-purchase and ask the seller to hold the horse for a few days while this is completed. And always obtain a bill of sale on the horse and his registration papers if applicable.
Have fun shopping and remember, ‘if in doubt, do nowt’. You never regret the horses you don’t buy.