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Horse Shopping: how to go about acquiring a new horse

So, you've decided to buy a horse. You've been taking riding lessons, you've read every book you could lay your hands on about horse ownership and care, you've helped all of your horse-owner friends in their horse chores without getting disgusted, and you've evaluated your finances. What now? What are some of the things to consider, pitfalls to avoid and questions to ask to get you on the path to finding your forever equine?

*I would like to start by saying there are whole books written on this topic, so this post will in no way pretend to be an exhaustive resource on horse purchasing. It will, however, give you an idea of how to proceed as safely as possible into the murky waters of horse buying and hopefully will motivate you to go seek out some of the more complete and authoritative literature on the subject.

A home for your horse

While it may seem obvious, I'll say it anyway: Your horse will need a place to live. Unless you are a country-dweller or mountain man, chances are this means you will have to board him (for information on how to find and evaluate a boarding facility, see my previous post on this subject). I will not go into the details here about selecting a boarding facility, but let me just say that this is something you should start thinking about before you become a horse owner. Rushing to find an empty stall somewhere for a newly-acquired horse is not the best way to go about things. If you aren't the kind of person who has extra cash floating around and can't afford to pay a detainer to keep a stall available at the facility of your dreams, it's not a bad idea to identify several acceptable locations so that if there's no availability at your first-choice stable you will have other options when you do finally find your forever equine. Remember that he doesn't have to live at a given stable forever if you would prefer to have him somewhere else in the future, but having identified a few possible places to house your horse once you get him will take your stress levels down a notch. Also, if you are going the rescue route, many horse rescues (at least most reputable ones) are going to want to see where you plan to keep the horse so they can determine that the rescue will be cared for.

If you are one of the lucky individuals who happens to live on a piece of property appropriate for keeping a horse, there are some things to keep in mind before deciding that you will simply bring your four-legged friend home. Mainly, just because you can have a horse at home doesn't mean you should. Sure, we all want to be closer to our horse and would like to think that we will give him the best of care, but the reality is that sometimes life is busy and the horse will be forced to take a back seat to other obligations. If you must board your horse and can't be there for him as often as you would if he were to live at your home, this is not as detrimental to his well-being as making him wait for a meal because you get held up at the office a couple of days a week. Also, if you plan on getting only one horse, be aware that he will not be a very well-adjusted animal if he is left alone hour after hour since horses are herd animals whose mental and emotional health depends on having buddies around most of the time. Being your horse's only herd member can be a bit of an undertaking, especially for people with jobs and lives!

Another thing to consider before making the decision to bring a horse home is what kind of resources you have at your disposal. A property with a barn and access to water is not necessarily horse-ready if you are unable to find, evaluate, purchase, transport and store enough quality feed to nourish your animal consistently year-round. Would you or someone else at your household have the time, availability and knowledge to notice if something went wrong with the horse and be able to take the appropriate steps to help him? Would you be able to either personally address or hire someone to address issues in training, nutrition and health? Do you have somewhere to ride your horse and a way of transporting it should you need to do so in an emergency? If you are not an equine expert with resources such as a horse trailer, a vet, a farrier and a hay dealer then you might be best served taking your horse to a boarding facility where some of the guess-work will be taken out of horse ownership.

Oh where, oh where can my dream horse be??

Once you have a pretty good idea of where you will keep your horse once you find him, it's time to roll up your sleeves and get busy sorting through the millions (sometimes literally) of ads where surely your dream horse must be hiding. The internet has made this.....easier? Well, at least the internet has given us far more options at the touch of a button than we would have had after weeks of sorting through print-ad classifieds.

Every ad you look at will try to convince you that THIS HORSE is the PERFECT MATCH for your needs, whatever they may be. How do you know which ones to throw into the virtual trash pile and which ones to file away into a maybe pile? Targeted keyword searches will help to narrow down your options, as will knowing how to evaluate some of the industry terminology for the subtextual significance it holds. For example, "companion horse" means that the animal can't be ridden because of health or behavior issues, and "Great endurance prospect" can often mean, "Uncontrollable horse with little training, and, boy, can he run a long ways!" Of course, to say that every ad claiming to sell a great endurance prospect is a dirty sale tactic would be an oversimplification and probably wouldn't be true, but being aware of the euphemistic terms that can often be employed to describe problem horses can help you narrow down your pile of potential candidates.

Knowing what you want to use the horse for and what breeds are of interest as well as what breeds to avoid can go a long way in narrowing down your search. If you are looking for a rodeo horse, for example, you're probably not going to want to waste a lot of time looking at ads for Arabians or Clydesdales. Also, if you are a 250-pound rider, ads for 13-hand ponies are probably not of interest to you. If you don't have specific requirements for your horse beyond having a nice companion to do some trail riding and lessons on, try to be open-minded about breed, gender, age and discipline. You might find the perfect horse that wasn't on your breed wish-list, and you don't want to exclude all mares just because you heard that they can be bitchy sometimes.

Be aware that in the age of the internet, where people can post an ad for free with little effort, there is a significant tendency to post an ad without a serious inclination to sell the horse. Be prepared to make a lot of phone calls and send a lot of emails regarding interesting prospects that will never be answered. Be prepared also for the disappointment of finding the horse that seems to be exactly right for you and then finding out that the horse has sold already. If you think the horse is perfect, chances are so did other buyers.

Look at the source

A preference I personally have when looking at horses for sale is that the horse is being sold by a private seller--a person who owns and loves the horse--as opposed to a horse trader. Horse traders have a worse reputation than used car salesmen, and not without reason. Although there are many who are ethical and conscientious, there are also those who give the profession a bad name by doing things such as misrepresenting a horse's behavior, training, age, breed, health or soundness, and some who even go so far as to drug a horse to make a sale and then have an almost magical ability to disappear after the new owners find out that this horse isn't what they thought they had bought. A simple internet search will turn up hundreds of horror stories of poor souls who unknowingly got swindled by a horse trader and now are stuck with a horse that they can neither use nor ethically re-sell to anyone else. Even good traders with the best of intentions aren't likely to be very well acquainted with every horse they are selling, so finding out his history can be tricky.

Conversely, a private seller who is selling the horse because of life changes, divorce, relocation, financial difficulties, or simply because their equestrian needs have changed or outgrown their current companion is much more likely to care about where the horse ends up just as much as you care about the horse you end up with. They are unlikely to misrepresent the animal because they want to find it an appropriate home, and they will likely be screening the buyer as much as the buyer is screening the horse. These are the types of sellers who are also most likely to be flexible on the price as long as they are happy with the potential buyer. After all, since they've probably invested a significant amount in the horse over the time they have have spent with it, private sellers aren't going to be making money on the sale, anyway, so there's no point in them nitpicking about a few dollars.

Breeders are a little more tricky to categorize--there are some who are just glorified horse traders and other who are passionate about the animals they are producing and are very careful about who they sell to. If you choose to buy from a breeder, make sure it's a reputable one by talking to previous clients and looking to see what kind of a reputation they have in the industry that they produce for. Also, spend some time at the breeder's facility. Seeing how the horses are handled and cared for can give you a good idea of the class of breeder you're dealing with, and good breeders are more than happy to host potential clients for an afternoon or two (or more) and explain how everything works.

Testing, testing, one, two....

Once you've narrowed down a few possible candidates on paper and contacted their sellers, it's time to hit the pavement and visit them! This can be fun if it's done well, or it can be a nightmare (no pun intended). If at all possible, arrange to meet your candidates with the help of a trainer, consultant, instructor or at the very least a horse-savvy buddy who can help you take off any rose-colored glasses you might be wearing and keep you on track to finding the right horse, and not just this horse.

A trainer or a consultant can go a long way in keeping you safe, as well. I met one person who had recently bought a horse and she said she lost count of how many horses she got thrown from while trying out potential candidates. She was bold enough to get on any horse that the seller said was safe, and since she was a first-time horse buyer it didn't strike her as odd that the sellers weren't mounting up first. Besides helping you avoid putting yourself in danger, an expert eye can save you money on countless vet checks by identifying problems that will result in the horse not holding up to the demands you have of him. Don't forget to listen to the experts before you listen to your heart. Unless you have endless resources, you can't afford to take home every animal that pulls at your heartstrings. Be prepared to walk away from many different prospects before finding the right one.

Don't forget to go to your meetings dressed to ride (helmet, boots, gloves, pants, etc.) and be prepared to sign any liability waivers that the farm or seller may require to try the horse out. Don't mount any horse that the seller will not mount first, and if possible also watch your consultant or trainer ride him before climbing aboard. If you get to the meeting and have decided that this is not the horse for you, don't feel any pressure to try out a horse you're not comfortable getting on. Listening to your gut can save you hospital bills in these situations.

DO NOT bring your checkbook to the initial meetings, as you are going to want to visit any horse you feel serious about more than one time before you decide to take him home. Pushy sellers trying to convince you that if you don't buy this horse TODAY he will be gone by tomorrow are not the kind of people you want to be dealing with anyway.

If you like the horse after the initial meeting, set up one more meeting and if at all possible, stop by unannounced once to see how the horse is when the owner is not expecting a visit by a potential buyer. If you feel weird about stopping by like this, bring someone with you so you can say that you just happened to be in the neighborhood and wanted to show your friend/child/husband/etc. the horse that you are thinking about buying. Don't expect the owner to be willing to drop what he or she is doing to let you handle or ride if you have shown up unannounced, of course, but at least take the opportunity to see the horse in his normal environment and without the benefit of having been ridden and thoroughly groomed first.

Visiting the horse several times will give you the opportunity to see him over time and get a better idea what his median mood is like. Since all living things have good days and bad days (not to mention some sellers will try their hardest to make sure the horse looks good when you first come to try him) just seeing him on one day will not give a very accurate representation of what a horse is like overall. Maybe the weather was unseasonably hot on that day and he was feeling sluggish, but then you get him home and discover that he's really more horse than you can handle if the wind is blowing a little bit. Seeing him over time will lessen the likelihood of encountering surprises later on.

Also, most good sellers will allow you a reasonable trial period for a horse you are serious about buying, and may even hold your check while you take him home to try him out in your setting. If for any reason he won't work out, whether because he doesn't get along with the herd where he's supposed to live or because you determine he's not what you expected, the seller should take him back without hesitation. Just be aware that in this situation it's not entirely uncommon or unreasonable of the seller to expect to get to keep a non-refundable deposit. After all, they likely quit actively marketing the animal in order for you to be able to take it and could have missed out on another potential buyer.

Vet checks

Never, ever, under any circumstance purchase an animal that you have not had looked at by a trusted and reputable vet. This is imperative. Horror stories abound of well-meaning people who bought a horse that looked like it was healthy, only to start paying thousands in vet bills to manage a problem that would have been easily detected by a veterinarian. Not only is this hard on the checkbook, but it's emotionally devastating to watch a horse that you are becoming attached to suffering from health issues. Of course, in many instances when someone ends up with a horse who is less than healthy, the seller has long since disappeared from the picture and if he can be found will take no responsibility in the matter. Keep in mind, though, that even a wonderful seller with the best of intentions can sell you a horse with a problem that he or she may not even know about.

What a vet check can provide you with is a more complete picture of the horse you are planning on taking home. Almost no horse will have a 100% clean bill of health. Most all animals--especially those who are going through the normal process of aging and have been used--are going to have a bump or two with a story behind it or a touch of arthritis or less-than-perfect conformation or some chronic but manageable illness such as Cushings disease.

What you are after is a horse whose health issues are not going to be deal-breakers, so be prepared to share the results of your vet check with your trainer or instructor and have a frank discussion about the implications of anything the vet may have unearthed. If the horse has arthritis, for example, the vet may be able to give you an idea of the workload he will be able to handle, and your trainer may be able to predict if your riding activity is going to exceed this recommended workload in the near future.

You may find a wonderful horse that will need more maintenance to keep healthy that you had planned on, but don't be quick to discard him--I always tell people that in cases like this, you can pay your vet/farrier now to keep the horse sound and healthy, or you can pay your kids' hospital bills later after you buy a healthier horse that's a bad match for them.

If you have already payed a deposit on a horse that doesn't pass his vet check, you should be able to get this money back from the seller since it was through no fault of your own that you won't be taking the horse. Language providing this exception to an otherwise non-refundable deposit should of course be included in any verbal or written contract made with the seller at the time of paying the deposit.

Transporting your new horse

After you've decided on the perfect animal, he's passed his vet check, and you've gotten additional help from your trusted professional to find him a home, the next step is getting your new horse from point A to point B. If you are not lucky enough to own and truck and trailer, this may require enlisting the help of a friend or a reputable hauling company or horse taxi. Sometimes, you will be fortunate enough to be working with a seller who is willing to deliver or a boarding facility who will pick up your new horse for you. But before your animal ever sets foot in the trailer, make sure you have all of the necessary documents in order.

The documents you'll need will depend on your location and how far you're hauling the horse. To haul any animal within the U.S. over state lines he will need a negative Coggin's test and some kind of proof of ownership. Proof of ownership can be as simple as a bill of sale or a brand inspection, but if you're buying a registered horse, it's not a bad idea to make sure you have the papers with your name on them in your hands before hauling the horse. Getting veterinary travel papers that confirm that the horse was healthy, free of EIA (the Coggin's test will prove this), and up-to-date on all his vaccines at the time of transport may be required in certain states and for most boarding facilities. If the horse was current on vaccines when you bought him, make sure you get proof of this from the previous owner. If no proof can be produced, unfortunately you will have to assume that the horse has not been vaccinated and do it again. Not only can you be turned away from your new boarding facility without the proper paperwork in order, you can also find yourself in legal trouble, scrambling to find the necessary documents to get your confiscated horse out of quarantine or police confiscation if you get pulled over mid-journey.


Horse-shopping can be nightmare (no pun intended) or it can be rewarding and gratifying. Expect to take at least a couple of months of intense searching to do it correctly, but don't get discouraged--your reward will be finding your dream horse and the years of companionship that follow. Since this blog post is intended as a general overview of horse-shopping and is in no way comprehensive, keep in mind that I have not addressed a few other very important issues that go along with buying a new horse such as finding the right saddle (which is almost as difficult as finding the right horse), how to select your professional horse-shopping helper, and what to do in case you should become the victim of a scam, among other topics. Please continue to seek out information on these and other pertinent issues as you search for your forever-horse. Also, check back for the upcoming addition of a list of good questions to keep handy during your conversations with sellers that will get you off on the right foot. Happy horse-shopping!

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