Seven Rules for Buying a Horse


Crack veterinary radiologist Arthur B. Kempton, evaluating navicular bone radiographs (c. 1952)

flabbergasted-catI have had the opportunity to conduct a lot of presale/prepurchase exams, you know, the exam that you’re almost obliged to schedule prior to making one of the most important purchases (in terms of time and money commitment) in your life.  And, honestly, I’m am absolutely flabbergasted at what goes on in the sales process.  I mean, I do think that having some sort of an examination done on the horse that you’re intending to buy is fairly important (an examination on the horse:  your significant other might think that you need to get your head examined), and especially for someone who is relatively inexperienced in the process.  However, there’s quite a bit of nonsense that can go on during the process of buying a horse.

This is not a “how to” when it comes to prepurchase exams – there are probably as many ways to do these exams as there are people to do them.  Instead, let’s see what we can do to help put you – and keep you – in charge of the process.   Here are seven rules to live buy, when it comes to buying a horse.


Don’t hurry – you’ll just make a mess of things

1.  Don’t be in a hurry.  Trust me, there are lots of horses out there.  When you buy a horse, you need to remember that you’re going to be saddled with a lot of responsibilities (pun intended).  If you buy a horse, you could be paying for feed, and board, and saddles, and training, and horse shows, and horse shoers, and veterinarians, and grooms, and brushes, and sprays, and ointments, and creams, and those oh-so-pretty checkered leg wraps that you’re horse will be unable to live without.  And, if you don’t have a pasture next to your house, add in the hours that you may get to spend grooming and riding and holding and feeding and whatever else.

Given everything else that you’re going to be spending, make sure you spend the time to get what you want.  Ride the horse as many times as you can.  See if you can get him moved to where you’re going to keep him – sometimes horses behave quite differently when they are in unfamiliar surroundings.  Try him in different circumstances.  Wait for a color you like.  Whatever requirements you have for a horse, satisfy them:  then consider buying!  All good things come to those who wait.

Unrealistic-Expectations2.  Don’t have unrealistic expectations.  I remember one time when I was looking at a horse that was going to be used as a show hunter.  I asked the lady what she was looking for (this was at the time when fences were always measured according to the English system, in feet and inches).  She said, “Oh, he doesn’t have to jump very high – 3′ 6″ will be fine.  Even 3′ 5″ would be OK.”  (If you don’t understand why that’s funny, you’ll have to ask your friends, or email me.  It’s like looking for a 5th level dressage horse.)

Anyway, the point is that she was fairly realistic about what she was looking for.  She wasn’t looking for one horse, in hopes that he would end up being another.  If a horse has been traipsing around the dressage ring for 10 years futilely trying to trace a 20 meter circle, it’s pretty unlikely that you’re the one that’s going to be able to bring him to his “real” potential of Grand Prix.  Know what you want – get what you want.  If you get to be a better rider, and you want to compete at higher levels, when you get there, go buy a better horse.  Don’t buy potential, unless you have an appetite for risk.

That said, here’s to high hopes (and Frank Sinatra).

3.  Make sure you like the horse.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve met clients that were bruised, bloodied, or otherwise injured because their new horse turned out to be a real pain in the butt.

UNVERIFIED OBSERVATION – It is my impression that horses generally live up to their names.  So – and this is based solely on my clinical impression, it’s not a hard and fast rule – if you’re looking for a docile trail horse, try to avoid horses with names like “Rocket,” “Lightning,” or “Widowmaker.”

Horse_kicksGiven that many horses are living into their 30’s, keep in mind that you could be living with your purchase for a couple of decades, or more.  The last thing in the world that you want to do is spend that time being bucked off, bitten, kicked, stopped on, spun off, struck, stuck (when he refuses to move), run over, pulled down the aisle – otherwise known as “barn skiing” – etc., etc., etc.  Unless you just love being challenged, and have a thing for trying to tame wild beasts, get a nice horse: one that you like.  Your veterinarian will like you for it, too.

4.  Don’t expect to make a profit.  I wish that I had the money to be an art collector.  I don’t (and I also don’t collect things like Thomas Kinkade merchandise, which is another not so good financial investment). However, I have been told that if you’re going to collect art, you should buy something because you like it, and not because you’re thinking that you’re going to make money off it.  Even if you don’t make money off an artwork, if you like it, at least you can hang it in your living room.

PlayatyourownriskHorses are like that.  All sorts of people buy horses in hopes of turning a profit.  They think that (or they’ve been told) that they’ll buy the horse, bring it to it’s full potential, and end up with a pot of gold.  Don’t do it (unless you can also use $100 bills as bathroom tissue).

There’s just too much uncertainty out there when it comes to horses.  Horses get hurt, they stop enjoying what they’re doing, they get sick, or they fail to reach their magical “potential” for any number of reasons, (among which are that horses are completely unaware of their potential).  And, occasionally, it even works out, which is the same reason that people keep buying lottery tickets.  If you can afford to lose money, and you like to play the game, play the game.  If you can’t:  don’t.

SERIOUS ASIDE:  Did you know that your odds of winning the lottery are only slightly increased if you buy a lottery ticket?  Think about it.

Think of buying a horse as if you’re spending money on a vacation.  Hopefully, you’ll have a good time.  You’ll never see the money again.  With any luck, it will have been worth it.

predict_future5.  You can’t predict the future.  Here’s a dirty little secret.  No matter how much money you spend, no matter how many X-rays you take, no matter what you ultrasound, and no matter how many blood tests you run, you can only tell how the horse that you’re looking at is doing on that day, and that day only.  No diagnostic test can predict the future (in the 1990’s, I did one study on navicular bone X-rays, and another one on flexion tests, and even demonstrated that you can’t predict the future).  If you like the horse for how he is, and who he is, then go ahead and take the plunge.  But it’d be a shame if you avoided buying your next best friend because of a problem you thought that he might have, only to watch someone else have a great time with him because they didn’t share those same concerns.



Make sure you get what you pay for

6.  Be very clear about what you’re paying for in the prepurchase exam, and why.  Don’t get talked into paying for tests and examinations that aren’t going to get you any useful information.  People regularly spend several thousand dollars doing prepurchase examinations on expensive horses, looking for “problems.”  However, the fact is that there is no test that can predict how a horse is going to be performing down the road.  That’s right:  no X-ray can tell you if a joint is going to become arthritic, no ultrasound can tell you if a tendon is going to bow, and no amount of conformation analysis can tell you if a horse can jump successfully for years.

It’s OK if you want to pay for a bunch of stuff.  Maybe you’re worried. Maybe you’re thinking about resale, and want something to prove how the horse looked when you bought him (NOTE:  at this point, please go immediately and review rule #4)Maybe you’re looking for leverage to lower the purchase price.  But before you pay for a bunch of stuff, make sure you understand exactly what it is that you are being asked to pay for.  It will save you time, money, and angst.

7.  Make sure that the deal is transparent.  It amazes me that people will make a huge purchase (like a horse) and not insistent on some sort of transparency in the deal.

About 35 years ago, I remember reading about a yearling Thoroughbred colt that sold for $1.5 million dollars.  That was a LOT of money to pay for a horse (heck, it still is, but you know what I mean).  And, as it turned out, the owners of the horse got $700,000.00, with the four agents involved splitting $800,000.00.  Big scandal.  And it happens more often than you might think.

dogshakinghandsIf someone is representing you in the purchase of the horse, make sure that you get a sales agreement, in writing, signed by the buyer, the seller, and any agents that are involved.  Here’s a link to a horse sales form – there are many other good examples.  You don’t want you’re $10,000.00 horse to actually cost you $25,000.00 just because somebody knew somebody, and happened to be in the right place, at the right time.  Cover yourself.  Heck, even a dog can shake hands.

So there.  Find a horse.  Ride the horse.  By all means, get a veterinarian to look at the horse before you buy him; check out my article on prepurchase exams.  But keep your wits about you, and don’t get caught up in the process.  If the horse you’re looking at doesn’t work out, don’t worry, there’s another one coming along right behind him.  Remember, no matter what the discipline, they name a “Horse of the Year” every single year.

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