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Buying A Horse

16 August 2011 No Comment

Buying A Horse
By: Rhett Russell

Unless you use your horse for ranch work, police work, or farming most of us have horses for pleasure. For many of us, owning a horse is a pretty romantic idea. You may want to go for trail rides with your friends, horse shows, or just like the companionship of a horse. Buying a horse is a pretty substantial investment in both money and time. We want to discuss some different things to consider when you go about buying a horse.

We all have ideas in our mind about why we want one and what our ideal horse looks like. Most people go into the horse buying mode looking for their ideal horse. Eventers want a tall athletic horse, Cutting and Reining folks want a quick muscular horse, and everyone wants a horse with perfect conformation. There is no such thing as a perfect horse, there probably is a horse that is right for you who has some flaws that you can live with. The trick is to sift through all the bad ones and find the one that÷s right for you.

Buying a horse is a lot like buying a used car. Unscrupulous horse traders will exercise the ñstinkî out of them before you get there or even drug them to make an unmanageable horse appear calm. Horses are easy to buy and hard to sell. Good horses will sell any time of the year by word of mouth. Bad or even average horses may take years to sell. Screen them out on the phone before you go look at them. There are even places on the Internet to buy and sell horses (our sale barn is one place). Most people are well intentioned and wouldn÷t purposely mislead you, but they may not tell you the whole story unless you ask. Ask the seller some questions that relate to what you are looking for in a horse. We like to ask questions such as these:

Why are you selling this horse and how long have you personally owned this horse?
Does the horse have any medical problems? Has the horse ever been lame?
How are the horse÷s teeth? Have you ever had the horse’s teeth floated?
Has the horse ever foundered?
What type of worming program are you using?
What type of riding do you do? i.e. trail, English, western, 3 day eventing, barrel racing, etc.
What do you feed the horse?
How is the horse kept? i.e. in a pasture, in a stall, in a small paddock, alone or with others.
Has the horse ever hurt anyone?
What type of training has the horse had? Does the horse have a trainer? Can I call the trainer?
How is the horse with the farrier? Can I contact the farrier?
How is the horse with the veterinarian? Can I contact the vet.?
Does the horse load into a trailer easily? How about unloading?
How is the horse with water? i.e. bathing, walking through it.

You’ll learn a lot from the responses to the questions you ask. Develop you own list of questions that are relevant to the type of horse that you are looking for and the type of riding that you do.

Take someone with you – preferably someone who has experience with horses. If you have a trainer ask them to come along. If you have a friend who knows something about horses bring them along – it’s great just to have another person there to see things that you may miss. Look at a lot of horses. You may miss a few opportunities, but you’ll be smarter and know what to look for the next time. It÷s also a good idea to bring a camera or camcorder so you can re-evaluate the horse over the next few days in the comfort of your own home.

When you do go to look at the horse, check out the horse from a distance. Look him over on the ground first, make sure that the horse looks sound, is well balanced and is something that you are interested in. If the horse doesn÷t look good don÷t go any further, walk away and don÷t waste yours or the seller÷s time.

Safety First

Ask the horse owner to show you what the horse can do. Have the owner pick up the horse’s feet. Can the owner touch the horse anywhere on it’s body? Inside the ears, above the tail, on the flanks, legs, and belly too? Watch the interaction between the horse and the owner to see how the horse reacts. I always figure if something bad is going to happen it÷s better to have it happen to the guy who÷s trying to sell you the darned animal!

Watch the horse move at liberty. Look for anything that is a sign that the horse may have medical problems, lameness, or a bad attitude. Watch the head when the horse walks, excessive bobbing of the head might signal a problem. Pinned ears or a swishing tail all of the time indicate other issues.

As a rule, don’t get on first – have the owner ride the horse first. If the owner won÷t get on there better be a darned good reason! Ask the owner to bring the horse into a walk, trot, canter, change leads, etc. Watch for lameness, length of stride, range of motion, problems with the right and left lead, etc. If the horse doesn÷t look safe, don÷t ride him.

As a horse seller, you have some responsibility to evaluate the rider and determine whether this is a good fit too. We had someone come look at a thoroughbred that we had for sale about three years ago. This person represented themselves as an accomplished eventer so we assumed that they knew how to ride. Well, when this rider got on and immediately grabbed a tight rein and put the spurs to the horse we had quite a rodeo going on.

Mare, Gelding, or Stallion?

The question is should you get a mare or gelding. Don÷t even consider a stallion unless you are breeding, have appropriate facilities to contain him, and your horsemanship skills are good enough to handle a horse that may be aggressive or dangerous when a mare or other horse is around. It÷s also not a good idea to ride a stallion with other horses and people who aren÷t used to their behavior. Many events prohibit stallions from participating, this could be a problem if it÷s your only horse and you want to do organized activities with your friends.

Mares: There is a lot of bad press about mares. Many people think that because of their cycles they are undesirable. It÷s true, some mares are ñirritableî when they are in season. It÷s also true that a great many of them are wonderful animals. Don÷t discount a horse just because of it÷s sex. Because we have room for to raise horses, we always consider whether a horse would be a good brood mare if an injury were to limit the horse÷s physical abilities ¿ you can÷t do this with a gelding!

Geldings: This is a safe bet for most people. Because the testosterone level is reduced most geldings are likely to start with a better disposition.

All things being equal, I would buy a horse based on their disposition over their sex any day!


Are there any fatal flaws with the horse that would disqualify him as something you would want to own? There is no perfect horse. Every horse will have some conformational flaw, probably many. You need to determine what you can live with and what you can’t. This is an art all unto itself. Most books on buying a horse concentrate on conformation as the main point of purchase. No doubt, conformation is important ¿ all things being equal, I would just put it further down the list behind disposition and ground manners.

In high school, I had a friend who could look at a car coming at you from ¤ mile away and tell you exactly what kind of car it was, what type of engine it had, and all the options available for that year. I was lucky if I could tell him that it was a red Chevrolet. There are people who can do this with horses too. My wife can drive by a herd of horses at 60 MPH and pick out the best horse of the bunch in seconds. Most people can÷t do this. Like most of you, I can pick out the obvious problems. There are conformational flaws that can severely restrict athletic ability which may not be so obvious. Take another ñhorse personî with you who as a ñconsultantî to look for these things. This person doesn÷t have to be a show judge, but it÷s always better to have a someone else looking out for your interests.

My best horse is really homely looking mare with somewhat poor conformation. She has a good back but has a big head, roman nose, sprung ribcage, and short legs. What she does have going for her is an excellent disposition, impeccable ground manners, is extremely athletic and a great mover. I would never had purchased this horse if conformation or beauty were what I went on first. Although I did get her at an auction for $800, I have been offered many times that for her. People comment on how pretty she is, but what they are really seeing is how well mannered she isŠ. like the saying goes, beauty is as beauty does.

Medical History & Vet. Checks

Does the horse have any medical problems or a history of past problems that are going to haunt you in the future? Be able to walk away from any horse that has problems. Concentrate on the feet: no feet ¿ no horse. If in doubt, get a veterinary check – use your own veterinarian not the horse owner’s. Even if the owner has a veterinary certificate – check the horse out.

Check for poor tack/saddle fit. You may see white marks where the tack has rubbed. Poor fitting tack can cause lasting physical problems as well as mental scars.

Look for symmetrical muscling. Assymetrical muscling could be an indicator of physical weaknesses or poor riding.

Check with the owner÷s veterinarian if possible. A veterinarian usually can÷t or won÷t release medical information about a horse without the owner÷s permission.

Ground Manners

Many horse sellers are not going to understand a lot of things that we consider key to purchasing a good horse. You don’t have to save every horse out there or show every horse owner in the world how to yield their horse, round pen, and hook on. Use good judgment and common sense to objectively evaluate the horse. There are many things that you can do without performing a clinic to evaluate a horse. Don’t get into a war, be subtle but see if the horse knows anything or is willing to try.

How is the horse÷s posture? Does he stand high headed or is he relaxed. Are his ears pinned? Does the tail constantly swish or wring? Are his feet relaxed? Or is he horse ready to flee at any given moment?

Look at the eye. Check for softness ¿ there shouldn÷t be any wrinkles around the outside of it. The eye should appear dark with minimal white around the edges. If it appears that the white in the eye is large then it÷s likely that the horse is uneasy with what÷s going on around him. It will look like the horse÷s eye is fully open in kind of a ñworriedî look. An appaloosa would be the exception to this: the breed standard calls for white around the eye and this should net be confused with a ñworried eyeî.

I like to bring a progress string with me and test the horse out with a little bit of pressure. Try some sudden movement with your hands or body. How does the horse react? Get big with your posture, how does the horse react?

This may sound strange but pretend to kick the horse in the midsection (belly). Did the horse move away or stand still? A horse that has been abused will move away from a potential kick. One that hasn’t will stand there because they trust you and are not even considering that you would kick them. Try sudden movement near the head to see if the horse is “head shy”. Does the horse let you touch his ears?

How does the horse behave when just standing still. Can he stand still? Does he paw the ground?

Ask to see the horse get into a trailer and out. Does he step in calmly? Does he rush out?

Ask to see the horse with a hose/bathing, and clipping. Can he stand still during this activity?

Try to yield the horse. Test out a front and backwards yield. Does he resist? How softly will the horse yield? If you are working with a horse that does understand how to yield you should try to yield the shoulder and hindquarters too. If the horse won÷t yield don÷t make an issue out it. File this information away and continue your evaluation. If you aren÷t sure about yielding, check out our Yielding Article for more information.


It÷s more important to have a horse that is started correctly with a good groundwork foundation. I would rather buy a six year old that can perform a calm, forward walk and trot than a two year old that can walk, trot, canter, back-up, roll back and do the laundry. A solid foundation leads to a horse who is sound in mind and body. A horse who÷s training is rushed to make him marketable is headed for trouble. Pay careful attention to the tack that is used does the owner ride the horse in just a snaffle bit (or better yet a halter) or does the owner use all sorts of devices like tie-downs or martingles.

It is equally important that the horse has experienced life outside the arena or round pen. A horse÷s training should be balanced between arena work and ñreal life÷ riding; i.e. trail riding, working cattle, etcŠ It÷s a big bonus if the horse can go on outings without his horse buddies.

Don÷t assume that just because the horse is ñtrainedî that he÷ll automatically know how to do everything. We run across supposedly ñtrainedî horses all the time that can÷t pick up a lead, get into a trailer, or even stand still. Every trainer is different as is every horse. You can’t throw a training recipe at a horse and expect them to understand everything.

Training is a lifetime deal for both you and the horse. You just pick up where the last person left off.


Everyone seems to be looking for the seven year old gelding with 5 years of training. These horses do exist, but you should expect to pay more for them. We are constantly on the lookout for horses for people. Most people want a horse that is less than 10 years old who has a good foundation.

Buying a young horse is one way to go. If you buy a weanling or two year old you are a long way from ever riding the horse and you÷ll spend a lot of money on boarding, with the veterinarian, farrier, and on horse supplies. It may be more cost effective to just purchase a ready mount up front.

There are a lot of exceptional older horses out there too. Horses can live to be 30 years old. It÷s not fair to purchase a 22 year old horse and expect him to be a star athlete. But this same horse might be a very good trail horse for the person who doesn÷t ride every day.

You÷ll have to consider your age in this equation too. We purchased a 30 something pony for our son as a first horse. We got him because he was extremely docile and safe. We knew that our son would outlive this pony but we wanted to make sure that he had a good experience with his first horse. We had this pony for three years before we had to have him put down. These were three great years for us, and we÷re sure that the pony had a pretty good deal too.

Physical Ability

I think too much emphasis is put on a horses physical ability. Any horse that is sound mentally and physically can perform adequately for most riders. We fool ourselves when we think we could be the next world champion if we just had the perfect horse. In reality most horses could be world champions if they had the perfect rider.

I see so many horses sold because the horse just isn÷t talented enough. In fact the rider is the one who usually isn’t talented in this partnership.

Many times the real problem is that the horse is lame or has a bad attitude. Pick a horse based on soundness and disposition and the rest should fall into place.


Is the horse registered or branded? This can add significantly to the value of the horse. A grade or non registered horse can cost a lot less and be just as good as a registered horse. Some breeds are ñtraditionalî for some sports, you should consider this when picking your horse. We recently sold a morgan horse to a girl interested in gaming. This was a flashy, park-saddle type of morganŠ high tail carriage, lots of knee action. I÷m sure the girl was laughed at when she entered her first barrel race (a sport traditionally filled with quarter horses), but they weren÷t laughing when that fancy little morgan came away with second place. The key is to pick the right horse for you and breed is secondary, but if you have your heart set on racing around the show ring in a fancy arab costume, you better buy an Arabian horse.

One nice thing about a registered horse is that they normally have papers which can prove their age. Otherwise, you have to go on what the owner tells you and/or what the veterinarian can estimate from the wear on the horse÷s teeth.


The color and size of the horse are the least important things that you should be looking at. Unfortunately, this is where many people start. Be wary of trends within a breed, some people are breeding for smaller feet, greater height, poorly set necks and upright shoulder and hip angles. This may be desirable in the show ring, but can severely effect a horses suitability as an all round pleasure horse.

Certain breeds are required to have particular coloration or markings. If this is a breed requirement for the type of horse that you are looking for then by all means make sure that this horse meets the breed standards.

We know people who will not purchase a horse unless it has color. This is more of an ego thing for the owner than the horse. Do you think that horses get together in the pasture and talk about each other÷s markings, color, or spots? Of course not! If you want something really flashy, go get a zebra ¿ you÷ll be noticed and all your friends will definitely talk about that!

If you absolutely have your heart set on an Appaloosa because you want a spotted horse, contact the breed association to get the names of some breeders in your area.

Cost of Ownership

For those of you who are already horse owners, you know what you÷re in forŠ If this is your first horse, consider the costs associated with purchasing. The initial cost of the average horse is cheap considering the monthly costs of ownership. Food, veterinary care, worming, shoes, stabling, training and misc. horse goodies can easily cost $500 per month. Factor in a truck, trailer, saddle & tack and you are well on your way to permanent debt.

Trial Periods – Mixed Feelings

A trial period to try before you buy sounds like a great thing but more often than not there are problems.

As a horse owner, I will never again allow someone to take one of my horses off of my property without having sold the horse to them. We had an athletic thoroughbred who looked exceptional had great conformation but was difficult to ride. Everyone wanted this horse because of his size, athletic ability and conformation. No one was too interested in his disposition. An extremely well respected local eventer was interested in this horse because of these features. She came and road the horse numerous times and talked us into letting her take the horse on a three week trial. Because we knew her and her reputation, we thought nothing of doing this. Two weeks into the trial period, this person called to say that the horse had come up lame and that he was starting to be a handful on the ground – she wanted us to come get him.

When we went to get the horse one of the stable hands was handling the horse with a stud chain and a whip, the horse was dripping in sweat and shaking. He had cuts on his head and he was definitely very lame. It turns out that this eventer had jumped the horse almost every day for the two weeks that he was there. Not only that, his size intimidated her and she put a stud chain on him immediately when the horse got to her stable so that she could handle him on the ground. This was not a horse that required this kind of handling – her riding skills much better than her horsemanship skill level. We lost control of the situation when we allowed this horse to leave our property. We also spent 7 months getting this horse back to where he was before he went on his trial period.

As a prospective purchaser, I would ask the owner if I could come ride the horse numerous times at their facility. If this is not practical ask the seller to meet you somewhere and ride with them. Most sellers will gladly let you “try before you buy” to ensure that you and the horse are a good match.


Auctions are a whole other story…. Horse auctions are no place for the beginner or person with little or no evaluation skills. You need to evaluate the horse÷s conformation, disposition and athletic ability in a short time and many times without being able to interact with the horse. You probably can’t ride the horse, you have to trust the owner or auctioneer that they are representing factual information about the horse. All sales are usually final at auctions. And, you may be competing against “meat price” buyers ¿ don÷t get emotional!

There are good deals to be had at the auction, but be suspicious — there’s usually a reason that a horse is at the auction: The owner couldn’t sell him any other way, he has something wrong with him, or he’s very old. We have bought many horses at auction and we don÷t recommend this method of purchasing to anyone unless they fully understand what they are doing.

Some people shouldn’t own a horse just like some people shouldn’t be parents. If you aren’t going to spend time with the horse consider riding lessons or leasing. And most of allŠ Ride the darned thing and check him out before you get him home and it÷s too late.

CAUTION: There is some risk involved in horse training for both you and the horse. Horses can cause serious injury. Be sensible and don÷t attempt anything that is outside your comfort level. This information is intended to illustrate how we apply our training techniques, you are responsible for using this information wisely. If you don÷t feel comfortable with your abilities or an exercise, don÷t do it! Seek advice or assistance from a professional horse trainer. Stay on the “high side of trouble”.

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