Buying Your First Horse

Words can’t describe the emotions involved in the process of purchasing your first horse. Excitement for what lies ahead, fear for the responsibility, anxiety for choosing the right one, and a host of other wild feelings. This is why utilizing a knowledgeable trainer can greatly assist you in the process and make sure you pick the best partner possible.

Now that’s not to say that trainers don’t get the match-making wrong from time-to-time. They’re people and horses are, well, horses and there are many unknown variables much like a marriage. However, your trainer has probably bought and sold, and seen others buy and sell, horses for years so they should be fairly well-versed in the procedures. They also act as a sales agent and work directly with the seller or seller’s agent to handle the transaction as professionally as possible and guard you from the crazy sellers (they're out there!). And much like real estate agents, horse trainers do have a commission (and sometimes a day trip fee) that is required for the help in finding and purchasing a horse. As you’ll find, it can be quite a lengthy process but a trainer’s guidance is well worth the investment.

We won’t go into when or why you should purchase a horse. That in and of itself is a whole other discussion. But once you have decided that you are ready to dive into the world of horse ownership, these are the questions you and your trainer must answer before finding the right fit.

1) What are your short and long term goals?

Depending on your ability, the horse you need today may not be your ultimate partner. Some horses are stepping stones to hone your skills so you can become a better rider. Your goals greatly determine which horse will or will not be appropriate for you.

2) What is your budget?

This is a big one. Horses are priced similarly to cars - the nicer ones cost more money. However, just because it has a bigger sticker price, doesn’t mean it’s automatically the right one for you. Sometimes a $1,500 horse can be way more valuable to your education than a $15,000 one. Similarly, you wouldn't hand a recently-licensed 16 year old the keys to your Porche (at least I hope not!).

3) What is your lifestyle?

Some horses want to be ridden four times a week. Others need to be out of the stall constantly. Some require regular schooling, while others are pretty much on auto-pilot. Which horse you need depends somewhat on your lifestyle.

4) What age, breed, gender height is ideal?

If you’re looking to do the big eq, a 15.1 hand horse probably won’t be the best bet. If you’re 5’ tall, buying a 17.1 hand horse probably wouldn’t be a good plan either. If you’re looking for a long-term partner, buying something younger and working through the green stages would probably be suggested. If you’re looking to step into the show ring tomorrow, purchasing something a little older with experience is usually the way to go.

5) What can you absolutely not live with?

This falls into the “pet peeves” categories. If I’m looking for a kids horse, something that’s aggressive on the ground wouldn’t be my first choice. I’m not gender-biased but for some they feel like they could never live with a mare (or on the other hand, a gelding).

6) What can you absolutely not live without?

This is the opposite of the pet peeves category. For some, it’s an absolute must that the horse have a lead change. For others, the horse has to be personable and be able to be ridden bareback.

7) What could you give-or-take?

This for me is something along the lines of a kind eye or a grey, for example. It wouldn’t be the deciding factor but it would tip the scale if I was on the fence about a horse.

8) What medical maintenance are you willing or not willing to do?

Older horses, while possessing more knowledge, often require some “tune-ups” to keep their joints working properly. Medical maintenance is a whole other topic of discussion but something that really should be included when talking about your first horse.

9) What is your time frame? Willingness to travel?

Urgency and location put constraints on which horses are available. In California, horses are generally-speaking expensive and all over the state. These factors could influence how quickly you may find a good match.

So you’ve gone over these questions with your trainer. He or she asks around, you scour internet sites. Video links are shared and a list of horses is drawn up to go and try. Your trainer makes the appointments and you excitedly wait to go look at them.

When you show up to a new barn, dress like you would dress for a clinic: polish your boots, put on that belt, wear normal clothes, and put your hair up! No one has to sell you their horse so it’s important you’re polite and make a good impression. You are also representing your trainer and your barn and it’s always better to look and speak professionally and politely.

Different barns show horses differently. Some wait for you to arrive to tack up so you can see how the horse acts on the ground. Others will have the horse waiting and possibly a little warmed up. Generally, it’s a good idea to see someone else who is familiar with the horse ride it just to make sure it isn’t going to bolt or buck you off. Depending on the horse, your trainer may decide to ride it first before hoisting you up into the irons. Other times, your trainer will let you get on first. Your trainer should give you a short lesson but not over jump or over work the horse. If you’re jumping 3’ at home but showing at 2’6”, don’t be surprised if your trainer only lets you jump this new horse around a few 2’6” fences.

After trying several horses (you rarely find the right one on the first try, although it can happen), you’re ready to move forward with the transaction. What’s next?

Some barns will allow a short trial (3-7 days) so you can take the horse home and evaluate him or her at your home base. Others will not allow a trial (I, personally, dislike trials when I'm selling a horse since so much can go wrong in a few days) but they will let you come back and try the horse a second time. It’s important not to draw out the process as much as possible since it takes up a lot of time from the seller (and if it falls through can make the seller really cranky!).

If the horse passes the second test ride, the next step is to contact your veterinarian (or a vet in the area if you are far from home) to schedule a Pre-Purchase Exam. This exam is incredibly important in determining the health and wellness of your potential future partner. In this exam, the vet will listen to heart, lungs, GI tract. He or she will watch the horse go on soft ground (indicating soft tissue issues) and hard ground (indicating skeletal issues). Some vets will perform flexion tests to see if the horse is abnormally sore or stiff in a particular joint. If there is an area of great concern and you still want to move forward with investigating, often the vet will suggest a radiograph or an ultrasound to pinpoint any lameness or point of concern. The vet will also make notes of the horse’s demeanor and if the horse’s personality would be a good match for the potential buyer.

At the end of the exam, the vet will make suggestions based on his or her findings. Incredibly few horses have clean vet checks (a big joke that runs amongst trainers is that if anyone were to do a vet check on them, they would most likely have been put down by now for all the things that are wrong). It’s not about finding a perfectly “clean” horse, but rather finding one with issues you can live with. Also, having the knowledge that a horse may be particularly stiff in a certain limb can give you insight if the horse starts to show signs of lameness during training. (Occasionally, a horse “doesn’t pass” a vet check. It’s tough to write that check for the vet’s services but worth knowing the horse wouldn’t hold up to your intended use.)

Generally, it is at this time that price negotiations are made. The information gleaned from the PPE is used to argue for a lower sale price. Most horses are priced higher than the seller expects to get and negotiating is expected. After a round or two of offers and counter offers, the price is settled. At this time, a wire transfer, cash, or cashier’s check is required to complete the sale. A Bill of Sale should also accompany the transaction and make sure that all the proper paperwork (horse’s registration and USEF paperwork) are transferred at this time.

And now you are a horse owner!

As scary as it may sound, I have owned at least one horse for the past twenty years. While it definitely has affected my lifestyle, I couldn’t imagine my life in any other way. Sometimes when I get tired of paying the bills, or going out to the barn in the rain, I day dream about selling everything and taking a year off. But when I think of what I would do with a year off, all I can imagine doing is riding. It’s definitely a passion that grips the soul and if you have it, there’s nothing quite like it in the world. I look forward to chatting with my four-legged friends every day and heading out on adventures with them. They make sure we never have a dull moment!