Table of Contents
- What are you looking for specifically?
- Where will you be keeping this horse?
- Equipment and medication
- The Search
- Prepurchase Exam
- The Bottom Line
Purchasing a new horse is exciting, but it can also be daunting. Sometimes, emotions get the better of us and we only see the features in a horse that we want to see rather than looking at the entire package, flaws and all. It helps to have a level-headed person with no vested interest in the horse, one way or the other, to help guide you through a purchase. Your trainer and/or a friend may provide some excellent advice but remember that in many cases, trainers get a percentage of a horse’s sale price for helping find a buyer, so this may be a conflict of interest.
I’d like to share some helpful horse-purchasing guidelines that come from nearly 40 years of professional experience, both from a veterinarian’s perspective and also as both a competitive and casual rider. I remember considering one horse that clearly was not going to hold up to the rigors of endurance riding due to a crooked lower leg, but I was trying to find any way to make him fit my purpose despite knowing all too well that he would not do. Everything else about him was perfect. But I knew—though I didn’t want to admit—this conformational flaw was simply a looming disaster for someone involved in distance riding. Fortunately, I yielded to my inner common sense and turned him down. Instead, I found a fabulous, well-conformed, robust horse who turned out to be a great riding partner for decades. I preface with this story to let you know I understand how it feels to purchase a horse as an equestrian, and not just from the perspective of a medical professional.
So, let’s get started.
What are you looking for specifically?
• Are you wanting a horse that can immediately compete at the level you are riding, or do you want to be part of the shaping and training process of the horse over time?
• Are you a casual trail rider who is looking for ultra-calm and safe? Or do you like some spunk and a bit more of a challenge?
• Will other members of your family or friends also be riding this horse? What is their level of riding competency?
• Do you plan to give this horse a forever home, or will he be more of an investment to sell so you can upgrade in the future?
• What is the upper price you can afford?
Where will you be keeping this horse?
• Do you prefer a mare or a gelding, or even a stallion? This often makes a difference when considering living arrangements.
• Is it important that the horse be well socialized because he will be living in a herd?
• Is the horse accustomed to confinement or to large pasture turnout, depending on what is available at home or at a boarding facility?
• Can the horse be safely turned out on pasture or are there dietary restrictions?
• Will this horse require specific supplements that a barn manager or staff will need to provide daily, and if so, will they be willing to do this, and is there an additional fee?
Equipment and medication
• Will you need to purchase a new saddle to ensure fit, or will your current saddle work on this prospect?
• Does the horse have other specific requirements such as special horseshoes that require farrier expertise? Does the horse need leg boots or bell boots for turnout or riding?
• Does the horse require specific oral or injectable medications to manage any problems or as preventive treatment? Calculate how this will affect your monthly budget.
• Does this horse need additional training to maximize his performance and your enjoyment of him? This translates to added expenses over time that are compounded on top of the purchase price.
• Do you already have a trainer who you trust and who is available to help work with this horse?
• Does this horse have experience being ridden or competed away from the property where he lives? How does he cope with changing routines and locations?
In today’s digital world, it is possible to view photos and videos of your prospects. Here is a checklist of what to ask the seller to provide so you and your veterinarian can evaluate if it is worthwhile to proceed with an in-person visit to the horse, and then possibly a prepurchase exam.
A motivated and honest seller should have no issue with providing such videos and photos to a potential and serious buyer. This allows the buyer and their veterinarian to sort out any conformational/structural issues in advance and see if the horse appears sound—or not. This can save a lot of time, travel, and expense.
Sellers should have no problem accommodating the following photo/video requests and instructions: Photographs should show the horse standing squarely on a firm, level surface (not in dirt, sand, shavings, or grass), and include the following images IN FOCUS:
• Front view — Photographer should squat down to avoid taking photos at a downward angle. Include the entire neck/chest and limb area in the shot.
• Rear view — Similar camera lineup as for front legs.
• Side views — Both sides with the entire horse included in the images.
• Bottom/sole of all four feet — Need to know which foot is photographed. It helps to include part of a person in the image to show where they are standing relative to the horse.
• Side and front views of front feet and back feet (if safe) taken with the camera at nearly ground level so it is perpendicular to the foot.
• Horse is trotted away and back 2–3 times with the handler leading off to the side of horse, not in front of horse. Preferably, the horse is trotted on a firm surface like a driveway. (asphalt or dirt) or on mats. The handler should trot the horse in a straight line, not weaving.
• Horse is on lunge line or in round pen and/or ridden in both directions at a trot at least 4–5 circuits around each direction before stopping filming. If the horse doesn’t maintain a steady trot, then please restart filming when he settles down into a nice working trot without breaking into canter or bucking.
• Anything else deemed important: trailer loading, saddling, foot work, ridden under saddle, ridden in the intended sport, etc.
Sale ad photo and video red flags
• Images that are out-of-focus.
• Too much camera movement when videotaping.
• Zooming in and out during a single taping.
• Horse is moving in and out of the frame on videos.
• Horse is acting out and not keeping a steady gait. • Handler is obscuring limbs by running in front of horse.
• Handler is pulling on the horse’s head or holding lead line too tightly or too near the horse’s face.
• Too many obstacles that obscure horse feet and legs, or that the horse must work around, including dogs, vehicles, kids, ground items, and equipment.
The prepurchase exam is a critical part of a horse purchase. It lets you know at the outset what particular issues a horse might have, while also documenting conformational characteristics, scars, and old injuries. Usually, the prepurchase exam report can also be used for acquiring equine insurance coverage.
Ideally, you want to hire a competent equine veterinarian who is familiar with the sport in which you’ll be riding this horse. You want that person to have no conflict of interest, such as being the seller’s regular veterinarian. Though there are certainly instances where an ethical veterinarian can manage such a situation yet remain wholly objective.
Once you have secured a vet to proceed with the examination of your equine prospect, the next important step is to request that the seller contact any veterinarian who has ever worked on this horse to give permission and request that all those medical records are sent directly to your veterinarian. If a seller refuses to do this, then it is possible they are trying to hide something, and it may be best to simply walk away from the potential sale. In cases where you have reservations about the integrity and ethics on the part of the seller or their trainer, be sure to request a drug test as part of the prepurchase exam. For expensive prospects, it is always wise to run a drug test, regardless.
Once your vet performs the prepurchase exam and performs any pertinent diagnostic tests—imaging, endoscopy, blood tests— you will want to review the results in their intended purpose: this is neither a pass nor a fail evaluation. What a prepurchase exam does is provide you, the buyer, with information about the horse’s medical state at the time of the exam that enables you to make an informed decision. The examining veterinarian will go over any issues that are outside the realm of normal and explain how these might affect a horse’s health, performance, management, and your pocketbook. Then it is your prerogative to decide what you can live with, and if this horse will fit in with your desires and budget.
The Bottom Line
It is difficult to find a perfect horse, so there are always compromises to be made in terms of conformation, temperament, athletic ability, training, and specific medical issues. What helps is the ability to maintain an objective vantage on the purchasing process. A horse is not like a mountain bike; you can’t simply replace parts or store it in the garage without fees until the day you have time to ride. A horse purchase entails ongoing daily expenses that accrue whether you ride or not and whether the horse is healthy or not. Try to put aside emotional impressions and instead collaborate objectively with your veterinarian as to how well a horse prospect fits into your life. Good luck with your search!