Sunday, March 30, 2014

Tracy Meisenbach: Buying a dream horse? Or getting taken for a ride?


             You’ve finally decided to buy a horse.  You might be a kid who is horse crazy and finally talked your parents into taking the plunge or you might be an adult who has always dreamed of owning a horse and now you have the time and money to make your dream come true!  In either case there are some guidelines that you need to follow to be sure you get the best possible horse for your riding enjoyment.
The first thing you need to do is assess your needs.  Are you planning on being a pleasure rider or a competitor?  Do you want to ride English, Western or both?  Will you work with a trainer or on your own?  The best advice for a beginner is to start simple and work your way up.
If you plan on pleasure riding, and this is where all riding should start, then a well-trained gelding or mare is your best bet.  Buy a horse with a several years of training on it.  A quiet horse with seasoning is going to get you on the trail sooner and safer than a green horse.  Regardless of whether you ride English or Western a calm horse is going to make the difference between a spook and run or a look and learn.  There is no substitute for actual time under saddle and a green horse simply won’t have the conditioning to deal with a new experiences and an inexperienced rider at the same time.
           If you are an inexperienced rider take some lessons.  Think you can’t afford it?  Well, can you afford the hospital or vet bills and time off from work because of an accident that could have been avoided if you’d had some instruction?  In all likelihood taking lessons will cost less and provide more than a trip to the emergency room.
Now you’re looking for the horse.  Are dreams of a fiery black stallion going through your head as you peruse the ads? Probably. Drop them and face reality. Stallions are not for beginners.  Most boarding stables won’t even allow them.  Their handling issues and stabling requirements are double an average gelding’s.  This is not to say that stallions are vicious troublemakers. Good ones aren’t; I’m rather fond of the three I have.  But a good stallion can become a bad stallion with very little mishandling. Don’t risk it and leave the stallions to the people who have breeding farms and the facilities to keep them.  A nice mare or gelding will be the best riding horse for a beginning rider.
Thinking of buying a cute fuzzy colt and growing up together?  This is another bad idea that can have catastrophic results. The money you spend, raising a colt you can’t ride for several years, is double what you will pay for the average sound trained horse. You’ll spend that amount of money before you even start to train the colt.  Baby horses are not like puppies.  A baby horse will one day be about 1000 pounds and have the ability to kill you with one kick.  Learning as you go with horses is a recipe for disaster. And if you mishandle a horse you can’t just stake him out in the back yard and ignore him, you’ve got to sell him or dispose of him, generally at a substantial financial loss.
What is your purchase plan: Private seller or auction? If you are inexperienced with horses I would avoid auctions. There are too many things that can be wrong with a horse that a beginner is not going to look for.  Some traders are unscrupulous and will sell drugged horses or horses that have a disability masked by drugs or shoeing.  At an auction there is usually no time to get a vet check in and because of the transient nature of auctions it’s hard to trace a horse that is sold as un-registered.  For your first horse it is better to buy an animal you can get a history on, or your enjoyment in your horse can be going, going, gone.
After checking internet ads and newspapers you finally find the ad that interests you, you’ve made a decision and you’re going to see the horse.  Call the owner and get the important details.  Always have a notebook and make some notes on each horse you call about.  If the horse sounds suitable make an appointment and stick to it; the owner has a life outside of selling his horse and he deserves courtesy from you. Do not waste the owner’s time by not showing up or not calling. They are putting things aside to deal with you, be courteous. And don’t be a tire kicker. It is beyond rude. If you can’t afford the horse don’t waste the seller’s time. If you’re “just looking” let them know. Horse farms are busy places and require a lot of effort, taking time out to deal with a potential buyer means other chores get put aside and have to be caught up on later.
The first impression is the strongest and most people fall in love with just one look.  Try not to.  Animals have a way of winning our hearts and big soft-eyed silky-coated geldings really have a lock on it.  When you arrive take note of the surroundings the horse is kept in.  Is it clean and safe? Are there other horses?  Are they well cared for?  Observe the horse.  Is he quiet?  Does he allow his head and feet to be handled?  Is he easy to saddle and bridle?  A major concern for me is to arrive at the seller’s and find the horse already saddled and warmed up.  Sorry, but I’ll come back and look another time or strike it off my list.  I want to see the horse’s manners when he’s fresh and un-worked.  This is how I will be dealing with him at some point every day and I want to know he’s not bad mannered or dead lame without a warm-up.
Now carefully check over the tack.  If the horse is being ridden in a hack-a-gag with a tie-down he’s probably too hot for a trail horse and not quiet enough for pleasure, he will also have major retraining issues.  If he’s in a snaffle or plain curb then it’s a good bet he’s a quiet horse.  Make sure the equipment is safe for use, I’ve seen some bridles that were held together with string and a promise, if it looks like it might break don't get on or request they supply something safer.
Ask the owner to ride the horse first.  Why?  Because you want to observe the horse in his most comfortable situation.  If he’s tossing his head and fidgeting while the owner mounts then you’ve got re-training ahead.  Is the horse quiet when mounted? Does he move off freely with no fuss and is he responsive to cues?  Are his gaits even?  Observe the horse moving at all three gaits in each direction.  Make note of anything that doesn’t look right or you feel should be addressed.  If the owner doesn’t have a suitable answer then you need to make note of that too.
Ride the horse yourself (Provided he didn’t buck the owner off).  Does he respond to leg and rein cues?  The owner may tell you the horse uses different cues from what you’ve been taught, and this is ok as long as the horse listens to your efforts to interpret his normal cues. (Some trainers use their own cue system, if the horse is a candidate for purchase ask them to elaborate on it)  Does the horse feel smooth with no bobbing or hesitation?  Turn a few tight circles in each direction.  Are there any hitches in his gait?  Does he move out confidently with no lugging on the reins or head tossing?  If the horse is trained for a specific discipline put him through his paces.  Run a barrel pattern or take a few jumps.  Is he riled up afterwards and hard to control?  Or does he calm down as soon as the exercise is over and remain attentive?
After you ride then offer to unsaddle the horse and put him away.  Does he stand quietly while being un-tacked?  Is he cinchy or does he display aggressive behavior such as ear pinning or lip curling?  At this point I usually ask to see the horse load if the owner has a trailer handy.  While a bad loader can be corrected I want to know it beforehand.  Observe the horse and owner carefully and record your observations.  Watch the horse as he is returned to his stable or pasture.  Can you lead him to his pen on loose lead or does he try to drag you back to the barn?  How does he react when first turned loose?
Make notes on all you have observed and if you feel the horse is a good prospect make a second appointment to see him, this time with your trainer or another trusted horse expert.  There is a reason to take the expert only once. You need to know how you feel about the horse.  It’s your money paying for him. I’ve seen too many people that get talked into too much horse by an enthusiastic trainer.  You don’t need a horse that is going to require a lot of refitting before you can even ride it.  If it’s too much horse for you admit it and move on.  Taking the expert the second time lets you get a good outsider opinion and also lets you watch a qualified person you know handle the horse.  Observe the horse carefully again. Does he behave the same as he did the first time?  Consistency is a big factor in enjoying your horse and if the horse seems to change from day to day you’re not going to enjoy him nearly as much.
If the horse is supposed to be registered ask to see the breed association’s papers.  Vague promises about having to dig them up won’t do, make it plain that papers must be produced before money changes hands.  Once you see the papers check the description of the horse against the actual horse, hopefully it will match.  Also check to see that the listed owner is the person you are buying the horse from.  If not make sure there is a transfer giving ownership to that person and a blank transfer to sell it to you.  Trying to sort out a paper trail on a horse is a frustrating and time-consuming task.  Avoid it if possible.
            Now is the time to decide whether you want the horse or not.  Two visits may not seem like enough, but face reality and understand that others are probably looking at the horse too. After three visits most sellers are going to get pretty fed up if you don’t make a commitment.  Prior to the vet check most sellers require a deposit.  Depending on the price a few hundred dollars usually works.  Pay by check and write on it that acceptance of payment guarantees an established deposit for {description of horse}.  If cash is required get a signed receipt that also includes the description of the horse and the notation that the deposit is pending a sound vet check.
If, after all the riding and trials are through, you think the horse will suit you then set up a vet check.  Be sure the vet is not the same one the owner uses and that it is a vet you trust.  If the owner refuses to allow a vet check walk away and never look back.  However, this is unlikely, since the owner should want to know if anything is wrong with the horse and it’s your money paying for the vet check.  Most vets will give you a thorough rundown of the horse’s pluses and minuses.  Watch how the horse reacts to the vet and again look for consistency in his behavior. Request shot records and proof of a negative Coggins test. Some states now require a Coggins test every time the horse changes ownership so know your state laws regarding Equine Infectious Anemia.  If the current Coggins is over 6 months old request a new one.  While a year is standard for most states, a year is also a long time and the horse may have been in contact with a carrier in that time.  Play it safe and get a new Coggins.  Also ask about the horse’s de-worming program and any other medical care he has had.  Getting it all out in the open now can save you a great deal of heartache later.
In this day and age it is imperative you ask about genetic testing for any horse you look to purchase. The stock horse breeds carry HYPP ( from the Impressive lines) PSSM 1, HERDA, GBED and MH. Ask if the horse is tested or comes from tested parents. A reputable breeder will test and tell you the results. If the horse is positive walk away. Do not buy a positive horse. The care and upkeep they require can mount to thousands of dollars a year if they are symptomatic. Don’t let someone tell you they can be easily managed, that is only in the mildest cases, and a horse can go from asymptomatic to chronically affected overnight. Don’t think it doesn’t matter if you are buying a gelding, they can have symptoms just as bad as breeding stock. Ask to see the actual lab copies of the tests. And make those results a part of the bill of sale, so later on if the horse does have issues and you retest and find he has the defect you have grounds for fraud.
Now the horse has passed the handling, riding and vet check.  His papers are in order and his health is fine.  What next?  You need a place to keep him.  Hopefully you have a place picked out to board him or a pasture to keep him in at your place.  He needs a halter and lead, bridle and saddle, a good pad and various grooming tools.  Line up a vet and a farrier and make contact with your local feed store.  Then it’s read and listen to every tidbit you can.  Save the good and discard the bad.  Once you get the horse home acclimate him for several days before going on any long distant rides and then get him into a routine.  That’s when the fun starts.

(Note: While helmet laws are not in effect in all states and liability issues differ from state to state, I recommend wearing a helmet whenever trying out a new horse.  Riding an unknown horse, whatever your skill level, is a dangerous undertaking, so use caution.)

Tracy Meisenbach
Copyright 1997
All rights reserved foreign and domestic
Do not share, republish or post with written permission

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