Buying a horse for yourself or a member of your family is a huge decision. Although the purchase price is the smallest expense associated with owning a horse, it can still be significant. More than that, the right horse can be a dream and the wrong horse a nightmare. There are a number of ways to acquire a horse, and each have their advantages and disadvantages.
Horse auctions vary widely. They range from high end Thoroughbred auctions where unproven yearlings can fetch six or even seven figures to back street livestock sales where horses are mixed with cattle and often sell very cheaply. It is worth knowing that, in England, Thoroughbred sales and many non-Thoroughbred sales are still conducted with prices in guineas (a pound and a shilling, thus, a pound and five pence).
The up side of buying at auction is the variety of horses likely to be available. At small sales everything from Shetland ponies to draft mules can go through the ring. Also, the purchase price can be very low, sometimes as low as $35 or $50 for a foal.
However, buying at auction is not recommended for the new horse owner. There is seldom an opportunity to ride the horses and almost never one to bring your own vet and have them examined for soundness. At low end auctions, it is not uncommon for lame horses to go through the ring, and the novice may not be able to tell whether a soundness issue is something minor like a bruised hoof or a serious problem. Horses may also be poorly trained or not trained at all. Even experienced horsemen can be caught out; one man with two decades of experience bought a supposedly well-broke mare for his lesson barn that turned out to be not just completely untrained but also pregnant. You can never be sure what you have until you get it home and have had it for a few days. Unscrupulous sellers may also drug horses in order to hide behavioral problems. Another very experienced horse person was forced to destroy a horse that, when the drugs wore off, turned out to be dangerous and ended up trying to kill a handler. Auctions, therefore, are a risk; you can end up with a gem, or you can acquire a disaster. Novices should avoid them.
Rescuing a horse is a good way to make you feel good about yourself. Reputable rescues often have horses for adoption and in many cases, they have a variety of animals that are well trained and have had any veterinary problems dealt with.
Adoption has its up sides. Often, the rescue has worked out everything about a horse before allowing it to be released for adoption. Just as at auctions, you can look at a variety of horses, but with the opportunity to ride them and handle them. A good rescue will also not object to an adopter bringing in their own vet to verify a horse’s condition. Rescues are generally honest about any physical limitations a horse may have. Any reputable rescue will also take a horse back if it does not work out.
Sometimes very high quality horses can end up in rescue, through no fault of their own, and a lot of the horses that come in have no problems a few ‘groceries’ can’t solve.
There are, however, downsides. In most cases, you will not gain legal ownership of the horse you adopt. Most rescues only place mares on a non-breeding contract (spaying mares is an expensive and potentially dangerous operation generally only performed for veterinary reasons). Sometimes they will hold on to the horse’s papers, which can make it hard to impossible to enter a horse in breed shows.
Rescues may also place restrictions on how a horse can be kept and what can be done with it. They may require that the horse be kept, for example, on a farm with a minimum of one acre per head. Or they may insist on inspecting the property where the horse is to be kept. Like dog and cat rescues, some horse rescues insist on lengthy application forms. They may also want to see the person who will be riding the horse ride.
As with other animals, rescued horses may have physical and mental problems. Some horses that have been starved in the past develop stable vices such as cribbing, which appear to suppress appetite. Rescued horses are more likely to have soundness limitations which may preclude intense activities such as jumping or barrel racing. Former abuse victims may be either timid or aggressive.
Finally, fake rescues exist. Any rescue should have a proper 401(c) and a good reputation. Some rescues may be thinly-disguised hoarders who will promise a horse and then refuse to let it go. Adopters have also brought horses home to find they are underweight or have undisclosed problems. A reputable rescue is generally known as such.
Horse dealers have a poor reputation. They are often seen as likely to hide veterinary problems, drug horses when people come to see them or lie about a horse’s age. The reality, however, is not as simple.
Dealers rely on their reputation to stay in business. A good dealer is known as such, and will take every step to keep that reputation. There are two kinds of dealers. Traders buy horses cheap and then attempt to sell them at a profit. Brokers take other people’s horses and board them until they are sold, generally taking boarding fees and a commission on the eventual selling price.
In both cases, the dealer is trying to increase the value of the horse. Training is the most reliable way to do so, so dealers will do their best to fix behavioral problems before selling a horse. A good dealer, with a good reputation, will do his best to help you find a horse that is right in size, type and temperament. The best dealers sell with a buy-back clause, so if a horse turns out to be unsuitable, it can be returned. Reputable dealers will let buyers do any trial they want with a horse, including bringing their own vet. In fact, despite their shady used-car reputation, a good dealer can be the best place for a novice to find their first horse.
The downside is that there are some dealers who are shady. Novices should avoid buying from a trader or broker who has not been in business for very long or one that has a bad reputation. Because there is a middle man involved, horses purchased from brokers tend to command higher prices and most brokers only deal with higher-end horses. Also, a lot of dealers buy their horses at auction, and sometimes problems can show up that the dealer himself did not know about, months later.
- Lesson Barns and Trainers
Sometimes a lesson barn will sell a student their favorite horse. Some lesson barns, in fact, also do some dealing or horse trading on the side. Or a trainer may know of the absolute perfect horse for a student.
On the face of it, this can appear to be the perfect solution. The horse being purchased is often one the prospective rider knows well and is used to riding. It may even come with its tack. If the rider does not know the horse, then a trusted trainer is selecting it, somebody who’s judgment is known.
Truth is, any such deals should be looked at very carefully. Lesson barn ponies are notorious for changing behavior completely when they get into private hands. Sometimes, these changes can be for the better. Other times, when the horse is doing less work and being ridden more on its own, it can turn from a reliable packer into a beast.
Buying through your trainer is definitely something to be wary of. If your trainer has the ‘perfect horse’ ask the hard question; are they getting commission? Even if they are, it is often worth looking at the horse, but if your own judgment is not to buy then do not let the trainer overrule you. Worse than that, some shady trainers will advise a student to purchase a horse that is too much for them in order to ensure that they will continue to work with them and keep paying them money.
In general, think very carefully before buying a horse from your trainer, under either of these circumstances. How much do you really trust this person? Is this horse really the right fit, no matter how much you love it?
- Private individuals
The sheer number of equine classifieds sites on the web reveals that there are a lot of horses being sold by private individuals.
Buying from a private individual is perhaps the most complicated solution of all. One thing to avoid is buying from a friend; if things do not work out, then you can end up with no friend. Private individuals have their own rules on what trials and examinations they will allow a purchaser to perform. In some cases, photos on classified ads are not accurate, or even of a totally different horse.
If buying from a private individual, take an expert with you who can properly assess the horse. It may be the gem described in the ad, or it may be a disaster. Also, this has the downside that you may well have to travel long distances, multiple times, to find the right horse.
The previous owner may be a fantastic rider, or they may be somebody who does not know what they are doing. You could end up, for example, with a horse that has been spoiled and needs to be retrained, never an easy proposition. Find out everything you can about the owner. The first question to ask is always ‘Why are you selling this horse?’ ‘I’m too big for it’ or ‘College’ are good answers, but if there is no good answer, then there is probably a bad reason. On the other hand, the quirk that is leading them to sell may be something you can deal with.
In other words, there are both downsides and upsides to purchasing privately, and what they are varies on a case by case basis. Careful consideration is advised.
In all cases, the novice is well served by taking an expert along who has no financial interest in the sale of the horse. Most trainers will gladly help their students find the right mount, and assuming your trainer is trustworthy and not likely to try and over-mount you, this is often the best solution. In terms of methods, either going to a dealer with a good reputation or looking into local rescues are often the best way for an inexperienced rider to find the perfect horse for them.