8 Rules for buying a horse

Even though I am an experienced horse owner I was taken in by a savvy seller. Here’s how I’ll protect myself when buying a horse in the future—and you can, too.

I was not a horse shopping newbie. In fact, I felt as if I was the world’s most informed horse shopper before I bought Dakota. I had been a rider for decades and was confident in my ability to buy the right horse. I wasn’t rushing the horse-buying process, either. For two years, I’d been searching for a trail horse to step into the shoes of my trusty Quarter Horse, who turns 23 this year. 

I had done my research. I had studied up on conformation, breeds and temperaments. I talked to trainers and brokers and had been to auctions and sale barns. I met with private sellers. I had petted and poked seemingly hundreds of horses and ridden a few. I knew exactly what I wanted—a smooth-gaited horse with sturdy, compact conformation—and scrutinized every detail about each sale prospect, passing up one horse after another. 

Then I met Dakota, a tall Appaloosa gelding. He was not the horse I envisioned when I started my search. Even so, I thought he was right for me. The advertisement that caught my eye said he was quiet, could be ridden alone or in a group, and was easy to shoe and easy to load. In short, he was one of those special horses that do not come along very often. 

When I met him in person, Dakota seemed to be all the ad promised. He was quiet and patient. Nothing I could do rattled him. Loud noises and flapping arms, he took it all in stride. I was told he was being sold because of family hardship. When I tied him up, away from his herd, he didn’t act the least bit concerned. He seemed calm, self-assured, bombproof—just the sort of trail horse I was looking for. It helped that he had a gorgeous coat and soft brown eyes. 

I fell in love and my emotions overwhelmed me. I stopped thinking rationally, and nothing could stop me from buying this horse—not even a warning from a lady I’d met at McDonald’s, who noticed my jodhpurs and struck up a conversation. “I’m in town to check out a horse,” I told her, and asked for directions to the barn where Dakota was boarded. “You be careful,” she warned. “They’re shysters there.” 

Later, I would ask a sheriff’s deputy to meet me at that very same McDonald’s. 

But, at the time, I was dead certain that I had found “the one.” And all of my preparations and research were pushed aside. Never mind that I had not seen Dakota’s veterinary records or even met his owner. So what if some of the details seemed a little sketchy. In the blur of those few hours, excitement and hope overtook my judgment and common sense. I convinced myself that the attributes I’d been seeking in my new horse were not all that important: Dakota was the horse for me.

But I was soon forced to come to my senses. A few hours after I drove off with Dakota, he began weaving, lip flapping and displaying other nervous habits. Immediately, I tried calling the previous owner; no answer, no returned call. 

Emotion can quickly overwhelm rational judgement when horse shopping.

Only then did I realize that the bill of sale in my hand could be invalid: It had been signed by the barn owner on behalf of the owner, whom I never met in person. I discovered Dakota had other issues, too. He was “chargey” on the trail and buddy sour—not at all the horse advertised or the behavior I had seen when I tried him out. After repeated unanswered calls to the previous owner, and an uncooperative barn owner, I began to wonder if my dream horse was dangerous or stolen or had been drugged. 

I called the local sheriff’s office and was told that they didn’t have the legal authority to intervene but that a deputy could escort me back to the barn and write up an incident report so a record would be on file in the event of a lawsuit. 

Mind you, I saw Dakota for the first time on Thursday, bought him on Friday evening and by Sunday morning, I was hauling him back to the boarding barn with a sheriff’s car behind me. The sheriff’s deputy stood by while I returned Dakota, and the barn owner agreed to give me my money back in full. 

What was I thinking? I wasn’t. This was one of those cases that we are all warned about—when emotion and wishful thinking overwhelm rational decision making. I wanted Dakota to be the right horse for me, and that desire clouded my judgment in ways I refused to see. And if it happened to me, an informed horse shopper, don’t be too sure it can’t happen to you, under the right circumstances. Just in case, here are eight red flags that I missed the first time around, along with the ways that I am protecting myself in my continuing search for a new horse. 

Do some homework

Red Flag: I got inconsistent answers from the seller. 

One minute, Dakota’s owner was selling him because she had lost her job, the next, because she was moving. The barn owner told me Dakota had been purchased from a private owner a year ago, and then in the next breath, that he had been bought from a broker out of state. Regrettably, I didn’t press for further explanation, so convinced was I that the horse standing before me was the calm, sane animal advertised. 

Rule 1I ask important questions on the phone, by email or via text first, before seeing a horse. Pertinent questions vary with different situations, but for virtually all, I start with these: Why is the horse for sale? How long has the owner had him or her? What is his training? How spooky is he? Where is he in the herd social hierarchy? Is he buddy or barn sour? Does he have any bad habits? 

I now listen to what the seller has to say but also note what’s left unsaid. I’ve learned that “needs a job” could mean a horse is a handful, and that when a person tells you a mare is “too good not to be ridden,” chances are she hasn’t worn a saddle in a long, long while. Call me cynical, but when I see a horse advertised as “no kick, no bite,” I immediately wonder why they left out “no buck, no rear, no bolt.” 

If I’m not satisfied with an answer, I try asking the question in a number of different ways. This is an old interrogation trick and it works. Finding out as much as I can about a horse before I see it is a safeguard against my emotions taking over when there’s a real, live animal in front of me.

Take your time

Red Flag: Dakota seemed too good to be true. 

This horse had apparently done and been everything. He’d been a lesson horse, a ranch horse, a therapy horse and that wonderful horse some older lady rode “all over before he was sold to the current owner.” On the spookiness scale of one to 10, he was a zero. And for every obvious flaw, there was a good reason. The reason why I couldn’t get him to move off of my leg was because he was desensitized to kids climbing all over him. The reason why it was hard to get him to canter was because of the slippery footing. In truth, if there were any flaws in this horse, I wasn’t about to hear it. 

Rule 2: Pause, take a breath and do a reality check. A horse with a beautiful head and flowing mane may run off with your emotions but not so easily your reason and intellect. Now, as soon as I arrive at the seller’s property, I take in the barn, the owner, everything about the environment before I even set eyes on the horse. Is the barn well-kept? Are the horses happy? Does the owner seem relaxed and trustworthy? I need to do a heavy-duty reality check. If the details don’t add up and align with the information I’ve been given on the phone, I keep asking questions or assume the worst. 

Pay attention 

Red Flag: The seller didn’t seem interested in where Dakota would end up.

Red flags go up for me if a horse has passed through too many hands because I miss out on that important information about the seller and, ultimately, the horse.

Setting aside the fact that I never even met the seller in person, not once did the barn owner ask me where I planned to keep Dakota or how I planned to take care of him. And why was the seller not there to meet me? Who sells a beloved horse to a total stranger without meeting them? The seller said on the phone that she was too emotionally wrought over having to sell him because Dakota was so special. But apparently he was not special enough for her to return my calls when it was obvious that Dakota was a dedicated weaver and needed a home with full-time pasture turnout.

Rule 3: Look for signs of the relationship between owner and horse. If someone has bonded with the horse, he’s probably a lovable horse. He’s probably well cared for and trained. Without that human bond, whether it is with a rescuer, a broker or a young girl selling her horse to go to college, the horse is likely to have gaping holes in his training. He might even be dangerous. Red flags go up for me if a horse has passed through too many hands because I miss out on that very important information that tells me about the seller and, ultimately, the horse. Of course, there are exceptions—good horses can end up in bad situations—but for my comfort level, anyway, I need to see a relationship between the owner and the horse. 

Ask for documentation

Red Flag: The horse didn’t come with any veterinary records or registration papers. 

By the time I got around to asking for important documents, the hook was in. I didn’t push for veterinary records because I would have been heartbroken if they revealed some problem like frequent colic or laminitis that would have made the purchase unwise. Even though Dakota was advertised as an Appaloosa, and clearly showed the breed’s markings and conformation, registration papers were not available. The only document I walked away with was a bill of sale, and later, I wasn’t even sure if I had that. Nowhere on the purchase agreement was the seller’s signature, nor did I actually have documentation giving the barn owner the right to sell the horse on the owner’s behalf. Go ahead, paper-mache a dozen red flags to my face.

Rule 4: Make the sale contingent upon receiving all requested documentation, such as registration papers and veterinary history. I might be worried about what they’ll show, but I ask for the veterinary records anyway. And while I’m at it, I request a list of previous owners, as well as insurance records that will reveal any preexisting conditions. I also want all registration papers as well as show affiliations and records. No documents, no sale. 

“You need to look that seller in the eye and say, ‘I want every single medical record you have on this horse, and I want your insurance. And I want to know where you got this horse from, when you got this horse and I want the name of the person who sold you this horse,’” advises equine attorney Robyn Ranke, Esq., of San Diego, an equestrian, experienced trial attorney and equine legal consultant. 

A prepurchase veterinary examination is a good idea, but it won’t give you as much information on the horse as these key documents, which describe the animal’s history, says Ranke, who was one of the attorneys in the high-profile Ann Romney case involving the sale of an Oldenburg with ringbone. 

As for the purchase agreement, from now on I will make sure it is legally binding and that I see a legal ID of the person selling the horse, and that it matches all the other records available.

Ask for a test ride

Red Flag: I had no opportunity to try the horse for the intended use. 

Dakota was advertised as not being barn or buddy sour, and by all indications on my ride around the boarding stable, he wasn’t. Still, I hadn’t ventured very far from his barn, and I had no idea what he would be like going out on the trail with other horses. When I asked to take the horse off the property for a trail ride before I bought him, the barn owner said “no.” Taking it at her word that Dakota was as advertised, I bought him anyway. On my first ride out, I was dismayed to discover he was buddy sour. 

Rule 5Insist on a thorough trial. If I were in the market for a barrel horse, I’d make sure he could do barrels. If I were searching for a jumper, I’d make sure she could jump. But I happen to be in the market for a trail horse, so I expect any horse I’m seriously considering to be sure-footed, behave well away from the arena and to possess a calm and sensible disposition. Foremost, he has to like going out on the trails, and he has to be able to hack out alone or in a large group. I need to spend at least two hours in the saddle and on the trail before I even consider buying the horse.

Get some expert advice

Red Flag: I proceeded against the counsel of an expert and friends. 

Before making the trip to see Dakota, I had called local horse expert Dan Knuth, who is known among my group of riders for his good horse sense. But he was out of town at the time. Over the phone, however, he advised against the purchase. And incredible as it is to me now, my friends never even saw Dakota until after I bought him. But they each saw the warning signs beforehand and tried to dissuade me from buying him. One tried to warn me about the horse’s size and another reminded me that I’d originally been searching for a gaited horse or a steady Quarter Horse. 

Rule 6: I bring along an expert to evaluate the horse. My friends can look, too—after all, no one knows my personality, riding goals and abilities better than they do. Once, after explaining to a friend what type of horse I wanted as I squirmed in the saddle, she gave me some very useful advice. “I think you need a horse that’s going to let you do that,” she said, pointing to the way I was sitting and shifting about. That is the kind of input I need when evaluating a horse. But I never forget whose horse it’s going to be. And, I also know it would be easy for my friends to talk me into a horse that just doesn’t fit my riding style. 

So my rule is that I need to have an expert like Dan evaluate any horse I buy. I can bring my trusted horse friends along to look at a horse. And they can spot things that I often overlook. But I never forget that I need an expert, objective evaluation–and that I am the one who will be riding the horse. After all, how many of my friends would actually enjoy riding my current horse? Exactly. 

Look into the horse’s background if you can

Red Flag: I knew little about Dakota’s training. 

I watched the barn owner trot him a distance, but the rest of the time he was ridden at a walk. The barn owner brought him up to a canter a few times in a round pen, but the footing was soggy from overnight rain and Dakota slipped on turns so she brought him back down to a trot. I realize now that I essentially bought a horse whose training I knew nothing about. I shouldn’t have been too surprised then when on my first ride out, he evaded the bit and was obstinate at the stop.

Rule 7: I require a detailed history of the horse’s training, and have the owner ride him first, then ride him myself—a lot. From now on, I want to know as much as possible about a horse’s training and see him perform at all gaits. I want to see him stop, back and move off of pressure. I want to see how he responds to the bit, how easy he is to push into a canter, and how flexible he is. I want to watch him from various vantage points from the front, back and side. Only then can I set foot in the stirrups and be able to get a feel for how the horse will respond to my cues. 

Check references 

Red Flag: I’d heard negative things about the boarding barn where the horse was kept. 

When the lady at McDonald’s said the boarding barn was not to be trusted, I should have paid for my iced coffee and headed home. But I was convinced she was talking about another barn, even though I had a general unease about the seller I spoke to on the phone twice and the barn owner who represented the horse on the seller’s behalf. I placed my trust in them anyway and bought a horse that I was told didn’t buck or rear. Only after the seller hadn’t returned my calls the next day did I realize that everything I’d been told about the horse was suspect. 

Ask for a record of previous owners as well as insurance documents that will reveal any preexisting conditions.

Rule 8: I research the reputation of the seller and check references. Just about everything about a horse’s past—good and bad—is filtered through the seller. There is no possible way to determine suitability in the time and circumstances given for buying a horse. There has to be a level of trust between seller and buyer. For my comfort level, I need to know the seller’s reputation. If she’s a broker, I’d like to know who she has sold to in the past—and I want to check references. If she’s a private seller, I’d like to know who she rides with on a regular basis. The horse community is relatively small and tight-knit, and it’s not hard to find out the reputation of a seller if you just ask around. 

As painful as it was, my experience buying Dakota could have been much worse. And I am wiser because of it—not just about evaluating sale prospects but understanding my own idiosyncrasies as well. There are no guarantees, of course, but I am confident that I will be able to find just the right horse if I just follow these few simple rules. 

Epilogue: A happy ending

A few months after this article was written, I met my new trail partner Tucker, an 8-year-old palomino Quarter Horse gelding whose previous owner rode him sidesaddle as part of an escaramuza drill team that performed at charreada events. 

Tucker became available because his young owner decided to pursue other high school interests. Looking back, I can’t say there was a defining moment when I thought, He’s the one.

But something clicked in me when I finally went to load him up and his family tearfully lined up to take a pic- -ture with him one last time. I realized then that this horse was loved, and that was a pretty good sign I’d made the right decision. 

Tucker’s past training, willing nature and calm disposition have made him the ideal trail horse for me. Most weekends we can be found exploring the trails in my home state of Arizona.

This article was originally published in EQUUS Volume #474

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