As an equine appraiser, I get lots of questions on how to buy a horse without getting taken. The answer to that is, you can't. I act as a buyer/seller agent for two reasons; first and foremost, it keeps me in the loop on the horse industry. Second, I get to go horse shopping which is the best fun in the world.
If I'm buying a horse or helping someone buy a horse I use this evaluation system. I usually set up an excel spreadsheet and weight the questions by importance to me the intended use of the horse. The relative weight to a question is based on the personal preferences and again, the intended use of the horse. For example, I can’t stand a cribber, therefore if the horse cribs, then I pass the horse by. Obviously conformation issues are more important for a performance horse than for a leisure horse. Also mild lameness can be acceptable depending on the source, type and intended use. Always remember you will rarely find the perfect horse.
Also NEVER BE IN A HURRY TO BUY and DO NOT GET STUCK ON BREED AND/OR COLOR. Obviously, if you're a seasoned horse professional, breed WILL be important but then you wouldn't need this blog's advice either.
If you're not a seasoned professional do not go on the advice of this blog alone. Find an equine professional and solicit help; often they are more than happy to help out and may have a line on a good horse. However be careful of this also, horse people are notorious for manipulating newbies too. So make sure that your selected professional has a good reputation. Local vets often are good source for locating good horse folks.
Read as many books on horses, horse husbandry and equine conformation as you can, but remember reading is NOT a replacement for on the ground horse experience.
Take lessons regularly and from a variety of professionals until you settle on one you like. There is nothing more discouraging to a new rider than a classically trained German equestrian screaming that you’re not taking your riding seriously enough. I’m not saying that you can not benefit from such a trainer, but it would be better to wait until you’re a more confident rider.
Finally we get to the questions! Sometimes you can get the answers to these questions over the phone and many sellers would prefer it if you did rule out their horse prior to coming out to view the animal. But lots of times people don’t really know the answer and you’ll need to go out to see the horse.
The points of most of the following questions are obvious when there is an ambiguity I’ll try to explain it.
1. How long have you owned him? A short period of time is a red flag. Ask them why they're selling him if it's only been a short period of time.
2. Why are selling him? Answers such as "he's too much horse for me" may be an issue or maybe not depending on talent of the owner.
3. What has he been used for? If you're looking for a Dressage or English pleasure horse, it is difficult to cross train a western performance horse; not impossible, but difficult.
4. What have you used him for? A horse that has only been ridden on light hacks may not be suitable for harder work. They may not have the mental capacity, conformation or talent. Also, soundness may become an issue with harder work.
5. Does he load, clip, bathe, shoe, lead, tie easily? This is obvious... however if he does these things with minor complaint then it may not be a problem.
6. What types of injuries has he had? Again, the types of injuries that would rule out some horses for some disciplines do not make a horse valueless for other disciplines. This is where the advice of a seasoned professional is helpful.
7. Is he sound? This is where we get into the “’cept for’s.” Such as “He’s sound, ‘cept for when he’s not shod properly.”
8. Can I talk to your vet? I like this one because if they say no, then I'm outta there. If they don't have a vet them I'm outta there too.
9. Can I see proof of ownership? You want clear and free title to the horse.
10. May I see registration papers? Copies don’t count.
11. Is this a solid price? This may depend on your budget. Lots of folks are asking for more than the horse is worth, what they want, your budget, etc. They may take less. I once rode an honest-to-god 18 hh TB mare with to-die-for conformation that the owner was asking $3,500 for. As annoying as it is for the seller, I rode her even though I only had $1,500. When asked her this question, she asked me what I could spend. She accepted my offer! Turned out the mare had a heart murmur so loud that the vet could hear it before the stethoscope was on the chest, but I don’t think the owner knew it (although it did turn out that she had bought this mare from a breeder for a quick turn around).
12. Do you have any objections with a vet check? Again, if the owner objects to a vet check, leave. Also, if the owner has a list of vets that they won't allow on their property, leave. People who fight with vets about soundness issues often have or have had something to hide.
13. Do you know his previous owner(s) addresses or phone numbers? It's always nice to be able to talk to previous owners; sometimes there are still ownership issues.
14. Does he have any vices? Refer to #7. The “’cept for” enters into this now. Horse folks get used to tolerating behavioral issues for various reasons. The primary reason is that they don’t know how to modify the behavior. There are other reasons to be sure, but some vices such as cribbing often cannot be changed without a lot of training, if at all. Training equals time and time equals money. You have to decide whether you can deal with the vice or can afford the time or money to change it.
15. What is he suited for? Even though many folks do not have a clue as to for what a horse is suited, it is nice to ask what they think. You may be talking to some one who really knows horses and if they think he's suited for H/J and you're looking for a pleasure hack, maybe it's too much horse for your needs.
16. Is he a beginner horse? I love this one, but you must be careful with it. Almost every inexperienced horse person tries to make it sound like you can put anyone on his or her horse. If you've only had horses for 10 minutes you learn that babysitter/packer horses are worth their weight in gold. If you can make the prospective buyer believe that this horse has the potential to be a packer, you may make a sale.
17. Would you put your children/grandchildren on him? This is the proof of question #16. They can lie of course. So this question is a “tell” question. This is when noticing body language is important. You may as well become a student of voice inflection and body language because horses already know and understand it. If you want to become a good horse person, you’re going to need to learn about body language.
Also beware that some 10-year-old girls can ride like demons and are fearless. I’ve had my ass kicked in the open ring by elementary school girls who’ve been riding since they were three-years-old.
18. What type of bit are you using on him and why? This is where you need to know a bit about bits. If you've got a three-year-old riding with a double twisted wire curb gag hack (I made up this bit, although it may exist somewhere), you've got a horse that has been mishandled. End of story.
THINGS THAT SEND UP A RED FLAG
1. Won't let me talk to the vet or objections to the vet check.
2. Hasn't owned the horse for very long. Again this one isn't written in stone; lots of horse people buy cheap well-trained horses or "fixer uppers" for a quick resale. But I get hinkey feelings if an average horse person is rolling a horse over.
3. The horse hasn't been used for a year or two or three. Besides covering soundness issues, the horse may have been off because no one would ride him.
4. If it's a well papered, proven performance mare and she’s not in the breeding shed. This may not matter if you're just looking for a riding horse, but infertility could be an issue here. Or barring that, she may just be a nutter.
5. The owner doesn't know much about the horse. Refer back to #2.
6. The owner won't ride it. This is a scary one. It may be that the owner is just a bad horse person and the horse has gotten the better of him/her. Or it could be that the horse has just learned some really bad behaviors that are dangerous.
7. Cribbing. I do not buy cribbers. The psychological and physiological issues are a bridge too far for me.
EVALUATING A HORSE THAT HAS MADE IT THOUGH THE QUESTION SESSION
1. The horse should be cool, not warmed up for you. Warming up covers up lameness issues.
2. The horse should be in his paddock/pasture; you want to determine if the horse has any issues with catching or evil paddock vices.
3. You should observe the horse in its pasture/paddock. Look for evidence of lameness such as pointing or leaning; watch to see if the horse is cribbing.
4. You should get the horse out of the paddock/pasture. This is one that I don't enforce all the time because Mo' the Ho' won't come to people she doesn't know. You should go with the owner however and let the owner lead the horse while you watch the horse walk. Look for hitches-in-the-git-along. Look at how it tracks. Check the muscling in the hind and make sure that it's even from side to side.
5. Observe the horse while it's tied. Does the horse stand quietly while being groomed and tacked up? Or does the horse swing around knocking into the owner as if she's not there? How is the horses conformation? Does the horse show the muscular signs of a cribber? Open the horses lips and check the teeth (get to know some tooth age landmarks and what a cribber's teeth look like).
6. If the horse is not cross-tied, ask if the horse has been cross-tied and how it responds to being cross-tied.
7. Ask the owner to bring out clippers and turn them on; observe the result.
8. Ask the owner to pick up all four feet and bang on with a hoof pick as though a shoer was nailing on a shoe. Bad to shoe is bad but is not a deal breaker... for me.
9. Does the horse stand still to be mounted.
10. The owner should ride first and warm the horse up. Look for even gaits and signs of lameness; the head should be relatively still, not dropping or rising with the gait. Does the horse short-step or not rotate over the hoof as it was planted but rather pick it up sooner than the other feet. I've noted that this can be manifested as an outright limp or just a slight short-step.
11. As the owner rides and you're observing behavior. Is he high headed, chargy, spooky, etc. Think to yourself, "Do I REALLY want to ride this horse?" If the answer is anything but a resounding “Yes!” DO NOT RIDE.
12. *IF* you ride the horse, you should have an understanding of what you want. I'd talk it over your experience horse person or your trainer. Have the experienced horse person or trainer there to evaluate the horse if you can. I want a horse to stand quietly to be mounted, to transition easily and to halt easily. It would be nice if the horse was push button trained, but most of us don’t have the dollar$ for that.
Finally, make the deal contingent upon the horse getting in the trailer... AND do not give them any money without a prepurchase contract - EVER.