YOU'VE taken riding lessons. You've learned about grooming, feeding and general care of a horse. Perhaps you've even had one leased and feel ready to take the next step.
You've figured out how you can pay for his feed, farrier and vet bills. You know about the saddle, bridle, halter, brushes, blankets, buckets, and a million other things your new friend will need. You have arranged a place where he or she is going to live, whether it be in your back yard or at a top of the line show barn. All that remains is to find the perfect partner. SO NOW WHAT?
The very first thing you must do is to realistically decide how much you can afford to spend. There is no sense looking at $15,000 horses if all you have is $2000. You will be wasting your time and that of the sellers. Of course, if you have $15,000, there is no harm in looking at $2000 horses, you might get lucky and then you can spend the other $13,000 on a nice trailer to haul him around in! Seriously though, most of us have a limit as to what we can spend and you must know what yours is before you start. Do however plan on spending as much as you possibly can. There is some truth to the saying "you get what you pay for" when you are dealing with horses. And there is ALL truth to the saying that "it costs just as much to feed a bad horse as a good one"! While there are always bargains to be had, the more you can spend, the more likely it is that you are going to find exactly what you are looking for. You can usually look at horses that are a bit over your limit; lots of sellers will negotiate a little on their asking price, especially those in the higher price ranges. Usually 5-10% over what you want to spend is a good maximum figure to go by when looking at advertisements.
Next you need to ask yourself what you want to do with your horse. If you just want to go on neighborhood trail rides, you will not need to pay attention to what breed of horse you buy. You don't need fancy papers to have a horse that can take you safely down the road, through the woods, over bridges and thru streams. What's much more important in a trail horse are a friendly attitude and a calm, cooperative manner. Maybe you prefer the excitement of show jumping. In this case, there is no reason to consider a horse that is bred and trained for Western Pleasure. Or perhaps you want to compete in Western Pleasure. So why think about buying a horse that is trained to run barrels? The idea is that you should figure out exactly what you like to do and steer your search in that direction. Buying a horse that is trained in one discipline with the hopes of retraining him to do something totally different is setting yourself up for disappointment, unless you are a shrewd judge of horses and an accomplished trainer to boot.
Now that you've got a price in mind and you've decided what type of riding you like to do; how do you find the horse of your dreams? There are always horses for sale in the local newspapers and penny-savers. You can look on the Internet; there are lots of web sites devoted entirely to buying and selling horses, most are searchable as to location, price, age, discipline, etc. If you are taking lessons somewhere, ask your riding teacher to keep an eye out for you. Often they are the first to hear of suitable horses that might be available. Check the local feed stores and tack shops. Most have bulletin boards where people can put up ads. Tell your horsey friends that you are in the market. Word of mouth can often find a horse that you might have missed otherwise. If you have a particular breed in mind, write or call the breed association for a list of nearby breeders.
Does all this sound time consuming? Well, in all honesty, it is. But when you compare it to the years that you will have to spend with a horse, it is worth every minute, every day, every week that you have to wait. With proper care, horses now routinely live to 30 or even 40 years! Taking your time before you buy can mean the difference between a wonderful relationship with a great friend or years of regret if you can't bring yourself to sell him. And if you do decide you have to sell your new buddy because he's not everything you thought he was, you've made friends with this horse and even though he wasn't for you, you will still always wonder what happened to him, how he is doing etc. Because you didn't take your time finding the right horse in the beginning, you have the added stress of finding a buyer, as well as being back to square one and having to start your own search all over again.
Ok. You've browsed the ads, you've made phone calls, you've narrowed it down to a few that you actually want to go and look at. Now is when the real fun starts! The biggest thing to remember when you start looking at horses is not to buy the first one you see. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement and lose a bit of objectivity. Try to keep in mind that every horse is for sale for a reason. It could be something legitimate such as an owner going to college, a pony that has been sadly outgrown, perhaps the family has fallen on hard times and can't afford to keep their best pal anymore. Maybe they have decided they want to start showing and the horse is not of the caliber they need. Or they could have switched riding styles and the horse is not able to adequately make the change. He could still be a great horse for someone, maybe you. On the other hand, the horse could have soundness issues or behavior problems that can be masked for a time. Don't be afraid to ask why the horse is for sale. If the owner says that the horse is "just not working out", ask for specifics. If there are no major problems with the horse, most owners are not afraid to give this information. If they seem to avoid answering, be suspect. And never close the deal on the first visit. Even if the horse seems perfect, even if the owners tell you they have three more people looking at the horse that day! Go home, think about it, go see some others and compare them. After your head clears, he may not seem quite as perfect as you originally thought. And if the worst happens and the horse you liked is sold while you decide, there are plenty of others out there.
As far as the actual visit goes, it is good to have a plan in mind before you get there. It is also good, especially if you are new to buying, to have someone along who has experience. Even if you are an accomplished horseman, taking a friend along can help you to be more objective. When you talk to the owners to set up the appointment, try not to give a specific time when you will arrive. Try and leave a window of a couple of hours so that it will not be as easy for them to "prepare" the horse for your arrival. Let them know that you want someone there who can ride the horse (more on this later). Ask if they have a turn-out area, and if they do, ask them to leave the horse outside. One of the most telling signs of a horse's overall personality is how he reacts when someone approaches him outside. Does he run away? Or does he come to greet you and stand quietly so that his owner can catch him? If the owner has a hard time catching him, in my opinion, you should end the visit right here. Go home and set up an appointment to look at a different horse. Nothing is more frustrating than having to chase your horse for an hour every time you want to take him for a ride. While this habit can be broken in most horses with time and patience, some horses just don't like to get caught and no amount of coaxing can change their minds.
They've now caught the horse and the owner has brought him into the barn. If they don't put him right into his stall, ask that they do so. You want to have an idea of his barn manners. Check his stall for signs of chewing or kicking. If you see a path around the outside of his stall, you may have a stall-walker. Try and keep the owner engaged in conversation while you observe the horse for a few minutes. Now is a good time, if the horse is registered, to ask to see his papers. Carefully compare the description of the horse on the papers with the one in front of you. Make sure that the registered owner is the same as the person selling the horse or that they are a signed agent for the seller. Meanwhile, keep your eye on the horse in the stall. Any signs of cribbing or weaving? These are vices that can be detrimental to your horse's well-being. Also, if you are planning on boarding the horse, some barn owners will not accept cribbers, believing that the habit can be learned by other horses (even though there is no proof that this is so and substantial evidence it is not). When you walk up to the stall door, does the horse seem friendly or does he pin his ears or turn his backside to you? If he makes any attempt to bite or kick, say thank you for you time and leave. You don't need to look any further, unless you are very experienced. A horse that bites or kicks can be extremely dangerous, especially for a beginner.
But what if he seems friendly and there are no signs of vices? Up until now, you should just have been observing, now is the time to try and handle the horse yourself. Approach the horse, letting him sniff your hand and then patting him calmly. Lead him around a bit, turning, backing, trotting beside you. See how he acts on a lead. Tie him up (asking if he is trained to tie first) and ask the seller to stand aside. So long as the horse seems receptive, start running your hands down his neck and over his body. Rub all around, under his belly, between his back legs (staying to the side to be out of kicking range, just in case!). Pick up and hold ALL FOUR feet.
Assuming that everything has gone well so far, now is the time to observe again. If the horse is trained to lunge, ask the owner to lunge him for you at all three gaits and in both directions. Watch especially closely at the trot, since most lamenesses will show up best at the trot in a small circle. Now ask the owner to saddle and bridle the horse, watching carefully how he reacts. This next advice is a point of controversy, some people believe you should ride the horse first, the thinking being that you don't want to ride him after he is "warmed up." I believe, for safety's sake, you should always let the owner get on him first. If the owner seems apprehensive, that should send up a red flag. Also, by letting the owner ride him first, you can again watch for any signs of lameness, see how he carries himself, look at how he moves. Does he seem comfortable with a rider on top or is he switching his tail, acting nervous and generally looking unhappy? Is he is supposed to be trained for jumping? Then ask to watch him jump! If he is a reining horse, have them do some sliding stops, spins and roll backs. Many people make the mistake of not actually having the horse do exactly what they want him for. Then they get home and find out that for example, the horse they bought for jumping runs out at every approach. If you are buying him for trail riding, make sure you take him for a trail ride! Some horses perform perfectly in the ring, but become a basket case when faced with something new on the trails. If, after watching the owner ride, the horse still interests you, it's time for the moment of truth.
Before you mount the horse for the first time, ask if there is anything special you need to know. If the owner really wants to sell the horse, he won't want you to be surprised and will usually be forthcoming with any little idiosyncracies the horse has. For instance, he may not like you to keep contact with his mouth, or he might be very sensitive to leg aids. Once you are on the horse, start out at the walk, doing some stops, back and turns to see how the horse responds before asking him to go any faster. As long as he is responding well to you, try him at the trot and canter, taking note of how he transitions when increasing and decreasing speed. Does he feel relaxed and balanced, or is he like a coiled spring, just waiting to jump into action. These areas in particular are a matter of personal preference as well as your riding experience. Some people like a horse who is quiet and calm, "push-button" so to speak. Others will feel such a horse is boring and would rather have something a little more challenging. But be honest with yourself about your abilities. A spirited horse can be fun, but he can also be hard to handle, and you may find yourself wishing you had bought the old plug instead. If this is your first horse, it is probably a good idea to buy a horse that is more on the quiet side, since you are still learning and want a horse that will enable you to increase your skills and build your confidence. Make sure to try the horse at whatever it is you want to do, jumping, trails, whatever. You want to make sure the horse will work for you, as well as his current owner. Have your friend watch and give you his honest judgement on how he thinks you and the horse compliment each other. He can let you know if he sees something that you missed.
After riding the horse, you have made up your mind that" this is the one". You tell your friend that you are absolutely sure. So what now? GO HOME! This is where your friend can really be an asset. He or she can now remind you that you have several other horses to see, that you have not had this horse checked out by a vet, that you PROMISED you would not exchange any money today! Thank the seller for his/her time and tell them that you will be in touch if you decide to take a second look. Once you get home, sit down and think about everything you remember. Go and look at some other horses to compare. If you are seriously considering buying this particular horse, make a surprise visit to the stable. You can always say you were "just passing by" and decided to stop in. Some people will say this is rude, but there is a reason I tell everyone to do this. That reason is so that you can be sure the horse acts the same when the seller does not know you are coming. Like it or not, there are unscrupulous people in the world who will do and say anything to sell a horse. People will occasionally drug a horse with either pain-killers to mask lameness or sedatives to make an unmanageable horse behave. Stopping by unannounced can set your mind at ease or perhaps scratch a prospect off the list. Now could be a good time to ask about the horse's feeding program so you know what he is eating, how much, if any supplements are used, etc. If the horse still seems ok, you can ask what would be a good time to set up a visit from the vet. Pay close attention to the answers given. If the seller seems hesitant to answer anything you are asking, you should wonder why. If they have nothing to hide, they won't mind telling you what you want to know.
The last step before closing the deal is to have a veterinarian (yours) check the horse out. Since this is not a free service by any means, you should be sure that this is the horse you want to buy before setting one up. The cost can vary, depending upon what exactly you want the vet to look for. You need to let the veterinarian know exactly what your plans for the horse are. A simple exam for any obvious physical problems will usually run at least $50-100 plus mileage. The vet will check the horse's eyes, teeth, heart and lungs before and after work, flexion tests of the joints, a field neurological exam and testing of the feet with hoof testers. He will look for any obvious conformational abnormalities that will preclude the horse from it's intended use. Your vet will want to have on hand a complete medical history from the horse's present vet, which should be made available ahead of time. If you are wanting to use the horse for jumping or other such strenuous disciplines, or if your vet suspects a problem, he may want to take x-rays. At $20-35 a plate, these can add up quickly, but can save you huge amounts of money in the long run. Finally, it is important to remember that the vet is not there to tell you whether or not to buy this particular horse. His job is to give you the information that you need to make an informed decision.
So now the horse has passed all the tests, your friend agrees with your assessment and even the vet says he is ok. What's left? Making a deal! You should offer the seller an amount somewhat less than they are asking, it's kind of an expected thing. Chances are they are willing to move a little. After all, they probably want to sell as badly as you want to buy. But if they are firm on the price and you are sure this is the horse that you want, don't quibble. You don't want to be kicking yourself forever over a couple hundred bucks. That done, write the check, take him home and enjoy him!