Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Pitfalls

by Laura Crum


Awhile ago I wrote about a woman named “Nancy” who had asked me for advice on finding a family horse for her daughters. Nancy knew nothing about horses and was very timid. I introduced her to a competent young trainer I know named Bill. Bill had a horse he thought might fit her—a gelding in his teens named Walt. I watched Nancy and her daughters try the horse and Walt seemed suitable. However, it was clear that the horse wasn’t totally sound—no bob, but an awkwardness in the hind leg action. I thought, and Bill agreed, that Walt had something going on high up in the rear end. Still, he was servicably sound as a kid’s horse and quite gentle.

Anyway, Nancy passed on the horse and did not choose to use Bill as a helper. I left on vacation shortly after that, and when I saw Nancy again several months later, she had bought a horse and a pony—sans advice. She seemed quite happy with them and had chosen to board them with a woman, I’ll call her Sally, who had agreed to “help” her. Well, I knew of Sally by reputation, and I didn’t think she was a terribly competent helper, but, as I pointed out in my last blog post on this subject, I also didn’t think it would be all that useful to Nancy if I chimed in with some unasked for advice at this point. Nancy was happy with the situation—I felt it best to keep my thoughts to myself.

OK. Fast forward six months. Nancy’s daughters are in my homeschool group and I heard them talking about how their pony had bit and kicked at them. This alarmed me and I asked Nancy how it was going. I’m sure you all can guess what had happened.

In the intervening six months, the pony had gone from perfect manners to offering to bite and kick. Sally had done nothing to help them, just pointed out that the pony was having issues. The horse had had soundness issues. And, to top it off, Nancy could no longer afford to board the two animals with Sally and was looking for some place cheaper and closer to home—so far with no luck.

I have to admit, I stared at the woman in consternation. I like Nancy. I love her daughters. I wish only the best for them. But the number of problems contained in this five minute blast of information struck me as pretty much impossible to solve. Why had she chosen to buy TWO horses when she couldn’t afford the board bill? Why had she elected not to work with the competent person that I had steered her to but instead chosen Sally, who was charging her a very high board and lived an hour from her? Why had she selected her animals without the advice of an experienced helper?

Once again, I recommended to Nancy that she get a competent helper. At this point Nancy had decided for herself that Sally wasn’t much help, and seemed open to this suggestion. But now Nancy was also looking for cheap board, and I knew Bill would not be interested in this. So I recommended another woman I know who is a good horseman and teaches a lot of beginners. Unfortunately, I don’t think she offers cheap board either. And to make matters worse, this was a month ago, and since then it has rained pretty much non-stop. All horse people in the area are impacted by this. Experienced horse people with good situations struggle with mud. What in the world is going to happen to Nancy’s poor horse and pony? With an owner who has no experience and essentially no place to keep them.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and solve this problem. But I can’t. I told Nancy to feel free to come to me with questions, but I could neither board her horses nor help with their training. I am happy to advise her the best I can, but I think she’s put herself in a tough spot. Even if she wanted to get rid of the horses, nobody’s buying right now.

So, in the interests of preventing someone else from landing in a similar predicament, I’d like to offer some preventitive advice. If you are new to horses and think you’d like to buy one, select a competent horseman to help you. Ask your friends who have horses for advice on who to choose as a helper. Offer to pay said helper by the hour. Try to avoid a helper who makes a commision on the horse you buy or who only wants to sell you a horse. Don’t get into horse ownership without carefully considering where you will keep the horse and what this will cost.

In Nancy’s case, she had originally told me that she meant to keep her horse at her home. And she does have some land. However, when I asked her the specific question: “Do you have a fenced horse setup?” she said that she “meant to build a fence”. When I asked her what kind of fence, she clearly had no idea. I gave her some suggestions, and she declined them, saying they were “too expensive”. And, so far, it appears that she hasn’t built anything.

So, build the corral first—before you get the horse. If you can’t afford to build the corral, you can’t afford the horse. Or, line up the place where you will board. Make sure you can afford it and that its close enough to be workable. If you can’t find a suitable place then you’re not ready to buy a horse.

Consider the pitfalls of horse ownership. They are many and expensive. I love my horses dearly, but almost the first thing I say to a prospective new horse owner is “Are you sure you can handle this? It’s a lot of work and very expensive and you will need to work with a competent helper--at least for awhile.”

I don’t mean to discourage prospective new horse owners, but I have had a lifetime of experience learning how to deal with horses. It is totally impossible for me or anyone else to simply hand you this body of knowledge. It will take you many years to acquire it. And even then, there will be fences to build and vet bills and many other expenses that you didn’t know would be so high, as well as mistakes made—and yes, we experienced horseman make plenty of mistakes, too. I guess the big difference is that we more or less expect that we’ll have to deal with some expensive pitfalls. That’s the horse business.

So my advice to new horse owners would be to expect the unexpected. And expect it to be expensive. What advice would you offer?

22 comments:

ChristinaRae said...

VET CHECK!

I don't care if you're buying a horse from a friend, if he or she gets offended that you want a horse checked over before you commit to buying it, that's not a very good friend.

And, use your own vet.

Being out a hundred bucks for a vet check is much better than being stuck with bigger vet bills later on.

Enjay said...

Get a mentor, be it a trainer, helper, etc. Have emergency savings in place specifically for the horse before you buy them. I tried to have six months of board and two emergency vet visits in place, for me that meant about 5k. I boarded three horses so the actual amount I had on hand fluctuated because it seemed like I was always buying/replacing/fixing/vetting something but the only time I let it get below 2500 was when my mare cracked her coffin bone and most of it went toward her treatment and recovery.
If at all possible I like to recommend leasing for first time horse owners. Preferably from their mentor, that way if they get over their heads the horse has a place to go.

Laura Crum said...

ChristinaRae--That's an interesting subject. In a lot of cases I would agree with you. If you are a beginner, buying a horse without a competent advisor whom you trust, yes, get a vet check. Just a simple one--establishing basic soundness or lack of soundness, which may cost a only a hundred dollars or so.

But, since we are on the subject of pitfalls, consider the following. A friend of mine was buying a horse from a horse trader, and had a vet check done. The horse was pronounced sound and healthy by the vet, but then, (and be very wary of this) the vet wanted to X-ray the front feet, just in case. The x-rays showed "incipient ringbone", and the vet flunked the horse. My friend and I saw this horse for years at the ropings, completely sound--and just what the friend had needed.

In my own case, I prefer to buy horses I have known awhile, if possible, and am more interested in knowing the horse's history by talking to the seller's vet than I am in doing a vet check. I can establish whether a horse is sound without a vet's help (most competent horsemen can) and I'm not interested in spending money on X-rays which will not predict the future. You can have a horse who passes an elaborate vet check (and these cost more like a thousand bucks than a hundred bucks) with flying colors and then comes up with some dire problem six months later.

So, as I said, if you are a beginner, a simple vet check is probably in order. Better is to know the horse's history. Don't be too afraid of "possible problems". Life is a possible problem. Expect the unexpected, as I said in the post. My Sunny horse had been diagnosed with incipient ringbone two years before I bought him. Five years later and he's sound. Henry, on the other hand, was a completely sound, healthy horse who had never been sick a day in his life. And a year later I had to spend ten thousand dollars to save his life via colic surgery. This is the horse biz.

If I had my choice, I would take a six month trial period over a vet check. This is what I did with Sunny. I gave the owner her full price, but we agreed that I could return the horse within a six month period for my money back if he didn't suit me. Had Nancy asked my advice--which she didn't--I would have told her to take the gentle gelding Bill tried to sell her on these terms. And yes, today, six months later, that horse is still doing fine and reliably packing beginners for Bill.

Laura Crum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kel said...

Every time I hear someone say - "I want a horse" my first response is "becareful what you wish for". I love my horses and the work that comes along with them is a joy for me (except the mud, I hate the mud). The work relaxes me, it centers me, and humbles me. With all that said, I guess I am kind of a weird duck and have such an obsession with horses that no one in their right mind would or could understand. In the past, if I think that they are really serious, I have offered prospective new horse owners to spend a week or two shadowing me. They usually think that I am trying to get them to do my chores. I tell them that the point is - if you are not willing to spend one week following me around, are you really ready to do it all by yourself full time? And that doesn't even scratch the surface of the economic hit your pocket book is going to take. Of course I have never had anyone follow through. Big Surprise.
All your suggestions are great ones. I especially like the suggestions that they find a competent trainer and to build first then buy. Another suggestion might be to lease a horse for 6 months before buying. The "honeymoon" period is usually over after 6 months and they would realize that horse ownership is or isn't for them. With so many young girls it is a passing fancy. Parents are so ready to give their children everything they ask for and they fall into a big black hole when it comes to horses.

Kind of off topic but one thing that drives me nuts with the "wanters" is when they say "I just want to ride - I love horses and I just want to learn to ride". What do you all think the percentage of ride time vs care, feeding, grooming, etc is? 20% ride time / 80% chores? How much time and money does it take to accomplish "I just love horses and I want to learn to ride"? They say it like it is something that takes a couple of bucks and a week or two. Then there are the ones that ask "Can I come ride your horses? I love to ride but I never get a chance". These people would never ask to drive your truck, use your tooth brush, or borrow your spouse but they think that it is o.k. to ask to ride your horse.

Mrs Mom said...

Take lessons. LOTS of lessons, on a variety of horses. Look into leasing a horse for a time, so you can get a bit of an understanding what ownership entails.

Do. The. Math. Repeatedly. And just when you think you have all your figures lined up, add in another thousand dollars or three, "Just In Case". (Colic comes to mind as one of those JIC's.)

Horses are amazing, fantastic, incredible and more fun than a barrel of monkeys. But I'll tell you what- BEFORE you commit to owning one, do copious amounts of homework and research. Please. It will save you in the long run.

Laura Crum said...

kel--I couldn't agree more on the folks who want to come ride your horse. This is something that really bugs me. I let my son's friends ride his horse, carefully supervised by me (with parental permission), but I have had to tell numerous completely inexperienced adults that no they cannot ride my horse. Let alone I don't feel I can assure their safety and I don't want my horse messed up, it offends me, as if they had asked to borrow my car or the necklace I'm wearing.

Laura Crum said...

And Enjay and Mrs Mom--I have never leased and have no experience with this, but it makes total sense. Kind of like my six month trial period. Good advice.

Shanster said...

Oh yuck - I'm sorry to hear this! I remember that post and how frustrating it was.

Yeah - lessons, read books, price out fence materials, hay sources, farriers in the area, or the costs and locations of full care facilities, price out routine vet care cost for vaccinations assuming a beginner won't do that themselves... I agree with everyone on that for sure.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--Yeah, yuck was my reaction, too. Much as I want the best for this woman and her family, I feel she's made ill-considered choices and didn't seem to want/be able to be directed in a more sensible course by me or anyone else. At this point I honestly don't know how to help her. If she can't afford to build a horse setup and can't afford board, how is she going to afford the vet care and lessons/training she and her children will inevitably need? And what if the pony kicks one of her little daughters and hurts her? And what exactly is Nancy going to do with the horse and pony if she can't afford to board them where they are and can find nowhere to go thats cheap enough for her. With all the mud we have around here right now all cheap boarding situations are inevitably going to be pretty horrid. She was looking for a place where you did your own feeding and cleaning--but she planned to be out of town for several weeks. How is that supposed to work? These are the kind of things beginners need to think about before they get a horse, not after. I'm not sure I can do much to help Nancy, but hope the post might help someone else.

Gayle Carline said...

I agree with Mrs Mom - find a place where you can lease a horse. If you have to stable your horse away from you, this will tell you how often you can get out to ride & care for a horse of your own. I've only been around horses for 11 years, and I've still seen perfectly nice people make perfectly stupid mistakes by getting in over their heads with horses. I have young students whose parents want to get them everything they want, and naturally they start talking about horses. I tell them, lease, lease, LEASE first. It's not a violin that you stuff in the closet when the kiddo gets tired of playing with it.

At the end of the day, you can do nothing for that woman or her kids if she's not serious about taking your advice. I'd be tempted, in your shoes, to have a kind but realistic talk with her if she asked me again for advice, one that let her off the hook for her inexperience, offered her some real options for how to get new homes for these horses, and included a gentle version of "don't ask me any more unless you really want my help."

Laura Crum said...

Gayle--You have a very good point. I pretty much wrote off this deal when Nancy appeared to ignore my initial attempt to help her. At that point she'd looked at many horses, rejected them all, and complained of people who were not honest with her. I'm not sure what she thought of my advice, but she sure didn't take it. At this later date I was the one who asked her how things were going, since I had heard her little daughters talking of their pony trying to bite and kick them. I told Nancy that I thought it was very important that she get competent help and stressed the safety issue, but I guess if she actually comes to me again, I will have to get a little stronger on the "you need to have an appropriate plan". I did say (when she first told me she was determined to buy a horse), "Do you have a fenced horse setup?" and she really begged the question. I guess that should have been the tipoff. However, her older daughter had taken lessons for many years and the mom was determined to buy this 13 year old a horse. I didn't think I could discourage her, so I tried to help her. And, as you see, to no avail.

redhorse said...

Laura, you not only tried to help Nancy and her daughters, you gave them the best advice you could. It's frustrating when people don't understand that your advice comes from years of experience. If I were you, and she asked for help again, I would not hesitate to give it to her in some pretty harsh terms. She is putting her children at risk, as she is putting the pony at risk for being labeled "dangerous," and we all know what can happen to horses in that category. I feel sorry for the daughters.

I am also offended by people who think riding my horse is a better option than taking riding lessons at a stable where they have to pay someone for their time. Anyway, my horse isn't trained for beginning riders. He is trained for me, and his training is based on my 30 yrs plus of experience, he is trained to be safe and comfortable for me at my level of riding ability. It's a very personal thing.

Alison said...

Laura, I know you like this mom and family, but honestly, she sounds like an idiot.
I'm so glad several comments brought up people wanting to 'ride' your horse. I always tell them that first they need to take several lessons at a nearby farm; next they need to groom and tack up the horse and mount without any help. That usually ends the discussion. (Most of these 'wanters' are too out of shape to mount!)
As always, a fun discussion.

Laura Crum said...

redhorse and Alison--I appreciate your feedback. I will admit that the thought "this woman is behaving in a very stupid way" has crossed my mind a number of times. I think when I wrote the original post about her, my topic was that I did not want to try to help beginners any more. Its too frustrating. But then I think to myself, oh come on, you were a beginner once. What would you have done without help? And, of course, I had a lot of help. But I sought it out, I tried hard, I learned. But I made a heck of a lot of bad mistakes, too, so I try not to be too judgemental of others.

Funder said...

Wow, Laura, this is such a sad story. It's entirely predictable, but it's still heartbreaking for all the beings involved - Mom, kids, equines.

My usual piece of advice, if I'm asked, is "Every interaction between you and your horse is teaching him something." You cannot let them "snuggle" and "insist" on things, no matter how cute you think it is. You have got to be in charge at all times. New horse owners usually have a hard time quietly insisting on respect, and that's where the rankness starts.

re: Laura's first comment - there is no way I'd ever let a new horse owner trial a horse for 6 months. Someone experienced who wanted a specific type of mount, sure, but not a newbie. Think of the mess if Nancy returned her horses to the original owner - questionably sound with six months of bad behavior fresh in their minds.

MableKB said...

Good Post! I'm sure this has been said some way or another, but my first trainer once told me: "Most people can afford a healthy horse, not many can afford a sick horse. Make sure you can afford a sick horse before buying one." And that is how I've judged my horse purchases. I had to wait a long time before I was in a situation to board, pay for and ride my own horse, but I've seen enough desperate situations that I didn't want to become one. And it was worth the wait. Horse ownership isn't enjoyable if you are constantly stressing about behavior and money problems.

Laura Crum said...

MableKB--great advice-thanks for sharing that.

Funder--Yeah, that's exactly what happened. Nancy described enough for me to realize they were letting the pony push them around. She had great manners when they got her, apparently. But ponies are smart. I gave Nancy a short mini-talk about how not to be dominated, but went right back to the point that she needed a competent helper and that this was a truly dangerous situation.

And yeah, you're right about not allowing a newbie to trial a horse. Still, from a buyer's point of view, its a great approach. Not so much from a seller's--unless you trust the buyer.

Joy said...

I leased both of mine before I bought them. I knew what I was getting into and I really really knew them each as well. It worked out really well for me. I always have suggested leasing to people who have asked me about buying a horse. You have almost all the responsibility and can absolutely walk away if you need to.

My husband says I can never lease another horse though. He's caught onto me. crap.

Laura Crum said...

Joy--I think you have hit a good point, which many others recommended. I never did this, but it makes perfect sense. I will remember to suggest this next time. Thanks.

HorseOfCourse said...

Sad to say, this doesn't surprise me.

As you say, horse knowledge comes at the price of many years of hard work.

If she did not appreciate the invaluable help that she was able to get through you in the first place, I would say she did not really know what she was getting into.
It is sad.
Sad for the kids that could have had a lovely horse experience and now probably have got some scares, and sad for the horses that might have an uncertain future.
And quite unnecessary too.

Laura Crum said...

Horse Of Course--I agree--it is sad and discouraging. When I first posted on this subject my topic was that I didn't want to try to help beginners any more. But I made mistakes, too, when I first started owning horses, some of them nearly as bad. I try to remember this.