Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Finding a Bombproof Horse

By Laura Crum

Not too long ago I read a blog that stated there was no such thing as a bombproof horse. Well, in a manner of speaking, that’s true. Any horse is capable of spooking or throwing in a playful crowhop. However, there are horses that will pack a beginner or a child or a timid rider with steadfast reliability, never doing a stupid, violent, or “scary” thing, such that said beginner need never be frightened or come off the horse. This is what I call a bombproof horse, and I’ve known quite a few of them.

I own such a horse currently. My son’s horse, Henry, qualifies as bombproof. I’ve blogged about Henry a few times and inevitably, in the comments, someone will remark that they wished they had such a bombproof horse for their kid, or themselves. So I thought I’d write today about how to buy a bombproof horse.

First of all, if you are new to the horse business, or even kinda new, you need a knowledgable helper. Your helper can be your trainer, or a friend who has been in the horse business a good long while. But be sure that whoever your helper is, he/she is not in a position to make money on the horse you might purchase. I mean it. It doesn’t work out. If you take a “trainer”, the trainer can make money training or giving you lessons on what you purchase, but be sure he/she is not getting a commission on the horse from the seller. Again, it doesn’t work out. I’ve had a lot of experience of this. There are exceptions, but you don’t want to be betting that you’ll be one. The most important thing your helper needs to be is a long time participant in whatever sort of horse activity you favor. If you’re looking for a gentle trail horse, don’t take a helper that shows a lot but never trail rides. Take someone who has trail ridden for years.

Also, if you are not new to the horse business, but you haven’t bought a horse in a long time, or you are new to the area, it would pay to find a helper who knows the local horse market well, particularly the part of it you’re interested in.

Second thing, be clear about your priorities. If you want a bombproof horse, do not get hung up in breed, or beauty, or color, or whether the horse can win at a certain event. Do not expect to get a horse who is younger than ten. It might happen, but it isn’t likely. What you are looking for is a sound, healthy, reasonably well broke (for whatever you want to do) bombproof horse. Expect the horse to be in his teens (at least). I will avoid horses that are much older than twenty. They may be perfect, but you are not likely to get that many more years out of them. But there are sure exceptions to this rule.

As for what type of horse is most likely to be bombproof, well, its hard to generalize. Old rope horses can be great. So can school horses. I have a theory that overly pretty horses are unlikely to be bombproof. No rhyme or reason to it. Its just what I’ve seen over the years. Plain, solid looking horses are the most likely candidates.

The hallmark of a bombproof horse is a solid mind. The horse is sensible; he does not panic. He can be very willing, or a bit lazy, but he is not genuinely resistant. He has no impulse to be defiant. He will go along wiith a beginner’s wishes, even though he knows the beginner is not really capable of being in charge. He may be lazy enough to be hard for a beginner to get in the lope, or he may move out easily, but he will stop when you pull on him. The bombproof horses I have known were bright-eyed, alert looking horses. The dull-eyed horse is unlikely to be bombproof, despite his apparently relaxed demeanor.

Now the most important rule about finding a bombproof horse is also the most difficult one to follow. You, or someone you know and respect, has to have known the horse for at least six months. Unless you follow this rule, you can’t be sure what the horse is really like. Any horse can appear bombproof on a given day or week, whether because he’s been ridden down, or just because he’s in a good space. If you have only the word of a stranger who is trying to sell you the horse, and the horse’s behavior the day you go to see him, you really don’t know enough to decide if the horse is bombproof.

The only way to be sure you are getting a bombproof horse is if you, or your helper has known the horse for awhile, or you are buying the horse from someone you trust who has known the horse for awhile. It is impossible to be sure about the horse otherwise. This is why a helper who is involved in the horse business is so important. If said helper can tell you, “I’ve seen this pony around for years, I’ve seen him packing beginners, I’ve never seen him doing a stupid thing,” that goes a long way.

This is the main way I buy horses. I keep an eye on horses that fit my needs, and when/if they come for sale, I buy them. Or if I need a horse, I make an offer. This is how I bought Henry. My son’s pony had recently died of cancer. I knew Henry, I’d known him for many years, and I knew he was what I wanted. I offered more money than this nineteen year old gelding was really worth. And I got him bought. He has been worth every extra penny, to me.

All the usual things apply when buying such a horse. Have the seller ride him first, then ride him yourself. But do not assume that you can tell much from this. Unless you can find someone who has known the horse for more than six months, you are really operating in the dark. What you can tell from riding your prospect is whether you like the “feel” of the horse. And bombproof or not, some horses fit some riders better than others. So, your test ride is to see if the horse gives you a good feel. Don’t go any further if you don’t like the feel, no matter how perfect the horse seems. Again, its been my experience that it doesn’t work out. But do be sure you try the horse in the application in which you plan to use him.

I can give an example here. When I first tried Sunny, my trail horse, I tried him as a replacement for Toby. For my son. I’d known Sunny for a few years; I knew he qualified as a steady, bombproof horse. I tried him in an arena, and decided he was too lazy, ill broke, and resistant for my son. I bought Henry (for more money) instead.

A few months later I decided I needed a bombproof trail horse for myself, in order to give my son a steady lead on the trails. I tried Sunny again, this time for myself, this time out on the trails. He was perfect. He is still a resistant, lazy, not very well broke horse in an arena. But to ride down the trail, he is a jewel. So try the horse in the ways in which you plan to use him. If possible, take him home on trial. Some sellers will allow this, some won’t.

The big question that I ask the seller is, “Has anyone ever come off of this horse? Ever. For any reason. If so, tell me about it.” The answer to this question, if the seller is honest, and has owned the horse at least six months, is very instructive. The other thing I do is try to determine exactly why the seller is selling this horse. This I don’t usually ask directly. I just pay attention and get them talking about the horse and their current situation. I try to figure out why they’ve decided to let this horse go. Its good if there is a logical reason that does not amount to some “issue” with the horse.

If neither you nor your helper has known the horse previously, and you don’t know the buyer (not an ideal situation), ask if you can get in touch with a previous owner of the horse. If you can get this contact info, use it. You will often get a very helpful, honest opinion from a previous owner. Be clear that you are looking for “bombproof”. Ask if anyone has ever come off the horse. Ask if the horse was ever lame. If you can’t talk to a previous owner, try to talk to someone who knows the horse but is not the seller (or the seller’s trainer). It is very important (I can’t stress this too much) to talk to someone who knows the horse and is not trying to take advantage of you. Be sure you understand “horseman speak,” too. No one likes to talk bad about someone else’s horse. If you tell the previous owner or trainer what you are looking for and there is a long silence, followed by, “Well, I guess he might fit,” consider yourself warned off.

Final point. And this is a very simple rule. Don’t buy a lame horse. Some exceptions to this rule apply, but not many. I can save you an awful lot of time, money and grief here. You will not enjoy your bombproof riding horse if he’s lame when you want to go for a ride. And even managable lamenesses take managing. And it usually costs money. Possible exceptions are things like bone spavin and minor arthritic stuff that many older horses have, that they warm up out of easily and quickly.

You actually do not usually need to do the often quite expensive vet check, if you follow these rules. Someone you trust has known the horse for at least six months. Said person can say with clarity that the horse has never done anything “scary”; no one has ever come off of him/her, horse has always appeared sound. You ask to contact horse’s regular vet and then ask he/she what issues horse has had. Finally, most important, you jog the horse in circles on hard ground (pavement or packed gravel, arena will not work) both ways. If the horse limps, don’t buy him. Do the jogging after you ride him, so the horse is thoroughly warmed up. Again, if he limps, don’t buy him. If you can’t tell if one is lame, you should have a helper who can. Period.

The seller is liable to say the horse is bruised, or has new shoes, or he’s “barely off”. Fine. Say you’ll come back in a month. Try the horse again. If he limps, at all, don’t buy him.

On the other hand, if he doesn’t limp, don’t be put off too much by the idea that he has some scary “incipient” problem. I’ve seen people vet check sound horses, get told the horse had incipient ringbone (determined through X-ray) and turn the horse down. Then they get to watch the horse stay sound for somebody else for the next ten years. My rule is, if he limps, don’t buy him. If he doesn’t limp, and it all seems right, I’m Ok with it. I rarely do vet checks any more. I certainly didn’t do one on either Henry or Sunny.

Long term health problems are another issue. When I bought Toby, our pony, I was told he had Cushings disease and had had a run-in with cancer. I accepted him because he was sound and seemed perfect for my needs. But I found that managing the Cushings with meds, removing the tumor when it reoccured, and giving meds to try to prevent it coming back, cost me far more than ten times Toby’s purchase price. Not to mention the time, trouble and worry. And Toby died of kidney cancer two years later. Would I still buy him, knowing what I know now? Yes, I guess I would. We loved Toby, and he taught my little boy to ride, but it was a sad, expensive business in the end. It’s a story worth remembering if you are looking at an older horse with known long term health problems.

On the other hand, Henry, who had never colicked or had one known health problem, colicked a year and a half after I bought him, and had to have colic surgery to save his life. Talk about expensive. So, you never know. But I am still glad I bought Henry. Yesterday my son and I went for a two hour ride through new country on Sunny and Henry and we had a blast. Both horses were steady and quiet, ears up, looking around. Deer crashed through the brush..etc, but not a spook or a jiggy step was ever seen, let alone anything worse. We had a delightful, peaceful, magical ride through the redwoods and neither of us had one anxious moment. (And by the way, we have had well over a hundred trail rides just like this on these two horses.) Our bombproof horses are worth every penny I spent on them. And I hope this blog will help someone else find just the horse they need.


autumnblaze said...

Very good advice. I would say if you're inexperienced with lameness a 'basic' vet check is nice. No x-rays. Have them check reflexes of cranial nerves and general health. Then flex and jog them out. It's not that much, usually.

I didn't do one on my boy though... but I had been riding him for 2 years, known him for 3 and had access to 10 yaers of his medical records so... I had a slight advantage. If I ever look for a horse for my husband or a child your rules will be taken into consideration for sure.

I also don't think you can be in a hurry. You implied it but it wasn't explicit. A horse is the worst impulse buy of all time.

Laura Crum said...

You're right, autumnblaze. Being in a hurry is a mistake. On the other hand, when Toby died, I was in a big hurry to find a replacement before the sadness of not being able to ride was added to my son's grief over losing his pony. My solution was to offer a high price for a good horse I knew well. The horse was getting older, still perfectly sound, and the guy that owned him decided to let him go. I do recommend this approach. Henry wasn't actually for sale. But if you want a horse and know one that you are real sure would fit you, it never hurts to make an offer.

Anonymous said...

Your advice is very good. I've always in the past bought horses for competition and bombproof wasn't part of the equation. But now I don't compete and some retraining was required - still a work in process. I've always been a real sucker for a pretty horse, too, and you're right, pretty is as pretty does. Making sure you have an advisor without a finger in the financial pie is good advice for all sorts of situations, not just horses. Thanks for taking the time and trouble to write this all up.

mugwump said...

I had to laugh when you said pretty horses aren't generally bomb proof. At the pasture where my yellow mare lives she is best friends with a doe-eyed gray TB mare her same age. They are known as "The cheerleaders." They run, they spaz, they goof and they (honest, I swear) flip their long manes at everybody.
Neither are, or ever will be, "bombproof."

autumnblaze said...

I caught that too mugs... and my mind wandered to everyone at our new barn telling me how very cute/handsome my boy is since we arrived.

I have detailed, more than once , he is not exactly bomb proof. :)

Laura may be onto something there, unforunately.

Maryannwrites said...

Thanks for the wonderful tips. Will keep them in mind as I consider getting another horse.

Laura Crum said...

What is it with the pretty horses, mugwump and autumnblaze? I have often pondered this odd fact of life. I have a theory, but it may not be a very good one. I wonder if the refinement necessary to create that pretty head and throatlatch doesn't somehow indicate a horse that is very "refined" personality-wise, ie overly sensitive. The sort of horse we called "spirited" when we were kids and dreaming of that magical beautiful stallion. In real life, it always seems to be the plainer, coarser horses that have the solid minds, more's the pity. I'm sure there must be exceptions to this, I just don't happen to know them. And my trail horse, Sunny, is very cute--but refined, or pretty, he is not.

horsegenes said...

Great article.

I really like the "6 month rule". That is perfect. I have seen people that just take the sellers word that the horse is bombproof. I know what my expectations are as far as bombproof, but other people may have a whole other idea about it. Asking the seller what his or her definition of bombproof is might save you some valuable time.

The best horse I currently own isn't pretty. BUT he is made right, has a huge heart, is smart and athletic and a ton of try. What more can a girl want?

You know the saying "pretty is as pretty does"? I think that it applies very well here. :)

Half Dozen Farm said...

LOL! About pretty horses...

My favorite story to tell about my old mare is the day I went to see/try her when she was with her previous owner.

Her picture on the for-sale ad had caught my eye. I could tell she had great conformation and moved nice and was probably sorrel with stockings, but the picture was old and faded, so really couldn't see any details.

I drove the three hours to see her, jumped out of the car and the first words out of my mouth (in a totally disappointed tone of voice), "Oh, she's roan!" I still can't believe I actually said it out loud in front of the seller!

Long story short, I rode her, loved her, and brought her home. Technically speaking, she's a sorrel sabino, not roan, but she has "roaning" throughout. After many years of being Absolutely The Best Horse Ever, she is semi-retired and spoiled rotten. I have to say that now, whenever I see a red roan or sorrel sabino, I take a second look because that's my favorite color! LOL!

joycemocha said...

My horse is a pretty horse. She gets a lot of comments in the barn. She's also reasonably cooperative, well-behaved on the ground, and so on, so forth.

But I would describe her as neither bombproof nor a beginner's horse. She has an opinion about things, is sensitive, responsive, and highly alert. The other day, after a very intense lesson in English tack, out of the blue she offered up a reining spin just as I started to dismount. We corrected the cues and she's not done it since--but she has hair-trigger responses (that I put on her) and is far too reactive to trust any novice with under saddle.

On the ground, she can be quietly pushy and challenging. She can be rather deceptive because she's quiet and rarely reactive, but oh boy--those who know her, know she's anything but a bombproof plug.

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--A bombproof horse and a plug are two different things. Henry, my son's horse, is not a plug. When I bought him he was a competitive team roping horse. He is a bombproof horse for a novice, but he has plenty of life for an experienced rider. He is a pleasure to ride. A bombproof horse is one that doesn't give a beginner grief. A bombproof horse is always sensible and solid under pressure. A bombproof horse does not do stupid, reactive things. A plug is an unresponsive horse. Two different critters. I would agree that your mare is not a bombproof horse. Not a plug, either.

Anonymous said...

I am an experienced horse person who has injuries from the past finally starting to take it's toll and I want a bomb proof horse. I want a horse that I could grab from the pasture once every 6 months to ride and have it be the same every dream horse. When I was younger...I could ride my injuries from the past are catching up with me already and it's a lot harder...I need a bomb proof horse...I can't wait until next spring...then I am shopping hardcore! And I don't care about ugly, I care about health and actual reliability.

I have a horse now, who I love to death!!! and he was suppose to be bomb proof. He is too, if you ride him practically every day...but I don't ride that he bucks and he bucks hard. I cannot stay on a bucking horse anymore. Crowhopping, yes. Bucking...NO! So I am going to give him to my dearest friend back home in South Dakota. She loves him to death and I know he will have a good life there. I just can't bare to sell him to some stranger. And this way, I am assured that if anything happens to my friend, then the horse will come back to me. He'll always be safe. He is the horse in my avatar.

Laura Crum said...

Wazzoo--You are so right. One of the main characteristics of a bombproof horse is you can let him sit for two months in his corral and pull him out and ride him and he is just the same. Both Sunny and Henry are like this--I love it. It is so relaxing to know that you don't have to keep the horse ridden down. I can only ride about two days a week right now, and I am really grateful that the horses are just fine with this. I am totally with you. At my age, I do not want to cope with a bunch of "fresh" antics from a horse. Yes, Sunny will occasionally crowhop, but that's as far as it goes. I love my bombproof horses!

Joy said...

Another good way to figure out if any horse is the one for you is to lease it if possible. I leased both my first and current horse before I bought either. No surprises that way.

Jasmine said...

I make my living in sales right now. Not for horses, but for cell phones. We have a 30 day return policy but if the buyer returns / cancels whatever in the first 6 MONTHS I lose money out of my commission check.

The goal is to set the buyer up with what they need not necessarily what they think they want. As a seller I have to do the work for the buyer and help them figure this out. As a buyer why not do the work beforehand so you know exactly what you're looking for.

One of the first things you want to ask is "why do you want a cell phone/ horse?"

"I want it to be emergencies only/ bombproof."

The next question is "Ok, what does that word mean to you?"

In the case of horses 'bombproof' has so many different meanings.
Do you mean calm and safe for a beginner to ride in an arena?
Do you mean trail safe?
Do you mean pony ride at the circus safe?
Parade safe?
Show safe?

Now some horses might fit multiple categories but some are going to be completely different animals depending on what you do with them.

Jasmine said...

Ack hit enter too early!!!

Anyway I think Laura's post about her bombproof horses is excellent advice. Particularly since she seems to have 2 truly great ones!

I really like the advice about bringing someone else along. Even if you are an experienced horse person we all need that little voice to help balance out the "but I looooooooove him" that sometimes hits! LOL I know I tend to crush on things. Right now I'm car shopping and thank goodness I have my hubby forcing me to keep an open mind.

mugwump said...

Jasmine- I like your comparison. Being this realistic could stop us from falling for, to my mind, the biggest danger, "I could probably ride it,look at those big brown eyes, he would never hurt me!

Laura Crum said...

You know, Jasmine, I have been doing this a long, long time, and I always take a friend with me who is a good horseman. Always. When I bought Henry I asked my two best friends if I should do it. They both said the same thing. "You're paying more than he's worth, but he is the perfect horse for what you want." Bottom line is, yes, take a trusted advisor no matter how experienced you are.

And again, by bombproof I mean, bombproof for your application. If you want arena safe, show safe, and trail safe, look for a horse that is bombproof in all three areas. They do exist. I've known quite a few.

You brought up another good point. When I bought Sunny, I asked the owner, "If I give you your asking price, I would like the right to return the horse in the first six months and get my money back." She agreed, and I agreed that I would return him in exactly the condition I bought him, or the deal was off. This seller was happy to agree to this, because she liked the horse and wanted him to have a good home. I asked it because the horse had some quirks. To begin with, I wasn't sure how he would work out for me. Turns out he worked out fine. And that little clause made it happen. Its worth a try if you think the horse is right but are unsure. Its only worthwhile with a trustworthy seller, however.

And muwump, I have so, so fallen for the "I'm sure I can work this out," feeling. And nope, none of those horses worked out. If the horse isn't what you want, don't bet on being able to fix him.

Natasa said...

Hi Laura!This is my first visit here and I really enjoyed your blog. I ride English but I am fond of almost every discipline and I study horse whisperers like Levinson and Sylvia Scott. I really liked what you said about bombproof horses. I haven't bought my own horse yet but I am planning to do so in a few years and I am dead fixed on finding a very bombproof ride. I would like to add that bombproof does not necessarily mean "older than 10". I've ridden 15 and 23-year-old horses who would be a handful at times and I've also ridden 7-year-old horses who were perfect for me (I used to ride a former racing mare, aged 7, who was the definition of bombproof for me but it certainly was not suitable for someone who liked quick horses. As for me, I could ride with reins loos in one had, no stirrups and cars passing by and not a care in the world!). I believe that it's the horses' temperament and proper desensitizing from an early age that plays the most important role. I love all horses but I wouldn't like to buy a horse older than 10 for myself, for many a good reason ( I would, however, opt for an older horse for my partner or my child). Also, I would not necessarily agree on the beauty thing, since there is no logical explanation providing evidence that beautiful horses are not bombproof. Okay, maybe it's what experience says but it could be due to the fact that the owners of very beautiful horses rely too much on the external beauty and do not pay attention to sacking out their horse.
You are so right about advising people to ask for the definition of bombproof! I've had trainers who would assure me that a horse is bombproof whereas I would find it very jiggy, so it's very important not to immediately trust someone but to investigate further.