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.