By Terri Rocovich
Since so many of us are on the hunt for a new mount, I thought I would share some of my thoughts and experiences on purchasing and vetting horses for myself and my clients. Let me start by saying that I may be a bit different in buying a new horse than many others since I rarely if ever sell them again if they become a part of my 4 legged family. In my life time I have sold only 1 horse that I owned (obviously I have sold many horses for clients) so when I buy a horse it is for the life of that horse. Nothing wrong with any other approach, that is just what works for me.
With that said I think that there are several things one should consider when looking for horses. You first must identify what you really want, which may not be as easy as it sounds. Do you want a horse just to learn on, one that will be competitive at your chosen discipline, one that will challenge you and perhaps take you to the next level, one that will teach you and take care of you or simply a horse to be your friend. All of this is important. Then you look at related factors that will afect the price and availablity of your dream horse.
Green vs Experienced
With a young horse you may pay less money but a horse with a career under it's belt will most likely come with some maintenance issues. I for one am looking for a horse in the age range of 4 to 6 for two reasons. First of all, an older horse with a show record and with the talent I am looking for will be way out of my price range unless I can magically win the lottery in the next few months. Also, because I buy horse's for life, I want a horse with more career in front of him than behind him. For some riders though an experienced schoolmaster type is the best way to go especially for kids that are learning and wanting to compete. What you pay out in maintenance such as joint injections, NSAIDS, or joint supplements you will make up for in the confidence gained by the rider and safety.
Strictly show or all around horse.
Many horses that are well-mannered and reliable at shows are not reliable and even down right unsafe on the trail. I for one think that being able to take a horse out in th open on a trail or even camping is good for their mental development not to mention the conditoning benefits of doing hills or riding on the beach. Over the years I have had many tell me I am nuts to take my expensive (at least for my budget) upper level dressage horse Pete out on the trail and I have taken him horse camping to the cuyamacas and to the beach on several occasions. What if he steps in a hole, spooks or gets you off and runs down the road they have all said. But by my way of thinking, anything can happen anywhere and I would rather take a calculated, limited risk and have a happier, better mentally balanced horse because of it. Not to mention how happy it makes me to be able to trail ride.
I have also had a couple of horses that I would not ride on the trail for love nor money. I learned my lesson years ago with a Dutch Warmblood that I was competing for a client. He was a bit spooky even in the show ring so I thought I could desensitive him by getting him more comfortable on the trail. Well the comfortable on the trail part just was not going to happen and after nearly being killed by him (all 17.3 hands of him) bolting on the trail from just about anything; I decided that trail riding was not for that horse. So if trail riding is on your priority list, temperment and level headedness are going to be essential qualities in the horse the horse you buy.
Soundness is relative
Although I believe that a vet check is essential no matter how much you are paying for a horse, I always approach them with a strong dose of reality and practicality. Lets face it; there is no such thing as a 100% sound horse and God knows they rarely stay that way. Hock flexions can tell you a lot but the are not a sure thing. I have had horses not test positive at all in flexions and then show significant changes in radiographs or the reverse. Radiographs (Xrays) are important but are not always afforable or within your budget. My general rule, and I try to build this into the budget, is to do at least xrays on the hocks (and stifles if I can afford it) and front feet because these are the areas that are easy to image and can most often yield career ending problems. Confirmation is also an essential element and I use as critical of an eye as possible in the area before even going to see this horse. My horse Pete has several minor conformation faults one of which is a slight toeing out on the front right foot. So it was no surprise that both his suspensory and tendon injuries (both of which he has recovered from) were in the front right.
Nothing substitutes heart
Even the best conformation and pefect soundness cannot be a substitute for heart. It is that intangible and immeasurable quality of heart that can make up for many physical faults. In my family we call it the "butt test". What does your butt tell you when you sit in the saddle and ride. I almost passed on Pete because he was not very impressive looking standing in the stall but when I sat on him I knew I was home. And it his heart and his fortitude that took him, and me with him, much farther up the levels than you would think his physical abilities could have.
If I have nagging doubts, I always tend to pass. Always go with your gut. Have I missed a few opportunities? Probabably, but I am a fatalist and I believe that what is meant to be will be.
What have you experiences been? How did you find the horse of your dreams or are you still looking?
I just recently completed a search for a new horse - and I've actually got two - one I picked up last fall as I was likely to be able to ride him on the trail over the winter, which proved to be the case, and the other needs more work and I'm hoping to pick him up in March.
I think knowing what you want and what you'll be happy with is critical, and then you need to willing to be picky, picky, picky. I care a lot about the horse's mind and conformation/soundness. I don't start my own horses, so a good foundation is essential, and trainability. I spend a lot of hours on the phone with sellers - and I'm always looking for a reason to take a horse out of the running.
I do a prepurchase exam and I do care about x-rays of front feet/fetlocks and hocks - some minor hock arthritis is OK (I'm looking at younger horses) but major stuff or unsoundness is not OK. I care a lot if my sellers are honest and forthcoming - I want to know where the issues are with the horse. I don't deal with dealers or sale barns - just my preference.
I did a whole series of posts on my horse search - under label "horse search" on my blog if anyone cares to look.
According to the psychic who read my first horse, she picked me. She was a sweet little filly with a very soft jog and lope. Unfortunately, she had also been pushed too hard too fast. It didn't damage her body, but she was distrustful of everything and everyone. We tried to make her a show horse, but the emotional wound was too deep. So what did I do? I bred her - and did get my perfect horse! He's beautiful black gelding who loves to show. I still have his mom, too (like you, I'm in it for life), and I kick around on her at the ranch. A trail ride might improve her mind, but since she spooks when the trash can has been moved, I'm unwilling to try it. But she's the horse I cuddle and talk to, unlike her son, who is an excellent show horse, but a pushy, mouthy, pain-in-the-butt on the ground. I guess if you put them together, I've got one perfect horse!
P.S. My horse even has his own blog. http://thatsmysnoopy.blogspot.com
My favorite way to buy a horse is to pick one up that I've "known" for years, and know is suitable for my intended use. This is the way I bought Henry and Sunny. In this case, I don't bother with a vet check, though I will often talk to the previous owner's vet and learn what has come up with the horse.
That said, I've acquired horses from the horse trader--that is the way I got Flanigan--perhaps the best horse I ever owned. See my post "The Magical Horse". Horses from this source I do vet check.
I agree with the going with your gut. I agree with passing on the nagging doubts. But if there's a horse you just can't forget (this was Sunny, who I bought six months after I first tried him), sometimes you might want to revisit your choice. As you say, Terri, if its meant to be, it will happen. Sunny was still not sold and waiting for me when I called his owner up after six months. This despite the fact that numerous people had "almost" bought him. Sales fell through when people lost their jobs...etc. The horse was meant to be mine. Or so I believe.
And I'm in the camp that wants a horse to be eight or older. I'm done training. Been there, done that. Now I just want to enjoy relaxing rides on a dependable horse. Not hitting the ground is objective number one. Horses over eight years old are, overall, a much better bet for reliability. There's always exceptions, of course.
Thanks for an interesting post, Terri! I hate looking for horses, mostly because the price range has gotten so ridiculous. My horse was a giveaway. He was two and the current owner was smart enough to see that his conformation wouldn't withstand the rigors of eventing and wanted him to go to a good home. He has one for life!
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