How to go about buying a horse - a personal story of the highs and lows of horse shopping
The moment is here! You’ve done the math. You feel you can ride well enough that you want to move on from the wonderful lesson horses that have patiently taught you how to post in trot and two point in canter so you decide to make the leap into owning (or maybe leasing) a horse of your own. There is a lot to consider, so where to start the process of buying your own horse?
Finding a horse can be an emotional rollercoaster, and there is no such thing as a 'perfect' horse, though Charlie pictured above is just about as close as you can get!
I suspect many of us have spent years dreaming about the moment when you can finally get the jigsaw puzzle pieces of life to fall into place and enable you to consider taking the huge leap into horse ownership. There is a lot to consider after all, such as; where to keep the horse, who your trainer should be, what type of riding you want to do, what is your budget, etc, etc, etc. The list goes on and on.
Like any decision involving looking after an animal, the idea of becoming a horse owner is not to be taken lightly, both from an emotional and financial point of view. Horses are wonderful animals of course, the benefits they provide for mind, body and soul are impossible to put a price on. But they also seem to have a propensity to rack up vet and feed bills in the blink of an eye. The responsibility of looking after an animal, a large animal with a never ending appetite and ongoing need for training, shoes, meds, equipment etc is a significant decision. Just because you are buying a horse it doesn’t mean that you will never need lessons again. In fact, unless you’re a professional or supremely confident individual, having a regular lesson schedule or being in a training program with any horse, especially a new horse is a very good idea. Of course if you want to have the exciting opportunity to show your horse (whatever the discipline) you will need to factor in those additional costs and training becomes necessary for most people. Even a local amateur level of showing can add significant cost, and of course time, to your decision making.
A lot of the decision about where to board your horse depends on where you are located of course. Full disclosure, until a few years ago I lived in the UK, where there were acres of grazing and plentiful well managed livery stables to choose from. There is also a concept of ‘Do It Yourself’, or DIY boarding i.e. all the stable management is the responsibility of the owner. That means all the horse care jobs ie everything from stall cleaning, feeding, grooming, turn out, blanketing etc is all done by you, unless you pay for additional services.
DIY cuts the costs of boarding significantly but also increases the time you need to spend going to the barn to twice a day. Therefore my previous horse owning experience has been in a location where horses can happily graze (often in small herds) for 8-24 hours a day and the cost of a bale of hay seemed expensive at $5. I now live about 3 miles from downtown LA and lets just say grazing land is ….non existent. And yet there are hundreds, and I mean hundreds of horses residing happily in the neighbourhood as one of LA’s best kept secrets.
It's taken me a long time to adjust to this lifestyle (and the associated costs) and finally, finally I am in a place where buying a horse seems to be within touching distance. But this is a process, and one to be carefully considered so here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Sounds obvious but it's a good idea to spend significant time thinking about what you want to get out of horse ownership before you start looking. So here are some questions that may be worth considering:
What discipline or style of riding are you planning on doing?
English or Western? Dressage, hunters, jumpers, eventing, or trail riding? Maybe a little of all of these disciplines? Within these ‘categories’ what level do you realistically want to achieve? Do you have ambitions to ride Grand Prix dressage or 4 foot hunters? Or are you likely to be just as happy trail riding around your location? Each answer will bring along with it a different type of horse so being realistic about what you want to achieve is worth consideration. The type of riding you want to do will heavily influence where you board your horse, if you want to jump hunters you need access to schooling equipment and good footing, if you want to trail ride you need safe access to trails (obvious!).
How experienced are you?
Do you have the knowledge, skill and desire to take on a youngster or an off the track thoroughbred? Or do you want something that is already experienced and can pack you round a jumper class? A lot depends on the budget here. Ready made horses come with a significantly higher price tag, rightly so as someone has spent the time training them to that level. But that does mean that the average experienced horse comes at significant cost. And if that is not the case then ask why, good horses don’t come cheap as a general rule. If you don’t have a level of experience to take on a green horse do you have a trainer that can help you? Inexperienced riders combined with green horses can be a problematic combination and having a trainer you trust and enjoy working with will be important to ensure you have a satisfying experience as possible.
What do you want to get from the process?
Are you interested in competing? Or does the process of the training steps required to prepare you to show interest you more than the show itself? Are you more focused on the relationship with the horse, and/or the rosettes that may come along as part of the package? Having an idea about what you want to learn is a good idea. A four year old is likely to take a considerable amount of training before you can even consider a show, whereas a seasoned pro should load and go without issue (we are talking about horses however, so anything could happen and having flexibility of thought and goals is also a good idea!). Thinking through what will be satisfying is important. Perhaps that means experiencing your trainer working the horse initially for you, which can be extremely satisfying too.
Talking of goals
What do you really want to achieve? Are you going to be satisfied putting in the training time rather than getting straight into the ring? Does it matter to you how quickly you achieve the goals you set yourself? Sometimes just spending time at the barn grooming or watching the horse in turn out, observing its behaviour can be satisfying and will help build a relationship with your horse. Another goal may be to sell the horse in the future, so looking at the purchase as more of an investment rather than it being a horse for life, which means a different outlook and possibly a more thorough vetting in case future owners want to see a suite of x ray films.
What is your appetite for risk?
Buying a horse is an expensive business, not only the upfront purchase price but the ongoing board, insurance, training etc. You may find there is no such thing as ‘perfect’ and you have to be prepared to shift your view on what is important. An off the track thoroughbred or unbroken three year old will be far cheaper to purchase than a 14 year old show pro but may need a lot more training.
I am risk averse, and have become more so over the years thanks to horses going lame or having other issues. Therefore I am unlikely to buy a horse from seeing it on a video. However this works well for many people and I admire their appetite for taking the risk. I thought I might be ok with this method, but then when I actually started looking I realized how important it is for me to actually go and see said animal in the flesh, plus riding it is a good idea. I've been surprised several times recently, getting on a horse that looks smooth and simple to ride in a video feels completely different in the saddle, and visa versa.
Note: I toyed with the idea of buying a horse from a video (she was located in Texas but the parentage was known and liked). The videos looked good, the vetting was done on a live link which all went well. That is until she failed.
Do your research
Breeding can play a significant factor in the type of horse you want, and your goals will be important here. If you want to compete at high level dressage or jumping you would likely be better with a horse bred for the job. If you want to trail ride then a quarter horse might be a better choice. Once you have decided what sort of riding you want to do then research the horses available for that discipline. Solid, versatile all rounders seem hard to come by, at least in the local Los Angeles area but that could just be a current trend.
How far are you willing to travel?
Stating the obvious here but America, let alone California is a VERY big place! So far I have been on two flights and multiple long car journeys and not even remotely left the state. These trips have allowed us to look at multiple horses but it's been expensive and time consuming for all involved.
Take your trainer with you, or at the very least a trusted and experienced friend
This is my biggest learning so far, I’ve been lucky enough to own a few horses in the past in the UK and only once did I take a trainer with me - that horse turned out to be the horse of a lifetime and is still going strong 20 years later (sadly with a friend as life circumstances forced me to sell him after a few years). The others did not work out so well and I wonder if I had a trainer with me would they have spotted some of the issues which sadly presented themselves in later life and meant they were either unsuitable or had health issues.
Preferably not just any trainer but the person who has been working with you and you have a trust with, they can’t make decisions for you of course, but they can carefully guide and advise in what is possibly a better decision than the next.
Get a pre purchase exam done
I’ve had two horses fail pre-purchase exams. Annoying/frustrating at the time, but not as annoying or frustrating as it would have been when the very lovely mares became lame. Money wisely spent it turned out
What I have learned about myself
I am very risk adverse, and buying a horse is inherently full of risks :) Even getting onto strange horses has been quite a big thing to get used to, though I have actually started to enjoy it
Believe in yourself. Confidence is a very strange beast but believing you can ride is a definite plus point!
Be honest, with yourself and everyone else involved in the process.
Be prepared for the process to take time. Buying horses is a bit like a dating game with someone who can only communicate through body language and even then the body is pretty different from yours.
Long story short, be prepared to have an adventure, horse buying is fun, emotional (I have cried in front of a very nice vet and my trainer more than once in this process) stressful, rewarding, and challenging all at the same time. There is no one size fits all approach and no such thing as a perfect horse so all you can do is ensure that it feels right in the moment.
Most of all, enjoy the journey!