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Pets Large & Small

Buying the Perfect Horse

Dr. Kimberly Brokaw, DVM

(8/2014) One of the biggest challenges for a rider is finding the perfect horse. For starters, the perfect horse doesn't exist and if it did exist you can bet that it wouldn't be for sale. Hence, your average sales horse has some degree of lameness or a temperament issue. The challenge is determining if the temperament issue is too much for the rider or if the horse is too lame for the rider's goals. Like many things in life, horse ownership is about compromise and in what aspects you are willing to compromise.

When deciding to go purchase a horse, the rider should have clear expectations of what they want. There is room to compromise later but at least initially; you should know what you are looking for. It will save you time and sometimes prevent you from being injured. One client told me that when they were horse shopping they would always ride every horse they looked at. I told them that was a bad idea. If you are shopping for a kid safe horse and when you show up to look at the horse, if it is rearing and striking in the stall, don't waste your time riding the horse. Even if the horse rides beautifully and is calm and quiet under saddle, his stable vices make him unsafe for a kid.

I currently have two clients who are very actively seeking horses. One client is an experienced event rider. He can train horses and is willing to deal with a bit more spunk and excitability than the average person. However, he is not willing to compromise on soundness and athleticism. So while he doesn't want one that is rearing in the stall, if the horse is sound and a talented jumper he would compromise if it was a little spooky. While one would think this would be an easy horse to find, he has been looking for months with no luck. In fact we haven't even made it to the pre-purchase phase where I get to tell him that the horse he thought was perfect, is in fact lame.

The perfect horse should make you say "Wow" when you sit on them -
no matter how may years have passed since you bought them!

While lameness is going to be a deal breaker for my eventing client, my second client would consider a lame horse depending on how lame the horse is. A little bit of hock arthritis or a touch of heaves (COPD) wouldn't be a problem for this buyer. Even with being willing to compromise on soundness, she is still going to have difficulty finding her ideal horse. She is looking for a dual-purpose horse. This horse needs to be for a child who is just learning to ride as well as be suitable for guests to ride. The guest horse is usually similar to the child's horse in that a quiet calm and sweet disposition is essential. Smooth gaits would also be desirable for both a kids pony and a guest horse. However, the size of the horse is in conflict. Children tend to do well on ponies simply due the better size ratio. Guest horses usually need to be larger to accommodate riders of varying heights.

Think carefully about what health or management issues you can tolerate. If you buy that calm, experienced, 20 year old pony for your 6-year-old child, you may have to give or have the vet out to give injections of joint medications to keep that pony sound. If you have your heart set on an appaloosa with beautifully spotted markings, remember that they have an increased incidence of uveitis/eye problems and blindness. That lovely Impressive line quarter horse should have been checked to be sure there is no HYPP muscle disease in his line. Talk with your vet and get a good pre-purchase exam so you can review the potential health problems of your possible purchase. If you buy a horse who wears special shoes, make sure you have a farrier who does therapeutic shoeing, or that you are willing to trailer to Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center or another therapeutic farrier, every 5 weeks.

Have a trainer or experienced horse person evaluate the horse for you. As a vet, I can tell you about health problems. A trainer can tell you that the horse will likely be able to do the discipline that you want. If you buy a Tennessee Walker and expect him to do dressage and upper level eventing, you may be disappointed. Think about how versatile the horse needs to be and get the trainer's opinion on versatility. If you want to do long quiet trail rides, do some eventing, and also ride on a polocrosse team, you need to find a very versatile horse. My family had an Irish Draught Sport Horse who did those three disciplines. It is an unusual horse who will pack 2 kids, double bareback, down for a swim in the river on one day, event the next day, and do a polocrosse match that weekend. He came to my family because he was a terrible foxhunter, and had been purchased by his previous owner for foxhunting.

Knowing what you are looking for is just the start of finding a horse. There are multiple websites listing horses for sale. You can search by zipcode, bloodlines, style of riding, and appearance of the horse. You can gain a lot of information in reading the ads. While the seller isn't ever going to describe their horse as being "lame with a strong desire to bite and kick," they will use code words that can help the buyer decide if they should go look at the horse. "Strong at times" tends to mean he has run off with a rider who was unable to make the horse stop. Other phrases such as "needs a confident rider" also tend to mean the horse is a bit spooky or strong. Omissions in the ad can also be informative. If the only thing listed is a physical description of the horse and nothing about temperament, he's probably not very nice. Same thing applies if the ad doesn't mention if the horse has any training, whether it be trails, dressage, jumping, or cow cutting.

After you have read through the advertisements and picked a horse that looks nice, contact the seller and ask about the things that are important to you. If the horse has to be breed registered, then ask that before you waste the sellers time by looking at the horse if it's not registered.

Seeing the horse and riding is, in my mind, essential. I've known several people who have bought horses sight unseen. While it has worked out really well for a couple of clients, the majority have regretted that choice. I tend to be forgiving if a seller cancels an appointment to see a horse because of lameness. Horses step on rocks, get bruises and abscesses that can temporarily make them lame. However, if I show up to ride the horse and the seller then "discovers" the horse is lame, I'm less forgiving. I tend to be suspicious that the horse is always lame or this is an ongoing issue and that is why they didn't cancel our appointment. The same goes for behavior issues on the test ride. Maybe the horse is being the worst behaved he's ever been in his life. However, if that is too much horse for the rider to handle, then don't buy the horse. You need to be able to handle the horse at his worst even if that only happens a couple times per year.

Buying a horse is a challenge. I strongly recommend that people take their time when purchasing a horse. A lame horse that's dangerous and kicks needs farrier, vet care, and hay and grain just like a calm and kind horse. If you're going to be spending money on a horse, it may as well be on a nice one that you can enjoy riding.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw