How To Find And Buy The Perfect Horse
Once you have committed to make the financial expenditure to buy a horse, you need to find the right and horse and negotiate a good price.  The horse industry is not regulated like the real estate industry,  You need to be careful and mindful of certain facts when you decide to buy.


by Lisa Blackstone


In a previous article I covered in great detail what you should expect to absorb in costs and expenses…from the upfront non-recurring expenses like tack and equipment to recurring expenses like feed, supplements, lessons, vet and farrier costs.  Then, with that knowledge in place, I discussed the factors you MUST consider when selecting proper horse for your child.  Now that you are committed to taking this direction, how do you find that perfect horse?


It’s hard.  But, worth the journey and you’ll learn a lot along the way!  You’ll see a lot of horses, a lot of barns and meet lots horse people.  It’s a terrific experience.  I remember when we started looking for my pony, Happy, I’d rush to the mailbox each Tuesday to get this weekly publication called The Market Bulletin, where you’d find a big section of classified ads on horses for sale, just beside hogs, cows and farm equipment.  And, there are lots of local publications like that one in your area that will contain ads for horses near you.


Of course, NOW, you have a world of resources thanks to the internet.  There are some online sites that specialize in horse ads.  But, remember, you want to search in a reasonable geographical area….you want to look within an area that is only a few hours drive if possible.  And, you’ll probably want to visit the barn more than once before actually buying the horse.  Since the internet connects the entire world of horse sellers and horse buyers, be sure to narrow your search to your area if you use the internet to find a good prospect for sale.


The best place to start is usually with your riding instructor.  He or she knows what’s out there, more than likely.  Instructors know everyone else in the business, they have their ear to the ground, and they may know of a good horse that another child is outgrowing that may be available at the time.  I would also include your instructor in this process.  They know your child’s abilities and your child’s temperament.  Some children are fearless with horses, others are timid.  This will play into the ultimate decision as well.

Check your local feed and tack stores as well, for local publications with classified ads.  Once you start looking, its kind of addicting!  It’s exciting to think you may find your first horse on the next page of ads.  Horse advertising can be a little tricky and the vocabulary used could be confusing.  I want to give you some practical advice about how to narrow your search.


This is how you should begin your horse-searching efforts:


1.  Determine your budget.  What are you willing to pay?  Then, look at horses priced as much as 25% higher and eliminate the rest.  You can expect to do a little bargaining when you finally make up your mind.  If price is $1200, it’s reasonable to offer $900 and throw in his blanket, halter and lead.  Remember, they don’t call it horse trading for nothing!  We earned our reputation in the buying and selling game.  That’s why it’s important for you to listen to me and follow my advice, because there are plenty of sellers that might not have YOUR best interest at hand.  They just want to get the horse off their feed bill and may tell you things that are, well, less than truthful.  So, go into this with knowledge of your own and preferably with someone you trust, like your instructor to help along the way.


When you are reading ads for horses, there are some key words that if present will automatically eliminate that horse as a candidate:  Discard any ad that says “stallion for sale” or “pregnant mare for sale” or “mare-in-foal for sale”…that means she’s pregnant.  Discard any ads that say “colt for sale” or “filly for sale”.  A  colt is simply a young stallion and a filly is a young mare.  Remember, YOUTH is NOT good in horses for kids!  You want an older, experienced, well seasoned horse that does not have the spiritedness of a teenager!  You want Grandpa!


There are also certain phrases that you may need to understand more fully.  At first blush these phrases may seem innocent enough, but when heard by an experienced horseman mean something different than you may know.  Here are some common phrases that describe horses you want to stay away from:


If you read that a horse “needs a strong rider” or “can be stubborn at times”, this horse is too much horse for your child.  Throw it out.

A horse that is described as “athletic” or “spirited” or “has lots of go” is too much horse, too.  Throw it out.  Too hot tempered for a child.


If the ad says that the horse is “in training”, or is a “great prospect”, or has “lots of potential”, “well-started” or “ready to start”, these horses are not trained well enough for a child to start riding.  You may also see horses referred to as “green”.  That’s another indicator that the horse is to young, or not broke enough for a beginner.  Even if everything else is perfect, the location, the price, the size, etc… throw it out!  Believe the seller!  There is another buyer that is better suited to these horses, but not your child.


The key words and phrases that you DO want to see are things like  “good temperament” “bombproof", “quiet,” “steady,” and “calm”, “great kids horse”, “anyone can ride”.  These phrases are more obvious.  Look for them. 


After you’ve narrowed down your selections to only those ads that might represent a good candidate, talk to your instructor and get his input.  Like I said, instructors have their ear to the ground and are usually well connected to other horse people who may be selling. They may also pick up on something in the ad that escaped your attention.  Listen to them, they are the professional.  Then, start calling around!  Ask lots of questions and based on the answers, you can start planning your visits to barns to see your prospects.


When you begin calling these sellers, keep in mind several things.  First of all, you need to make the call.  Your child may be so excited that they’d like the thrill of talking to the seller, but this is not a good idea.  You are the parent and YOU know better than your child what questions to ask that will dictate whether this horse is preferable or not.


The are some of the questions that you should ask when you talk to the seller or the seller’s agent on the phone:

There may be some basic information not in the ad, like the horse’s age, is the horse registered anywhere, but most importantly, you want to ask questions that specifically relate to the horse’s suitability to your child:


Have the seller describe the horse’s temperament, his disposition.  Has he been ridden by children before?  For how long?  How old were the children?  How experienced were the children that rode him?  How energetic is he?  Too hot for a child?  Does he have any vices?  Kicking, striking, biting, etc.  Any stall vices?  Cribbing?  Weaving?  How much professional training has he had?  Ever been shown?  When was he ridden last?   Is he ridden on trail rides?  How does he behave with other horses around him?  What is his health history?  Any colic surgery?  Important!  On regular worming schedule?  Tell the seller that if you are interested in the horse after seeing him, you will have a Vet Check scheduled….might help keep them honest!


When talking to a seller it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a video of the horse before you spend a day traveling to and from their place.  But, only ask for a video after you feel confident that this horse is a REAL candidate.  No sense wasting the seller’s time, effort and money on mailing you a DVD if you aren’t really excited about this prospect.  Be sure you promise to mail back the DVD promptly after you’ve seen it.  More sophisticated sellers have videos online now, but don’t expect that yet.


You don’t really need to talk about price at this point.  We are assuming that the price of the horse is inline with the rule of thumb I’ve already sited, no more than 25% MORE than you are willing to pay.  There’s no way to know if this price is reasonable until you see and try out the horse in person.  You want to know about the horse’s temperament and health first and foremost.  The rest will come later. 


Now that it’s actually time to go somewhere and see a candidate for your child, you need to know what to do, what is expected and what is prudent when you are visiting a seller’s barn to consider their horse.  Write these things down.  I’ve made most of these mistakes myself at some point and learned very valuable lessons from them:

You will likely now make an appointment with the seller to visit his barn to see the horse.  Horse people have lives too.  So, use your good manners as you would with any business appointment and be on time.


When you visit someone else’s barn there are certain things you should consider. 

  1.  First, don’t take non-interested and or non-educated parties with you on this visit…ie, your child’s friend, your friend, your other children, and especially your dog!  Unless you are willing to leave the dog in the car, it is rude to take your animals to someone’s farm without explicit permission.  Don’t think, yippie, a big farm where my dog can get out and play!  Dogs (especially if they are not used to being around horses) can wreek havoc on a horse farm, chasing young foals, barking and scaring horses, fighting with the dogs that live there…the list goes on and on.  Leave your dog at home!  But, really, why clutter the day with additional responsibilities…

Same thing goes for your friends….you don’t want to feel rushed and pushed into leaving until YOU are ready to go…not because your friend has a hair appointment you’ve got to get back for.  If you have other children, try to find some help so that you and your horse-loving child can make this trip together and focus on what it’s all about…finding the right horse.  If you as the parent are trying to occupy other kids who are bored, have other things they’d rather be doing, you will not be able to give your full attention to the task at hand.


2.  Whoever DOES come with you, be dressed appropriately.  No shorts, no flip flops.  Dress like you are a horse person and have your child dressed so they can ride the prospective horse, riding pants, boots and their helmet.  Don’t assume the barn will provide you with a helmet.  Take your own.

3.  When you get there, take note of the facility.  How does it look?  Well managed?  Are the horses in genera, well mannered?  Are the employees good with the horses?  Are the stalls clean?  Is the facility safe?  These are things that may indicate the level of sophistication of the seller.  Perhaps the seller doesn’t know much more than you do!

More than likely, the seller has the horse in the crossties, already groomed and ready to go.  But, it is preferable for you to see how the horse acts in the cross ties.  Does he stand quietly, accept grooming well, easy to handle, easy to tack up?  These things indicate the general temperament that is so important to get a feel for.  If he is antsy, paws, or tosses his head while in the crossties, he may not be the right horse for you.  So, be sure you have the opportunity to witness him in this situation.  Watch him outside the crossties as well, Does he stand tied without pulling back?

In fact, it’s best to see the horse in his stall as well.  Does he have any vices?  Like cribbing?  Very destructive and bad for his health.  Weaving?  Also bad for the stall and bad for his health. Kicking, bad for health and stall!

Also, before anyone rides the horse, you have the opportunity to see his conformation.  Ask to see him at halter first before riding him.  Are his legs correct?  Is he well balanced?  Is his coat in good shape?  Now horse conformation can be the subject of weeklong seminars.  So, I cannot go into everything you ought to be looking out for here.  BUT, your instructor should know.  Furthermore, you will be getting a vet exam prior to purchasing the horse and the vet is the perfect source for this input.  Will discuss a little later.

Most horses are lounged first…to get the bucks out, so to speak.  Watch how responsive he is to the handler, how he listens, does he move fluidly, or is there a lameness present?  Does he stumble?  That can be a bad thing! 


Before your child ever gets on this horse, be SURE the seller has it ridden for you first so you can see what to expect.  You may find that after watching him being ridden by another person, you have already eliminated him as a candidate.  If so, no need to risk your child riding a strange horse if he’s not quiet enough.  AND, don’t be embarrassed or reticent about telling the seller that this is not the right horse for you.  It’s not an indictment of the horse.  It’s just that YOU are the wrong buyer for that horse.  Your needs are different from another buyer’s needs.  No sense wasting your time and the seller’s time.  Believe me!  I’ve sold many horses over the years and I’d much rather know quickly that the buyer isn’t interested so I can get back to my day.


When your child does ride, video what you can so she can see herself as a pair with this animal.  Videoing will also help you keep the horses straight when you are later reviewing and comparing many horses together.  Take notes also so that you are not relying on your memory alone later on.


Get your instructor’s opinion on the horse.  Hopefully, your instructor attends the visit to begin with.  But, if not, sit down and look at the video together and ask for input.  There may be something he sees that you don’t notice. 


For purposes of this discussion, let’s assume you are interested in buying this horse after having all your questions answered and experiencing the horse yourself, with your child riding and feeling comfortable with him.  The price the seller is asking for the horse is the next thing to consider. 


Well, have you ever purchased a new car?  Do you recall the antics you had to endure during THAT process, well, buying a horse is not quite like that, but there are some similarities.  You don’t have the good guy/bad guy situation, but you often find sellers that may exert some pressure on you to buy….and I don’t want you to fall victim to a hardcore sales effort! You may hear the seller say something like…..”I’ve got someone coming by this afternoon who really wants this horse.  So, if YOU want him, you need to get it done now...otherwise, don’t think he’ll be available by tomorrow.”  Don’t be intimidated by these statements.  9 times out of 10, its not true.  But, even if it IS true and you miss the opportunity to buy this horse, don’t worry!  There will be another horse!  It’s better to be sure than buy the wrong animal for your child.


Regarding price, first, privately ask your instructor…. Does your instructor think the price is reasonable?  Remember, instructors do this professionally….they are veterans at buying and selling horses.  Does she think the price is fair?


There’s a little gamesmanship that you should employ….a few rules to help you negotiate a better price. 

1.  Try not to tip your hand to the seller if you REALLY love this horse and can hardly wait to get him on your trailer…don’t act that excited!  The seller will be less likely to negotiate terms with you.  In fact, let the seller know that you are considering other horses and you can point out whatever small flaws this horse has that another doesn’t.


2.  Same thing goes for your child.  Let her know to keep her enthusiasm under wraps.  And, do not discuss your budget in front of the seller.  The seller doesn’t want to leave any money on the table!  If the price is less than your budget, you’ll lose any favorable bargaining position if the seller is aware of it.


3.  This is common mistake of the novice buyer.  Don’t show up with your trailer in tow either!  Even if it’s a long drive and you think, well, might as well take the trailer to save another trip, it sets you up for a less powerful position to bargain from, both in your mind and the sellers.  I can tell you as someone who has sold lots of horses over the years, my heart would sing when a potential buyer drove in the driveway with his trailer.  It indicates your favorable opinion of the horse and your likelihood to buy it. 

Well, that’s enough about salesmanship, lets get back to money….Keep in mind that you may be paying a commission.  If the SELLER is represented by a trainer or instructor and YOU are represented by a trainer or instructor, you can expect to pay a commission of anywhere from 10 to 20%, which is split between the two.  On the other hand, if the seller does not have an agent and your instructor does not charge you a fee, you may not pay ANY commission on the transaction.  But, just be aware that this is typical and it’s something that should be discussed during the negotiation process and incorporated into your bargaining.  Commissions are fully negotiable and feel free to discuss what is getting paid and to whom on the transaction.


Without getting off track too much, let me caution you about commission up front.  There are many ways you can be fooled and wind up paying more than you should when it comes to commissions.  You see, in the horse business, there are not dual-agency disclosure rules.  In RE, if one agent represents the buyer and the seller, it must be disclosed to both parties and acknowledged fully. It is a serious issue and the potential for abuse is obvious.  There is an inherent conflict of interest, right?  Well, in horse business, we don’t have a regulatory body that governs our transactions.


The seller may be motivated by factors you are unaware of….his or her other finances, how long the horse has been in the barn, whether he needs that stall for another horse coming in, all kinds of things.  So, your ability to negotiate with the seller can be impacted by any assortment of factors.  Regardless, the seller is expecting you to counter his stated purchase price with something less.  Don’t worry that you are insulting him…it’s an expected part of the process.  Now, with that said, I would not offer something ridiculously low, assuming you think the price is in the ballpark to begin with.  An offer that is 20% lower than the sales price is fine.  If you think the price is exhorbidant to begin with, well, one maybe you shouldn’t have made the trip.  Two, tell the seller that and don’t counter.  Just walk away.  You may find that the seller changes the price to something you DO think is reasonable.  

Then, expect that the seller counters your offer with something in between.  If you find yourself close, you may want to ask that the seller throw in the horse’s blanket, halter and lead, or something else that is more valuable to you than to the seller.


Just keep this in mind:  If this is the RIGHT horse for you child, don’t get your ego tied up in a negotiating contest such that you lose the RIGHT horse over a few hundred dollars!  Remember the purchase is just the beginning of your financial expenditures and its all a waste spent on the wrong horse!  So, be reasonable and use good judgment about the big picture here.


Now, before actually wiring funds or writing a check, you MUST get a veterinarian to examine this horse first.  It’s called a VET CHECK and it will cost you $200 or so and maybe more if additional work is needed to evaluate the horse.  I advise that you select a “neutral” veterinarian to perform the exam, rather than the seller’s regular vet.  Although, I have rarely come across a vet who would risk their reputation to misrepresent the health of a horse in order to promote a purchase transaction.  And, in some parts of the country, it may be hard to find a different one.  But, keep it in mind and if possible get a different vet.   And, don’t worry that you are offending anyone with this request.  This is normal and customary in our business.


The veterinarian will check the horse for soundness first and foremost.  You way observe the vet do a “flex test” where they hold the fetlock up, folded for several seconds, and then ask the horse to trot off so they can determine if the horse limps.  The vet may recommend X-rays depending on the results of this test.  He may ask that the horse be lunged on a line at the trot, both directions, looking for similar weaknesses.


He’ll look at his teeth, both to help confirm age and detect conformation defects.  Parrot mouth, where top teeth and bottom teeth do not meet, keeping the horse from being about to graze sufficiently for his health.   He’ll check his vital signs and assess the horse’s overall health.  If he doesn’t do it as a matter of course, ask the vet to take a blood sample.  Unfortunately, sellers have been known to tranquilize or sedate a horse to make them appear more calm than they really are.  You don’t want to be a victim of that kind of fraud.  Honest sellers will not be bothered by the blood test request.


After the exam, the vet will tell you what they observed…the good, the bad and the ugly!  He will probably NOT tell you to BUY or NOT to buy the horse.  He’ll let YOU make that decision based on the data he has collected.  Here again, ask your instructor for their opinion.  Sometimes a small health problem is worth dealing with if it’s the right horse in every other way.  The horse’s age will determine much of that.  Older horses are expected to have some problems just due to aging.  Some are tolerable, others are not….they are costly and degenerative..  Your instructor can help you make that evaluation.


You CAN enter into a contract to purchase the horse, PENDING a satisfactory vet exam.  Of course, that could lead to you and the seller disagreeing on what is “satisfactory”.  Be sure everything is spelled out in as much detail as possible. 


Regardless of whether you enter into a contract before or after the vet exam, be sure all the terms are in writing.  Don’t leave your business sense on the kitchen counter just because this is a hobby for your child.  Be sure the price is included, a good description of the horse you are buying, including the information on the registration papers if the horse is registered; If you and the seller have agreed to a payment plan, spell that out; If the seller has made other promises, like after 30 days you are not satisfied with the horse, you can bring him back be sure those circumstances are set forth.  Anything that requires either of you to perform should be in the contract. If in doubt, write it down!


Well, that's it in a nutshell.  Good luck and have fun in the process!