Last Updated on February 23, 2022 by Allison Price
Be careful not to be sold on by a horse trader. These are my tips to avoid making costly mistakes when purchasing a horse in future.
I wasn’t a novice at horse shopping. Before I bought Dakota, I felt like the world’s best-informed horse shopper. I was a professional rider for over 30 years and felt confident in my ability as a buyer of the right horse. I didn’t rush the horse-buying process. Two years ago, I had been looking for a trail horse to replace my Quarter Horse, who turned 23 this year.
I had done my research. I did my research on temperaments, conformation, and breeds. I spoke to brokers and trainers, and went to auctions and barn sales. I had the opportunity to meet with private sellers. I’d ridden several horses, and had peddled and petted hundreds of horses. I knew what I wanted, a horse with a long, smooth, sturdy body and compact conformation. I scrutinized every detail of each potential sale prospect before I decided to sell one horse.
Dakota, a tall Appaloosa mare, was my next encounter. When I began my search, he was not the horse that I had in mind. I still thought he was the right horse for me. I was drawn to him because he was calm, can be ridden in a group or alone, was easy to handle and load. He was one of those rare horses that you don’t see very often.
Dakota was everything I had hoped for when I met him face to face. He was calm and patient. He was calm and patient, no matter what I did. He was able to withstand loud noises and flapping his arms. I was told that he was being sold due to family hardship. He didn’t seem to be concerned when I tied him up away from his herd. He was calm, confident, and bombproof, just the kind of trail horse that I was looking to find. He had beautiful brown eyes and a lovely coat.
My emotions overwhelmed me and I fell in love. I lost all sense of logic and bought this horse. Not even a warning from a McDonald’s lady who saw my jodhpurs. I said, “I’m here to look at a horse,” and she gave me directions to the barn where Dakota was being boarded. She warned me to be cautious. They’re shysters there.
Later I would ask a deputy sheriff to meet me at the exact same McDonald’s.
At the time, however, I was certain I had “found” “the one” and all my research and preparations were abandoned. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen Dakota’s vet records or met his owner. It didn’t matter if the details were a bit sketchy. In those few hours, my common sense and judgment were overwhelmed by excitement and hope. I realized that the qualities I was looking for in my new horse weren’t all that important. Dakota was the right horse for me.
But I was quickly forced to see the light. After I left Dakota behind, he started to weave, lip flapping, and display other nervous behaviors. I called the previous owner immediately, but he didn’t answer or return my call.Emotion can quickly overwhelm rational judgement when horse shopping.
I realized that the bill of sale I held in my hands could be invalid. It was signed by the barn owner for the owner. I had never met the barn owner in person. Dakota also had issues. Dakota was “chargey” and a buddy sour on the trail. He wasn’t the horse I saw advertised, nor the horse I experienced when I tried him. After numerous unanswered phone calls to his previous owner and an incooperative barn owner I started to wonder if my dream horse had been stolen, dangerous, or drugged.
I called the sheriff’s office to find out if they had the legal authority to make an intervention, but was informed that a deputy could accompany me back to the barn to write an incident report to be kept in case of a lawsuit.
Mind you, Dakota was my first sighting on Thursday. I bought him on Friday night and, by Sunday morning, I was dragging him back to the barn with a sheriff’s car behind. While I returned Dakota to the sheriff’s deputy, the barn owner offered me his full payment.
Was that what I was thinking? I was wrong. I wasn’t. Dakota was the right horse for my needs, but that desire clouded me in ways I couldn’t see. If it happens to me as an educated horse shopper, don’t be too worried if it doesn’t happen to you. Here are eight red flags I missed the first round, and the ways I am protecting myself as I continue my search for a horse.
Do your homework
Red Flag: I received inconsistent answers from the seller.
Dakota’s owner sold him one minute because she lost her job and the next because she was moving. I was told by the barn owner that Dakota was a horse purchased from a private seller a year back, and that he had been sold to a broker from out of state. I was so sure that the calm and sane horse I saw before me, I didn’t bother to ask for more explanation.
Rule 1: Before I see a horse, I ask the important questions over the phone, via email, or by text. While the specific questions may vary depending on the situation, they are all important. I usually start with this: Why is the horse being sold? What is the length of time that the owner has had him/her? How did he learn? He is quite spooky. Is he high up in the social hierarchy of the herd? Is he a barn sour or a buddy? Are there any bad habits?
I listen to the sellers’ words but also take note of what is left out. “Needs a job” can mean that a horse is too big or too small for a rider. I also learned that a person who says a mare is too good to not be ridden is likely to haven’t ridden a saddle in a while. Cliché aside, I am always puzzled when horses are advertised as having “no bite, no kick” and “no rear, no bolt”, even though they claim that the horse is “no buck, none rear, nor bolt.”
If I don’t like the answer I get, I ask the question again. This old interrogation trick works. It is important to know as much about a horse as possible before I actually see it. This protects me from my emotions becoming overwhelmed by the real-life animal.
Take your time
Red Flag: Dakota seemed too good for it to be true.
The horse was said to have done and been everything. He was a lesson horse. A ranch horse. Therapy horse. And he was that horse an older lady used to ride “all over” before he was sold to his current owner. There was a reason for every flaw. He was not used to children climbing on his legs. It was his slippery feet that made it difficult to get him to canter. I was not going to tell you about any faults with this horse.
Rule 2: Take a deep breath, pause and reflect on the situation. Although a horse with a flowing mane and a gorgeous head may be able to sway with your emotions, it will not be able to rely on your intellect and reason. As soon as I reach the seller’s place, I inspect the barn and the owner before I ever see the horse. Are the horses happy? Are the horses happy? Is the owner relaxed and trustworthy? It is time to perform a serious reality check. If the details aren’t consistent with what I was told on the phone, I continue asking questions and assuming the worst.
Red Flag: Dakota was not interested in the seller’s future plans.
Red flags go up for me if a horse has passed through too many hands because I miss out on that important information about the seller and, ultimately, the horse.
I have never met the seller in person. The barn owner did not ask me where Dakota was going to be kept or how I would take care of him. Why was the seller absent to meet me? It is strange to sell a horse you love to someone who has never met them. On the phone, the seller stated that Dakota was special to her and she was too emotional to have to sell him. He was obviously not special enough to answer my calls. It was clear that Dakota was a committed weaver who needed a home with full-time pasture turning out.
Rule 3: Pay attention to signs that the horse and owner are in a good relationship. A horse that is loved by its owner will be loved if he has formed a bond with him. He is likely well-cared for and trained. The horse will likely have gaps in his training if he doesn’t have a human connection, be it with a rescuer or broker, or even a young girl who is selling her horse for college. He could even be dangerous. If a horse has been through many hands, I flag it as a red flag. This is because I don’t have the information necessary to know about the seller and the horse. There are exceptions, and good horses can end up with bad circumstances. But for my comfort, I must see a relationship between the horse’s owner and his/her horse.
Ask for documentation
Red Flag: The horse was not registered or had any records.
The hook was in by the time I reached out to ask for important documents. I didn’t ask for veterinary records as I was afraid of being disappointed if there were any problems such as frequent colic or laminitis. Although Dakota was listed as an Appaloosa and had clear evidence of the breed’s conformation and markings, there were no registration papers. I only took a bill for sale with me, which I later found out was not true. The purchase agreement did not include the signature of the seller, and I didn’t have any documentation giving the barn owner permission to sell the horse. You can paper-mache twelve red flags on my face.
Rule 4: Condition the sale on receipt of all documentation such as registration papers or veterinary history. Although I may be concerned about what they will show, I request the veterinary records. While I’m there, I also request the names of any previous owners and insurance records to reveal any preexisting conditions. I want all registration papers, as well as records showing affiliations. No documents, no sale.
You must look the seller in the eyes and demand all medical records and insurance. Robyn Ranke of San Diego is an experienced trial attorney and equine lawyer.
Although a prepurchase veterinary exam is a good idea it won’t provide as much information as these key documents that describe the animal’s past. Ranke was an attorney in the highly publicized Ann Romney case involving the sale Oldenburg with ringbone.
Concerning the purchase agreement, I will ensure it is legally binding, that I have a legal ID for the seller of the horse, as well as that it matches all other records.
Ask for a test ride
Red Flag: I was not able to test the horse for its intended purpose.
Call me cynical, but when I see a horse advertised as “no kick, no bite,” I immediately wonder why they left out “no buck, no rear, no bolt.”
Dakota was advertised as being a barn and buddy sour horse, which he certainly wasn’t. I saw this from my ride around the boarding facility. I didn’t travel far from Dakota’s barn and had no idea how he would react to being on the trail with other horses. The barn owner refused to let me take Dakota off his property for a trail ride. I decided to buy him anyway. My first ride out revealed that he was buddy sour.
Rule 5: Demand a thorough trial. If I was looking for a barrel horse to buy, I would make sure that he can do barrels. If I was looking for a jumper, then I would make sure she can jump. However, I am looking for a trail horse. I expect any horse that I seriously consider to be confident, calm, and sensible. He must enjoy the trail and be able to work alone or with a group. Before I consider purchasing a horse, I must spend at least 2 hours on the trail and in the saddle.
Ask for expert advice
Red Flag: I acted against the advice of an expert and my friends.
I called Dan Knuth, a local horse expert, before making the trip to Dakota. He is well-known among my group of riders because of his excellent horse sense. He was not in town. However, he advised against the purchase over the phone. Amazingly, it was surprising to me that my friends didn’t see Dakota until I purchased him. They all saw the warning signs and tried to discourage me from buying him. One tried to warn about the horse’s weight, while another reminded me that I had originally been looking for a Quarter Horse or a gaited horse.
Rule 6: I bring an expert to evaluate my horse. Friends can also look because they know me better than anyone. As I was squirming in the saddle, I explained to a friend what kind of horse I wanted. She gave me some great advice. She pointed out the way I was shifting around and sitting. “I think you need to have a horse that will let you do this,” she said. This is what I need to evaluate a horse. But, I don’t forget who the horse is going to be. It would be easy for me to convince my friends to get me on a horse that doesn’t suit my riding style.
My rule is to have Dan, an expert on horses, evaluate any horse I purchase. My trusted horse friends can accompany me to inspect a horse. They can see things I don’t often notice. However, I don’t forget to get an objective and expert evaluation before I ride the horse. I mean, how many of my friends would enjoy riding my horse? Exactly.
If you are able, look into the background of the horse
Red Flag: I had no idea about Dakota’s training.
The barn owner walked him, while he trotted him at a distance. He was brought up to a trot a few times by the barn owner in a round pen. However, his feet were soggy from the overnight rain that Dakota began to slip on turns. Now I see that I bought a horse whose training was completely unknown to me. It shouldn’t have surprised me that on my first ride out, he refused to stop and evaded the bit.
Rule 7: I want to know the history of the horse’s training and the owner must first ride him, then I will ride him a lot. I will learn as much about the horse’s training as possible and watch him perform at all gaits. I want him to stop, move back and release pressure. I want to see his reaction to the bit, how he pushes into a canter and how flexible he’s. I want to see him from different vantage points, including the side, back, and front. Only then will I be able get a feel for the horse’s response to my cues by setting foot in the stirrups.
Refer to references
Red Flag: I had heard bad things about the boarding facility where the horse was kept.
I should have bought my iced coffee from McDonald’s and gone home when the lady at McDonald’s stated that the boarding barn was not trustworthy. But she said another barn. I believed her, even though there was a general feeling of unease about both the person I spoke to over the phone twice and about the barn owner who represented him. I trusted them and purchased a horse that didn’t buck nor rear. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized the truth of everything I had been told about the horse.Ask for a record of previous owners as well as insurance documents that will reveal any preexisting conditions.
Rule 8: I do my research on the reputation of the seller, and verify references. The seller can filter almost everything about the past of a horse, good and bad. It is impossible to assess a horse’s suitability based on the circumstances and time available. Trust between buyer and seller is essential. To be comfortable, I must know the reputation of the seller. If she is a broker, I would like to know the names of people she has sold to. I also want to verify references. If she is a private seller, I would like to know with whom she rides on a regular basis. It’s easy to get a reputation for a seller in the horse community, which is small and close-knit.
Although it was painful, Dakota’s purchase experience could have been worse. It made me wiser, not only in terms of evaluating potential sales prospects but also about my own idiosyncrasies. Although there are no guarantees, I know that these rules will help me find the perfect horse.
Epilogue: A happy ending
I met Tucker, an 8 year-old palomino Quarter Horse mare who was side-saddled by his previous owner as part of an escaramuza drill group that performed at charreada events, a few months after the article was published.
Tucker was made available by his young owner, who wanted to pursue other interests in high school. I don’t think there was any moment that made me realize, “He’s the one.”
When I went to load him up, something clicked inside me. His family was waiting to take one last picture with him. It was then that I knew that this horse was loved and that I had made the right choice.
Tucker’s willingness to learn, his calm disposition and past training make him an ideal trail horse. We can often be found on weekends exploring the trails of Arizona, my home state.