The first step anyone in the horse market should ask—regardless of if this is your first horse or fifth—is what are your goals in buying a horse and why? There is no right or wrong answer here. But it’s certainly deserving of some thought.
There is a function for every horse, even if that is to simply be a pasture companion. No one horse is capable of fulfilling every single unique need.
Jot down some of the “jobs” you need a horse to do. This could be a trail mount, devoted companion or a child’s first riding buddy. You can have more than one. The purpose of this exercise is to profile what your ideal horse should look like.
You can have some breeds and preferences in mind. But the horse’s personality and training levels need to significantly trump all else.
What’s Your Experience Level?
Another point you need to immediately be honest about is your experience level. Experience doesn’t need to mean training in a specific riding discipline. Rather, think of it as a way to measure your overall familiarity with horses and ability to handle certain situations.
Before purchasing any horse, invest in some sort of riding lessons or horse management program. Doing so will teach you the basics of ownership and help you discover what you’d like to have in a horse of your own.
With that stated, riding doesn’t even need to be a goal. Pasture ornaments are well and good, but you need to be honest about your prior experience—or lack thereof in horse handling and evaluate what you are and aren’t capable of taking on. This is why having, at the very least, a close friend or professional mentor with equine experience who is able to guide you is a crucial element.
Some Practical Considerations
Let’s not overlook some of the practical considerations. Your budgeting doesn’t end with the initial purchase price. You also need to consider housing, feed costs and veterinary care that will need to be covered every year.
There are lots of resources out there to help calculate what this might look like. Remember, depending on what you have at your disposal in terms of housing or feeding, the cost of horse ownership could be drastically different than for your friend or neighbor.
Start with the basics. Can you house a horse on your farm? If so, do you have a reliable pasture and shelter and horse-safe fencing, or will you be boarding? Do you have an idea of annual hay and feed costs in your area? Do you have a relationship with a good vet?
With this penciled out, remember that what you spend when buying a horse can impact your expenses down the road. Price is, of course, no indicator of horse quality. But trying to save on a vet check or a horse that needs some behavioral correction, for example, will likely hit your wallet down the road.
On the Hunt
There is no shortage of places to find horses and sellers. Craigslist and Facebook groups have become staples for finding private sellers in the equine world. You may also use horse-sale specific websites, such as dreamhorse.com or equine.com.
Where should you not look? Auctions and commercial dealers (or “horse flippers”) aren’t recommended for the inexperienced and first-time purchaser. So many unforeseen issues might come from an animal without full background disclosure that it’s not worth taking the risk even if it might save you a few bucks. Instead, look for private sellers with horse experience or reputable stables.
Consider going to a 501(c)(3) horse adoption or rescue. Reputable ones have extensive vet exams, riding assessments, additional training and history on adoptable horses and strive to match you to the very best horse for your needs.
If you’ve formed a good relationship with a trainer, riding instructor or mentor, you might start there. Often, they’ll have leads on specific horses and places to look. However, a better option is shopping with a horse-knowledgeable friend who doesn’t charge a commission. You know you’re getting real unbiased advice.
Likewise, you’ll want to lean heavily on this person as you do your shopping. Having an experienced and unbiased set of outside eyes is a great way to avoid a host of first-time mistakes. If possible, have this person accompany you as you test ride or visit.
What to Look For
With that same mindset, train yourself to be on the lookout for the right seller. Pay attention to the initial ad. Is ample information given? Do they use the proper terminology? For example, “spirited” or “forward” might mean “crazy!” A knowledgeable horse person is the best resource for evaluating ads and reading between the lines.
Consider how long they have owned this particular horse and their experience in that time frame. A good seller will be more than happy to be upfront with you and answer all your questions even before you set up an appointment. Avoid sellers who seem to lack knowledge, are reluctant to share information or seem pushy.
Setting an appointment to view a horse you could end up buying is an exciting step! Arrive open-minded so you avoid disappointment and letting your emotions take over.
Visiting a horse in its normal environment is the only way to gauge its temperament in real life and can be far more telling than a conversation or video. See how the horse interacts upon approach. You want a horse that is receptive to people without any immediate signs of behavioral issues.
The basics of how the horse leads and stands for you and/or the seller are small but key indicators of that animal’s training and personality. If you can, have them saddle the horse for you and do some basic groundwork. Take note of the overall interaction.
Afterward, work with the horse yourself in a controlled environment with the seller present. Go through all the basics of brushing, leading and other routines.
Have the seller (or your trainer or horse- knowledgeable friend) ride first. You don’t want to be the first one, just in case. If you are a rider, try the horse under saddle as well. Your trainer or mentor might also want to ride or watch you on yours.
Don’t feel rushed to try the horse in all environments and situations at once. Just start with the basics and see how it responds to your cues and surroundings.
Communication Is Key
Remember, purchasing a horse should be a process. Be honest with the seller. If you are still interested after the initial visit and need time to consider, let them know. It isn’t uncommon to come out for a second or even third evaluation as well.
Doesn’t seem like a good fit? Be upfront about that, too. If you’re working with a good seller, they’ll be happy to keep in touch and give you time to consider the terms of the sale.
After a visit or two and rigorous research, you may have narrowed down your search to a final candidate or two. What are the next steps?
A vet check (or prepurchase examination, aka a PPE) before the sale is always recommended. If possible, have this done with a veterinarian you personally know and trust to ensure you are getting an unbiased opinion.
Never use a veterinarian recommended by the seller. If you’re from out of the area, ask around or find a vet on your own.
This exam is a standard procedure for most equine practitioners and looks at all the most common issues that a horse may have. While it’s an upfront expense for a horse you haven’t even purchased yet, this is well worth the effort before buying and bringing home an animal that may have thousands of dollars in unknown issues.
Close the Deal
With the vet check completed, the next step is closing the final deal with the buyers. The formality of the exchange will vary greatly depending on whom you are purchasing from. However, there are a few things you want to establish before handing over any cash.
The first is having information on and possible copies of veterinary records within the past year including vaccinations and deworming and any procedures and dental work done. You also want to confirm the purchase price and terms.
Sometimes you may be able to negotiate a lower price usually due to troubling findings in the PPE or get an add-in with some of the more expensive tack and gear (any equipment used to ride a horse, such as saddle, bridles, blankets, etc.).
Or, you may have a lease-to-buy type of agreement or return policy in the event the horse doesn’t work out in its new home.
Whatever your final offer and sale price, keep in mind that no animal is considered sold until some money has exchanged hands. In other words, even if you’ve verbally committed to buying the horse, there is nothing to hold it until you’ve made some form of payment. Don’t trust word-of-mouth agreements to keep a sale for you.
Keep the seller’s contact information on hand, too. Always have both parties sign a simple bill of sale, and each of you retains a copy. These last few details are some of why first-time buyers are highly encouraged to do everything in-person.
Once you’ve made transportation arrangements and set a pick up date, you can move onto the more fun part: getting your new horse!
Remember, moving environments is a stressful process for any horse. First-time horse-buyers are often overeager to work with and acclimate their new purchase to their new homes. It isn’t uncommon for even very well-mannered animals to be a bit nervous or out of sorts in the first several weeks or even months after moving to a new farm.
Use this time to slowly introduce yourself to your new horse. Time spent grooming, doing light groundwork and just casual interactions in the barn are great ways to start building a solid foundation. Your trainer or mentor can be a big help guiding you and your horse through the transition.
The journey to getting that first horse is unforgettable, and one well worth the time and effort it takes to do properly. Be patient. Enjoy the time and lessons you’re learning.
One thing is a given: Your first horse is one you and your family will certainly never forget!
Sidebar: Cost of Horse Ownership
How much does it own to cost a horse? That depends on several factors, from where you live to how you plan to keep your horse.
Calculating costs can be complicated. Horse board or housing costs are typically the biggest expense associated with horse ownership. Hay and feed bills are also among the highest costs and can fluctuate based on weather and other factors.
To find out how to budget and learn about the cost of owning a horse, check out this article.
Sidebar: Make No Assumptions
Don’t assume that because you’re searching for an off-the-track Thoroughbred that it will be high-strung. Don’t assume that because you are getting a draft cross that it will be sound. And don’t assume that because you are buying from an Olympian that the horse will be trained.
We all know the cardinal rule about assumptions. So brush up on “The Dos and Don’ts of Buying and Selling Horses.”
Sidebar: Buyer Mistakes
The top mistake to avoid when buying or selling a horse is not taking at least two trial rides. We all know that horses have good days and bad days.
Buyers, you want to be sure you are OK with both before purchase. Sellers, you want to make sure the potential buyer can handle the naughty days.
For five more mistakes to avoid, read “Top 6 Mistakes to Avoid in Buying or Selling a Horse.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.