Buying a horse: before the viewing

Article reference: UK-IA-EQU02
Last updated: September 2022 | 6 min read

Do you know someone who was too quick to buy a horse? You might have smiled at them as they struggled to lead their new bundle of joy to the field, and promised yourself never to make their mistake. You can guarantee, they did the same once.

Too often horse buyers (or their children if the pony will be ridden by them) get swept away by emotion. It is like falling in love for the first time. That is why it is important to do extensive research and 'pruning' of possible matches before you go and see a horse.

Be critical at this early stage. You are far less likely to become attached to a photograph than you are the living, breathing animal.

Step 1: Create criteria

Before you look around at what is for sale, decide what type of horse you want. Be realistic both of your ability and commitment. Ask an experienced horseperson who has seen you ride as to the type of horse that would suit you, either as ‘the next step up’ or to remain at your current level.

It is unfair on your horse if you have neither the time nor aptitude to exercise it properly. It is very much like choosing between a Springer Spaniel and a St Bernard – a young sport horse will need more disciplined exercise than a ‘happy plod’.

But then with more challenge, comes greater rewards.

You must be aware of all common horse ailments and the points of conformation. Something as seemingly benign as a sarcoid can devalue the horse’s worth and cost you in vet fees. Conformation problems may not affect a horse when it is young, but can lead to lameness by its teens. Experienced horse sellers know how to ‘talk away’ these abnormalities to inexperienced buyers – so you must do your homework!

Step 2: Be critical of adverts

There are certain ‘tricks of the trade’ to advertising a horse, just like any commodity: sunlight, ears pricked forward, child holding slack reins with cheerful smile, and more. Be aware that it isn’t always the prettiest picture that shows the most valuable horse.

It is often not about what the advert tells you as what it does not; for example, 'Good to clip/shoe/groom/tack up. Hacks out alone in traffic.' This omits whether the horse is good to box and catch, or whether it hacks out well in company. Always be sure to pick up on any missed details over the phone. If the seller is honest enough to tell you about either a physical or behavioural issue, be frank with yourself about whether you are willing to accommodate this for the sake of its positive attributes.

Step 3: Make the most of the phone call

The phone call is the next essential step to get right. When you ring for information, allow time for informal chatter. The seller may give away more in an informal chat than if you stick to a rigid set of questions.

Write out what they say – you may catch something that, on reflection, sets off alarm bells. Again, watch out for omissions. For example: They extol what a lovely gentle boy he is. Does that mean he good-naturedly refuses to work if he is not in the mood? Beware people who are too fond of their horse. They may pamper them and you will have discipline problems the minute you get home.

Once you have allowed time for informal chat, ask a select number of precise questions. For example:

  • What is its daily diet?
  • How long have you owned it?
  • Has it been out of work during this time – why?
  • Has it suffered from any health problems or injuries?
  • What is its weekly stable and field routine? Does this change in summer/winter?
  • What is its weekly riding routine?
  • Does it have any bad habits, in the field, stable and out riding?
  • Is it fully registered and vaccinated?

At no point, interrogate them. Most horse owners love their horses and will not sell to someone they dislike. If the advert promised this horse would ‘excel at cross-country’ be sure to ask whether the horse has any real experience in this discipline. Most able-bodied horses aged 4-13 have the potential to excel, but it could take a year of expensive training to reach that potential. It is unlikely that every question will score perfectly so you have to know in which areas you are willing to compromise.

The owner might wish to ask you questions about the facilities you provide and the experience you have. This is a positive sign; it means the owner cares for where the horse is going and isn’t desperate to sell, which naturally implies the horse is of sound quality and has been well looked after. Often it is a two-way process and you may find yourself having to prove yourself ‘worthy’ of their horse.

If this happens, do not make impressing them your primary goal; there’s no point lying or exaggerating about your experience, since the owner will know the level of skill needed to ride their horse and can be a good judge of whether their horse is right for you.

Final Top Tips!

Browse locally before looking nationally. Feed and tack shops often advertise, and if you ask, many horse people know who in the area is selling what. Most importantly, it is easier for you to make multiple visits before purchasing. You are not arriving with a travel-wearied head feeling like ‘I have to make a decision now’.

Finally – don’t be afraid of being taken by surprise. The horse may not be the colour, height or breed you envisioned, but if its qualities match what you are looking for, it might be your perfect match!

Further useful information and documents

If you are buying (or selling) a horse, we recommend that you use a horse sale agreement. We have a choice of three depending on the value of the horse and whether you are the buyer or the seller. See horse sale agreement tailored for the buyer as a starting place.

This is the first article in our guide to buying a horse privately. The next article covers seeing and riding the horse at a viewing. You may also like to read our guide to buying at auction.

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