This is the second article in our guide to buying a horse. You may want to read the previous article about what you should do before going to a viewing.
Knowing what you want
Is viewing a horse like test driving a car? In some respects, yes. You see what your money can buy, check it is in ‘good nick’ and get a sense for whether this is the type of horse for you.
But there are far more varieties within each ‘spec’ of horse and unless you have a large amount to spend, you will not receive the perfect horse. You must first know what you’re looking for.
A vice-free confidence-giving horse can command upward of £3,500, the same as a promising young sport horse, so be aware of the sacrifices you are willing to make if your budget does not extend so far. Know what you essentially want from your horse.
Step 1: Seek an experienced advisor
If you are a first time buyer, seek out an experienced horseperson to accompany you. They may wish a little for their services but do not underestimate an experienced eye. They may spot signs of drugging or bad conformation points that you do not. If you are a novice, avoid approaching a dealer. Some are honest, others are not. All are likely to be more effective and experienced negotiators than you. Few dealers will sell you an unsound horse. Most will happily sell you an unsuitable horse. That is because if unsound, you may be able to prove it in court; if unsuitable, you will not. They will blame you and show no mercy.
Step 2: Check the passport
It is a legal requirement that every horse is sold with a passport. If the seller does not bring a passport to the viewing, ask them why, and unless they have genuinely forgotten to take it out of their top drawer, thank them for wasting your time and go home. You should not consider buying until you have seen the passport.
The more detailed the passport is, the better. A good passport will show the horse’s breeding, its full date of birth, its markings, its vaccination history, its medical record and its ownership history, plus the stamp of its registered Club (if applicable). Essentially, you must have the markings of the horse recorded (to prove its him!) and history of ownership.
Alarm bells should ring if the passport is sparse in detail; you do not want a horse with a shady past. Also be wary if the horse has had multiple owners in recent years, or has been through the horse sales after maturation. This could be a sign of on-going issues and so further question the owner about their reasons for selling.
Step 3: Observe the horse
Ensure the viewing takes place somewhere you can see both the horse being ridden and its daily routine on the ground. If you arrive to find it already tacked up, beware. Ask for it to be untacked. This may be innocent, but it is a good way to avoid showing difficulties tacking up - which are often indicators of far worse problems. You can only make a far assessment of the horse’s conformation when it is untacked, as the saddle would disguise a dipped or roach back.
Ask how long it has been out for so far that day and what it has done. Who has ridden it? Is the horse likely to be tired, or is this as raring to go as it gets?
Watch the seller with the horse. Do its ears go back when she approaches? Does she approach or deal with the horse warily? Does she pick out its feet confidently? Does the saddle get laid on its back with gay abandon or does she place it carefully to avoid that sore on its back. Is the numnah clean? Is the girth clean? Does the horse react in any way to being tacked up? Does it move over when asked? What sort of bit are they using? (If not a type of snaffle, why does this horse need a harsher bit?). Are there any other ‘gadgets’? Why are they needed?
Ask to see the horse in its stable. Does it weave or chew the door? Does it expect supper to arrive imminently so pound against the door until placated? When she opens the stable door, does it allow her in, or is it immediately trying to get out?
Now assess the horse’s conformation. It is important to know about common faults in conformation before arriving so you can sniff them out. Question any blemish or mark, especially if you intend on showing the horse or if there are blemishes on its leg joints or girth area. Ask to see the horse walked up to you and away on a flat surface. Repeat this until you are sure the horse goes straight. Most horses will be edgy at first and may take a second try before they relax. Then repeat again passing in front of you. Then the same at the trot.
Step 4: Handle the horse
Once you are satisfied, approach the horse yourself. The horse will likely tense at a stranger handling it, but you need to feel confident that you can pick its feet up, touch its back and rump, bring your hand over the girth area, and touch its ears. A sensitive horse will flinch or back away if you try to handle a ‘no-go’ area.
Beware that head shy horses are more likely to rear and those with a sensitive back are more likely to buck or bronc when ridden. Most importantly, you have to feel confident handling this horse on the ground. Unless you have a riding buddy attached to your hip, you will need to handle this horse alone on a regular basis, and if you cannot do the ground work properly, you will not ride it as often as you wish.
If satisfied, it is time to ride the horse. We have created a list of what a horse buyer should look for when riding at a viewing.
Step away and consider carefully
Never accept to buy a horse there and then. Go away and consider. View similar horses. Return on a different day, to see if the horse behaves consistently and the owner is still providing the same story. Once satisfied, ask for a trial period of no less than two weeks. This is common practice for any riding horse where you are paying more than £1,500, so beware if they refuse. You need that time to see how the horse settles and whether the horse is right for you, so really be insistent upon it.
If you are serious, get the horse vetted at the seller’s property as soon as possible. Attend personally. Tell the vet you would like a confidential chat when all is done and before he makes any pronouncement. That gives you the opportunity to reduce the price if any deficiencies are uncovered by the report.
Make the seller aware that you are to provide a legal horse sale agreement.
If you have considerable doubts, pull out.
Try to enjoy the buying process. Do not feel rushed by a yard owner who says a space is only available for the next fortnight – another is sure to come available. If winter is closing in and you have no real experience of owning a horse through the darker months, wait till spring. This is an exciting time, especially when buying your first horse, and the last thing you want is a lasting regret.