Thanks to modern technology, many people buying horses start the process online. With so many horse sellers promoting themselves on the internet, it’s hard to distinguish ones who realistically represent their horses from those who might embellish their horses’ training, temperament or suitability. Discerning these differences and navigating the buying process is complicated; there are no written standards in place to protect buyers—or sellers—from deals gone wrong.
Buying a horse isn’t like buying a house, where a seller is required to disclose important details and flaws about the property. Although some sellers will tell you everything you need to know about a horse’s medical, competitive and behavioral history, others might fail to disclose issues as serious as a past colic surgery.
Large-volume dealers are generally just as trustworthy as people who sell small numbers of horses. In fact, since their businesses depends on their reputations, most large-volume dealers work hard to treat their customers and fellow professionals in an honest, fair manner. Even so, because of the lack of industry standards, the burden is always on buyers to protect themselves. Here are some tips for doing that:
1. Don’t fall for the hype.
Just because people rave about a rider on Facebook or a dealer’s website features pages of glowing testimonials doesn’t mean that person operates with honesty and integrity. Don’t be afraid to ask any seller for references. Better yet, ask other knowledgeable horsepeople in the area to refer you to the seller’s past clients. Talking to former customers about their experiences is a great way to judge a dealer’s reliability.
2. Research prices.
Scan other websites and ask around to estimate a normal price range in your area for the type of horse you’re looking for. Be suspicious of prices that fall significantly below that range. It might be your lucky day and the owner has to sell the horse quickly for completely unrelated reasons—or it might be an indication of something wrong with the horse. Similarly, watch out for prices significantly above that range. This might indicate that multiple commissions are incorporated into the deal.
While it is fair for a seller to ask what price range you are looking in so that she can show you appropriately priced horses, be careful not to share too much about your own finances. Prices should be based on the horse’s value and not on what the seller perceives to be the buyer’s ability to pay.
3. Ask the right questions.
In your search for the truth, the best thing you can do is ask pertinent questions, both in your initial communications with the seller and when you go to try the horse in person. Zero in on details that are most important to you. For example, if you ride your horse in a big pasture where other horses are turned out, ask how the horse would do in that situation. If possible, test the horse in that situation. Also inquire about his character and abilities: What’s the worst thing this horse does? Where do you think his talent tops out?
Save questions about small things that will not affect your buying decision until after you have decided to purchase a particular horse. Asking about things such as the horse’s blanket size, diet and saddle fit are best left until after at least trying the horse.
If the horse has had an extensive competition career, ask how the owner typically prepares him for competition. How long does he need for warm-up? Does he need to be longed first? Also ask how he’s cared for after each show. An older schoolmaster, for example, might need a gram of bute and a few days off afterward.
Think of everything about your future interaction with the horse that might be relevant. If you have small children, ask how the horse is around kids. If you have limited turnout, ask how important that is to this particular horse.
Some sellers might not answer these questions in great detail, but many will. Horses are a little like spouses: They all have one habit or characteristic that we’d really like to change. But you might be able to live with something that would drive other people batty. Sharing this information is the best way for sellers to make good matches.
If you get the sense that a seller is withholding information or glossing over important details, dig deeper for the truth. For example, if the seller says the horse had a water issue but “worked through it,” ask for a recent video of him at a water jump to see how confident he appears now. Better yet, take the horse to an unfamiliar water jump to see how he reacts.
If there are unexplained gaps in a horse’s history, try to find out why. You can easily verify any horse’s competition records by checking the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s website (for show jumpers and dressage horses) or the U.S. Eventing Association’s website (for event horses). With a little extra internet searching, you can even find many unrecognized show results.
4. Get professional help.
If you’re new to horse shopping, bringing an expert along to interpret common terminology can be extremely valuable. Say a seller tells you that a horse “can be a little nappy going away from home.” If you don’t know what that means (it usually means a horse misbehaves in some way), you might be in big trouble. An expert will know what questions to ask to determine exactly how serious any issue is.
Hiring a buyer’s agent is always a good idea. We hire one whenever shopping in Europe to be sure we’re not missing anything due to language/cultural barriers. That person is always working on our behalf, so we consider it cheap insurance. Be sure to confirm the agent’s commission upfront (10 to 15 percent is standard) and clarify in writing that the agent is representing only you. There have been documented cases of dual agency—agents representing both the buyer and seller—in some states.
Some people think that hiring an agent is expensive, but the services agents provide often go beyond finding a suitable match and can make the difference between a good experience and purchasing the wrong horse. These additional services might include researching your horse through their professional networks, reviewing the medical history of the horse with their experts, and even being present at a prepurchase exam if you cannot be there.
Be sure to hire a veterinarian to conduct a prepurchase exam on the horse before you finalize the sale. Do not expect anyone else involved to accurately evaluate the horse’s health and soundness. Even the most knowledgeable trainers don’t have the necessary education or experience to reliably diagnose medical conditions.
5. Request a complete copy of the horse’s health records.
Pre-purchase veterinary exams are a must for every horse purchase, but they’re not a complete failsafe. You can X-ray and ultrasound a horse’s entire body, but that still might not uncover every significant medical issue. The best course of action is to have your veterinarian talk directly with the horse’s owner and to obtain the horse’s complete medical records. It’s not difficult for veterinary offices to produce these health records, so obtaining them shouldn’t be a problem.
If you discover gaps in the horse’s annual shots, you likely haven’t received the complete record. If the medical history lists nothing other than shots, it’s also probably incomplete. Most mature horses have received medical care—either major or minor—at some point.
Also ask if you can speak to the horse’s owner to get a better picture of his history.
I sometimes confirm that the seller will accommodate these requests before even going to see a horse, so I know I’m not wasting my time with someone who might not be completely forthcoming. It’s much easier to say no to a deal before you fall head-over-heels in love with a horse!
6. Insist on using a bill of sale when you close the deal.
It should be signed by both the buyer and the seller—not the dealer—and list all agents’ commissions, so that you know exactly what you’re paying for the horse.
7. Trust your gut.
There are many honest, forthright, ethical horse dealers in the business, but sometimes even they don’t know a horse’s full story. (The horse’s owner may have forgotten to tell the seller everything.) So it’s still your responsibility to protect yourself with due diligence. If the horse’s current owner doesn’t answer your questions satisfactorily, seek the information from previous owners. Consider having your veterinarian incorporate a drug test into the prepurchase exam.
Take time to get to know the horse both under saddle and on the ground. Watch how he behaves while being groomed, tacked up and bathed. Spend some time alone in the stall with him and ask if you can lead him out to the pasture or hand-graze him. Stick around for feeding time to see how he behaves then. Talk to the people who care for him, too. Also try to ride the horse at least twice. The second time, request that nobody else warm him up before you get on.
All of this information will give you a better idea of how good a match this is for you and for the horse.
Remember, you can change your mind up until the moment the bill of sale is signed and money is exchanged. Once a sale is final, there’s no option to return or exchange the horse. So if you have any doubts about him or the dealer’s integrity—or if you just have a bad feeling about a deal—don’t let the seller bully you into it going through with it. Keep digging for the truth—or walk away.
About Courtney Cooper
Before turning professional, four-star eventer Courtney Cooper supported her riding pursuits by working as an insurance broker for Northwestern Mutual, achieving Million Dollar Round Table status. In 1996, she and her husband, Neal Camens, founded C Square Farm, where Courtney is the head trainer and instructor. They also breed sporthorses and run a busy sales program, matching about 50 riders of multiple disciplines with suitable horses each year. Courtney and their first homebred, Who’s A Star, finished third in the 2013 CCI*** at the Jersey Fresh International Three Day Event and completed the 2016 Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event CCI****. She and Tender Bravissimo won the Training Horse Championship at the 2016 American Eventing Championships and the CIC* at the April 2017 Fair Hill International CIC. With another up-and-coming star, Caia Z, she was reserve champion in the Training Horse division of the 2017 American Eventing Championships. C Square Farm is based in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, in the summer and Aiken, South Carolina, in the winter.