When my out of town sister recently called and asked me to try out a local Maryland horse that her family might potentially buy, I gladly accepted. Not only was I happy to try out a beautiful horse (time in the saddle, yes please) but also with the opportunity to assist her on a big decision—providing information to help her decide whether to add a new horse to her family. However, as a lifelong equestrian, I am aware that trying out a horse for sale is a mix of emotions. On one hand, it can be exciting trying out the possible horse of your dreams. On the other, nerve-wracking, riding an unfamiliar horse. While not exhaustive, a few tips on “test-driving” a horse to make the process go smoother:
ONE // The Appointment. Schedule the appointment ahead of time and be courteous if you are running late or need to cancel. No need to have a seller waste their time cleaning tack and prepping a horse and/or having a horse sitting in the cross-ties when you are going to be two hours late. Since I have a young child setting an exact time can be tricky so I often suggest a thirty minute window and then let someone know when I am en route with my exact ETA. This gives me peace of mind that I am being respectful of someone else’s time. It is worth noting that there is a school of thought that it can be beneficial to set an appointment to try a horse and then show up anywhere from 30-60 minutes early in order to observe the horse in the field sans owner. When I was selling my draft cross mare a few years back, I had a potential buyer take this approach and show up an hour early to the farm so that he could find the horse in the field (from photos and videos), go to her barn, and handle her in the pasture. While I was unconcerned about him seeing anything unusual with respect to the horse, I thought this was inappropriate as it altered the tone of the appointment by deviating from the agreed upon time and unsettled the farm owner and upset other boarders with an unfamiliar person on the property. It also generated liability concerns as he failed to announce his presence or sign the requisite guest waiver (see Note #4 below). Liability concerns include when a “guest” shows up unannounced at a boarding facility, has not signed the barn guest waiver, and is wandering around unfamilar barns and handling unfamilar horses. If opting for the “show up early approach”, upon arrival at the farm or boarding facility, consider heading straight to the farm office to announce your arrival, sign the guest waiver, and ask barn staff to show you the horse. Finally, consider what may be seen without the seller that could not be seen with the seller. Most sellers are happy to oblige and offer buyer the chance to see a horse being brought in from the field, tacked up, cooled out, etc. If a buyer balks at any of these requests, potentially consider another horse.
TWO // SEQUENCE. As I mentioned, my preference is to show up at the agreed upon time. Balance your needs as a buyer with that of the seller and barn owners, as well as the legalities of situation which are present with equine activities. That said, I like to watch the horse being handled in the barn, e.g. brought in from the field or out of the stall, groomed, and tacked up. This provides a general sense of temperament and barn manners which is important in my opinion. This barn time also provides a chance to more casually chat with the seller about the horse’s temperament, closely examine confirmation, assess ground manners and vices, as well as inquire about current and past medical care and treatment, if any. When heading to the ring for the under saddle demonstration, consider having the owner ride the horse first, putting it through its paces, walking/trotting/cantering/jumping, as appropriate and discipline appropriate. If anything of concern is noted, do not feel pressure to ride the horse. Before having the seller put the horse through unnecessary work, consider your needs as a buyer and what you want in a horse (e.g. prospect vs. x amount of training, discipline, etc.)
THREE // EQUIPMENT. Check tack before you ride (See Note #4 below). Make sure the girth is tight, the stirrups are the appropriate length, and that all tack and other equipment is in good condition. Bring your own ASTM/SEI helmet and personal riding attire.
FOUR // LIABILTY RELEASE. Expect to sign a guest waiver before riding. (See Article). As with all guests, the authorized guest or rider should execute an Equine Activity Release and Hold Harmless Agreement before riding and having any contact with the horse. All state specific statutes should be noted. As discussed in Note #3 above, often liability releases for guests now include language that the rider/authorized guest agrees to be responsible for following the stable’s rules, checking fit and condition of tack prior to mounting, and wearing a properly fitted and adjusted ASTM/SEI approved helmet at all times when mounted. As with other contracts, ensure that adults execute on behalf of minors.
FIVE // ASK QUESTIONS. While you likely have had significant discussions prior to the “test-drive”, come prepared with questions for the seller. While not exhaustive, a few suggested questions:
1) How long have you owned the horse?
2) Is the horse currently in work? (You might not want to test ride a horse that has been sitting in a field for three months). If yes, what is it currently doing? How long has it been in work? Have there been any gaps in work? If yes, for what reason?
3) Has the horse had any health issues? Lameness? Consider specifically asking about whether the horse has had any colic episodes, as well.
4) Are there papers on the horse? Can you verify the horse’s age?
5) How long has the horse been under saddle? (More applicable to a young horse).
6) What is the horse’s training? (E.g. some horse have started out as pleasure horses, racehorses, western trail horses).
7) What is the horse’s temperment?
8) Does the horse have any vices? (E.g. cribbing, weaving, kicking in the stall).
9) Has the horse had any medical care and treatment?
10) Has the horse ever been unsound?
11) Has the horse ever competed and how did he/she perform?
12) Is the horse on any supplements, receiving regular medication, or receiving any special shoeing?
13) Are there x-rays available on this horse?
14) Does the horse go well in a field alone or with other horses?
15) How does the horse behave when you take it to new places?
16) How does the horse trailer?
These are just to name a few. A dialogue about the horse, its training, health, and otherwise history is a positive. Remember information is power and is always beneficial in the decision-making process. Note: the seller may also ask the buyer questions, too (e.g. level of experience, horse ownership history) which is beneficial as it indicates that the seller is looking for a good match with his/her horse.
In close, buying a horse can be a time-consuming process but take your time to ensure the best fit.