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Buying Your Next Horse

February 10, 2011
Ken McNabb
Ken McNabb

Whether you are buying your first horse, looking for a mount for your child, or want a horse to take you to the next level of competition, there are some things you should consider when looking at a horse to purchase.

The first thing you should do is sit down at home and write a list of what you are looking for in a horse. Set specific goals and traits down on paper so you don’t get caught up in the moment when you are looking at a horse and buy on impulse. Ask yourself what you will do with the horse. Will you be trail riding, riding Western pleasure, doing ranch work, barrel racing, or doing endurance riding? Are you a beginning rider or someone with experience? Write down everything that you determine and take your list with you when you go to look at prospective horses.

Once you have determined what you are looking for, you need to decide where to look. In my opinion, the best place to start is locally where you can go visit the horse, work with him, and decide if you like him without time pressure. Check the seller’s reputation, and only deal with people who are respected and trusted. You can either go to your local breeders, or you can check the classifieds in the paper. Only call on the ads that match your desired description. When you talk to people on the phone, ask as many questions as you can think of. Although it may seem awkward, don’t be afraid to ask why they are selling the horse.

If you don’t find anything you like locally, the internet is a huge marketplace. You can look at thousands of horses from your home! If you do find a horse you really think you want, I highly recommend making the investment to fly or drive to wherever he is located and see him before purchasing.

The last place I recommend you look, especially if you are new to horse buying, is the sale barns. Since most auctions average 2 minutes per sale, you don’t have any time to evaluate the horse and think about your purchase. If you do go to the sale barn, go early so you can walk around and look at the horses without so much time pressure.

In all of these situations, always bring a friend, preferably an experienced horse person, so you can get a second opinion.

Now that you know what you want and where you are going to get it, we’ll move on to what you will look for when you are actually seeing a horse for the first time. I like to look at a horse’s eye appeal. Is it a pretty horse? This is not something that needs to make or break the deal, but keep in mind that should you ever have to sell the horse yourself it will be much easier to sell a pretty horse than an ugly one. If you see a horse that looks abused or neglected, don’t buy him just because you feel badly. There are plenty of organizations that are set up specifically to rescue horses. If you feel that you have found a genuine abuse case, call one of these agencies and let them handle it. You won’t do yourself or the horse any favors if you take on something that you are unable to handle.

Look at the horse’s conformation. What conformation you want depends on what you will be doing with the horse. The most important conformation is that which affects the horse’s function, specifically his legs. Seventy percent of lameness occurs in the front legs, and ninety percent of that lameness is below the knee, so I consider conformation below the knee on the front legs to be my biggest concern. I highly recommend that you have a vet do a pre-purchase exam on any horse you are seriously considering buying. However, the following tests are ones you can run yourself to see if the horse is even a prospect. Take a piece of string about 36” long, and tie a nut to the end of it, creating your own plumb bob. Put the end of the string on the point of the front of the horse’s shoulder and lower the nut so it hangs almost to the ground. Now you have a point of reference to see how straight the leg is.

Only looking at the leg below the knee, the string should hang straight down the middle, dividing the leg evenly in half. If the knee is turned out, you may have problems with arthritis. Below the knee, I look for a short, flat cannon bone. A shorter bone is stronger and a flat bone means the horse is less likely to bow a tendon. The pastern should be split evenly, all the way down through the hoof. To find the true center of the hoof, take your finger and run it firmly along the hair line just at the top of the hoof. You should find a soft spot right at the middle. If that spot is drastically to the inside or outside of the string you have an angular deformity. If the spot is to the inside, the horse is pigeon-toed. This makes the horse susceptible to arthritis, ringbone, and sidebone. If the soft spot is to the outside of the string, the horse is splay-footed. A horse with this condition can still be a good mount but probably will not stand up to a lot of hard riding. He will be susceptible to sidebone, ringbone, stretched and bowed tendons, and fractured pastern bones. If you have to settle for one of these conditions, pigeon-toed is the better.

For the hind legs, next to the tail find the point of the hip and drop the string from there. It should run through the center of the hock joint and straight down the hind leg. If the hocks are to the inside of the string the horse is cow-hocked. These are usually not a problem unless you are asking the horse to do a lot of work using his hind end, such as reining spins. If the hocks are outside the string (bow-legged) the horse will likely be rough-gaited and more likely to be lame. I will tolerate a lot more angular deformity in the hind end than I will in the front end because it is proven that the front end is more likely to cause problems. However, if you are asking your horse the use his hind end a lot because of the type of riding you do, you will want to be more picky about the conformation of the hind legs. Know what you are looking at, but don’t get too stuck on perfection.

A horse’s disposition is very important to me. You can check this as you approach the horse for the first time. I always whistle when I walk up to a horse I am looking at buying. I do this for two reasons. One, I want to see his reaction. If he pins his ears and gives me a dirty look, that tells me a lot about him right from the start. Second, I like to check that the horse’s hearing is good. It he does not even twitch an ear at you as you whistle, he night have a hearing problem. This can be worked around, but is good to know and can be important if you like to use a lot of verbal cues. Move around the horse and watch if his ears stay friendly or are pinned as you are working. Have the owner ride or walk the horse past other horses. Does he pin his ears at them or try to kick? If you are a trail rider who is out with other horses regularly, you don’t want a horse that is going to try to kick them. Many of these things will come down to your personal evaluation. There are no perfect horses out there, all have some sort of issue to work through. You just need to be aware of all the problems a new horse might have so you can decide if you are willing to work through them or not.

I also like to evaluate how the horse is presented to me by the seller. When I arrive, I want the horse to be loose in a pen. He should be clean and groomed, but not sweaty like he has just been worked hard to tire him out. I like the owner to go catch him for me and groom and saddle him the first time. I want to see how the horse reacts to his handler. Is he easy to catch? Does he stand well to be groomed and saddled? How is he to mount? Does he need a warm up on a longe line before the owner will ride him? Once the owner has ridden the horse for you, you should get on and ride if you are still interested. I like to un-tack and groom the horse myself to see how he reacts to me. If the horse you are buying is supposed to be kid safe and very quiet, be a little sloppy when you are taking the saddle off, as your child might be. Drag it off over his hind end a little or drop the saddle pad on the ground next to him to see what he does. Ideally, when buying from someone local, I like to go see the horse 2-3 times over the course of a week before making my final decision. If the seller will not let you do this, it is a red flag.

Presentation is also important of you are buying the horse at a public sale. Get there early and talk to the sellers of the horses you are interested in. Ask them if you can ride the horse for a minute. If they won’t let you, tell them that you want to bid on their horse but you will not bid on a horse you cannot ride. Only deal with a seller who will look you in the eye and has a professional manner. Make sure the horse you are interested in has a clear, bright eye. A dull or sleepy eye could be an indication of drugging. It is very important that you decide on a price you will pay for a horse before he comes up to auction. Stop at your pre- determined price, even when it means you don’t get the horse. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the moment and pay too much. Follow your gut instinct and don’t talk yourself into buying a horse you’re not sure you want. I have never been happy with a horse I had to talk myself into buying.

Bring a friend, get a vet check, budget enough money to get what you really want, and enjoy the horse that you buy. Until next time, may God bless the trails you ride.
For more information on Ken McNabb’s programs call us at 307-645-3149 or go to www.kenmcnabb.com