NO, I’M NOT HORSE SHOPPING. Everyone calm down. I think the only thing that could possibly ratchet up my anxiety level any higher than it already is at the moment would be horse or saddle shopping. But a reader (hi Christine!) emailed me and asked for a post regarding how I’ve gone about finding and buying horses on a low budget, what’s worked for me, what hasn’t, what I look for, etc. Input and experience from others is welcome, as well. Before I share my own thoughts, I will repeat my favorite caveat: I am not a professional. But for someone who isn’t a reseller, I’ve bought some horses before… some great, some not, and I’m more than happy to share what I’ve learned along the way.
My budget has always been really low. As in, of the 14 or 15 horses I’ve purchased, none have cost more than $1500. Let’s be real right off the top – you aren’t going to get a sound, trained, sane, good quality horse for that money. Pick one of those qualities. At 5k, which is still pretty limiting, you’d have more leeway. So while you’re looking, keep saving your money. I’ve always shopped projects, either out of someone’s backyard or off the track. I’ve bought a couple off of craigslist, one off of facebook, one off of a literal paper ad in a feed store, one from a herd dispersal that I heard about randomly, one from CANTER, one off the old forums on pedigree query, one through a local thoroughbred charity, one at an auction, etc etc. Keep your eyes and ears open, and definitely TELL people that you’re looking. You never know what you’ll find via word of mouth. If you see one you like, act quickly, and have your money ready. The good ones get snatched up fast.
I’ve also very rarely gone out deliberately shopping for a horse. I think I’ve tried a grand total of three horses, and only actually bought one of those three. Most of mine have just fallen in my lap. I see something I like, and if I have the scope to take it on, I buy it. But I really like projects, I get a lot of enjoyment out of taking raw material and turning it into something. Usually for me that has meant a horse off the track, but I’ve also bought a few unstarted horses, or ones that had previous issues/mishandling. I think the blank slates were the easiest to bring along, although I will always love me a recycled thoroughbred. That said, starting horses under saddle is certainly not something to take on if you’ve never done it before – outsource that job. And while I dearly love thoroughbreds, they aren’t for everyone, especially straight off the track. Be brutally honest with yourself about what you can handle, and if you’ll need professional assistance to get the horse where you want it to be. If you do, be sure to factor that into your budget as well.
The question of what I look for in a horse is a little bit harder to cover. Mostly I look for something that seems reasonably athletic and intelligent. An athletic, trainable horse will always be good at something, so even if I end up not keeping it, the horse still has value as a resale. I’ve been open to different breeds, although most of the horses I’ve owned have been thoroughbreds because they tend to suit my purpose best. Depending on what you want to do with the horse, a lot of breeds could be appropriate. Never discount a quarter horse or a draft cross. Shoot, for the lower levels of eventing or for dressage, you could look at all kinds of breeds, including ponies. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just athletic and trainable. Everybody wants the fancy warmblood but very few actually need (or can ride) the fancy warmblood. Remember that the trot can be improved quite a bit with training, so if you’re going to buy off of one gait, I put the most emphasis on the canter. Especially if you’re going to be jumping.
I’m definitely really into pedigrees, but it’s not the be-all-end-all. To me a pedigree is a factor, but it certainly won’t be the one thing that my decision hinges off of. There are certain lines I don’t care for, but if I really like the horse I would buy it anyway. And there are certain lines that I really love that will definitely make me take a harder look at a horse. I think anyone who has ridden or bought/sold enough horses develops favorites, and they vary from person to person. I personally will stop dead in my tracks to look at any thoroughbred with Danzig in the pedigree.
When you’re shopping on a small budget, you also need to develop the ability to see a diamond in the rough. People ooooh and aaaaah over the big fat shiny horse with all the chrome and the high quality photos, but can you picture a version of the same horse in a scruffy winter coat, 200lbs lighter, with 10 inches of mane, nary a white mark on it, and bad cell phone pictures? Learn to see bone structure and proportion, not fat and muscle. Look at other peoples’ before and afters. You can change so much about a horse’s appearance just with good care. The best deals I’ve ever gotten were found in the plain, non-descript horses who weren’t presented well. If you learn how to spot those horses through the rough exterior, you can snag a really great horse. Pretty is as pretty does.
Close your ears for this one, children: I’ve vetted precisely zero of the horses that I’ve purchased. I know, I can feel you cringing. To be clear, I would never recommend that to someone else, but it’s the truth. I’m pretty realistic about the fact that no horse is going to vet absolutely spotlessly, and all sorts of things can show up on a vetting but never be a hindrance to a horse for the job you need it to do. So, definitely get the horse vetted, but also be realistic about the findings, especially as they relate to it’s intended job. A lot of people hear one relatively minor thing and bolt – that’s a mistake, IMO. My best horses, and soundest horses, certainly would not have vetted perfectly. Oh, and uh… if you buy a mare, make sure she’s not pregnant. I learned my lesson on that one, and it happens more often than you realize.
I think the most important thing is to be realistic. You aren’t going to find a trained, sound, issue-free horse for next to nothing. Well ok I’m sure it’s happened, but the odds of it happening to you are slim to none. Give up on that dream. Instead sit down and really think about what you can handle as a rider, what you really need (size, age, training, certain gait or temperament or conformation features that are your must-haves), what you can live with, and what you can’t. Also don’t forget that if you’re shopping cheap, you’re probably signing up for a long process to get that horse to your end goal. Don’t look at other people’s endings and think they’re a realistic beginning. Henry is my favorite horse that I’ve ever had, and he’s taken me places I never imagined, but he was a walking basket of training problems when I got him, some of which will always be there, and it’s taken 5 years to get as far as we have. Keep good professionals in your corner that are available to help. Involve a couple of good friends that you know will be honest with you no matter what, not just tell you what you want to hear. And at the end of the day – trust your gut. It’s never steered me wrong, whether I’ve actually listened to it or not.
What advice would you give to someone who’s horse shopping on a very limited budget? Let’s help her out as a group!