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Horse Trading

Kelly Smith, who took up riding after retiring from a successful consulting career, was thrilled to be learning about natural horsemanship and dressage. Confidently following the advice of her overbearing trainer, last year she purchased a Paint she was assured would “absolutely go Grand Prix dressage.”

While a more savvy horseman would have seen, within seconds, that the Paint would make a beautiful Western Pleasure mount, but never – ever – a dressage horse, Kelly trustingly paid her trainer nearly $10,000 for the horse that, one year later, she has now put up for sale.

“Forget Grand Prix level, this horse doesn’t even want to do training level dressage,” Kelly observed sadly, rubbing her beloved pal behind the ears. “After finally switching to a new trainer a few months ago, I now know the problem is my horse, rather than my riding, as I’d been lead to believe by my first trainer. Clearly, she took advantage of my inexperience.”

Meet Melanie, an advertising executive who started taking lessons two years ago. After deciding she was ready to take the big plunge into horse ownership, she found a lovely Quarterhorse about two hours north of her home in the Bay Area. At the vet check, she told the seller that, as a last precaution, she wanted her longtime horseman pal to try the horse out. Even the vet was shocked when the seller flatly refused. “I’m selling the horse to you, and you’re the only one who’s going to ride him,” she snarled. “I don’t care what you want.”

One month later, with a horse that clearly has some mental issues, and a former owner who refuses to discuss the horse’s history, Melanie reflects back on that moment with enormous regret. “It was a huge clue that there was something wrong with this horse,” she said. “I’m so green, and felt so bullied. I didn’t catch it.”

Last, meet Patricia, a trainer who prides herself on making great, honest matches between horses and riders. She recounted a recent phone call, in which a man who wanted to buy one of her horses threatened a lawsuit because she sold the horse to someone else.

“He brought his 12-year-old daughter, who did great with the horse. The dad promised to call in two days’ time to let me know if they wanted to go ahead with a pre-purchase exam.”

Four days later, Patricia finally called him. Yes, they did like the horse, but would she take payments? After agreeing to a payment schedule (something nearly unheard of in the horse world), Patricia then told the man he needed to vet the horse as soon as possible.

“And I told him that, until I had a show of good faith, such as a letter of intent with a deposit, the horse would continue to be shown to prospective buyers,” Patricia explained. “Well, no letter of intent ever showed up and the vet check was two weeks away. So when this wonderful woman showed up, cash in hand, and I knew my horse was going to have a great home to retire to, I took it.”

Thus the phone call from the irate father, threatening a lawsuit. “When you want to buy a horse, just as in any other transaction, a deposit and a letter of intent goes a long way,” Patricia said. “Angry as he is, he didn’t operate with integrity.”

And finally, meet Sally and Bob, in search of a jumper for their daughter. Despite the fact that the vet check revealed major lameness along with a cancerous skin condition, their trainer frantically has insisted this is the perfect horse. As Sally and Bob ruminate over spending $16,000 on a horse their vet advises against, the trainer has turned up the pressure, telling them the horse is leaving the barn to parts unknown, so they’d best act quickly. Could this be a classic case of the trainer being paid a fee by the seller, as well as by Bob and Sally?

Unfortunately, these examples of unsavory and unhappy horse transactions occur far too often. I like to think that the majority of people selling horses are primarily interested in finding a loving home for their equine pal, but that’s not always the case. I like to believe that most of us recognize we have a certain responsibility to the industry, and heck, as plain old human beings, to operate with integrity and honor. But that’s not always the case.

Whether buying or selling, having a little savvy can make the difference between a positive transaction and a disaster. Here are just a few main points to help ensure all parties are protected in the business of horse buying.

For Buyers

Know your abilities. Being a responsible buyer means asking a few basic, but very important questions, not only of the horse’s seller, but also of you. When clients come to me with the dream of owning a horse, I do a “needs assessment,” in which I evaluate their riding skills, the type of riding they want to do, and their budget. Simple points perhaps, but somehow getting them out of your head and onto paper can make the picture clearer.

If you do not go to a qualified trainer to have your skill level evaluated, then at least be brutally honest with yourself about your abilities, including your personality. Many a bold, but very green rider has come to me towing a horse far beyond their skill level. But the rider’s personality allowed the pair to persevere to success. However, very few timid riders ever conquer their fear when starting with an over-matched horse. In fact, fear being the powerful instinct that it is, too much horse is usually the death knell on a riding career.

Know what you want. The next thing I do is have the client create, on paper, their “dream horse,” with such details as color, size, ground manners, and abilities. You may think you know what you want, but this exercise often reveals some surprising clues.

For example, one client discovered that she could overlook the very annoying habit of cribbing if she could just find a horse that could take her to third level dressage. Another client, deadset on finding a palomino, discovered that what was actually most important to her was that she feel safe on the trails. The point is that you may think you know what you want, but writing it all down ensures it.

Ask the right questions. Like a skilled courtroom attorney, asking the right questions can reveal a lot about the horse and the horse seller. Here is a list of just a few basic, but pointed questions.

How long have you had the horse?
Why is it being sold?
What are its ground manners like?
What is the horse’s history, including injuries and how it was ridden?
Would you be willing to let me call your vet and your farrier to discuss his history? (Anyone who balks at this request must have something to hide, so no matter how much you like the horse, walk away.)
And the most important question: Since I don’t want to waste either my time or yours, will this horse pass a vet check?

Always vet out any prospective horse. A basic pre-purchase exam can run anywhere from $150 to $300 (without x-rays), a fee that can prevent financial heartache later on. Even if you know the horse well, have it checked out.

Get a second opinion. Unless you are a professional, get a second opinion. Have a knowledgeable friend or professional offer an opinion. If this threatens your trainer, it might be time to look at a new trainer.

Take Your Time. No matter what, don’t let anyone pressure you. This is a huge decision affecting not only your life, but also that of the horse. Think it through.

Put down a deposit. If you find a horse you like, show your good faith by putting down a deposit and writing a letter of intent pending a pre-purchase exam. Even if the seller tells you it’s not necessary, do it anyway. It protects you, and it protects them.

For Sellers—Operate with Honor

I am a big believer that horses add value to our lives that far exceed some nice exercise and a little fresh air. Among the many things I have learned in thirty odd years of riding is the ability to push myself, not only in my riding, but also in my professional and personal goals. I have learned to think of something other than myself, to value teamwork, and to be patient. I have also learned the importance of integrity and nowhere is that more important than when selling a horse.

From representing the buyer as well as the seller (no lawyer ever represents the prosecution as well as the defense), to recommending inappropriate horses just to make a dollar, the stories of unscrupulous trainers are myriad. For the good of horses and the health of the industry, it is imperative that trainers and horse seller raise their standards. I implore any trainer or horse seller reading this to make a commitment to representing the well being of the horse and the satisfaction of the rider first. Put the dollar last.

The rules are easy. Don’t take advantage of novice buyers. Don’t tell them “This is the perfect horse,” when you know it’s not. Disclose all vices. Disclose the correct age. Disclose all injuries. Be honest!

If you’re a trainer helping someone buy a horse, support the notion of getting a second opinion. If you have faith in your own knowledge and teaching ability, and you are operating with integrity, you should not be threatened by this request. If you are threatened, I can only advise that you check in with your ego, or upgrade your teaching skills so that you have more confidence in your ability to hold on to your clients.

The art of buying and selling horse has many more fine points than can be discussed in this space. But the advice given here is a good foundation from which to start. Above all, remember that the purchase of a horse is an enormous commitment, and one that is worth pursuing with great care and forethought.

You can read my full bio here

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Horse Trading