Buying a horse can be fun, exciting—and frustrating. I know: I buy and sell horses as part of my living as a trainer. And I’ve probably made almost every mistake that can be made. That’s why I can help you.
Based on what I’ve learned, I’m going to share 11 global tips that’ll help you avoid “Mr. Wrong” as you search for “Mr. Right.” Use them, then enjoy the shopping process. And, ultimately, your new horse!
1. Leave your emotions at the door. Listening to your heart may be okay when you’re shopping for shoes, or even a car. But when you end up with the wrong horse for you or your situation, you can get hurt or get your heart broken.
Plus, emotions are a seller’s dream. When you show them, he or she starts to see dollar signs. That’s great for the seller, but dangerous for you.
So think with your head, not your heart, when you shop. It’s your heart that can cause you to fall head-over-heels in love with an unbroke 2-year-old stallion when you really need a 10-year-old, super-broke gelding.
2. Take your time. You may be in a big hurry to buy a horse for you or your kid. Or, you may be tired of looking and just ready to buy something. Just say “whoa,” and take a deep breath. By taking your time to properly evaluate each prospect you look at, you’ll best ensure that you end up with a horse that’s appropriate for you. If you rush, you’ll up the odds of ending up with one that’s inappropriate. In other words, no impulse buys.
3. Be realistic about your abilities. If a horse seems like more horse than you can ride or handle, pass it up. If he’s like that in a setting familiar to him, you can bet he’ll turn into even more horse when you get him home, which will be unfamiliar to him. You’ll find another horse more suitable to your needs, believe me.
4. Be ‘color blind.’ I’ve had people call and say, “My daughter really wants a palomino with two white socks.” You may have a thing for bays or grays (always popular) or roans. That’s putting the emphasis on a very incidental thing. A good horse is a good horse, regardless of color. And a bad horse with a good color is still a bad horse.
5. Be smart about gender. It’s hard to go wrong with a good, quiet gelding. However, mares can make great horses, too. But some can be “mare-ish” during their heat cycles, meaning cranky, sore-sided, and distracted; that’s a risk you take with a mare. Be sure to ask the seller about a mare’s behavior when she’s in season.
Stallions, in my opinion, are for professionals only. Even the best-minded stallion will test you constantly. They also require special living arrangements to keep them, other horses, and you safe. They’re dangerous in the wrong hands.
6. Avoid falling in love with a horse in the show or sale ring. All horses look their best in those situations. They’re supposed to. But any flaw you observe there will be magnified when the horse steps outside of that environment and you get him home. Arrange to see the horse in his natural setting, so you can truly evaluate his temperament.
Flip-side bonus tip: If you plan to haul your new horse to shows, clinics, or trail rides, ask the seller if he or she will haul him to a new location, so you can see how the horse handles unfamiliar places. He may be relaxed at home, but turn into a basket case when hauled alone to a strange place.
7. Pretty is…. I’m all about pretty horses. But too often I see people skip over a really good horse that’s kind of plain, but has a great work ethic, in favor of a drop-dead gorgeous one with a bad mind. That’s a huge mistake. As my friend professional agent Doug Carpenter says, “I’d rather have a worker bee that’s enthusiastic about his job than a queen bee that’s a pain in the butt.” I think that says it all.
8. Keep your antenna up. Listen for verbal clues that the seller is being less than honest with you. If he or she casually tosses out phrases such as, “You can make money on this one,” or, “He’s never done that before,” or perhaps, “Your kid and this horse can grow up and learn together,” proceed with extreme caution.
For one thing, I don’t think any true horseman can honestly tell you you’ll make money on a horse. I know I couldn’t. I might say you have a chance, but horse buying is risky. As for a horse never having “done that” before, well, guess what? He has. And the old “grow up together” line? Buying a young horse for a child is like hiring a 5-year-old kid to tutor your 5-year-old kid. The big difference is that a young, inexperienced horse can hurt your child (and badly).
If you get a bad feeling about a seller, pay attention. Thank him or her for their time, and move onto the next prospect.
9. Take notes. Keep a written record for each horse. Write meticulous notes, and use them to keep track of horses you’re interested in and have looked at. That way, you’ll know exactly what you liked—and didn’t like—about a particular horse, so you can make a better decision.
10. Take pictures. Use your cell phone to take photos and video when trying each horse, so you’ll have a digital record to which you can refer. (Take a knowledgeable friend along when you shop, and designate him or her as your official photographer. Having someone along also will give you a chance to compare observations.)
11. Avoid shopping in bad weather. That may sound funny, but I’ve found that weather can affect your decisions in a negative way. (It can also have a negative effect on how a horse behaves.) For instance, I once shopped in a snowstorm after having traveled a long way to look at a horse. I was so anxious to go get warm that I skipped some steps and bought the horse just so I could go home.
Bad move. It wasn’t a horse I would’ve bought under better circumstances. I’ve had friends say the same thing. If you have a choice, opt to wait for decent weather to shop.
A multiple AQHA world champion, Avila has also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He received the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. Learn more at bobavila.net.
Ready to look for the right horse for you? Go to Equine.com, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, to search for the perfect horse!