Horse shopping Top tips for anyone buying, plus the questions that you should ask during a viewing
Viewing a horse isn’t all about what you see. There are questions you should ask and ways you should put the horse through his paces long before you agree the deal, says
OLYMPIC eventer Mary King once drove across the country to view a horse. She liked what she saw and, following a successful vetting, made another lengthy journey to collect it. It was only on getting it home that she discovered it had a serious weaving issue.
“During the initial viewing, the horse was tied up,” she says. “The vendor mentioned the weaving problem very briefly only when I went to pick up the horse. It was when I got it home that I realised why it had been tied up. I liked it enough to keep it, and its weaving made no difference to its eventing career, but the experience taught me always to ask early on in the viewing if the horse has any vices.”
Even if you are an experienced and renowned equestrian, buying a horse can still be problematic.
“Buying is a minefield. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. You have to be careful,” says last year’s Hickstead Derby winner Nigel Coupe.
Even if the advert isn’t deliberately inaccurate it may be economical with the truth. This means that the buyer needs to turn detective and, Poirot-like, question and quiz the vendor.
“A lady who kept her horses at my livery yard bought a mare and was shocked when it
went on to have a foal six months later. It was so unexpected, she had even ridden it the day before it gave birth,” says Nigel.
Seasoned competitors across the disciplines recommend some thorough homework prior to the viewing, including investigating the horse’s record on governing bodies’ websites.
“If I’m buying a racehorse, I’ll look up its form on the Racing Post,” says national ladies’ point-to-point champion Gina Ellis
Dressage rider Maria Eilberg, who represented Britain at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, additionally advises contacting connections.
“Speak to people who have had past experience with the horse — maybe they have groomed it, or ridden it,” she says.
Leading lights also have some stock-intrade questions they will ask the vendor during an initial phone call.
“I’ll ask about the breeding, what it’s done, how long the owner has had it and what are its weak points,” says Mary King. “This is a good question that can throw up answers such as, ‘he’s a bit excitable on the flat’ or ‘he can be a casual jumper’. It’s an excellent way to get a vendor to open up.”
Maria Eilberg recommends being persistent: “No animal is perfect. Treat every situation with caution and keep asking the questions.”
“I always want to know why it’s for sale,” notes Gina. “If I’m looking for a racehorse, I’m also particularly interested to hear if it’s had problems with its wind and legs.”
Roddy Williams, former England polo player turned trainer, advocates giving the vendor something of a grilling over the phone. He will not only ask about behavioural vices, such as crib-biting, box-walking and kicking, but also basic veterinary questions — has it had colic or wind surgery, joint injections, does it have scars or blemishes, warts or sarcoids?
“It’s also a good idea to ask the seller to send you photos and videos of the horse’s movement or of it working in the discipline you are looking to buy it for,” he advises.
ASSUMING the initial research has gone well, of course the next step is to turn up at the vendor’s yard.
“It’s advisable to arrive in good time to see what the horse is like while being handled and tacked up,” says Maria. “If the seller is open, they should be happy for you to see it in the stable.”
Whether a viewing occurs at a private yard or at a sale, it can be an emotive occasion. Seeing a stunning equine vision for the first time can be enough to make even the most sensible equestrian throw caution to the wind.
“Going with gut instinct is fine, but if you’re young, beware of falling in love with the first horse you see,” says Nigel.
“Don’t be reluctant to pay an expert, such as an instructor, to attend the viewing with you.”
Roddy experienced love at first sight the moment he set eyes on Honey Heights, one of the best ex-racehorses he ever bought for polo. His story has a happy ending, but not every similar tale does.
“She and a group of others galloped to greet me at the gate. I knew within 20 seconds that I must buy her. Everything about her movement and conformation said ‘potential champion’. She was a just broken two-yearold and so there were many years of careful nurturing ahead to turn her into a top highgoal polo pony. However, that doesn’t happen all the time.”
HAVING scrutinised the horse without tack on and then seen it walked and trotted in-hand, the time has come for the crucial part — the riding.
“If the horse is broken in, always ask to see it ridden by the seller or one of their riders before you or your adviser get on,” says Roddy. “There have been many occasions when I’ve
‘No animal is perfect. Treat every situation with caution and keep asking the questions’
dressage rider Maria eilberg
seen a horse ridden by someone else, haven’t liked it and have walked away.”
Experienced purchasers recommend riding the horse beyond the confines of a school.
“I always ask if I can take the horse out on grass,” says Mary. “I want to see how it behaves in the open and on his own. Can you canter it and still feel safe? I also like to take it on a short hack on my own. By doing so, you will find out if you feel a connection, test it in traffic and see if it’s nappy.
“I once bought a horse that I had only worked in a deep school, where he moved well. When I got him home and trotted him up the road, he didn’t move half as well and I ended up selling him on.”
THE next stage is the vetting. Gina doesn’t attend vettings, but she is in the minority.
“I trust my vet and if a problem arises I would listen to his advice,” she says.
On the contrary, Roddy says: “It’s important to watch the vetting, so that if the vet finds something of concern, they can discuss it with you and the vendor.
“The next best thing is for the vet to send you photos or a video of the issue.”
Vettings are rarely black and white.
Maria cautions: “Be realistic — it’s unusual for a horse to be squeaky clean. If the vetting highlights something serious, then you will have to weigh up the pros and cons, but if it’s an older horse with a history of staying sound despite a long-term issue, then it may not cause you problems.”
Gina has sometimes used minor issues highlighted by the vet as a bargaining tool. Mary, too, likes to negotiate.
“Start low without offending and work your way up,” she says. “I’ve saved a lot of money like this over the years.”
As a mother, Mary has purchased ponies and horses for her daughter, Emily, but viewings with children in tow can add an extra dimension to what may already be a complex set of circumstances.
Young people tend to be even less able to keep their impulses in check than an adult. Plus, while any self-respecting parent might be prepared to gloss over minor behavioural issues in a horse intended for themselves, they will be less likely to purchase something for their offspring that may come with concerns.
As a result, Mary King feels a trial is important and should be requested during or after the viewing. “There are genuine people who want to get the right rider for their pony and who will be willing for it to go out for a few days,” she says.
Lisa Hughes, the organiser of Hambledon Horse Trials, has purchased several ponies for her three, now teenage, children over the years.
During a viewing, Lisa expects to see the pony worked in all paces, as well as jumped over a fence she prefers to set up herself.
“I may even hang a coat over a pole to see how the pony reacts,” says Lisa, who will also want to see the animal ridden in a variety of situations, including on the road. “I want to be able to tack it up without the vendor getting involved, too.”
For Zoe Williams (née Gullet), wife of polo player Roddy and a member of the 2000 British junior eventing team, temperament is vital on the hunt for the perfect equine partner.
Now with two children, aged seven and five, Zoe has viewed a few ponies recently, but one she had on trial proved unsuitable, and she is about to inherit a 37-year-old pony that she came across via word of mouth.
“Because I’ve taught at Pony Club camp, I’ve seen kids decanted by ungenuine ponies and I’m aware of the dangers. At the viewing, ask explicit questions. I once bought a 14.2hh without quizzing the seller enough and it bucked me off four times in front of four Argentine gauchos,” she says.
Scrutinise the horse without tack on and watch it being walked and trotted in-hand
before the ridden stage
It’s important to watch the vetting, so you can discuss any problems that arise with the vet and vendor