How not to buy a horse

Even though I am an ex­pe­ri­enced horse owner I was taken in by a savvy seller. Here’s how I’ll pro­tect my­self in the fu­ture--and you can, too.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Dee McVicker

Even though I am an ex­pe­ri­enced horse owner, I was taken in by a savvy seller. Here’s how I’ll pro­tect my­self in the fu­ture---and you can, too.

Ifelt as if I was the world’s most in­formed horse shop­per be­fore I bought Dakota. I had been a rider for decades, and in the last two years, I’d been search­ing for a trail horse to step into the shoes of my trusty Quar­ter Horse, who turns 23 this year.

I had done my re­search. I had stud­ied up on con­for­ma­tion, breeds and tem­per­a­ments. I talked to train­ers and bro­kers and had been to auc­tions and sale barns. I met with pri­vate sell­ers. I had pet­ted and poked seem­ingly hun­dreds of horses and rid­den a few. I knew ex­actly what I wanted---a smooth-gaited horse with sturdy, com­pact con­for­ma­tion---and scru­ti­nized ev­ery de­tail about each sale prospect, pass­ing up one horse af­ter an­other.

Then I met Dakota, a tall Ap­paloosa geld­ing. He was not the horse I en­vi­sioned when I started my search. Even so, I thought he was right for me. The ad­ver­tise­ment that caught my eye said he was quiet, could be rid­den alone or in a group, and was easy to shoe and easy to load. In short, he was one of those spe­cial horses that do not come along very often.

When I met him in per­son, Dakota seemed to be all the ad promised. He was quiet and pa­tient. Noth­ing I could do rat­tled him. Loud noises and flap­ping arms, he took it all in stride. I was told he was be­ing sold be­cause of fam­ily hard­ship. When I tied him up, away from his herd, he didn’t act the least bit con­cerned. He seemed calm, self-as­sured, bombproof---just the sort of trail horse I was look­ing for. It helped that he had a gor­geous coat and soft brown eyes.

I fell in love and my emo­tions over­whelmed me. I stopped think­ing ra­tion­ally, and noth­ing could stop me from buy­ing this horse---not even a warn­ing from a lady I’d met at McDon­ald’s, who no­ticed my jodh­purs and struck up a con­ver­sa­tion. “I’m in town to check out a horse,” I told her, and asked for di­rec­tions to the barn where Dakota was boarded. “You be care­ful,” she warned. “They’re shys­ters there.”

Later, I would ask a sher­iff’s deputy to meet me at that very same McDon­ald’s.

But, at the time, I was dead cer­tain that I had found “the one.” And all of my prepa­ra­tions and re­search were pushed aside. Never mind that I had not seen

Dakota’s vet­eri­nary records or even met his owner. So what if some of the de­tails seemed a lit­tle sketchy. In the blur of those few hours, ex­cite­ment and hope over­took my judg­ment and com­mon sense. I con­vinced my­self that the at­tributes I’d been seek­ing in my new horse were not all that im­por­tant: Dakota was the horse for me.

But I was soon forced to come to my senses. A few hours af­ter I drove off with Dakota, he be­gan weav­ing, lip flap­ping and dis­play­ing other nervous habits. Im­me­di­ately, I tried call­ing the pre­vi­ous owner; no an­swer, no re­turned call.

Only then did I re­al­ize that the bill of sale in my hand could be in­valid: It had been signed by the barn owner on be­half of the owner, whom I never met in per­son. I dis­cov­ered Dakota had other is­sues, too. He was “chargey” on the trail and buddy sour---not at all the horse ad­ver­tised or the be­hav­ior I had seen when I tried him out. Af­ter re­peated unan­swered calls to the pre­vi­ous owner, and an un­co­op­er­a­tive barn owner, I be­gan to won­der if my dream horse was dan­ger­ous or stolen or had been drugged.

I called the lo­cal sher­iff’s of­fice and was told that they didn’t have the le­gal author­ity to in­ter­vene but that a deputy could es­cort me back to the barn and write up an in­ci­dent re­port so a record would be on file in the event of a law­suit.

Mind you, I saw Dakota for the first time on Thurs­day, bought him on Fri­day evening and by Sun­day morn­ing, I was haul­ing him back to the board­ing barn with a sher­iff’s car be­hind me. The sher­iff’s deputy stood by while I re­turned Dakota, and the barn owner agreed to give me my money back in full.

What was I think­ing? I wasn’t. This was one of those cases that we are all warned about---when emo­tion and wish­ful think­ing over­whelm ra­tio­nal

Call me cyn­i­cal, but when I see a horse ad­ver­tised as “no kick, no bite,” I im­me­di­ately won­der why they left out “no buck, no rear, no bolt.”

de­ci­sion mak­ing. I wanted Dakota to be the right horse for me, and that de­sire clouded my judg­ment in ways I re­fused to see. And if it hap­pened to me, an in­formed horse shop­per, don’t be too sure it can’t hap­pen to you, un­der the right cir­cum­stances. Just in case, here are eight red flags that I missed the first time around, along with the ways that I am pro­tect­ing my­self in my con­tin­u­ing search for a new horse.

Red Flag:

I got in­con­sis­tent an­swers from the seller. One minute, Dakota’s owner was sell­ing him be­cause she had lost her job, the next, be­cause she was mov­ing. The barn owner told me Dakota had been pur­chased from a pri­vate owner a year ago, and then in the next breath, that he had been bought from a bro­ker out of state. Re­gret­tably, I didn’t press for fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion, so con­vinced was I that the horse stand­ing be­fore me was the calm, sane an­i­mal ad­ver­tised.


I ask im­por­tant ques­tions on the phone, by email or via text first, be­fore see­ing a horse. Per­ti­nent ques­tions vary with dif­fer­ent si­t­u­a­tions, but for vir­tu­ally all, I start with these: Why is the horse for sale? How long has the owner had him or her? What is his train­ing? How spooky is he? Where is he in the herd so­cial hi­er­ar­chy? Is he buddy or barn sour? Does he have any bad habits?

I now lis­ten to what the seller has to say but also note what’s left un­said. I’ve learned that “needs a job” could mean a horse is a hand­ful, and that when a per­son tells you a mare is “too good not to be rid­den,” chances are she hasn’t worn a sad­dle in a long, long while. Call me cyn­i­cal, but when I see a horse ad­ver­tised as “no kick, no bite,” I im­me­di­ately won­der why they left out “no buck, no rear, no bolt.”

If I’m not sat­is­fied with an an­swer, I try ask­ing the ques­tion in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways. This is an old in­ter­ro­ga­tion trick and it works. Find­ing out as much as I can about a horse be­fore I see it is a safe­guard against my emo­tions tak­ing over when there’s a real, live an­i­mal in front of me.

Red Flag:

Dakota seemed too good to be true. This horse had ap­par­ently done and been ev­ery­thing. He’d been a les­son horse, a ranch horse, a ther­apy horse and that won­der­ful horse some older lady rode “all over be­fore he was sold to the cur­rent owner.” On the spook­i­ness scale of one to 10, he was a zero. And for ev­ery ob­vi­ous flaw, there was a good rea­son. The rea­son why I couldn’t get him to move off of my leg was be­cause he was de­sen­si­tized to kids climb­ing all over him. The rea­son why it was hard to get him to can­ter was be­cause of the slip­pery foot­ing. In truth, if there were any flaws in this horse, I wasn’t about to hear it.


I pause, take a breath and do a re­al­ity check. A horse with a beau­ti­ful head and flow­ing mane may run off with your emo­tions but not so

This horse had ap­par­ently done ev­ery­thing. He’d been a les­son horse, a ranch horse, a ther­apy horse—and he was that won­der­ful horse that an older lady rode “all over be­fore he was sold to the cur­rent owner.”

eas­ily your rea­son and intellect. Now, as soon as I ar­rive at the seller’s prop­erty, I take in the barn, the owner, ev­ery­thing about the en­vi­ron­ment be­fore I even set eyes on the horse. Is the barn well-kept? Are the horses happy? Does the owner seem re­laxed and trust­wor­thy? I need to do a heavy-duty re­al­ity check. If the de­tails don’t add up and align with the in­for­ma­tion I’ve been given on the phone, I keep ask­ing ques­tions or as­sume the worst.

Red Flag:

The seller didn’t seem in­ter­ested in where Dakota would end up. Set­ting aside the fact that I never even met the seller in per­son, not once did the barn owner ask me where I planned to keep Dakota or how I planned to take care of him. And why was the seller not there to meet me? Who sells a beloved horse to a to­tal stranger with­out meet­ing them? The seller said on the phone that she was too emo­tion­ally wrought over hav­ing to sell him be­cause Dakota was so spe­cial. But ap­par­ently he was not spe­cial enough for her to re­turn my calls when it was ob­vi­ous that Dakota was a ded­i­cated weaver and needed a home with full-time pas­ture turnout.


I look for signs of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween owner and horse. If some­one has bonded with the horse, he’s prob­a­bly a lov­able horse. He’s prob­a­bly well cared for and trained. With­out that hu­man bond, whether it is with a rescuer, a bro­ker or a young girl sell­ing her horse to go to col­lege, the horse is likely to have gap­ing holes in his train­ing. He might even be dan­ger­ous. Red flags go up for me if a horse has passed through too many hands be­cause I miss out on that very im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion that tells me about the seller and, ul­ti­mately, the horse. Of course, there are ex­cep­tions---good horses can end up in bad si­t­u­a­tions---but for my com­fort level, any­way, I need to see a re­la­tion­ship be­tween the owner and the horse.

Red Flag:

The horse didn’t come with any vet­eri­nary records or reg­is­tra­tion pa­pers. By the time I got around to ask­ing for im­por­tant doc­u­ments, the hook was in. I didn’t push for vet­eri­nary records be­cause I would have been heart­bro­ken if they re­vealed some prob­lem like fre­quent colic or laminitis that would have made the pur­chase un­wise. Even though Dakota was ad­ver­tised as an Ap­paloosa, and clearly showed the breed’s mark­ings and con­for­ma­tion, reg­is­tra­tion pa­pers were not avail­able. The only doc­u­ment I walked away with was a bill of sale, and later, I wasn’t even sure if I had that. Nowhere on the pur­chase agree­ment was the seller’s sig­na­ture, nor did I ac­tu­ally have doc­u­men­ta­tion giv­ing the barn owner the right to sell the horse on the owner’s be­half. Go ahead, pa­per-mache a dozen red flags to my face.


I make the sale con­tin­gent upon re­ceiv­ing all re­quested doc­u­men­ta­tion, such as reg­is­tra­tion pa­pers and vet­eri­nary his­tory. I might be wor­ried about what they’ll show, but I ask for the vet­eri­nary records any­way. And while I’m at it, I re­quest a list of pre­vi­ous own­ers, as well as in­sur­ance records that will re­veal any pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tions. I also want all reg­is­tra­tion pa­pers as well as show af­fil­i­a­tions and records. No doc­u­ments, no sale.

“You need to look that seller in the eye and say, ‘I want ev­ery sin­gle med­i­cal record you have on this horse, and I want your in­sur­ance. And I want to

Red flags go up for me if a horse has passed through too many hands be­cause I miss out on that im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion about the seller and, ul­ti­mately, the horse.

know where you got this horse from, when you got this horse and I want the name of the per­son who sold you this horse,’” ad­vises equine at­tor­ney Robyn Ranke, Esq., of San Diego, an eques­trian, ex­pe­ri­enced trial at­tor­ney and equine le­gal con­sul­tant.

A pre­pur­chase vet­eri­nary ex­am­i­na­tion is a good idea, but it won’t give you as much in­for­ma­tion on the horse as these key doc­u­ments, which de­scribe the an­i­mal’s his­tory, says Ranke, who was one of the at­tor­neys in the high­pro­file Ann Rom­ney case in­volv­ing the sale of an Olden­burg with ring­bone.

As for the pur­chase agree­ment, from now on I will make sure it is legally bind­ing and that I see a le­gal ID of the per­son sell­ing the horse, and that it matches all the other records avail­able.

Red Flag:

I had no op­por­tu­nity to try the horse for the in­tended use. Dakota was ad­ver­tised as not be­ing barn or buddy sour, and by all in­di­ca­tions on my ride around the board­ing sta­ble, he wasn’t. Still, I hadn’t ven­tured very far from his barn, and I had no idea what he would be like go­ing out on the trail with other horses. When I asked to take the horse off the prop­erty for a trail ride be­fore I bought him, the barn owner said “no.” Tak­ing it at her word that Dakota was as ad­ver­tised, I bought him any­way. On my first ride out, I was dis­mayed to dis­cover he was buddy sour.


I in­sist on a thor­ough trial. If I were in the mar­ket for a bar­rel horse, I’d make sure he could do bar­rels. If I were search­ing for a jumper, I’d make sure she could jump. But I hap­pen to be in the mar­ket for a trail horse, so I ex­pect any horse I’m se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing to be sure-footed, be­have well away from the arena and to pos­sess a calm and sen­si­ble dis­po­si­tion. Fore­most, he has to like go­ing out on the trails, and he has to be able to hack out alone or in a large group. I need to spend at least two hours in the sad­dle and on the trail be­fore I even con­sider buy­ing the horse.

Red Flag:

I pro­ceeded against the coun­sel of an ex­pert and friends. Be­fore mak­ing the trip to see Dakota, I had called lo­cal horse ex­pert Dan Knuth, who is known among my group of riders for his good horse sense. But he was out of town at the time. Over the phone, how­ever, he ad­vised against the pur­chase. And in­cred­i­ble as it is to me now, my friends never even saw Dakota un­til af­ter I bought him. But they each saw the warn­ing signs be­fore­hand and tried

I ask for a record of pre­vi­ous own­ers as well as in­sur­ance doc­u­ments that will re­veal any pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tions.

to dis­suade me from buy­ing him. tried to warn me about the horse’s size and an­other re­minded me that I’d orig­i­nally been search­ing for a gaited horse or a steady Quar­ter Horse.


I bring along an ex­pert to eval­u­ate the horse. My friends can look, too---af­ter all, no one knows my per­son­al­ity, rid­ing goals and abil­i­ties bet­ter than they do. Once, af­ter ex­plain­ing to a friend what type of horse I wanted as I squirmed in the sad­dle, she gave me some very use­ful ad­vice. “I think you need a horse that’s go­ing to let you do that,” she said, point­ing to the way I was sit­ting and shift­ing about. That is the kind of in­put I need when eval­u­at­ing a horse. But I never for­get whose horse it’s go­ing to be. And, I also know it would be easy for my friends to talk me into a horse that just doesn’t fit my rid­ing style.

So my rule is that I need to have an ex­pert like Dan eval­u­ate any horse I buy. I can bring my trusted horse friends along to look at a horse. And they can spot things that I often over­look. But I never for­get that I need an ex­pert, ob­jec­tive eval­u­a­tion---and that I am the one who will be rid­ing the horse. Af­ter all, how many of my friends would ac­tu­ally en­joy rid­ing my cur­rent horse? Ex­actly.

Red Flag:

I knew lit­tle about Dakota’s train­ing. I watched the barn owner trot him a dis­tance, but the rest of the time he was rid­den at a walk. The barn owner brought him up to a can­ter a few times in a round pen, but the foot­ing was soggy from overnight rain and Dakota slipped on turns so she brought him back down to a trot. I re­al­ize now that I es­sen­tially bought a horse whose train­ing I knew noth­ing about. I shouldn’t have been too sur­prised then when on my first ride out, he evaded the bit and was ob­sti­nate at the stop.


I re­quire a de­tailed his­tory of the horse’s train­ing, and have the owner ride him first, then ride him my­self---a lot. From now on, I want to know as much as pos­si­ble about a horse’s train­ing and see him per­form at all gaits. I want to see him stop, back and move off of pres­sure. I want to see how he re­sponds to the bit, how easy he is to push into a can­ter, and how flex­i­ble he is. I want to watch him from var­i­ous van­tage points from the front, back and side. Only then can I set foot in the stir­rups and be able to get a feel for how the horse will re­spond to my cues.

Red Flag:

I’d heard neg­a­tive things about the board­ing barn where the horse was kept. When the lady at McDon­ald’s said the board­ing barn was not to be trusted, I should have paid for my iced cof­fee and headed home. But I was con­vinced she was talk­ing about an­other barn, even though I had a gen­eral un­ease about the seller I spoke to on the phone twice and the barn owner who rep­re­sented the horse on the seller’s be­half. I placed my trust in them any­way and bought a horse that I was told didn’t buck or rear. Only af­ter the seller hadn’t re­turned my calls the next day did I re­al­ize that ev­ery­thing I’d been told about the horse was sus­pect.


I re­search the rep­u­ta­tion of the seller and check ref­er­ences. Just about ev­ery­thing about a horse’s

When I asked to take the horse off the prop­erty for a trail ride, the barn owner said “no.”

past---good and bad---is fil­tered through the seller. There is no pos­si­ble way to de­ter­mine suit­abil­ity in the time and cir­cum­stances given for buy­ing a horse. There has to be a level of trust be­tween seller and buyer. For my com­fort level, I need to know the seller’s rep­u­ta­tion. If she’s a bro­ker, I’d like to know who she has sold to in the past---and I want to check ref­er­ences. If she’s a pri­vate seller, I’d like to know who she rides with on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. The horse com­mu­nity is rel­a­tively small and tight-knit, and it’s not hard to find out the rep­u­ta­tion of a seller if you just ask around.

As painful as it was, my ex­pe­ri­ence buy­ing Dakota could have been much worse. And I am wiser be­cause of it---not just about eval­u­at­ing sale prospects but un­der­stand­ing my own idio­syn­cra­sies as well. There are no guar­an­tees, of course, but I am con­fi­dent that I will be able to find just the right horse if I just fol­low these few sim­ple rules.


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