By Jay Duke
Around the world, tens of thousands of horses are bought and sold every year.
These transactions vary from $1,000 to millions, and many dreams and businesses are affected with every sale. With the horse industry continuing to expand, more people are buying, leading to confusion in an unregulated industry where newcomers are expected to understand a process based solely on word of mouth.
This article provides some guidelines for buying and selling based on my 35 years in the show jumping industry. I have also included some great advice from my readers, who have sent me hundreds of messages on this topic.
Let’s start with an often-overlooked aspect of Equestrian sport:
When buying a horse, the first question I ask a client is “What are your goals?” It’s very important to have your goals established and communicated with your trainer and the seller. It is common to have a buyer tell you they are looking for a 1.20m horse, and when they arrive for the trial the rider is a 12-year-old child who doesn’t know their diagonals and can barely jump an X-rail.
Actually, it amazes me how few people set goals with their riding. I recall starting work at a large show barn in Seattle with over 30 clients. I had a personal meeting with each client and almost everyone said they had never even thought about establishing goals for themselves and their horses. Needless to say, I was shocked. When it comes to purchasing the right horse, you must know what it is you expect that horse to be able to do in the short and long term.
When selling a horse, there are only two goals that matter. Is the horse going to a place where they will be well taken care of at all times? And, is the horse suitable and appropriate for the rider?
“Buy old solid horses for inexperienced riders!” Tracy Volk
The buyer must establish their financial comfort level BEFORE trying any horse. Many times people will ride a horse knowing the price of the animal but with no intention of paying the amount asked. Instead, they look to negotiate afterward. This is unfair to the horse and the trainer, needlessly working the animal and taking up the valuable time of the seller (more on this later).
When establishing the price for the seller, there is no “book” on values. It is all based on what the market says it is. I advise you to work with a trusted professional to determine your horse’s sale price. There are many factors that set the price; ability, age, competition record, potential based on physical attributes, potential based on value projection, health, location, temperament, suitability, sex, and bloodlines.
“Live within your means. Don’t let your trainer push too hard on that.” Andrea Harris
One factor for the buyer, if not the most important, is COMPATIBILITY. This applies to the horse/rider combination AND to the training program the rider is in. When matching horses and riders, the style and experience level of both is key. For example, if a rider has an electric seat and rough hands, a “hot” or “blood” horse is probably not going to work.
The adage ”a young rider with a young horse won’t work ” is generally true, though there are exceptions. Matching the horse to the right training program also reigns large. A horse may work very well in one program, but not with another rider of similar ability in a different system.
For example, imagine a horse is in a program where they get daily turnout in a large pasture. The new barn does not turn the horses out. There are some horses that will experience high levels of stress from this shift in routine and their personality may change which negatively affects performance and health.
“If you use an agent to sell know the “laws of agenting” in the state you are selling and also have the buyer pay you directly and you settle out on commissions.” Jessica
The length of a horse trial also greatly varies. I have bought horses after a 15-minute ride while on other occasions I’ve worked with the horse for up to a month. Let’s look at a typical trial at a horse show, as that is where many sales happen.
There are some important factors to keep in mind on the first ride. First, the horse has most likely been competing that day/week. Keep the ride short and basic. Do a little flatwork to measure the level of training the horse has and test “the buttons”, as well as an immediate impression. If the horse is not suitable, DO NOT JUMP THE HORSE.
Every fence a horse jumps is one less they have in them, always respect that fact. If you do proceed to jump, limit the number of fences to a total of 10-20. That includes what may be three riders; the horse’s trainer, your trainer, and you. If it is only one rider then 10 fences are more than enough to decide if you like the horse or not. If you feel the horse may be “the one”, set up a second trial. For the follow-up ride, have a clear and detailed plan for how you will test and evaluate the horse on the flat and the jumps, then keep the total number of fences to 20 or fewer.
“Show up 30 mins early. See how the horse comes out of his stall, how he/she is around the barn etc. Offer to put the bridle/saddle on, and pick out the feet. Feel the horse yourself and get an idea of his/her personality.” Sandra Anderson
“Don’t offer a horse for sale, let people try it and then change your mind and take it off the market.” Lisa Towell
“Ask other trainers in the area about the horse or pony. A non-biased opinion is the most valuable. We can ask all the right questions, we can have great experiences at trials, and then get the horse home and have a different horse than what we thought.” Kelly Sampson
“If buying off of a video make sure the video is recent! Within 30 days is best. Even then, ask for a current video of the horse performing as advertised.” Caitlin
When buying and selling, work with those you are comfortable with on a professional level. There are thousands of trainers that buy and sell, (yes, way too many who are unqualified, but that’s another article) find the people that work for you and your horse.
Many of you have heard about horse deals that have multiple commissions and money added on. As a consumer, do your research and invest your money with people you trust. To the industry insiders, hold the people that are overcharging accountable for their actions. Every dishonest act results in decreased trust in the horse world and that hurts everyone.
“I show up unannounced if I get “the feeling” that the horse/pony is tranq’d during the viewing appointment. As previous barn staff, yes it pisses us off and makes for entertaining excuses, but it also shows transparency with your sales string. I was the barn employee who saw the animals getting tranq’d. I’d always tell them to come back another day, unannounced. True horsemen/women won’t go this route, but a pushy sales agent will do whatever to make a sale, dangerous mount and all.” Brooke
“Inform seller at PPE you will be pulling blood- and make sure to ride the horse on that day. Ask the seller for all vet records and insurance policy and check show record to see if the horse had lapses.” Jill
“As a seller. I always pull blood. Even if the buyer says no. I keep it to protect myself.” Andrea Harris
“Transparent commissions.” Scott Keller
A Disturbing Trend
A trainer recently messaged me about safety issues when riders are clearly not good enough to ride the horse they are trying. Here is what she said;
“I have had so many people lately come to try horses without their trainers who can barely jump 1 foot high and have never shown over 2’9”. It’s just becoming such a safety issue for the riders and horses especially when they come to try the younger horses. I am confused as to why trainers send students on their own who can’t jump over one meter.”
Well, I am certainly baffled by this as well. Curious if these trainers are charging a full commission? She goes on to say this about safety;
“The girl that came last week was scared to jump 1 foot and would not jump an oxer, so clearly she wasn’t making the decision to buy on her own. I had one a few weeks ago who couldn’t see a distance to save her life. After the horse had enough of chipping, they took off long and she ultimately fell off. I had another come who could barely make the horses trot. So, is it fair to not let them get on when they fly in without a trainer? It’s just an idea based on the safety issue for the horse and rider. I don’t want someone to get hurt on my watch especially when I don’t know them at all.”
These are excellent points and questions. There are two important elements to these questions and comments; professionalism and liability.
“If you have a scheduled appointment to come try horses at a certain time, you bloody well show up at that time or get in touch with the barn or owners. We grooms are not gonna have a horse stand in the cross ties for hours waiting to untack it only for you to show up upset we turned it back out.” Sean
I’m sure most of the readers already know this, but if not here are the facts; equestrian sports are one of the hardest sports out there. For a rider to be successful on the show circuit, particularly the USEF, EC, and FEI tournaments, it takes a team to create prolonged success. A team consists of the horse, the rider, the coach, the owner, the farrier, the veterinarian, the home facility, and the support staff. It takes the entire team doing superlative work to be competitive at the horse shows.
So, when it comes to purchasing a new horse, having the trainer, owner, and rider all on the same page is really important. Hearing that clients, who have coaches, are trying horses without the coach present, makes little sense to me. It also puts the seller in an awkward position, as my reader stated so accurately. Is it fair to not let them get on? In my opinion, if you are uncomfortable with the situation you should not let the rider mount the horse.
“Don’t waste my time by coming to try a horse you can’t afford!” Tara Ardalan
“If you won’t buy a mare or you won’t buy a grey horse then for the love of god don’t sit on it first then tell me!” Hope Glynn
“I had a buyer try to negotiate the price of a horse on the day they were supposed to be paying for the horse because of “maintenance”. They referenced me telling them I usually have chiropractic work done on my horses for maintenance. They already had the horse as they’d taken him on trial, he passed their vet’s pre-purchase, and we had already negotiated a price and still they tried to last minute low ball me that morning all because I told them I usually had chiro work done once every 1-2 months which I had told them before they took him on trial.” Mattie
To answer the legalities of this topic, I reached out to legal expert Bonnie Navin.
“Most States have equine liability acts in place that dictate who is responsible should a rider be hurt on a seller’s horse and property. The seller should always have a rider and trainer sign liability releases no matter where the trial is (farm or show),” Navin said.
“The seller is obligated to advise what they knows about the horse and the agent (or rider) is obligated to properly evaluate their abilities and convey that to the Seller. It is everyone’s obligation to stop a trial as quickly as possible if it is apparent that the rider and horse are incompatible or unsuitable.”
This is great advice for everyone that is looking to buy or sell. Navin then asked an important question, “Why risk injury to the horse or rider if it is apparent it will not work?”
This falls into the (lack of) professionalism category. I have known trainers that take several students to the California winter circuit to “try” horses with no intention of buying. They look at it as free rides on horses that are more quality and more expensive than the trainer or student will ever own or ride. This is horse abuse. It is also very disrespectful to the trainers and grooms of the horses, as it takes a lot of work and time before and after the trials to care for the animals.
“The trainers call it ‘chopping wood’, taking their clients to see a bunch of unsuitable horses to wear them out so when they take them to jump the more expensive horse they buy it,” said Navin.
”No one is obligated to bring a professional to try a horse, and further even if they have a professional it does not limit the liability of the seller.”
In other words, seller beware!
“Do ask all the pertinent and difficult questions and ALWAYS buy the mortality Medical equine insurance policy, making sure you cover the transportation of the horse. This is crucial, many horses become sick or injured during transport.” Janet
The Pre-Purchase Exam (PPE)
This is a tricky topic, and could be an article, or book, in itself. Here’s the most important point; the veterinarian’s job is to identify and clearly explain the elevated risks they observe on each horse’s exam.
THAT’S IT, NO PASSING OR FAILING OF THE ANIMAL. Ultimately it is your trainer, who is earning a 10% to 15% commission, to advise you on moving forward or not based on the vet exam. Your coach should be able to tell you whether the results are acceptable or not, the vet’s job is simply to tell you the results and offer their opinion.
Ultimately the buyer is responsible for making their own decision based on the trainer’s and vet’s advice. For the seller, how does a pre-purchase exam affect the value of their horse? The answer is every situation is different and must be taken on a case-by-case basis. Again, your coach is the one who should be determining value adjustments based on the health records of each animal. I will not comment on what radiographs you should, or should not do. That is your trainer’s job. I will say that a vet check will never be perfect, just as a health check on you would not be flawless.
Expectations on PPE. Rarely is there a flawless one. Don’t miss out on a good horse that is a good match because they don’t have a flawless PPE.
“Also vets’ comments sometimes are unfair when it comes to future performance or development. My 14-year-old dressage horse likely wouldn’t have a great PPE but he’s been sound his whole life. Education on the level of risks on findings on a PPE comes with experience and therefore you will know what you’re comfortable with.” Chelsey Jarman
A strong word of caution: buy from honest people. The things some famous and top barns do to prepare horses for the pre-purchase exams are shocking and chilling.
“Ensure that the radiographs are from the horse you are purchasing.” John
Some people put more emphasis on the physical exam, and others on the x-rays. I have heard and read many discussions on this topic. While a disastrous physical or picture can certainly deem the horse unsound and stop a sale on its own, I become concerned when the physical and radiographs determine an issue in the same spot.
When that happens there is definitely an issue that needs to be contemplated and discussed. The health and maintenance program of each farm also varies. When considering a purchase, ask what regimen the horse is currently on. The answers will vary greatly, it is important to know for your future horse what they require and also the financial obligations of the maintenance.
There are many elements to this discussion, and I have touched on a few of the most important. I believe that education and discussion are good for the growth of the sport and everyone involved. While I acknowledged some negative aspects of the industry, there are many wonderful and honest people in this sport. I encourage you to find and support them. As in all things we do in equestrian sport, the most important part of all this is the horse’s safety and welfare. Whether you are buying, selling, or both, ALWAYS RESPECT THE HORSE.