How To Evaluate A Horse For Purchase: What to Look For, Questions to Ask

 

How to evaluate a horse for purchase (1)When I started looking to buy my first horse, I was completely unprepared. Fortunately, by some miracle, I ended up buying a horse that, while not ideal, was at least sound and trainable. Several horses later, I began to understand what a prospective horse buyer needs to know and evaluate a horse for purchase. 

Looking for a horse? You need to know what you are looking for when you go horse shopping. There are many pretty horses, but not all of them will suit you or be safe buys. This checklist will help you find the best possible horse for your pocket and experience level.

8 Steps To Buying The Best Horse For Your Needs

Before you even start with the process of looking, you need to get some certainty of what it is you are looking for in your future steed. I once heard it said that horses are like beautiful women, and their personalities, flowing manes and tales, and sheer presence can leave you out of pocket and out of luck if you don’t keep your wits about you. 

Step 1: Decide What Do You Want

Decide what you need and want in your horse. Ask questions like: 

  • Am I a competitive rider or a happy hacker?
  • Do I prefer high-energy, challenging horses or steady and calm horses?
  • Can I afford a horse with potential medical needs?
  • How experienced a rider am I?
  • Will I be the only one riding my horse?
  • Do I have the time and skill to retrain a horse that has a few minor vices?
  • What are my personal deal-breaker habits?
  • Do I have the environment, facilities, and funds for a high-maintenance horse?

When you are creating this needs list, you should be entirely honest with yourself. I was strangely fortunate when I bought my first horse, a three-year-old mare who had never seen a saddle. I had knowledgeable people who could help me backing her, and I had the time required to do so at a pace that suited me. She had a beautiful and kind nature, and things worked out well. 

However, if you are looking for a competitive horse, then choosing an unproven and unbacked youngster may not be the best idea. Likewise, if you have limited funds and no stable facilities, then choosing an off-the-track thoroughbred (OTB) may not be wise as you will be getting a horse with specific needs you won’t be able to meet. 

Be very clear and logical. With horses, you need to buy with your head and not your heart.

Step 2: Do Your Research

When you are creating your potential list of horses to look at, you may need to do some research into the horses and their bloodlines and the owners. Yes, this sounds incredibly paranoid, but there is a reason many people end up with unhappy purchases and unhappy horses. Often, owners are not above board on what they tell you, and since selling a horse can potentially be a large payday, they may intentionally deceive you. 

We’ve all heard of people who rode the horse for a trial and were deliriously happy, but then it felt like a different horse got on the trailer home with them. Sweet and docile mares become raging dragons at their new home, and owners have wondered if horses have been calmed with 

If this is the case, then the chances are that these horse owners have done it before, and you can potentially avoid drama by asking around. Good sources to check are local vets or even paying a visit to the local agricultural or feedstore. Casually mention you are looking at a particular owner’s horse and watch the reactions. Notice eye rolls and clenched jaws. With luck, you’ll get the full low-down on what’s up with that particular owner (and their horses). 

Researching is about finding out if that particular owner practices good horsemanship or if their horses are renowned for being “defective” or poorly trained. While you may hear horror stories, it is still worth having a look at the horse. Just keep an open mind.

HOw to evaluate a horse before buying (1)

Step 3: Analyze Existing Living Conditions For Warning Signs

 You arrive and check out the barn or stables, and you want to start looking for signs. One of the things to watch for is how clean or messy the yard is. 

Inside the barn, notice the smells. If you smell an ammonia smell, be wary, it is the tell-tale scent of urine-soaked bedding. If you smell ammonia inside the barn, your instincts should flash red. Ammonia can be a cause of lung problems like COPD, heaves, or RAO. That means you need to check the horse’s breathing carefully. 

Look at the areas around the stable. If you see a chipped door and holes near the ground, it can indicate the horse spends too much time in the stable and may have vices like door kicking, cribbing, or weaving. 

Watch how the owners lead the horse to and from their stable. Do they look comfortable with the horse, or does it seem like they lead a ravenous tiger? This can indicate how the horse will be in hand. 

Step 4: Meeting and Evaluating a Potential Horse

This is the moment of greatest importance. You are meeting what could potentially be your future horse. All your senses should be on full alert. 

Notice everything:

  • How does the horse stand?
  • What is their breathing like?
  • Look at their eyes. Are they soft or flared? Are they glossy or lifeless? 
  • Nostrils: Are they flared or soft and interestedly sniffing at you?
  • Is the coat well-groomed or matted?
  • Can you touch the horse all over without any issues? 
  • How is the horse responding to sudden movements or sounds? 
  • Have a look at the teeth. Do you believe the owner is accurate in their age estimate?
  • Notice any scarring or swelling you can see on the horse. 
  • Lead them around, paying attention to their softness on the lead and body awareness. Is the horse in your space or breaking away from you? 
  • How do the teeth look? Are they worn out? Are they evenly worn?

Finally, notice the confirmation. Are the legs nice and straight and well-positioned under the horse? Is the back long enough to be comfortable but short enough to be strong? Would the confirmation help or hurt your future aspirations? Should you want a jumper, you need long legs that are powerful enough to clear jumps. Likewise, you would also need a large chest for better lung capacity. 

If you are unsure about these more technical aspects, then it is a great idea to ask a few experts or more horsey-wise people to go with you or take a video to discuss with them later. Sadly, horse traders and unscrupulous horse sellers can see a horse newbie a mile away. They will oversell on price and supposed assets while underplaying whatever you might think is wrong with the horse. 

 

Step 5: Questions To Ask When Evaluating a Horse

So, the horse seems sound, and you feel it has the potential to be on your shortlist. You like what you are seeing, and you want to hop on for a ride. 

Before you do, ask a few pertinent questions:

  • Has the horse got any vices? 

An honest seller will tell you about any vices. Not all vices are deal-breakers. I have a lovely gelding who has a habit of kicking his door and kicking other horses. But, he is also adorable and kind to people, loves kids, and taught my 62 year-old-mother to ride. So, a horse that may be head shy could be really bombproof on the trail, and a girthy horse could be really amazing at jumping. 

But you need to know about any vices. All horses have some vice or minus points. An honest owner will tell you straight. 

  • How much does he or she get in feed per day?

This can be a huge concern if you are on a budget. It’s not unusual for an OTB to eat large volumes of feed concentrate (usually 8-17 pounds) per day. If the owner claims their OTB is a good-doer and only eats 4 pounds of concentrate a day, you need to be a little suspicious. 

  • How is the horse handling during routine procedures?

You will want a good horse with picking up feet, stands for injections, and remains calm when being examined by a dentist or vet. If the horse is head shy or refuses to let their mouth or neck be touched, then you can quite reasonably suspect they have been medicated as a way to pacify them. 

  • What’s the thing that most often spooks them? 

All horses are flighty. They are prey animals, and it’s instinct to run from things that scare them. While some are solid and will think before bolting as a plastic packet goes flying past them, others will rear and be quite dangerous if a bird flies up. Again, look for honest answers. Horses aren’t “bombproof,” and you are looking for whether their reactions are handleable or not. 

  • What’s their level of training? 

Finding out what the horse can do is a great way to get an idea of their scope and intelligence. Try pushing against main pressure points to see if the horse is great with backing off pressure or if it’s like pushing against a wall. You’ll soon know whether the owner is for real or a fraud. 

  • How many owners and/or riders has he or she had?

Buying a horse that’s been through three or more owners isn’t always the wisest thing to do. We are always teaching a horse something, and with so many owners and riders,  the horse may have picked up challenging vices.

  • What injuries have they had, and are they on a regular dental schedule?

Knowing what to expect can help you make an informed decision. A horse that has lost a molar may need annual floating of its teeth to prevent uneven dental growth, and a horse that is prone to laminitis needs special dietary planning. Owners may be fearful of admitting what injuries their horses have had, so you may need to look at the horse for signs of scars, bumps, or lumps. 

 

Step 6: Ride the Potential Horse

When you have gotten some answers and feel it’s safe, hop on to ride. I always prefer to saddle the horse myself to notice what they are doing while being saddled. With any new horse, and even with your own horse at home, helmets are advised, so be safe. 

Hopping into the saddle, take a moment to feel the horse. Then run through the following checklist to help you decide what to think:

  • Does the horse stand for mounting?
  • Are they responsive to the reins and legs? 
  • What are their ears doing, and are they listening to you? 
  • Do they move softly and evenly, indicating soundness and cooperation?
  • Are they able to turn evenly, or do they throw themselves around turns?
  • How are the brakes? 
  • Are they responsive and forward going when asked?
  • Do they seem spooky under the saddle? 

Step 7: Potential Indicators of Problems

If, after the initial ride, you are still interested in the horse. The mare or gelding (or stallion if you’re interested in breeding and bloodlines too) is quality, and you enjoyed riding them. Knowing what they feel like under the saddle, you are ready to see what they look like from the ground.

Get someone else to ride the horse while you watch them from the ground. If you are lucky enough to have your farrier with you, this is even better. Ask the other rider to ride the horse down the centerline if there is an arena or ride a straight line towards you and then away from you. Next, ask that they ride a 65-foot circle to the left and then to the right. You notice will determine the horse’s potential for specific tasks like being suited for jumping, eventing, dressage, Western games, racing, or farm work.

Here’s what you should be looking at:

On The Straight

  • Do the hooves land evenly, or are there some wobbles happening? 
  • Are the legs landing in diagonal pairs with sufficient tracking up?
  • Is the head balanced from the top of the neck or hanging on the reins with head-bobbing happening?

On The Circle

  • Do the hindlegs track up to the front legs without overreaching? 
  • Does the movement in walk, trot, and canter remain consistent with even curved sides to the circle? 
  • Is the horse moving evenly or staggering on any steps and in any gaits? 

I specifically don’t ask someone to ride the horse first before I do because if a horse has lovely flowing paces, I may find that the horse is uncomfortable or pulls or shies. Still, by then, I am in love with the picture of the horse instead of evaluating the actual horse. First, I feel, then I watch and get all the information. This is how I can make a logical decision. 

When watching the horse move in the straight or on the circle, be sure to notice if the hooves dish out or if there is a cross-over of legs (known as plaiting) that could potentially lead to tripping. Keep an eye out for movement that seems uneven or staggered, and you should indicate whether the horse will be sound. 

Alternatively, if you have the money for it, you can consider having your vet or farrier check the horse’s legs in what is known as a vet-check, although this can be quite expensive. With OTBs, it may be worth it to ask whether the horse has raced, and if they have, you may need to ask your farrier to examine the legs for ringbone formation. In extreme cases, you might consider asking to have the horse’s legs x-rayed. 

A cheaper pony may not warrant these costs, but if you are forking out a significant amount of money for a potential eventer, it might be wise to check these things before purchasing the horse. Likewise, it may be worth reading up a bit on the particular breed you are looking at because some breeds are prone to certain health conditions that may need additional care.  

What to look for in a horse before buying (1)

Step 8: Analyse the Horse For Your Goals 

Lastly, you need to consider whether the horse is suitable for what YOU need them to perform. Sometimes,  you may find a really perfect horse, except they aren’t suited to the reasons you want a horse.

In this case, you have two options. Either take the horse and find a purpose for it more in line with what the horse can do. But if you really need a horse for the original reason and can’t afford to get two, then you need to step away.

Expecting a horse to do something that is not in its nature or conformation is unfair to the horse and will make for an unhappy horse and rider partnership. 

9. Negotiating The Horse Purchase

If you decide to purchase the horse, there will be a few details you’ll want to cover. Depending on the horse and other factors, the price may or may not be negotiable. Find out what methods of payment are acceptable. Find out if there is any trial period or guarantee that comes with the horse. If the horse doesn’t come with a trial period, then try to get at least one more opportunity to ride the horse before you purchase it. 

Summary 

In conclusion, don’t buy with your heart. Evaluate the horse based on real and visible metrics. In short: 

  • If unscrupulous sellers are selling the horse, you should be wary. 
  • When you don’t know what you want, you may end up buying something unsuitable. 
  • Notice how the horse has been kept and what vices it may have formed. 
  • When you are ready for the first ride, be aware of how you communicate with the horse and respond to you. 
  • Lastly, look at the conformation and movement, make sure to spend your money and the years of love on a physically and financially sound horse. 
  • Keep your purpose in mind as you can’t make a horse do what it doesn’t want to or can’t do.

Talitha van Niekerk

Hi, I’m Talitha van Niekerk, and I made the leap to farm animal ownership when I decided to fulfil my lifelong passion to own horses. Now, over a decade later, I run a public stable facility on 180 acres of land, caring for over 75 horses of all breeds and sizes. I love to write about my experiences, sharing the knowledge I have gained and helping others achieve their life’s passion to live on the land.

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