Buying a "Bargain" Horse: Sweet Deal or Bad Bet?

Today’s tough economic reality means that more and more people are being forced to give up their horses. With so much stock on the market and fewer buyers, prices have plummeted, especially in the mid-to-lower range bracket that most of us shop in.  In some cases, people are literally giving away perfectly good horses, and equine rescue organizations are overflowing. It would therefore seem that if you are looking for a horse, now would be a great time to pick up a bargain. However, when it comes to a cheap or free horse, the old adage of “buyer beware” still applies, because if you’re not careful, that “bargain” horse could end up costing you plenty.

            Before heading out to pick up a low-cost or free horse, the first question you should ask yourself is whether or not you are financially able to care for the horse.  Experienced horse people know that the purchase price of a horse is only the tip of the iceberg, but those new to horses may not realize what the actual costs of ownership are. Between feed, maintenance veterinary care (dentistry, vaccinations, etc.), hoof care and board, one can easily run up $500-$800 or even more in monthly expenses. Add in tack and training, and you can go through hundreds more. And that’s assuming the horse is healthy – which many low-cost or free horses are not. All too often, a horse that is being sold cheap or given away has some kind of physical problem, and if it does, you could end up spending thousands on vet bills.

The best way to protect yourself when considering a bargain horse (or any horse, for that matter) is to get a veterinarian to perform a thorough pre-purchase examination. However, many people are reluctant to spend money for a vet check on a horse that has little monetary value, instead relying upon the seller to disclose any known issues. This is a risky move at best, for even if the owner is being totally honest with what they know, the horse may have health issues that have not been recognized or diagnosed.  The bottom line is that if you don’t do a vet check, you’re taking a huge gamble – and the blunt truth is that if you can’t afford a vet check, you definitely cannot afford to own a horse.

            Karlie Carrod of Surrey, BC, knows first hand just how expensive a “bargain” horse can be. She wasn’t actually looking for a horse when she came across an ad for eighteen year old “Pride”, an appendix gelding that had been found in a desperate stage of starvation on a First Nations reserve. His initial rescuer didn’t have the room or the time to rehab him, so Karlie took him on. “As soon as I saw his picture,” she recalls, “I knew I had to step in and help.”

            What she didn’t know was the extent of financial and emotional commitment it would take to bring Pride back to health. “In retrospect,” she says, “I could have bought a nice show horse for the amount of money I’ve poured into Pride. Just in the first little while we had $600 in vet bills, $50 for a sheath cleaning, $250 for hoof trimming, and his feed bill while he was putting weight on was about $500 a month! It was also difficult and frustrating because we went through ups and downs with his health, figuring out what worked for him and what didn’t, and I spend many hours in tears at the barn watching this horse struggle to live.”

            Pride also had some training issues – as many low cost horses do – despite his age and previous history as a working ranch horse. “He was a bratty, into your space kind of guy who demanded attention” explains Carrod, “and he had no formal training under saddle. He thought that he was supposed to take off the minute you got on, so we are working on slowing him down and getting him to listen to commands. At this point, he has learned to respect my space and is coming along nicely in training.”

Throughout the various challenges that Pride presented, Carrod remained committed to doing whatever it took to help her “free” horse, and in the end, she has no regrets about adopting Pride. “I admit that there were times when I wondered why I was pouring so much money into an animal I got for free, but now, I wouldn’t trade him for anything in the world!  Our bond is unbelievable, and it has been a very rewarding experience overall.”

However, not all owners are able to stay the course when their bargain horse turns out to be anything but. Jeanette Willingdon, of New Westminster, BC, was forced to realize that she had made a mistake when her $500 Quarter Horse mare, Dixie, dumped her in the dirt – for the eighth time. “Dixie didn’t have any health issues when I got her, other than needing her teeth done pretty badly and her feet looked after. With her, it was more that she had training issues. I guess I should have known that a beautiful horse being sold for that price must have something wrong with it, but I was told that she was green but going well under saddle, and I believed the seller.”

Back at home, Willingdon soon discovered that it was almost impossible to get a saddle on the mare (the day Willingdon first saw her, she had been saddled before Willingdon arrived), and if anything upset Dixie when she was being ridden, she would start bucking – hard. Says Willingdon, “She was so sweet on the ground that I had really  come to love her, but I had to admit that as someone who is still pretty green myself, I just didn’t have the skills to train her. I had originally thought we would sort of ‘grow together’, but it got to the point where I was afraid I was going to get seriously hurt.” Willingdon ended up giving Dixie to a friend who has much more horse experience, and she is currently thinking about leasing a quiet, older horse on which to improve her skills.

            Unfortunately, stories like Willingdon’s are all too common. “I see that sort of thing all the time,” says Daryl Gibb, a trainer in Cawston, BC, who specializes in starting colts and working with problem horses. “A lot of the people who take on these low cost or rescue horses are not experienced horse owners, and they often have no idea what they’re getting into. Many of these horses are unstarted or very green, and when the people get them home it turns out they can’t catch them, get a halter on them, or pick up their feet – let alone train them and ride them. It can be a pretty bad situation, and all too often the horses end up getting dumped.” Gibb doesn’t want to discourage people from looking at low cost or rescue horses, but as he explains, “You have to be realistic about what your abilities are, and if you need professional help, you need to be willing and able to pay for it.”

            Yet despite all the cautionary tales, there are indeed some very nice horses going for a song or even free these days. Jill Benoit, from Bellingham, WA, was recently given a well-trained, perfectly sound, 6-yr-old Andalusian gelding valued at $15-20,000.  As she explains, “The situation was that the owner, who was a friend of mine, was going through a divorce and couldn’t keep him. After trying for some time to sell the horse and not finding the right home, she decided she would rather give him to me than let him go to someone she didn’t feel comfortable with.” Benoit is very happy with the horse, the the previous owner is pleased that he has a good home.

            Lisa Schultz of Langley, BC, also ended up with a very nice horse that she got for free, in this case as a result of a Livestock Lien going into effect. “I got him from the owner of a farm who had gotten stuck with him after the horse’s owner abandoned him,” she says. “The farm owner was mainly into cattle and they didn’t know what to do with the horse, so they gave him to me.”  The 3-yr-old QH x Paint stallion needed to be gelded and trained, but as Schultz was looking for a resale project and capable of training a young horse, she took him on. Ultimately, the horse has turned out so well that Schultz has decided to keep him. “He's been amazing! He's great under saddle and fun for everything, from trail rides to the show ring. He’s going on 6 this summer, and I can't see him as a project to resell anymore because I love him and am so proud of him. Do I still think he was a bargain? Yes I do!”

SIDEBAR: Tips to follow when shopping for a “bargain” horse.

1. Consider adopting a horse from a reputable equine rescue (ask if they are a registered non-profit organization, and go with one that has been around for some years) . Though you will likely pay an adoption fee of $300-800, such rescues ensure that their horses have been assessed by a veterinarian, and basic treatment and maintenance is done when necessary. All known health or soundness problems will be disclosed, so you are less likely to get an unpleasant surprise later. Good rescues also assess horses for temperament and level of training, and they work very hard to ensure that they match potential owners with appropriate horses. Lastly, many such organizations will take a horse back if the match doesn’t work out.

2. If you are considering a horse from a private party, don’t be afraid to ask questions such as:
a)      Why are they selling the horse? If they answer that they have too many horses, as why they have chosen to sell this one.
b)      Is the horse currently being ridden? If not, why not? If it is being ridden, as the owner to ride it for you before you get one.
c)      Ask to see the owner demonstrate the horse’s ground manners. Does it lead, tie, longe, back up, load, give it’s feet politely?
d)      Ask to see veterinary records, or at least get their veterinarian’s name. Though a vet will not generally disclose information about a client’s horse, any reluctance on the part of the seller to give you the vet’s name should be treated with suspicion.
e)      Ask for the name and contact info on any trainer the horse has worked with.

3. Make an appointment to see the horse, ask that it not be caught or worked before you get there, then show up at least half an hour early.  If you find the seller longing the horse to death or doing any other kind of shady “prep”, walk away.

4. Don’t get manipulated into “saving” a horse by someone telling you that they want $500 dollars (or more) or they’re going to send the horse to the kill auction. Current meat price is 35-40 cents per pound, meaning that a 1,000 lb. horse would go for $350-400, a smaller horse for less.

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