Monday, August 22, 2011

HORSE SHOPPING 101: (Part 1) Choosing an Appropriate Horse

Congratulations! You are thinking about buying a horse, which is a fun and exciting prospect. The fact that you have chosen to read this article bodes well, as it indicates that you want to make an informed, responsible decision in your purchase. That tells me that you are also likely to be an informed, responsible horse owner, which will allow you and your horse to have a happy, safe and healthy experience together. Here is some information to help you choose the right horse for your needs -- enjoy!

A) Determine your goals:
·        Do you want to show? If so, at what level? If you have big ambitions for the show ring, you will need a big wallet to match. Horses with the breeding, conformation, talent, temperament and training to succeed in the show ring cost plenty. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can buy a promising youngster and train it up yourself unless you are highly experienced and skilled. Most people require the help of professional coaches (for the rider) and trainers (for the horse) to make it in competition – starting with choosing an appropriate horse. However, if “showing” to you means the occasional local or schooling show just for fun, you may do just fine with a less expensive horse.
·        Do you want to trail ride? If so, how seriously? A horse that would be perfectly well suited to an hour or two weekend trail ride may not be up for endurance competition or multi-hour rides five days a week.  For most people, a good trail horse is one that has a quiet, sensible, willing nature, does not spook easily, has comfortable gaits and strong, healthy feet, and is sound enough for your purposes, meaning it will hold up for the amount of hours and miles you intend to ride on a regular basis. A good trail horse should load easily and travel well (in case you need to trailer to the trails), cross through water without balking, go calmly over bridges of various kinds, be non-reactive when things brush against its legs and belly, not kick at other horses close behind it, and be tolerant of dogs – even rushing, barking ones. VERY IMPORTANT: Many people think that a trail horse doesn’t need much training, and as long as it knows go, stop and turn, it should be fine. While it is true that the horse does not need to know piaffe and passage, it is EXTREMELY useful for a trail horse to move well laterally (sideways) off your legs. Why? Because if you are going through trees, gates, etc., it is handy to be able to get your horse to move over quickly and easily so that you don’t lose your kneecaps! I personally like my trail horses to have quite a bit of training, as this can save your life when unpredictable situations crop up.
·        Do you have a specific discipline in mind? Far too many people select a horse that is simply not built to do the job they want it to do, then get frustrated with the horse. A downhill, short-necked Quarter Horse is going to struggle with jumping or dressage, while a heavy-boned draft cross will never be suited to endurance riding. The old expression “there are horses for courses” is very apt! The true “all-arounder” – a horse that can do multiple disciplines well – is quite rare.
·        Do you want a breeding animal? In general, it is best to leave the breeding of animals to those for whom it is a consuming passion, science and art. There are already FAR TOO MANY horses on the market, and there is no truth to the idea that you should let a mare have at least one foal to “make her happy”. Breeding is also expensive, and raising a baby has its own demands.  If you are considering getting a mare with the idea of breeding her somewhere down the line, you need to STUDY, STUDY, STUDY when it comes to bloodlines, genetics, heritable characteristics and diseases, conformation, marketability, etc. You need to be sure you have a facility that can safely house a mare and foal. You need to have plenty of cash to purchase a quality mare that is worth breeding, and for the stud fee of a proven and marketable stallion that will cross well with your mare, not to mention money for vet bills. If, for some reason, you are thinking about getting a stallion with the idea that you’re going to make oodles of cash in stud fees, I have one thing to say: DON’T DO IT!!! You need to be an expert horse handler to safely deal with a stallion, as well as have special facilities to house one, and you need marketing expertise, the time and money to compete/campaign your horse, and LOTS of cash for advertising. Then there are the precise and expensive demands involved in artificial insemination (collection, as well as testing and shipping of cooled and/or frozen semen), complex insurance needs if you are doing live cover – the list goes on and on.  Please do not buy a young colt and leave him ungelded to “see how he turns out because maybe he’ll be stallion quality”.  You are asking for trouble, both for yourself and the horse, and even a little bit of research will show you that the market is saturated with quality stallions owned by big money breeders with whom you will never be able to compete.
·        Do you want a “companion” animal? If you are looking for a horse to be a companion to another equine and nothing more, bless your soul. However, you need to be aware that just because you are not riding a horse does not mean you can care for it any less. Companion horses still need regular hoof care, dental care, and veterinary care. Many horses sold as companion animals are also older, and senior horses often require special food and “extras” such as blankets, more frequent dental checks, etc. They may also have lameness or health issues, so think carefully and investigate fully. I do not advise forgoing a vet check on such a horse, as you may be taking on a huge liability and much potential heartache if it has major health problems.

B) Match your horse to your abilities:
·        Don’t “overhorse” yourself.  As a trainer, I have encountered many, many people who bring me their “problem horses” in hopes that I can fix them. Most often, the problem is not with the horse at all, but rather with an owner who does not have the riding or horse handling skills to successfully work with the horse they have bought.  One of the most common scenarios is the “green horse, green rider,” in which someone bought a horse with little or no training for a rider who is equally experienced. The idea was that they would “grow together”, but in reality, this is a bad and dangerous idea all around. Green horses require the utmost skill and knowledge from a rider, and if you aren’t up for the task, you could easily get seriously injured or cause a training issue for the horse that may be difficult to undo. For example, a rider who is just learning to jump will often accidentally bump a horse in the mouth over a fence, and while any horse will resent this, a green horse may become so frightened that it will start refusing fences entirely, perhaps even bucking and rearing in protest – tough to handle for a pro, let alone an inexperienced rider!  A green rider is far better getting themselves a “school master” type horse – one that has been there, done that, has lots of training, and is going to be forgiving of your mistakes. 
·        And another thought: Don’t “overhorse” yourself, even if you are an experienced rider! Sadly, it’s not just inexperienced riders who buy ‘more horse’ than they can handle. Even very experienced riders may not know how to cope with the needs of a green horse, or a very sensitive horse, or a horse that has some issues. It is easy to get seduced into buying an extremely beautiful or talented horse, but if that horse ends up scaring you, you are not going to enjoy your riding time and may be setting yourself (and your horse) up for failure or injury. Best to leave that gorgeous horse that is usually good but occasionally throws an insane bucking fit to someone who is truly comfortable riding and working through insane bucking fits! Yes, many issues like that will go away with proper training – but be sure you can handle what that horse is likely to throw at you before you get things sorted out.
·        One more thing: Don’t let someone else “overhorse” you! Trainers make most of their money from their clients. However, they make their reputation, in many instances, by the results they obtain in the show ring. They do want to put their clients in the ring and see them win, but they will also often show their clients’ horses themselves. I’ve known more than one trainer who urged a client to buy a horse that was great for the trainer to have in the barn and show, but totally inappropriate for the owner to ride at all.  If you enjoy just being the bankroll behind a competitive horse, that is fine, but if you want to ride your own horse now (not in some nebulous future when the trainer gets it rideable enough for you), don’t get talked into a horse you don’t feel safe on today.

C) Pick a horse that is an appropriate age:
·        Don’t buy young if you are inexperienced. In general, an inexperienced rider should look for a horse no younger than about 8 yrs. Though there are exceptions, horses younger than that are less likely to be settled and experienced enough to be ideal for greener riders. The “ideal” age range I usually recommend for the less experienced rider is 8-12. These horses are most likely to be past all the silliness of youth, but still young enough that you can realistically hope to have a number of years of solid use out of them.
·         Beware of the super-well-trained youngster! Many horses these days, particularly those in the Western disciplines, are started under saddle far too early. It’s not that they can’t learn what they’re being taught, it’s simply that their bodies are not mature enough to handle intense training. Noted equine physiology expert, Dr. Deb Bennett, has demonstrated that a horse’s skeleton is not fully mature until about the age of six. Before that time, intensive training is potentially harmful to the immature bones, ligaments and tendons. Shoeing early has also been shown to be detrimental to the development of strong, large, healthy feet, as the feet also keep growing well into at least the fourth or fifth year. Sadly, the horse industry is perfectly happy to train up these youngsters, make the big bucks off them in the show ring when they are three to six, then dump them when they start having lameness issues. I have personally seen radiographically confirmed arthritis in several three year olds – arthritis caused by excessive strain on a young body. These were beautifully trained youngsters with high price tags being sold as show prospects.  In each case, I urged the buyer (whom I was assisting) to x-ray the horse. The buyers were hesitant to do so, not believing that a horse that young could have problems of that nature. They all thanked me afterwards. I now recommend that buyers simply not even bother looking at 2-3 year olds that have any significant amount of training. Yes, I understand that this goes against what the Western show world wants and does. But I personally don’t like seeing horses break down by the time they are six or seven because they have been ridden into the ground by someone wanting to rack up wins. And I sure don’t want to own one that has been set up for such early problems.  Just my opinion, folks.
·         Be careful and realistic when buying older horses. Older horses (15+) can be great mounts. They have usually had plenty of experience, may be very well trained, and are generally less reactive than younger horses. However, it is unrealistic to expect an older horse to be perfectly sound. By that age, most horses have at least some minor aches and pains, a bit of arthritis, or have sustained an injury or two along the way. There are exceptions, of course, and some older horses can remain extremely active well into advanced age. Still, it is wise to assume that an older horse will have some limitations. What you need to keep in mind is that a horse with some limitations may nonetheless be completely suitable for your needs, even if it would not be suitable for serious competition or hard-core riding. I always recommend a vet check prior to purchasing a horse, but it is an absolute must if you are considering buying an older horse. While you may be fine with a horse whose arthritis makes him a little stiff at the beginning of a ride, you do not want to buy a horse with any issues likely to cause debilitating lameness now or any time soon.  You should also be aware that even a healthy older horse may require a more expensive special diet at some point, and senior horses (18+) should have their teeth examined at least twice a year to try to optimize dental function as long as possible. 

Okay -- now it's time to read part two of this series: "Conformation Faults and What You Need to Know About Them"!