Some thoughts to keep in mind when buying a “used” horse…
Use the horse’s own tack for the first ride. Many horses are very particular and accustomed to the way their own saddle blanket and saddle fit. Training a horse to accept new gear is training, it’s not a test ride! The horse will more likely perform the way the owner expects, and has told you that the horse will perform, in his own gear. This is especially true for performance horses who have typically had their rigs tested, re-tested, and fine-tuned for many rides prior to the one you will be taking.
A backyard type horse should and most likely will accept just about any type of rigging.
There are quite a bit of variances in the way each saddle fits and performs, and an animal that is accustomed to one certain type may be very put off by gear that fits completely differently. For example, when my cutting horse Mr Peponita Zan was for sale, he was test-ridden on our cattle by a man using a his (the man’s) own Wintec saddle with free-swinging fenders and English irons. The horse did not perform to his normal level, as he is accustomed to being ridden in a fairly heavy leather cutting saddle with a big, non-slip girth. There was nothing wrong with the man’s saddle, however, a new rider on top of new equipment put the horse into a situation so that he did not show to the level that we have consistently seen him execute. Again, this rule of thumb is for performance horses – liken it to a human athlete, a soccer player perhaps, being asked to turn out an excellent performance while wearing flip-flops and tight jeans.
Make sure to use your best “horse sense” when working with an unknown animal. If you are the one tacking up the horse, ask the owners if the horse has any idiosyncrisities about the way he is tied or worked with on the ground. When you approach him with tack, show the horse the tack before you go to slinging it on his back. Let him sniff it and then move around to lay the blanket and saddle on his back.
PLEASE make doubly certain that you have attached the main girth FIRST when you are saddling – not the breast collar or back cinch! If the horse is startled and moves suddenly, you could have a real mess on your hands if the saddle slips underneath him. Likewise, make sure that you leave the main girth for LAST when you are untacking him. Always keep him in the safest possible configuration with tack for the longest possible time. You don’t know this horse, and the old adage applies “Better safe than sorry.”
Common wisdom is that horse traders always say that a horse is either 7 or 12 years old, if they’re broke to ride. Magic numbers I guess? My long-time horse riding mother-in-law, Kathy Wierenga of South Dakota, advises, “They say to never buy a horse over the age of 12. So horse traders will always say that a horse is twelve if he’s getting along in years and can’t go by an earlier age. I always added 5 years automatically to whatever age the horse was reported to be. Of course this was for unregistered horses!”
Obtaining a vet check on a prospective horse is an excellent idea. Your vet will be able to determine any potential lameness issues as well as give an estimate of the horse’s age by checking his teeth and overall condition. Veterinarians basically go over the horse with a fine-toothed comb (depending on how in-depth you ask them to get) and determine any potential problems – parasites, injuries, or illness. Vet checks are paid for by the prospective buyer, so many people skip the extra $100 or so. However, $100 spent before you purchase an animal that may turn out to have been a $3000 (or much higher) mistake is money well spent!
Require the prospective seller to give you a current negative Coggins, and if you will be transporting the horse across state lines you should check state regulations in regards to a Health Certificate, as well. Ask the seller if can provide a veterinarian’s report of the horse’s vaccine, float and other health records.
Also ask about the horse’s farrier history. Does he go barefoot, or is he full or partially shod on a regular basis? Is there anything that you should know? Have the seller show you each hoof, or pick them up yourself, to verify that the horse will readily present his feet and stand still to be picked out.
The condition of a horse will have a great deal of affect on his behavior and performance. A horse who is underfed and ribby will tend to have lower energy levels than a fat, sassy, dappled horse. Remember that the quiet-mannered skinny horse you bought may well turn out to have entirely different behavior if you plump him up after purchase! Ask the seller about the horse’s feeding habits and amounts. Keep in mind that performance horses will naturally be more slender and tight than a backyard horse, for example. Horses that are well-muscled and have a bright eye and interested expression are more likely to be their “true” selves, not undernourished or drugged up.
Speaking of drugs, how often have you heard stories of horses that behaved placidly and even lethargically prior to purchase, only to become quite the opposite once they get to your place and relax for a few days? Occasionally this is the result of being drugged with a depressant to quiet a horse down for a test ride by an unethical horse trader. This is another good reason to have a vet check, as veterinarians are trained to catch indications of a drugged animal and can help steer you away from this kind of problem.