Owning a horse is a major investment of time and money, but it can also be a vastly exciting and rewarding experience, if you choose the most suitable horse for you.

Make Your Horsey Wish List

Consider what kind of equestrian activity you enjoy, and what you’ll be asking your horse to do. Not every breed – or every horse – is suitable for every activity. Multi-discipline coach and judge Lindsay Grice compares buying the wrong horse to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. For instance, you wouldn’t buy a big, heavy Warmblood or a draft cross if you’re into barrel racing, yet this choice could work well if you love dressage. You probably wouldn’t be happy with a Thoroughbred fresh off the racetrack if your idea of a great time is a quiet ride on the trail with friends. In that case, an easy-going Quarter Horse, Appaloosa or Canadian might be just the thing. On the other hand, that Thoroughbred might be perfect if you want to get into eventing.

Gender doesn’t much matter, but unless you’re planning to breed horses or compete at a high level, you’ll want to stay away from stallions, which can be strong-willed and unpredictable (not to mention inadmissible for juniors to show except under exceptional circumstances).

The next thing to consider is size. Your horse’s height and weight should be a good match to your own. A basic rule of thumb is that you and your tack should weigh between 15% and 20% of the horse’s weight. If you have long legs, you’ll probably be more comfortable on a larger-boned, larger-barrelled horse, while if you’re not so tall, a smaller or narrower horse might suit you better. Both you and your horse should feel comfortable and balanced when you’re riding.

Make a list of your needs and the qualities you’re looking for. Note which ones are fixed and which are negotiable. Add questions to ask the seller, such as: Why is the horse for sale? Any past injuries or illness? Stable vices/stereotypies (cribbing, for example)? Is he better kept indoors or outdoors? Competition experience? Does he travel well?

Consider Your Horsemanship Skills

Next come your experience and riding level. Are you a beginner looking for a schoolmaster with which to take your weekly lessons? A seasoned competitor in search of a future champion? Somewhere in between? In most cases, the old adage is true, that a green horse and a green rider make a poor colour combination. If you’re a novice rider, your best bet is a mature horse with solid training, a kind nature, smooth gaits, correct leads and good brakes. Be honest in the evaluation of your abilities and get advice from your coach or a knowledgeable friend who can assess your riding level. If buying for a child rider, look for a horse that will be suitable immediately, not something the child will grow into two years down the road. A horse that’s too big, too strong or too fast can be discouraging, frightening or even dangerous for a young rider.

For novices, both Grice and hunter/jumper specialist Beth Underhill stress the importance of a horse that is conventional for the discipline, that a student can learn on. He should have a good temperament, good behaviour and a high level of tolerance for rider errors, especially in a mount for a novice rider. Details like colour, breed and size should be secondary considerations once the essential needs are met. Bad behaviour, however, or a horse with problems you aren’t at a level to handle, are deal-breakers.

Financial Considerations for Horse Ownership

Before you do anything further, draw up a budget. Set a minimum and maximum limit for the purchase of the horse. Why a minimum, you ask? Simple: the horse that seems too good to be true for his way-below-market price, probably is. A sound horse, five to 18 years of age, suitable for recreational riding, might go for somewhere between $1,500 and $3,000; a performance horse for regional level competitions between $3,000 and $10,000. Prices vary from region to region and rise with bloodlines, training and talent until, as they say, the sky’s the limit.

Consider the other expenses related to horse ownership. Expect to pay $500 to $1,000 or more for tack and equipment if you’re starting out. Board varies greatly, but can run anywhere from $200 to more than $1,000 per month. Add in $1,000 to $2,000 in veterinary and farrier care annually. Then there’s insurance, lessons, and so on. Keeping your horse at home may work out to be less expensive than boarding him elsewhere, but you’ll have feed and bedding bills, as well as expenses for infrastructure upkeep. (See Affordable Horsekeeping in the July/August 2019 issue of Horse Canada for details.)

If, at this point, you realize that owning your own horse might be too much for you, think about leasing or sharing the board of a horse in your barn. Leasing can give you the benefits of ownership without all of the upfront costs and responsibilities. The same considerations apply as to the breed, size, temperament and level of training, although leasing is a good way to test your assessment of your abilities and your preferences, since a mistake in your choice of horse will be easier to remedy (depending on your contract, of course) than if you’d bought him outright.

Horse Shopping Pro Tips

If you feel you’re truly ready for horse ownership, go ahead and start shopping. You’ll find horses for sale at local barns and horse shows, and advertised on tack shop bulletin boards, in newspapers, magazines and online sites. Talk to local coaches, vets and farriers, who are often the first to know of horses for sale in your area. Do, however, be wary of auctions (see page 75) although some great deals can be found there.

When you find a horse that interests you, make an appointment to see him and take your coach or a knowledgeable friend with you. Don’t show up unannounced, but do arrive a few minutes early, so you can see the seller get the horse from the field or the stall. You’ll want to see him being groomed, tacked up and ridden or driven, as the case may be, by someone who knows him. Then ride or drive the horse yourself, asking him to do what a horse of his age and level of training should be able to do. Run some barrels, jump a few fences, ride a dressage test or hack out into the field or trails until the stable is out of sight. Pay particular attention to the horse’s attitude and anything that might indicate a physical problem, such as coughing or frequent stumbling. Have your companion ride him too. Ask the seller all of those questions you’ve prepared, and make note of the answers.

If you like what you see the first time, arrange to go back for another ride. Underhill suggests trying the horse at a secondary location or even at a show if you plan to compete with him (at your expense, of course). Still like him? Call a reputable equine vet (preferably not the seller’s vet, as this can lead to conflicts of interest) and schedule a pre-purchase exam.

Why a Pre-purchase Exam?

Having a vet check out your future horse won’t give you a five-year, 100,000 km guarantee, but it should bring to light any current or potential problems that could prevent him carrying out the activities you’re buying him for. Keep in mind that some conditions might hamper a horse’s career in eventing or reining, for example, while not bothering him at all if you only want to stroll on the trail.

A basic pre-purchase exam includes a review of the horse’s medical history, his vital signs before and after exercise and an evaluation of the respiratory and digestive systems, eyes, mouth, legs, back, joints and hooves. The vet will watch the horse move, looking for signs of lameness. Additionally, and especially if you’re looking for a performance horse, the vet may suggest blood work, x-rays or an endoscopy of the throat. Don’t forget the Coggins test to detect Equine Infectious Anemia, which is essential, as there have recently been cases in several provinces. Expect to pay $300 to $400 or so for a basic exam, and upward of $1,000 when you start adding diagnostic tests.

Making a Decision on Purchasing a Horse

In some cases, taking the horse on trial can be a good idea. Options include a short period of two weeks to a month, or leasing for a longer period with an option to buy. Underhill likes this process for her students, especially when buying horses from Europe. On the other hand, Grice is not so keen on trials, feeling they can be risky for both the seller and the buyer. For instance, whose responsibility is it (and who will pay the vet bill) should the horse fall ill or be injured or, God forbid, die? To address this issue, the seller and you, the potential buyer, should write up a detailed contract, and you should take out a full mortality insurance policy with the owner named as beneficiary.

Accept that the horse may not be perfect, especially if your budget is limited. Maybe something minor comes up in the pre-purchase exam. Maybe he’s a bit longer in the tooth than you wanted, his conformation leaves something to be desired, or he needs corrective shoeing. Carefully weigh all of the horse’s good and not-so-good points, taking into consideration his temperament, training, talent, soundness and health, as well as that intangible “something” that you feel when you find the right horse for you. However you decide to proceed, put the particulars of the deal down on paper in a contract, often called a bill of sale (see below).

Finally, remember that it will take time, like any good friendship, for the relationship with your horse to blossom into one you’ll cherish for years to come.

Legal Considerations for Buying, Leasing, or Part-boarding

Purchasing a Horse

The first principle on the purchase of a horse is caveat emptor – let the buyer beware! It is up to the buyer to ensure that the horse has the qualities that the buyer requires from a mount.

The problems start when the seller makes statements about the horse to the buyer. These remarks may relate to the horse’s soundness, temperament or suitability for a specific purpose. The buyer relies on these statements when she purchases the horse and if the statements later prove untrue, disputes start and lawyers get involved.

Most statements made about a horse are made in the arena or barn and are not written down. If there is something important about the horse you are buying, put it in writing. A well-written sale agreement can resolve disputes quickly and save a lot of lawyers’ fees. Include:

  • Description of the horse
  • Statements important to your purchase of that particular horse – statements about experience, qualities, soundness
  • Purchase price and payment terms
  • Names of buyer and seller – make sure both parties sign the agreement so that the buyer and seller are bound by the agreement and know the full purchase price
  • Taxes
  • Transfer of risk – when does the horse become the buyer’s problem?
  • List any equipment transferring with the horse, such as tack
  • List other details important to the sale, such as related to shipping or payment plans, for example

Leasing or Part-boarding a Horse

Leasing a horse gives you an opportunity to enjoy all the pleasures of riding a horse without the responsibility of ownership. These arrangements allow for a talented rider to ride and show a horse which the rider couldn’t otherwise afford. This is especially useful for an adolescent rider that will quickly outgrow a show horse in scope and size.

Lease arrangements permit a horse owner who loves her horse but can’t afford to keep it or hasn’t the opportunity to ride it, to lend the horse to a rider that can maintain and enjoy it while the owner still has control. You may share the board of a horse with a friend in exchange for its use. We call this a part-board arrangement. You may simply be renting a horse for a trail ride. Leasing arrangements are as varied as the people that make them.

Protect yourself by having a clear and well written leasing agreement. Important information and terms include:

  • The full names and contact information of the parties
  • A description of the horse
  • The purpose of the lease and use of the horse
  • Payment details including lease fees, board, veterinary expenses, farrier etc.
  • The term of the lease (i.e. how long it will last)
  • Risk of loss – who is responsible if the horse or a person is injured
  • Location of the horse
  • Instructions specific to the use of the horse including riders, trainers, turnout
  • Insurance
  • Termination of the agreement in situations of unsoundness, default in payment etc.

~  Catherine E. Willson