I hate the process of buying and selling horses. It’s like speed dating but with a marriage proposal at the end; every horse is imperfect in some way; and even when done perfectly right, with adequate trial time, complete honesty on behalf of both buyer and seller and everything above board, you’re still buying a sentient being who is susceptible to change.
But it’s an inevitability. While I don’t take horses in to sell, I sometimes need to sell my own; I get my horses young and take them as far as they can go, or as far as I can justify taking them before rededicating my limited resources to the next one. My clients outgrow horses, and need new ones. It’s the nature of the business that, even when sales isn’t your business, you’re going to have to do a little bit of buying and selling.
When I’m selling a horse, the first thing I do is a pretty comprehensive veterinary exam. Depending on the price, age and level of the horse I’ll have x-rays taken in advance, but no matter what I have a basic physical exam done, including flexions of all the major joints. You can find something physically wrong with every horse, and training leaves evidence.
As such, whether I’m selling or helping a client buy something, I make sure that I consider any veterinary findings in context. When Ella was on the market, I can’t tell you the number of people who were shocked by the things I did for her prophylactically—joint injections, Adequan and Legend before there was a problem, rather than after. So many said something along the lines of, “Well, I’m looking for a confirmed Grand Prix horse with an extensive show record that doesn’t need maintenance.” Good luck and Godspeed to them! And sure enough, the veterinarian who preformed her pre-purchase exam said that not only did Ella have phenomenal X-rays for a 16-year-old horse; she had phenomenal X-rays for an 8-year-old horse.
When I’m helping a client buy a trained horse, I always want to know what maintenance protocol the horse has been on, because clearly it’s been working, to keep a horse healthy and sound up to the point where our paths cross. And I always take confidence in knowing a seller has kept a horse in a regular veterinary program with sports medicine in mind, not just the usual shots-fecal count-Coggins program that all horses should be on. It means that a veterinarian has helped spot problems before they become problems, and it tends to lead to a sounder horse in the long term, in my experience.
I also consider the work program the horse has been in. If a horse has been in a full training program with a competent professional, buying him for a client who keeps her horses at home and only rides three days a week will be a dramatic change for that horse. This isn’t to say that horses can’t make that transition. In fact, the step down from a Big Time Program to a more laid-back approach can be just what the doctor ordered for a horse who is entering his golden years, and can still serve as a wonderful and experienced teacher. But it’s a factor when making a choice for someone who does most of the riding and management of their horses from home, particularly if that someone isn’t an experienced horse person.
No matter how experienced a rider, no matter how seamless a transition a horse makes from one program to the next, and no matter how perfect a match horse and rider may be, there’s an inevitable honeymoon period where everything is peachy… and then it comes to an end. I’ve found the average is three months. Sometimes my students get as much as 6 months; when I get a new young horse, I generally find the real work kicks in at about three weeks.
And we also really need a year to get to know any horse, because horses are different at different times of the year, in different weather, with different turnout programs, away from home versus at home, and bla bla bla. I make sure my students know this when they buy a new horse, because it’s important to just take a breath when that honeymoon period ends and it stops being sunshine and butterflies every day. It’s normal, and it passes.
I also make sure that I do my research, but I also take that information with a grain of salt. If you look at horse’s score report and see some bad marks, is that because the horse was a bad boy, or was it because he was acting as a schoolmaster for a less experienced rider, who had a not-so-good day as part of the learning process? Context is king.
And I advise everyone buying a horse that they have to imagine that the horse never learns another thing for the rest of its life, or never improves the quality of work it’s currently doing, and still feel comfortable making the decision to purchase. That’s obviously extremely unlikely in buying a young horse, but in horses with some training, particularly when purchased by less experienced riders, there’s no guarantee.
An example: an amateur student is looking at a 9-year-old horse that has a show record at first and second levels, with the goal of teaching the horse his changes and showing third level and beyond. But said amateur person doesn’t have any experience riding changes on a trained horse, much less teaching them.
I would advise that amateur that there are never any guarantees in this business, but there’s certainly no guarantee that this horse will learn the changes, even if he’s kept in a professional program. They should proceed with the purchase of this horse only if they’re OK with the horse never learning a new thing. (In my program, we’ve had several stories just like this; some horses have gone on to learn their changes and beyond, and some have topped out at second level.)
Another example: an amateur student finds an upper level schoolmaster who is endlessly kind and patient, brave, reasonably talented, and who has been trained to do all the work not totally honest in the bridle; he hides behind the bridle and doesn’t lift his back very much. In spite of that, he’s dead sound and a pleasure to ride, but there’s a possibility of lower marks because of that lack of honesty in the connection.
In buying such a horse, the amateur has taken the gamble that this horse may be too far advanced in his education to go back in time and re-learn how to maintain the connection honestly. But I’d advise the student that, even if he’s never perfect in the connection, he’s still such a good dude that he’s worth the risk. (I’ve also had several in my program like this, and two have worked out absolutely beautifully, improving in the connection. One didn’t, and was still a great teacher for his person.)
And lastly, everyone who buys or sells a horse has their own way of approaching the actual price of the horse, and how things like commissions for agents are handled. Industry standard is a 10 percent commission to an agent who helps with either the buying or the selling of a horse, the person who puts the buyer in touch with the horse (or vice versa), though there are exceptions to that rule.
Sometimes there are multiple agents involved in a deal—one for the buyer, one for the seller, and sometimes one (or two, or more!) middlemen who somehow get involved.
This isn’t universal, but for me personally, I prefer that a check be written directly from the bank account of the buyer to the bank account of the seller, and then whomever I’m helping or representing writes a check for my commission directly to me. Then everyone involved knows where everyone’s money is going.
In this day and age where the internet has made the price tags available on many horses, I sleep better at night knowing that my clients know exactly what they’re paying, and to whom. I’m also perfectly happy to pay a commission when I’m buying a horse if I get help in finding it, particularly when shopping abroad, where I’m less versed in the particulars of setting up settings and transport, and paying for my agent’s connections to sellers that I might not have access to if I go it alone.
As in all things, user experience may vary. This is just how I do it; you, or your coach, may do it differently, and that’s OK. No matter what, when you’re buying or selling, talk to your agent or trainer about what you’re looking for, what’s a deal breaker, and what is expected on both sides for using said agent or trainer to help. Use someone who knows you well, and who you trust.
And if you’re an amateur person, if you’re going to err, err on the side of a little less athletic and a little more good natured a horse than you think you’re capable of. I would much rather my students be under-horsed than over-horsed!