The Horse Shopping Process

Nov 4, 2012 - 1:34 AM
Jackie and Odin (with daughter, Anja, and husband Eric) are a happy couple.

I don’t do a ton of sales, but when a client is in need of a new horse, I help them sell their own horse, if necessary, and then help them find their next. Lots of trainers offer a service like this for their students, and everyone does it a little differently, but at the end of the day, we offer our expertise to our students to ensure they come home with the right horse.

Here’s my process:

- I start with a conversation. What does my student want? What are her goals, both long- and short-term? What’s her budget, and what’s her situation: Will the horse live in training with me or at home? Will she have a lesson every day or once a week? This is what guides my search initially, though as we start looking at and riding other horses, sometimes the situation changes.

- Armed with all this, the search begins. The first thing I do is email my friends, trainers in the area or afar, with a list. I’d much, much rather buy from someone I know and trust, or someone THEY know and trust, than a random person on the Internet.

When I do start looking around online, there are a few sites I go to. has the most user-friendly search function, and it’s a terrific source for most price ranges. It’s not the place where I’m going to find a plethora of international-caliber Prix St. Georges horses, but it is the place to find beginner-safe, or jack-of-all-trades, or low- to mid-level dressage horses, or young national-quality horses, and then occasionally I’ll hit pay dirt on a more expensive, more educated one. is another favorite, and they’re improving their searchablity. You can now search by level for all the English disciplines, though I wish you could do a more targeted distance search – searching by state isn’t as helpful as being able to search by region or, even better, by mileage from my zip code.

I’ll peruse, particularly for the more expensive, upper-level horses, but their search function isn’t very user friendly. And I’ve struck pay-dirt on both and, but they both require a more dedicated search.

Once I find a horse that sounds interesting online, I do some Googling. And here’s a penny’s worth of free advice for sellers: don’t lie. When you say that your horse has shown third level at recognized shows, he should probably have actually done that. And be ready for me to see his show record – a consistent string of 49 percents at recognized shows is going to make me raise an eyebrow.

- When I talk to someone about a horse, I want to talk to the trainer. It’s not that there aren’t incredibly skilled and knowledgeable amateurs out there, just like there are lots of crappy professionals. I want to talk to a pro because, sometimes, amateurs and breeders get a little “barn blind” – their horse is PERFECT, perfect for absolutely everyone, could be a horse for anyone, etc. This just isn’t the case. Nothing is perfect, and the horse that would suit my timid lady brilliantly will not be inspired enough for my ambitious kid rider, and vice-versa. Generally speaking, a professional is more likely to tell me this than an amateur owner.

And I want to know if the horse isn’t going to be a good fit. When I go shopping for a timid rider, or a beginner rider who’s balance isn’t always 100 percent perfect, I don’t want to go see stuff that you need to be spot-on to ride… and I’m not going to be remotely upset if, when I talk to a seller, that seller tells me not to bother coming out. In fact, I’m going to appreciate the honesty. I do the same thing when I sell horses – it’s a waste of everyone’s time if the match is clearly going to be unsuitable.

I also ask about what the horse’s day looks like. Does he hate turnout? Then he’s not suitable for the client who keeps her horses at home, out in a paddock while she’s at work all day. Does he need to work every day? Not a good match for the rider who only gets a few days a week in. And conversely, does he only get ridden twice a week? Then possibly, though not necessarily, not the right choice for the rider who rides every day.

- Photos and videos are great, but of course, they don’t tell the whole story. A video is crucial because I just want to know what kind of mover I’m dealing with, and whether or not the horse can do the work it’s advertised as doing. If you’re selling a third level professor, I should see it at a show, doing a third level test. If I’m looking at a young horse under saddle, I want to see it under saddle. If it’s a beginner horse, I should see it with a beginner, even if only for a moment.

And I HATE long sale videos, and I HATE fancy videos with slow-mo and ridiculous music. A little background muzak is fine, and I can always turn music off, but do I really need to watch a 6-minute video of a $5,000 beginner-safe Pony Club horse set to “Moves Like Jagger”? I think not. The video should show the horse walk, trot and canter both directions, and do movements if it knows any. And for baby horses who aren’t yet under saddle, I want to see it at liberty, but also being handled.

Something neat I’ve seen: Iron Spring Farm, a big breeder of excellent warmbloods and Friesians in Pennsylvania, has something clever – a separate video of each sale horse being groomed and tacked up. It’s cute, only takes a minute or two, and gives me a little feel for the horse. A horse advertised as beginner-safe that stands like a statue on the crossties while being groomed and tacked is a good sign. And because it’s separate from the under-saddle videos, if I don’t care to watch it, I don’t have to. Smart.

- Pretty soon, it’s time to start trying horses! If the horse is local, I’ll sometimes go over to try him first. It helps me rule out horses I think are not suitable without wasting my client’s time.

Whenever possible, I see if sellers will bring horses to my farm to try, for several reasons. Mostly, it lets my client and I see the horse away from home, and since all of my students want to be able to travel with their horse, if not to shows, then to clinics, lessons, trail rides, whatever, behaving away from home is crucial. It also takes facility out of the equation – I respect that it is entirely possible to ride horses in less-than-ideal footing, on the side of a wet hill, in the rain, etc, but I have this really delightful indoor with nice footing, and that gives every horse a fair shot at looking their best. Because I know it’s a pain in the butt for the seller if they’re from farther away, I’ll offer them a lesson to say thanks.

When the seller won’t bring a horse to us, we hit the road. I make a list, trying to put groups together in the same geographic area (so we’re not needlessly schlepping around or doubling back), and off we go. Whether they’re at my place or their own farms, whenever possible, I like to sit on the horse first; often, I don’t even need the seller to show the horse to me. I want to feel what it feels like “cold.”

I test everything – I start by riding well, putting the horse through all his paces. Then I experiment – what happens if I lose my balance? Clamp my leg on really hard? Use too much hand? Bounce my seat? Carry a whip or wear spurs? I want to know if there’s anything off-limits.

Then my student pops on, and I try to take video, if only to refresh a client’s memory when, after trying six horses on a given day, we sit down at the end to talk about them.

Whenever possible, we come try our favorite(s) again, this time with my client hopping on “cold.” And if my client’s spouse wants to be involved in the choice, this is the time where they can come. If they come on the initial visits, it can sometimes add another layer of complicated – “Sweetie, didn’t you like the pinto one? He looked like a nice one… took peppermints right out of my hand! Wasn’t that cool?”

- When a choice is made, we move onto a vetting. If we’re looking locally, I try to have one of our own team of vets do the pre-purchase exam, which almost always includes X-rays of all four feet from the fetlock down and the hocks, plus any other parts that come up in the course of the exam. If we’re far from home, I ask one of my vets for a recommendation based on geography. We’re so fortunate as to use vets who are well-established and have a wide network of friends throughout the country. If we do use someone else other than our own team of vets, I have the X-rays and vet report sent to our vet for final approval.

- With any luck, the horse vets well, and we’ve got a match made in heaven!


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