COVID-19 changed my world in many ways—like it changed everyone’s world—but one of them was in expanding my personal comfort in buying horses sight unseen. I knew this was a thing people did, but until 2020, I really couldn’t have imagined doing it myself.
And then the world shut down, and traveling became a major hassle, and it all happened at a time when I was looking at young horses. So when, after a couple of cocktails, Maddie appeared on my Instagram feed, I discovered that buying a green-broke 4-year-old from someone I trusted was less scary, for me personally, than getting on a plane unvaccinated (at the time; I’ve since gotten the jabs).
Since then, I’ve not only bought one more for myself, but I’ve also helped others do the same. I worked with my extraordinary veterinarian and friend, Dr. Cricket Russillo, to do so. As we toasted to the successful purchase of my new creature, Nightwatch, a 4-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Hennessey—Fantazia, Pandorra) bred in the U.S. by Marina Parris-Woodhead, Cricket and I found ourselves chatting about the experience. “Someone should really write something about this,” she said, “about how to buy a horse sight unseen in a way that is wise both from a training and from a veterinary perspective.” So let’s get to it!
Let’s begin with this: This blog is not about Cricket or I saying, “Yes, everyone should buy every horse without meeting them first!” That’s up to each individual person, and each individual situation. For example, I’m quite comfortable getting young horses, not far along, from people who either I know personally or who are vouched for by someone I know well. Because no matter how trained a young horse is, it’s not that trained, so if it’s picked up any bad habits, they haven’t had time to grow roots. I wouldn’t personally feel comfortable buying something trained for myself without riding it first. That said, I’ve had clients buy trained horses without meeting them and have great success, just as I’ve helped clients buy horses in person that, in spite of us trying the heck out of them and doing our due diligence, just haven’t been good marriages.
So you, buyer, need to take a good, hard look in the mirror and decide: What are you comfortable with? How well do you know the seller? What are you qualified to deal with? What are your goals? And how much money, frankly, are you willing to light on fire if the purchase doesn’t work out?
Next, how can a seller arrange a situation where someone might feel comfortable making that leap sight unseen? The internet has been an amazing resource for buyers and sellers across all price points and locations. When I started my most recent search for a young horse, I used Facebook to network, I collected videos from all over the world via YouTube and WhatsApp, and I was able to look up show records (such that there were on youngsters in my price point) via USDFScores.com.
The internet led me to Katelyn Kok, a trainer in Kansas City, Missouri, who I’d met before but certainly didn’t know well. I networked with other trainers I know, who confirmed that Katelyn is a good person and a smart and capable horseman. And Katelyn gets a huge gold star for doing one of the most extraordinary jobs of marketing her sale horses I’ve ever seen: In addition to the standard riding video, she also posted videos of the horse at liberty, the horse playing with some horsemanship-y things like a tarp and a ball, and—my favorite—a 360-degree walk around the horse, showing its legs and feet, on dry ground. This is brilliant; I’ve had several sight-unseen purchases fall through because of either extraordinarily bad hoof conformation or unacceptably long pasterns, two things I easily could have seen if I’d gotten better conformation photographs. (You can hide a lot by taking those pictures in deep footing, or in the mud, and shame on me for not insisting upon better before embarking on a pre-purchase exam.)
This is such an easy thing to do, and until I met Nightwatch, my new 4-year-old that I purchased from Katelyn, I’d never even thought to ask someone to do it. So go, Katelyn. You rock.
Nightwatch looked sound, his legs looked clean, and his feet were a good shape. I liked the breeding, and I liked his movement type. Katelyn and I then spoke about him, and she told me that he’s a good guy, and clear enough in his understanding of what being a riding horse is all about for me to be able to hit the ground running. For me personally, that was enough. I was in. But if I’d wanted to, I could have reached out to my own personal network of folks and found someone to go ride the horse for me. I have provided this service to others, and I have taken other trainers up on it myself: having a neutral third party go meet the animal, ride it, and see if they like it. Sending someone else first is also something I often do if a client and/or I are going to actually make the trip to meet a horse in person. A lot of times a horse that looks amazing on video rides totally different, and I can save myself a lot of time, money and energy by sending someone else first.
The next step was to send the X-rays that Katelyn provided—taken in October 2021, less than six months ago—on to Cricket, my veterinarian. So let’s talk vets and vetting. Cricket has been on my veterinary team for eight years, and the veterinary practice she works for has been my sports medicine practice for nearly 15. I am very, very fortunate to live in a part of the world where I can have both a general practice veterinarian and a dedicated sports medicine one at my disposal, and I recognize that not everyone is so lucky. So if you’re working with a single veterinarian, or a single practice, make sure it’s one with solid sports medicine credentials.
I work with these guys because of Cricket’s tremendous experience, and that of the Virginia Equine Imaging practice as a whole, with elite-level athletes. Cricket read the X-rays and declared them to be relatively unremarkable, though also not a complete set—there were some missing views of certain joints, as well as no x-rays of Nightwatch’s neck or back. Here, of course, we get into each buyer’s personal comfort level with veterinary things, as well as with their budgets. I’m a big big fan of neck and back X-rays, and I’m lucky enough to have the resources to afford taking them.
A sidebar: I recognize that they’re expensive, but in my last round of looking at horses, all the ones I decided against were because of neck and back issues, and none were passed over because of limb issues. In my own barn, two of my last three purchases have ended up with some sort of interesting spine-related phenomenon. (For me, neck and back issues are The Ugly Thing in warmbloods right now, and that’s certainly worthy of further exploration—are these issues connected to the bigger gaits that are de rigueur in sport right now? Are we just better at diagnosing them?—but I have neither the time in this blog nor the expertise for that, so let’s go back to my tale.)
I needed to find a veterinary practice local to the seller—Kansas City, Missouri—that was qualified both to evaluate the horse moving and to take high-quality radiographs of a part of the body that isn’t so easy to radiograph in the field. How do you make that choice, picking a vet in a part of the country (or a part of the world!) with which you’re not familiar? Enter the International Society of Equine Locomotor Pathology.
ISELP is a consortium of some of the best vets in the sports medicine world, providing continuing education for and certification of veterinarians focused on lameness of the equine athlete. It is an exceptional place to start looking for vets who are passionate about understanding the soundness (and lack thereof, and why thereof) of sport horses, and who are also committed to keeping that education current in a field that is constantly evolving.
ISELP also has a very important website feature for us Muggles: a searchable map of its members. So whenever I am involved in buying a horse, sight unseen or otherwise, I always go to ISELP to look for a certified member in the area. And particularly for me, with my need for quality imaging of the neck and back, I strive to find a practice where the exam can be done in-clinic, as getting really good radiographs of those body parts outpatient is a varsity-level affair.
I set up my pre-purchase exam, make my expectations for the horse known, and then I ask that the vet performing the PPE take video of all flexions and moving exams. This does take some time, but isn’t rocket science. Ask a tech or other useful person to hold up their iPhone, and then send them to the client. This particular practice did an awesome thing and uploaded them Dropbox, but I’ve also just sent the flexions via text message or WhatsApp on to my personal vet.
(A note: This also takes your vet’s time to review, and you should be prepared to pay your vet for that time.)
With information in hand, your vet can make her ruling: comparing X-rays to flexions, comparing the on-site vet’s notes on the report, and with any luck you’ve got yourself a horse!
So it can be done, with some leg work, with some good connections, and with skilled help along the way. Remember that you need to set your expectations clearly, know thyself and what thyself is capable of handling, and have a clear understanding of the risks involved. But it can be done, with or without the initial cocktails.
A huge thank you to Dr. Cricket Russillo for her contribution to this piece!
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own string of young horses with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.