You’ve never sold a horse before.
You had an opportunity to, once, long ago. The chunky red Quarter Horse, who was a birthday gift from your parents several years prior (and who you loved beyond words), had a sticky right lead, a fatter-than-ideal neck, and was too lazy to jump anything of significance.
“We see your dedication,” your parents told you at the dinner table one evening. You were 16, maybe 17. “We are proud of your hard work at the barn. We’re willing to get you a horse that would be more competitive. One that could do more of the things you’d like to do.”
Your eyes widened, and you sat up a little straighter.
“But we can only afford one horse,” Dad said, looking you straight in the eye. “We’d have to sell Elmo.”
You didn’t hesitate, not for a second. You’d begged for years for a horse. You’d saved thousands of dollars pre-purchase, in accordance with the signed contract you wrote up with your parents, detailing predicted expenses and which party was responsible for what.
“Thank you,” you said. “But I can’t sell him.”
Family members aren’t for sale.
That big red horse died at 31, on the farm you bought and brought him home to just a few years earlier. You’d been together for 23 years.
By then, though, you’d started a little riding lesson program. You added to your lesson horse string carefully, and you’d been lucky. Two of your best mounts were given to you by friends who trusted you to keep them active, loved and safe.
But as your program grew, so did your equine needs. You had a solid string of walk/trotters, but needed more who could solidly canter. You began looking for W/T/C packers but struggled to find honest sellers and suitable horses. (An ex-Amish plow horse with no riding videos listed for $20,000? A $15,000 horse whose only video shows him cantering on the wrong lead? And for the love of all that is holy, why are we all standing on horses in sales ads?!)
A local trainer-friend enjoys restarting off-track Thoroughbreds. You trust her; she found you one of your best schoolies when he was stepping down from a show career. You see a video of a new horse she’s pulled off the track: a relaxed walk, a consistent trot and an easygoing canter.
She describes the horse, a tall, lanky gelding, as “super chill,” “steady,” and “not excited by much.” You start asking some questions.
The horse has an old track injury that prevents really big jumps, but you don’t need really big jumps. Your friend shares some x-rays, and you run them by your veterinarian, who gives you the thumbs up.
You ask your friend if she thinks he might enjoy being a lesson horse. That’s important to you—that your horses like their job. You don’t sell horses to clients. You don’t board or lease. Your school horses become family, and you plan to keep them around.
Your friend tells you, yes, she thinks this horse would enjoy the lesson life. He’s fairly green but easygoing, willing and eager to learn. He enjoys attention. You visit him and are impressed by how calmly he walks down the road past traffic to the outdoor, your friend’s dog at his heels. His stride is big, but it’s steady and relaxed. He doesn’t flinch when the dog jumps in and out of the hip-high grass beyond the arena. He hops a few crossrails like it’s been his job for a decade. You ride him back up the road to the barn with loose reins. Your friend’s 6-year-old niece leads him to the wash stall and hoses him off.
You buy the horse. You bring him home. You and your head instructor plan a schedule of training rides to bring him along.
He does well. He’s not afraid of much, and he’s curious and interested in lots. He walks and trots contentedly, and you ask him to bend and stretch. He quickly learns about treats, and he loves his teenage riders doting. He starts to pack a few around at the walk and trot and does well.
Then autumn comes. Temperatures drop. You go back to school—you’re a teacher—and it’s harder to make time for those training rides between work, a toddler, lessons and life.
He’s fresher in lessons; his body is recovering well from his time at the track. It’s cool out, and he feels good. His increased energy and occasional bucks or scoots scare his riders. Your program is young, and your strongest riders are intermediates, at best.
You’re starting to feel in your gut that—while he has so much potential and such a good brain—what you have to offer him isn’t right and isn’t enough. You’re asking him for too much, and you’re not setting him up for long-term success.
Your instructor-friend agrees. She teaches the program’s advancing riders, and she’s afraid for their safety and their confidence. And she’s afraid they’re not doing the horse any favors, that as he transitions from the track to life beyond, he needs consistent and solid riding, not teens who still have much to learn themselves.
You feel so guilty. If only you worked with him more. If only you had more time. If only it was 5 years later, and your son was older and could entertain himself safely for long enough for you to ride. If only, if only.
It takes you a little while—you feel like such a failure—but you reach out to the friend who sold you the horse, and she listens empathetically. She offers to help market the horse since your busy schedule doesn’t have the space for showing a horse to potential buyers. And to be honest, you’re heavy with guilt. You gratefully accept her help.
“The right home is what’s most important,” you stress to your friend.
You know that his next home is vitally important to his long-term safety. He needs his next owner—even if they don’t keep him forever—to help him complete that transition from race horse to pleasure mount. You don’t want him going to a flipper. You don’t care if it takes a little while to find the right situation; you’re willing to break even or take a loss (it’s almost winter, anyhow) to get him to the right place.
(This is why you don’t sell horses, remember. You’d be really bad at it.)
But 24 hours after your friend puts up an ad, she calls.
“This might be crazy,” your friend says, “But I might have found the perfect home. But she’d like to talk to you. She’s in Florida. She would be buying him sight-unseen but said that she just has a gut feeling about him.”
You call this potential buyer. You tell her—honestly—everything you know about this horse. Exactly what he has done and can do and can’t do. You send her the results from his pre-purchase exam in the spring, and you share the x-rays from the veterinarian. You don’t hide anything.
You ask her a bunch of questions: about her experience (she grew up retraining OTTBs), where she’d board (a small farm with lots of turnout, which you tell her he needs), and her goals for him (she hasn’t owned a horse since she went to college; she’s in her mid-30s; she wants to do local shows with friends and ride for fun on the beach).
You talk a few times. She sends you a picture of high-school her on a big, red Thoroughbred with a similar blaze and tells you she has a type, then sends a laughing emoji.
She makes you an offer. It’s a few hundred dollars off your asking price, but she tells you he’s at the top of her budget, and she’d like to use that money to pay for a box stall on his trip south. She already wants to spoil a horse she doesn’t even own.
You pack his belongings. You send along his brand-new fly sheet because he hates bugs, folding it up and packing it in a box with his stall nameplate. You open two bags of peppermint candies and use them in place of packing peanuts. You pet him, tell him to be a good boy, and send out a prayer to the universe to keep him safe. You let him go.
His new owner, Kate, friends you on Facebook, texts you his ETA and a picture of his stall waiting for him. She sends you a video of him when he arrives, rolling in the sand.
You feel a little bit better.
And, over the next few months, you and Kate remain in contact, and when she sends you videos of him hanging out with the barn peacocks and running around in his pasture, you feel like you’ve done the right thing.
Kate takes him to a horse show, and he dominates the walk-trot crossrail division. You laugh with her about what the moms of the kids she defeated must think, and she tells you she wished he’d done something wrong so that people would understand why she started so small. But he was perfect.
You offer her support and encouragement when he’s not perfect at his next show. He’s great early on, hopping over little fences with scary filler and navigating a busy warm-up ring. But he gets anxious and stressed on the last day, likely pent up from overstimulation and a lack of turnout. But something feels warm inside when Kate tells you that it’s OK, they would scratch from their classes and spend the day walking around the show and just hanging out if he didn’t settle enough to school. She’d make the day a positive experience, she said. She wants to teach him that he can trust her to listen when he tells her enough is enough.
The day after the show, Kate posts a selfie with him, their faces pressed together, and says she’s proud of him. You know he’s in the perfect place. He’s found his person. She’s found her horse. You’re so excited to watch them grow together, and a little more guilt and doubt lifts from your shoulders.
There are a lot of reasons NOT to sell a horse, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do for everyone involved.
You just hope not to have to do it again anytime soon.
Sarah K. Susa is the owner of Black Dog Stables just north of Pittsburgh, where she resides with her husband and young son. She has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Allegheny College and an M.Ed. from The University of Pennsylvania. She teaches high school English full-time, teaches riding lessons and facilitates educational programs at Black Dog Stables, and has no idea what you mean by the concept of free time.