Before Horse Shopping, Do This

The Horse-Shopping List, your guide to getting the horse of your dreams and not the impulse buy. With so many options out there, and so many beautiful ads, it can be very easy to get off course and waste time (and money, if you’re travelling or bringing your trainer along) on horses that won’t be a good fit. With a good list and the powers of the internet and the ease of sharing video clips now, you can minimize travel, only going to see horses that, assuming they are as-advertised, will be what you’re looking for.  To make this “shopping list”, we are actually going to make 3 separate lists. These lists might take some time to really get down and should really make you think. If you take the time now, you’ll save yourself time (and potentially heart break!) later.

The first thing I have the would-be buyer do is describe their ideal horse.  This means thinking about their goals, the kind of ride they find enjoyable, the level at which they want to compete (meaning both “2nd level dressage” as well as “high enough scores to make it to Regionals” or “competitive at local schooling shows only”), and the type of movement they need for their desired discipline(s) and level of competitiveness.  This can easily become a sort of dream list, but try keep it about you and your plans, and what you need to do those things.  How old would your ideal horse be? What size would your ideal horse be? How much training would he have? Would he already have a show record? How far would you be willing to travel to find him? Think about things you might do with him besides your main discipline, think about what he’d have to be like to fit in at the place you want to board him or to fit your trainer’s program.

Then we add a dose of reality, if you want the super fancy trot with lots of suspension, are you (or will you be) a strong enough rider to sit that trot? If you want a horse that can jump 4’6″, are you a good enough rider to handle the athlete that will be able to deliver that kind of scope? If you want something super quiet and lazy, will that horse have what it takes to be competitive to the level you want? Do you have the budget to do all the lessons and shows that it will take to make it to the big shows your aiming for? Edit your dream horse list until it really reflects who you are as a rider and what need in a horse to work towards your goals. Once you’ve double checked the description to make sure you aren’t going to be shopping for WAY more horse than you really need, you start The List.

Title this list “Must Have Qualities”, and ask yourself, based on your realistic description above, what traits MUST a horse have to satisfy your goals? With each thing you write down, ask yourself if a horse fell slightly outside that, would he still work for you. For example, lots of people write “must be at least 16 hands”, but when I ask them if we found an otherwise perfect horse that was 15.3 would they refuse, most decide that being 16 hands is not really a requirement towards the goals they wrote, but maybe 15.2 is the minimum height below which they wouldn’t consider a horse, or that it’s more important that the horse takes up the rider’s leg than that the horse is of a particular height.  Keep this list as minimal as you can while still meeting your needs.

Here’s an example list:

Must Have Qualities:

  • At least 15.2 with enough barrel to fill my leg
  • At least 6 years old and well broke to walk, trot, and canter quietly and in a balanced way
  • Gait quality to compete locally at Recognized shows and through 3rd level
  • Quiet enough to also trail ride on the weekends

The next list is the things you’d “like to have” in your horse. If you are thinking about your ideal horse, the above list are things that the horse must have an if the horse in question does not have a quality on the list above, you will pass. This next list are the things that make a horse perfect for you. In addition to the first list, a horse that also has these traits is one that will make you especially happy, or that you’d be willing to pay a bit more for. However, these are traits that your perfect horse might not have and he could still be perfect. You might find some things off your original list actually belong here, for example from the list above maybe the “quiet enough to trail ride” is actually optional to you, something you’d like to have but you would be satisfied without.

Here’s an example list:

Would Like to Have Qualities:

  • Between 15.3 and 16.2
  • Show experience
  • Has been trail ridden
  • Has been jumped
  • Easy to load in a trailer
  • Certain breed or color

The last list you make is the “must not have” qualities. This is where you list things that right away make a horse something you would not own. This could be a behavior (spooking, bolting) or a habit (cribbing, weaving), a training issue (doesn’t stand quiet in cross ties, hard to clip), or a physical issue (soundness, conformation faults – refer back to your performance goals).

Here’s an example list:

Must Not Have Qualities:

  • Cribs
  • Any sort of soundness issue
  • Hot or nervous temperament
  • A history of bucking, rearing, or bolting
  • Over 17 hands
  • Stallion

Now that you have your lists done, you need to do a little research (or consult a trainer to save time) on how much this dream horse will cost, and if it will fit your budget. With your budget in mind, go back and trim your list until it’s realistic. Decide what things you could compromise on, and which things you really can’t. If your list is firm, you might decide that it’s actually your budget you need to work on.

Once you have a realistic horse described and a realistic budget to afford him, it’s time to start looking. When you look at an ad, the first thing you check is for anything on your “Must Not Have Qualities” list. If you find any of those characteristics listed, move on to the next horse. No matter how perfect the horse otherwise seems, he is not for you.  If the horse you’re looking at passes that first check, move on to the “Must Have” list, and see if the horse has all of those traits. If everything listed is matching up so far, you could contact the seller for more information if there are other things on either of those two lists that aren’t listed in the ad.  Once you are fairly certain the horse fits your budget, does not have any qualities your dream horse must not have, and does have the qualities your dream horse must have, then you move on to the “would like to have” list and see how many of those things the horse has. Hopefully, you find quite a few! The more you find, the more confident you can be that this horse is a good match, and ask the seller more questions or schedule a time to meet the horse in real life. If you find very few “would like to have” qualities in the horse, it might be a sign that he’s a minimally suitable fit. If you’re trying to find a horse on a very low budget or in a very small geographic area and you have limited options, this might be the best you can do. After spending some time looking at ads and comparing them to your lists, you ‘ll have a better idea how many of these qualities you can realistically expect to find in your price range. If you’re finding too many horses that seem to fit, add more requirements to your list. If you’re finding few or no good fits, then you need to make more compromises on your list or increase your budget.  Sometimes it takes some research to get it right, but it’s worth it when you do finally find that perfect horse, and a well thought out list keeps you from settling for a horse that won’t meet your needs. Happy horse shopping!

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