Too many first-time horse owners select a horse that isn't right for them. Eventually, they get frustrated and give up on horses altogether, forever missing out on the joy of horse ownership. At Equine Legal Solutions, our whole lives are about horses. We want to do everything we can to encourage new horse owners and help them enjoy horses as much as we do. So, we put together this guide to buying your first horse.

Buying a horse is a lot like buying a used car. Both take a lot of research, plus some experience and smart buying strategies, to make a purchase you'll be happy with. Like used car salesmen, horse sellers have earned a reputation as somewhat shady characters who often downplay flaws and enhance attributes. With creatures as beautiful and sensitive as horses are, it's easy to let our hearts rule our heads. But that's why we wrote this guide--to help first time horse buyers make smart choices.

Before purchasing a horse, you should make arrangements with the seller to have the horse checked by a veterinarian.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Not So Fast! Before You Buy a Horse...

As much as we love horses, we know that not everyone should own one. Not even every horse lover should actually own a horse. Horses are a huge time commitment, as well as a huge emotional and financial commitment. Horse ownership is certainly not for the faint of heart (or light of wallet)! Here are some steps we suggest taking before you decide to buy a horse. If you don't have an instructor (but we highly recommend you do!), rely upon the advice of a trusted friend who is very knowledgeable about horses and has horses whose behavior you admire.

 

  1. Enroll in regular riding lessons (at least once a week) with a reputable trainer or instructor.
  2. Consider a full or partial lease of a horse for at least six months. Leasing is an arrangement in which you pay either a fixed fee or a portion of the horse’s expenses in exchange for riding time on that horse. In the typical full lease, you take over all of the horse’s expenses and care responsibilities, and in a typical partial lease, the owner remains primarily responsible for these items. Ask your instructor or trainer to recommend a leasing situation for you. Many trainers and instructors have horses for lease in their barns. Equine Legal Solutions offers horse lease agreement forms that clarify the owner’s and the lessee’s responsibilities.
  3. Only if leasing a horse doesn't provide enough “horse time” for you, should you consider actually purchasing a horse. Deciding to buy a horse is a huge commitment, a lot like going from owning a dog to having a baby.

Horse Buying Budgets

First time horse buyers often ask me how much they should spend on a horse. The answer really depends upon what you want to achieve with that horse. If you just want to go out and have fun, and maybe compete at a local level, you should be able to find a suitable horse for $5,000 or less (with some variance based upon the local horse market in your area). If you have more serious competitive aspirations, consult with your instructor regarding what you should expect to spend for a suitable horse. Keep in mind that your first horse can be a "starter horse"--a horse that is safe for you and will help you learn basic horsemanship skills. Even if you eventually want to compete at a national or world level, your first horse doesn’t have to be the horse that will take you to the top.

Now, one important thing to know is that the initial purchase price of the horse is just a small fraction of the ongoing expenses you can expect to incur. Here are some of the items you should budget for on a monthly basis, in the approximate order of magnitude:

  1. Board. Ranges from full care, which includes feeding and stall cleaning, to self-care, which includes only a place to keep the horse and the boarder does all of the work and provides all of the feed and bedding. Boarding rates are highly dependent upon the local market in your area. If possible, you should choose a boarding facility that is no more than 20 minutes from your home so that it will not be a hassle to be there every day.
  2. Lessons. Even if you have already had several years of lessons, you should plan to continue instruction so you can continue to develop your skills. Having an ongoing relationship with a professional instructor can help prevent problems and solve those that do arise, all in an environment that helps you stay safe.
  3. Competitions. You might want to participate in at least some modest forms of competition and/or social events with your horse, which involve entry fees, transportation for the horse, and special outfits and equipment. Consult your trainer or instructor for more guidance on this expense item.
  4. Farrier.Your horse will require regular farrier care every six-eight weeks, and the cost will depend upon what type of trimming and shoes the horse requires, as well as your local market. Older horses may require special or corrective shoeing to keep them sound, which typically costs more than regular shoeing.
  5. Veterinarian. Your horse will require shots at least twice a year and worming approximately every two months. Ask your veterinarian to recommend a vaccination and worming program for you. Your horse will also require emergency or special care from time to time, and you should plan the cost of this care into your budget. To offset the cost, you may wish to purchase a major medical insurance policy on your horse. Some horses may also require medications or other treatments, such as acupuncture or chiropractic work, to maintain their health and soundness. Your horse will also require dental care approximately once a year. Don't be surprised if your horse's health care costs more than your own!     
  6. Tack and equipment. When you buy a horse, you will have an initial investment for a saddle, bridle, grooming supplies and other basic items. You will also have ongoing expenses, such as fly spray, grooming supplies, horse blankets and replacement of equipment that wears out or is damaged. Ask your instructor or trainer for guidance in choosing equipment and supplies that are good quality and long-lasting, as price is not always a reliable indicator of quality.
  7. Feed and supplements. Many first time horse buyers wisely choose older horses. Older horses do often require extra feed and supplements to keep them healthy and sound. Consult your veterinarian for more specific nutrition advice.
  8. Bedding. Many boarding facilities provide bedding as part of a full-care program.
  9. Miscellaneous. When it comes to owing horses, there always seems to be some unexpected expense that arises--just part of horse ownership!

You should ask your instructor to help you create a realistic budget, and ask horse-owning friends for input as a reality check.

What Kind of Horse Should You Buy?

Your number one priority should be your personal safety. It won't do you any good to own a horse if you admire it from your hospital bed! You want to buy a horse that is well-trained, well-mannered and kind, with a quiet, steady temperament. Your first horse should be one that nearly anyone can handle and ride. If it isn’t, horse ownership won't be fun, and it might well be dangerous.

Beauty is as Beauty Does

Nowhere is the old adage "pretty is as pretty does" more true than in the horse world! Temperament should be the single most important factor in your horse-buying decision. Your first horse should be kind, gentle, quiet and calm and shouldn't ever kick or bite. Despite all the lessons you've taken, you will make mistakes in handling and riding your new horse, and you want him to be tolerant and forgiving, a gentle teacher. Even if you are keeping your horse with a professional trainer, you should easily be able to perform the following tasks with your new horse: Catch him in his pasture or stall, halter him, lead him to the grooming area, tie him up, groom him, pick out his hooves, saddle, bridle and mount him.

Let your instincts be your guide. When you go to look at a horse, even you as a novice can tell a lot before anyone even rides the horse! Does the horse walk quietly and slowly with the seller, and wait patiently for them to tie it up, or does it prance ahead of the seller or try to use them as a scratching post? Does the horse stand still for grooming and saddling, or does it swing its body all over the place? Does the horse wait quietly for the seller to tighten the girth and mount, or does it step off just as the seller is putting her foot in the stirrup? Does it pin its ears and wring its tail, or does it wait patiently for the seller to mount up?

Here is a very simple temperament test we've found to be a very reliable indicator. When you go to look at a horse, bring a jacket with you (any kind of jacket). While the seller is riding the horse, place the jacket on the fence of the area where the horse is being ridden. If it’s an open area, place the jacket on the ground. Note the horse’s reaction to the jacket – does he casually notice the jacket and go right on by, or does he screech to a halt or jump sideways? You want a horse to notice the jacket and even be casually interested in it, but not afraid of it. He should go right past the jacket without snorting or eye rolling. Life is just too short to have to convince your horse on a daily basis that demons are not in fact lurking behind every rock and muck bucket.

Does Size Matter?

There's no perfect size horse except the horse you feel comfortable with. As long as you can mount and dismount without difficulty, and your feet are not hanging significantly below the horse's barrel when you're mounted, size doesn't matter too much. Keep in mind that most horse sellers either can't or don't accurately measure their horse's height. And even if they do, the horse's height is just one indicator - a 14.2-hand horse might easily accommodate a 6' tall rider if the horse is large-bodied enough. If the horse sounds perfect except for his height, go look before you rule him out.

What Breed Should You Buy?

Much like dogs, horses have been selectively bred for generations to develop particular breeds with particular characteristics. Certain breeds tend to be quieter and more docile, such as Quarter Horses, Paints and many types of draft horses. Other breeds tend to be more spirited, such as Arabians and Thoroughbreds. However, there are outstanding examples of quiet, docile horses as well as highly spirited horses in every breed. Your instructor can help recommend the right breed(s) for you.

How Much Does Age Matter?

When buying horses for children, there's an old saying that the age of the horse and the age of the rider should add up to 20. It may not be 100% accurate, but it's not far off, either! Adults can substitute years of horse experience for age, and the same formula will still apply. Younger horse usually aren’t quiet and experienced enough for a first-time horse owner. Horses can live to 30 years plus with good care, so don’t exclude older horses from your search--your veterinarian will be able to advise you on an older horse’s prospects for long-term health and soundness. If a horse is still sound and active at, say, age 15, there's a good chance he has many good years left. Some first time horse owners dream of buying a young horse so they can learn together, but that's usually a recipe for disaster. There's (yet another) old saying that when matching horses and riders, "Green and green equals black and blue." When an inexperienced horse person buys a young, inexperienced horse, the horse usually runs roughshod over them and becomes spoiled and dangerous.

Age vs. Experience

By itself, age is not always a reliable indicator of training and experience. You want a horse who has been there, done that, well-trained and very experienced under saddle. There are older horses out there who have been "pasture puffs" and have little riding history. First time horse owners should steer clear of any horse that is advertised as "needs finishing" or "green." Choose a horse that is currently doing exactly what you want him to do. For example, if you like trail riding, choose a horse that is a very experienced trail horse. Likewise, if you want a show horse, choose a horse that is already competing (and winning!) at the level you want to compete.

Gelding or Mare?

You notice that "stallion" is not among the choices in the header of this section. Buying your first horse is one of those times when it's accurate to say "never": A stallion is never an appropriate choice for a first-time horse owner. Although there are many quiet mares out there who never show signs of being in season, many horse owners prefer geldings, because as a general rule, they tend to be more reliable and less moody.

Should I Care About Color?

In a word, no! There is an often-quoted saying that "a good horse doesn’t have a bad color," and with a few small exceptions, it's quite true. You may have your heart set on a particular color, such as a palomino or black and white pinto, but this type of thinking will shrink the list of potential horses and may serve to exclude a horse that would otherwise be perfect for you. Once the horse is at home and you've fallen in love with him, you'll think his color (whatever it is) is beautiful! You should choose temperament and experience before beauty--every time!

Where
Can I Find the Right Horse?

You may face a long and difficult search to find your first horse. Everyone wants to own a horse who is well trained, so they seldom come on the market. Instead, they tend to be passed down from child to child within a family, or among families that take lessons from an instructor. Your chances of finding the right horse are much, much higher in a private sale than through an auction--here's why.

Your instructor should be integrally involved in your horse-buying process. Before doing anything, consult with your instructor about what your horse-buying criteria and your budget should be. Your instructor may even know of a horse for sale right now that's perfect for you! If not, you might want to start your search by browsing the classified ads on your own--you can find them at major Internet listings sites and also in the back of free publications at your local feed and tack stores.

There are so many ads--how can you narrow down the list? Start with geography--eliminate the horses that are more than a day's drive from your home, because you will want to go and see the horse in person before buying. Next, sort by age, gender and breed. Finally, read the text of the ads and eliminate the following:

  • Pregnant mares. You won’t be able to ride before and after the pregnancy, plus raising a foal is not a project for novice horse people. Code words include "in foal."
  • Horses not suitable for a beginner. If the ad says the horse needs an intermediate or advanced rider, believe it and move on.
  • Hyper horses. Code words for this include: “spirited,” "has a lot of go," "barrel prospect," "gymkhana prospect," "endurance prospect," "needs strong rider," "needs quiet rider."
  • Horses that aren’t well-trained enough for you. Code words include "great X prospect" or "in training for X" (where X = what you want to do with the horse). See also "loads of potential," "well started," "needs finishing," "ready to start," "still growing," and "will mature to X."
  • Horses that have health or soundness problems mentioned in the ad. Exception: a horse described as "serviceably sound" may work for you, but only your veterinarian can tell you for certain.

Now, What Do You Want to See in an Ad?

  • Horses with a good temperament. Code words to look for include "bombproof," "quiet," "steady," and "calm." In search functions that have a scale of 1-10 where 10 is the most spirited, you want to look for something close to a 1 and no more than a 5. Keep in mind that most horse sellers exaggerate, so if they say he's an 8, he's probably really a 10--too much horse for a first-time horse buyer.
  • Horses that are well-trained. Look for a "proven youth horse" that "anyone can ride." Sellers may exaggerate, but at least you can start with horses advertised as being safe.

Choose ads for horses that you think might be suitable, and run them by your instructor. Based upon the instructor’s comments, you can help narrow your search and develop more specific criteria, then develop a list of horses to call and inquire about. Just like buying a used car, buying a horse involves a degree of creativity in interpreting the text of an ad. Our "Equine Advertising Translation Guide," while meant to be funny, also includes more than a kernel of truth.

When you have identified ads for suitable-sounding horses that your instructor has approved, you can begin calling about them and asking questions, using our free horse buying checklist. Trust your instincts--if you don’t like the answers to your questions, the owner is unresponsive, or doesn’t answer your questions fully and openly, don’t waste your time by going out to look at the horse. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that you are a first time horse buyer--any seller who treats you rudely or speaks condescendingly to you is not someone from whom you want to buy a horse.

Going to Look at Horses: 20 Dos and Don’ts

Once you have called and inquired about all of the horses in the ads you have selected, go over your notes with your instructor and eliminate any horses that your instructor does not approve. You can continue to use our horse-buying checklist as a tool for evaluating the horses that you see in person. Here are a few tips to sharpen your horse-buying skills and etiquette.

  1. Don't rely too heavily on email--it’s often quicker to make a call then ask lengthy questions in email.
  2. Don't start calling about or looking at horses in person until you are ready to buy. Few things are more irritating to a horse seller than a tire kicker.
  3. Don't even inquire about a horse unless there's a possibility you could buy it.
  4. Don't look at horses that are priced more than 20% over your horse-buying budget, unless you have good reason to believe that the seller will negotiate the price to fit within your budget.
  5. Don't try to negotiate the price before you have even seen the horse. Wait until you have thoroughly tried out the horse, THEN negotiate.
  6. Do call and make an appointment with the owner before coming out to look at a horse, and try to be on time. If you will be late or need to cancel or postpone the appointment, call the owner as soon as you know. Getting a horse ready to show to prospective buyers can be hard work, and the owner deserves your courtesy.
  7. Do make sure you have good directions to the horse’s location. Mapquest can be somewhat unreliable in rural areas, so get backup directions from the horse’s owner.
  8. Do get the owner’s cell phone number so you can call if you get lost.
  9. Do leave non-horsey friends and family members at home, including your kids.
  10. Don't bring your dog, even if he’s on a leash.
  11. Do make sure you wear appropriate clothing, and that means jeans (or breeches) and boots. You should bring and wear your safety helmet. For safety’s sake, never wear shorts, flip-flops or sandals.
  12. Do look around the facility. Observe what is in the trash cans (tubes of calming paste?) and what condition the other horses are in.
  13. Do have the horse’s owner ride the horse before you ride the horse. If you don't like the horse after seeing the owner ride it, there's no obligation for you to ride it.
  14. Don't be afraid of offending the owner if you decide the horse isn’t right for you. As soon as you are certain of this, you can simply politely inform the owner that you don’t think it’s a good match and say your good-byes. This will save both your time and the owner’s.
  15. If the horse appears suitable, do perform all of the tasks listed above under “Beauty is as Beauty Does” when you go out to look at the horse. If you can’t perform these tasks with this horse, it’s time to move on.
  16. Don't ruin your negotiating power and tempt yourself to buy too soon by showing up with a horse trailer in tow. (You will want to get a pre-purchase vet exam anyway, and that will take at least a business day or two to set up)
  17. Do bring your video camera or regular camera and take plenty of photos and video.
  18. Do take notes about what you observed before you forget.
  19. Do have your instructor come out in person and pre-approve the horse before you purchase.
  20. Do talk over the horse’s price with your instructor to make sure that he or she feels the horse is priced fairly (and if not, what a fair price would be).
  21. Do listen to your instructor! If he or she says a horse is unsuitable, be prepared to move on, no matter how beautiful the horse is or how much you want it.

Negotiating the Price

Do not be influenced by the seller who tells you that another prospective purchaser is making an offer, coming out to see the horse or otherwise tries to pressure you into making a decision before you are ready. If another purchaser does actually buy the horse before you make an offer, you will find another horse. Counsel anyone accompanying you to look at the horse not to discuss price or your horse-buying budget. Also counsel anyone accompanying you not to be overly enthusiastic about the horse in front of the seller -- save that discussion for the truck ride home. Make sure that anyone accompanying you understands in advance that you will not buy any horse until your instructor has approved it.

Once you have identified what you think is a suitable horse, have your instructor come out to evaluate the horse. You should expect your instructor to charge you for the time that he or she spends in looking at horses for you to buy. You are seeking his or her professional opinion, and that opinion is worth paying for. Be sure to ask up front how much this service will cost so that there are no surprises. If your instructor does not approve of the horse, do not buy it, no matter how much you may want it – your instructor is a trained professional and you should trust his or her opinion.

You can expect most horse sellers to negotiate on the asking price. A lot like buying a used car, how much the seller is willing to negotiate depends upon market conditions (how likely is it that they can sell the horse quickly at full price), how long the horse has been for sale, the seller’s personal financial circumstances, and, to a certain degree, how much the seller likes you and thinks you will provide a good home for their horse. Before you make any offers, ask your instructor what they think a fair price is. If the horse is fairly priced up front, you may not even want to negotiate. Keep in mind that you are not at a swap meet – you don’t want to insult the seller by offering a price that is ridiculously low (more than 20% less than what they are asking). If the seller won’t negotiate on the price, perhaps they would agree to deliver the horse or provide some other concession that would be helpful, such as sending the horse’s winter blanket along with him. Only in unusual circumstances is any tack included in a horse sale, although most sellers do include a halter (some states even legally require horses to be sold with a halter).

Sales Commissions

Your instructor may charge a buyer’s commission on any horses that he or she selects for you, and this charge may be in addition to, or in lieu of, any fees that he or she charges to look at horses for you. Be sure to ask up front how much the commission will be. Commission rates for buyers typically run from 10-20% of the purchase price and are typically paid by the buyers. Note that a single horse sale may involve two commissions--one to the seller’s instructor (paid by the seller) and one to the buyer’s instructor (paid by the buyer).

After you have selected a horse, if your instructor does not want to charge you for his or her help in buying your horse, consider presenting him or her with a nice token of your appreciation, such as a gift certificate to a tack shop or restaurant, or even some homemade cookies.

Do Not Buy a Horse without a Vet Check!

Once you and your instructor have identified a suitable horse, you should make arrangements with the seller to have the horse checked by a veterinarian. Choose a veterinarian who has not seen the horse before (ask your instructor for a recommendation). Both you and your instructor should be present for the vet check to hear the vet’s comments firsthand. Rarely will a vet outright "pass" or "fail" a horse on a vet check. Instead, they will relate their observations to you and you will be responsible for making a decision based upon those observations. Your vet will check the horse’s soundness and general health, and may recommend further testing or X rays for a more complete evaluation. Because it is fairly common for sellers to administer painkillers, sedatives and other drugs that can mask lameness or enhance performance, we highly recommend having your vet draw blood at the time of the exam. Your vet can store that blood back at the clinic and test it for various substances if the horse’s behavior or soundness changes abruptly after your purchase. A typical vet check will cost $200-500 (more if X rays or further tests are recommended), but it is the best way to make sure that you do not buy expensive or heartbreaking health or soundness problems, so well worth the price even if it costs more than the purchase price of the horse.

Get It in Writing!

After you have negotiated the purchase price, enter into a horse purchase contract with the seller. Your purchase contract should clearly state the terms of your purchase, including any representations and warranties that the seller has made about the horse. We offer a variety of purchase forms that you can download and complete.

We wish you the very best of luck in finding a horse to become a member of your family!