The Etiquette of buying a horse

The Etiquette of buying a horse

As you know, I’m in the process of trying to buy a horse.  And since I’ve been at it for a while, I thought I’d pass along some helpful hints to our seller friends from the buyer’s perspective.  Think of this as the “Glamour Do’s and Don’ts” of horse selling.

First the “Do’s.”  What will get you the furthest with me as a buyer?  The same qualities we all love about our horses:

  • Authenticity — My two best candidates are not from huge barns.  Nor are they the fanciest horses I’ve tried.  They are who they are, and they don’t pretend to be anything else.  And I can tell exactly what I’m getting (and not getting) with both of them.
  • Honesty — If you ask a horse for something it can’t do yet, you will get an honest answer.  Thank you for that.  Sometimes we humans mess that part up.
  • Attitude — The horse knows that when we come into a fence, I’m honestly a little nervous because I’ve never ridden him, or jumped him.  So a big part of what I’m feeling for is whether he’s taking care of me, or trying hard to do what I’ve asked.  It isn’t about how good the jump looks or what kind of spot we got, or whether we got the correct lead going away.  It’s about the horse’s effort and attitude.

Now the “don’ts.”  I would think these were givens, but experience has shown me otherwise, so I offer these thoughts for your consideration.

  • Technology is your friend — When you post an ad, include photos and videos and all the normal information.  I need to know basics like age, breed, gender, pedigree (if you have it), and an idea what the horse has been up to.  Is he doing exclusively one discipline?  Which one?  What level?  How much work is he doing regularly?  Is he ready to show tomorrow, or is he out of shape and full of potential? Is this just not a show horse, who is better suited to being a companion or trail horse.  Remember, if you tell me the basics up front, then I won’t pepper you with the same questions when I call to set up a visit.  And you won’t have to repeat yourself so much (both to me and every other potential buyer out there).  Then when I come to see the horse, and we can make far more progress in our in-person conversation.
  • Price — Just tell me how much you’re asking for the horse already!  I’ve seen ads that list the price as $1 (yes, just one dollar) so they show up in every single search anyone does on that particular website.  Then you have to read the body of the ad to find out that this is a $75,000 horse.  I’m sure he’s a great horse.  I’m pretty sure he’s worth that kind of price tag.  And I wish I had $75,000 to buy him, but I don’t.  This process is tough enough already, so let’s not waste anyone’s time.  But rest assured, that should I come into that $75,000, I won’t be coming to you to buy a horse because you weren’t honest about what your horse cost.  As one trainer said to me, “Price is price.”  So let’s both just acknowledge that, be honest about how much that is, and be respectful of each other’s time and resources.
  • Ask — If you have a horse that would be great, but he’s a little older, or a little more expensive, or a different gender, I don’t mind your asking.  It isn’t that you shouldn’t mention any other options.  Just be honest about what the options are.  When it comes to price, don’t try to be coy in your ad and say “call or PM for price.”  That tells me you’re either not sure of your price, or you’re trying to get one over on me.  Neither characteristic makes for a good deal.
  • Communicate!  — If you’ve sold the horse I’m coming to look at, let me know ASAP.  I drove four hours for nothing one weekend.  Two hours up, and two hours back, to a sale barn in Pennsylvania.  We had made arrangements to see four horses.  Since we were driving so far, the appointment obviously had some lead time to it.  But when we arrived, we were greeted with “Oh, we sold Horse A, and Horses B and C went out on trial earlier this week.  Horse D is here, and I think we can pull a few others for you to look at.”  Really? I understand you’re in the business of selling horses.  And I even understand that some horses will sell out from under me before I get there.  But please, for the love of Mike, have the courtesy to communicate that to me.  E-mail, text, voicemail, whatever — just get me the information that the horse I wanted to see isn’t available (the reason would be nice to know too) so I can decide whether I think it’s still appropriate to keep the appointment.  And recognize that I may cancel at that point.  In this case, I wound up blowing my entire Saturday, a whole tank of gas, and my trainer’s time to come see a bunch of “kinda-sorta-maybe” candidates.  Unfortunately, that has now colored my view of the barn, and it’s highly unlikely I will go back to them.
  • Bait and Switch — The used car guys would use that expression.  With horses, it’s more of a square peg, round hole thing.  Whatever you call it, don’t try to sell me a horse that isn’t appropriate, whether that means too hot, or too slow, or too spooky, or too green, or too advanced, or anything else.  I’ve been very open with the sellers I’m dealing with about what our needs and desires and expectations are for this horse.  Again, I understand that your business is to sell horses.  But don’t  push something that is inappropriate.  It will cost us both much more in the long run.
  • Talk to me — I’m not the Spanish Inquisition, but I may sound like it.  I have lots of questions because I know basically nothing about this horse.  Don’t be frustrated with all my queries.  See it for what it is — a keen interest in your horse, and an attempt to see if there is a fit between him and me.  I want this to work.  I don’t want to be shopping for a horse forever.  But I can’t make that decision without information, and you’re the only one who has that.
  • This isn’t a game — I’m looking for a horse that will be with me for a very long time.  I want to find a good fit.  If my efforts are met with a lackadaisical attitude, I will walk away, no matter how cute or fancy your horse is.  This is a long-term commitment for me.  Have the respect for both your horse and me to not treat this like a game or a joke.
  • Conversation, not Keep Away — As a good seller, you should be telling me everything you know about the horse.  I shouldn’t have to ask a certain specific question a certain way before you pony up with the valuable tidbits of vital information.  Be open and willing and tell me all you know about this horse — both the pros and the cons.
  • Trials — I recently test rode a horse whose owner doesn’t do trials because of a bad past experience.  She sent a 3′ jumper out on trial to a family who took him over 4’9″, crashed him, and then returned him because his suspensories were damaged.  Agreed!  That’s a really horrible buyer.  But I’m not everyone.  I want this horse to work.  And a week or two of the horse living at my barn, working with me and my trainer seems to be a reasonable accommodation before plunking down a big chunk of cash on a horse.  There’s insurance — let’s talk about using that as a protection for you, as a condition of the trial.  Set limits — since the horse is just on trial, it makes sense that I shouldn’t be allowed to do anything I want with him until I own him outright.  Trailer the horse out to a show so I can ride him in a show and see how we do together.  I’m willing to be creative.  Let’s meet in the middle somehow, and figure out how to make this work for you, me, and the horse.
  • Have an appropriate place for me to try your horse — I went to one place, run by a very highly reputed seller to try a couple of horses.  But when we arrived, the area where we were to ride was a field that had not been mown in some time.  The parts that had been mown had grown back up to about 6-12″.  The parts that hadn’t been mown at all were easily 4′ (yes, feet) high.  Digging for the jump standards and  poles was like searching for buried treasure!  The horses I tried were well trained and balanced.  But cantering downhill over jumps in an unmown field wasn’t the best way to show off their talents.  I don’t expect an Olympic sized arena with the latest techno-footing.  But have a clear, defined, groomed area where I can try the horse both on the flat and over a couple of jumps.
  • Presentation — Have the horse clean and ready for me to try.  Needing a few flicks with the brush while tacking up is one thing.  Coming in with a sheepish grin on your face and a horse covered in mud is another!  Also, make sure his feet are up to date.  I recently tried a horse who missed the cut because his toes were too long and he tripped several times because of it.  While I tried to keep an open mind about his performance, I’m sure it cost him as we evaluated who we wanted to see again.
  • Nope!  This ain’t my horse — Since I’ve been at this a while, I’m getting better at being able to more intuitively feel when a given horse isn’t right for me.  I did a trial recently where the jockey looked great, and my trainer loved the horse.  But when I got on, it only took about 2 minutes, and I could tell you this wasn’t the one for me.  It’s my bum in the saddle, and if they chemistry isn’t there between me and the horse, it really doesn’t matter how good everyone else looks riding him.  Plus, in my case, I’m trusting this horse with my child, and if I’m not feeling that he’s trustworthy in that regard, then it’s a deal breaker.  My opinion of you as the seller isn’t diminished, and neither is my opinion of the horse.  But this one just isn’t the horse for me.  Thank you for respecting that.

And the search continues…