Buying Your First Horse

Getting your first horse is an exciting time for new horse owners. Here are some tips to help you through the buying process.

First Horse

Before buying a horse, make sure you ride the horse in the way that you're planning to use him.

Photo by Daniel Johnson

Content Tools

Want to raise a healthy, happy horse, but don’t know where to begin? Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson provide an essential primer of horse ownership in How to Raise Horses (Voyageur Press, 2011), explaining things for beginner and veteran horse owners. This excerpt, which provides information on  the best approaches to buying a new horse, is from Chapter 2, “Choosing Your Horse.”

Buying Your First Horse from a Breeder

If you’re in the market for a Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred, or Arabian, you should have no trouble locating a reputable breeder within a reasonable distance of your location. However, if you’re in the market for something a little less common you may have to do a bit of detective work to find the breeder you’re looking for.

The best place to start is with the breed’s association. Many association websites have breeder listings compiled by state so you can quickly locate those closest to you. Otherwise, a quick phone call to the association office can put you in touch with breeders in your area who may have something to offer. An Internet search can also uncover information on local breeders. Simply type in the breed of your choice, followed by the state where you live.

In the case of a rare or unusual breed, it’s very possible that you won’t be able to locate a breeder in your backyard. Obviously, it’s easier if you can go directly to the breeder’s farm and look over his or her stock in person, but if the breeder is across the country, you will have to either shop by video or arrange a visit. This may seem more complicated than necessary, but it is a viable option for people who are interested in particular breeds, specific bloodlines, or something they are unable to find in their area.

By buying from a breeder, you will have access to information about the horse’s sire, dam, siblings, previous history, as well as specific information about the individual you are purchasing, such as “horses from this line tend to mature quickly” or “this mare’s foals are the sweetest.” This type of valuable information is typically unavailable when you are purchasing from a backyard owner, from a sale barn, or through an auction.

Going to Buy Your First Horse

If at all possible, you will want to see the horse in person before you make a decision to purchase. It’s a courtesy to the seller to be certain that you are seriously interested before making an appointment to see the horse. If you really think that you want a registered Quarter Horse mare and the horse you saw an ad for is an Arabian gelding, think carefully before you bother the seller with setting up an appointment. However, if you’re reasonably sure that you are interested in the horse, proceed with the appointment. It goes without saying that you will want to be on time. You’re taking time out of someone’s busy day and you’ll be starting your appointment on the wrong foot if you arrive late.

It’s a good idea to bring someone else with you. Two heads are better than one and you’ll each notice things that the other one might miss. If possible, bring an experienced horse person or trainer who is familiar with your level of experience and goals for your horse. One of you can take pictures or videotape the horse for later reference. It’s perfectly acceptable to bring along a friend, but it’s not courteous to bring a car full of people or dogs.

You will want to examine the horse thoroughly yourself to determine its general state of health. Check legs and feet and look for bumps, lumps, and blemishes. Watch the horse moving from the front, back, and side; check for possible lameness; and evaluate the horse’s overall conformation, particularly his leg conformation. The horse should have an alert expression, appear interested and bright-eyed, be at an appropriate weight, and have a healthy, shiny coat. If the horse is not registered, try to verify the horse’s actual age by checking his teeth. Observe the horse’s temperament during handling, while being saddled, and while being tied. Take note of how he behaves in his stall, whether he paces or seems agitated or if he is relaxed and quiet. Some horses are nervous when they’re taken away from their herd companions so watch how he acts when he’s by himself.

Watch the seller ride the horse before you or your companion attempt it. This is still a strange horse, despite how much information you may have obtained about him, and it’s always wise to proceed with caution. Let the seller demonstrate the horse’s ability at the walk, trot, and canter, going both ways in the arena. Observe the horse’s general demeanor, whether he seems high-strung or low-key, the steadiness of his gait (is he speeding up, then slowing down?), and whether he is attentive to his job or distracted. When halted does he stand quietly or does he fidget and display other forms of impatience? Does he back willingly or does he resist? When being ridden is he high-headed? Does he overly mouth his bit? Swish or ring his tail? What is his general expression under saddle? The answers to these questions will help you determine whether this is the horse for you. When you’ve finished looking at the horse and have asked any questions that you may have, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell the seller that you’re going to think things over and that you’ll get back to him or her with your decision in a day or so. Obviously if the horse is completely unacceptable for your needs, you should tell the seller right away that the horse is not right for you. But if you do like the horse, there is no need to make a rush decision, even if you are certain that you’d like to buy it. Take the time to discuss the horse with your friend. Then, take a night to sleep on your decision and see how you feel the next day. If you decide to pursue the purchase, your next step is to finalize the details, which includes a pre-purchase physical exam.

Questions to Ask Before Buying A Horse

• Describe his disposition. Is he good with other horses?
• Does he have any bad habits or vices?
• Does he have any health issues, major illnesses, or injuries? Has he ever been lame? Prone to colic?
• Does he react to being loaded, clipped, bathed, or tied?
• Has he been shown? Any championships or titles? If registered, has he won points at breed shows?
• Has he had any professional training? How much?
• How is he for the vet and farrier? (If this answer is “I don’t know,” this may be a red flag, as you may begin to question the care that the horse has been receiving.)
• How is he used to being kept (in a stall, at pasture, or both)?
• How long have you owned the horse?
• In what disciplines does he have training?
• Is he easy to catch?
• Is he registered?
• Is he suitable for a beginner rider?
• Is he up-to-date on vaccinations, dewormings, and farrier trimmings?
• Is he well-behaved for bridling, saddling, and mounting? Does he stand quietly?
• What breed?
• What is his age?
• What is his exact height?
• Why are you selling?

Pre-Purchase Exams

There are many reasons that you may want to have a pre-purchase exam (PPE) physical done on the horse you are considering. If your horse will be subjected to heavy training, if you’re planning on competing in strenuous disciplines, and especially if the horse has already been competing or is in training, you will want to be reassured of his state of health. If you are purchasing the horse long distance and won’t be able to view the horse in person prior to purchase, it is especially important to have a veterinarian check the horse over for you. It is also a good idea to request a PPE if the horse is older. Advanced age means the horse has had more of an opportunity to have sustained an injury or he may have other health issues.

While it is always the best idea to schedule a PPE, some buyers will assume the risk of foregoing it, particularly if they are buying a young horse, a companion horse, or pasture pet; if they are not looking for a competitive show horse; or if they are purchasing locally and are able to view the horse in person. As with so many other purchase-related decisions, you have to make the choice with which you are the most comfortable.

If at all possible, you will want to arrange for the PPE to be conducted by a veterinarian who is not the horse’s usual vet. It can be an awkward situation if both the seller and the buyer are clients of the same vet because it can create a conflict of interest. Some vets will not perform the PPE if both parties are clients. Other vets will only do so with the stipulation that they are going to simply present the results, regardless of whose favor they may be in. If you must find a different vet to perform the PPE or if you’re purchasing long-distance and need to locate a qualified veterinarian, you can ask for a referral from your local vet. He or she may be able to give you a good suggestion. Another option is to contact the American Association of Equine Practitioners for a recommendation.

Before the PPE begins, you’ll want to talk with the veterinarian about your plans for your horse. A PPE for a competitive hunter will be different than a PPE on a yearling broodmare prospect, and your vet will need to know your plans in order to conduct the proper tests. Generally speaking, a PPE consists of a general, overall health examination including eyes, teeth, skin, heart, and lungs. This could also include jogging in straight lines and circles to evaluate soundness. Flexion tests on the legs can also be performed to test for any signs of lameness. The results of the flexion tests can help determine whether or not x-rays of the hocks, fetlocks, and feet are needed. Some PPEs include blood work for drug screening, as sometimes buyers like to be certain that the horse has not been drugged by the seller prior to the PPE. Unscrupulous sellers may do this to mask a lameness issue or temperament problems. In addition, if you’re new to horses and unfamiliar with how to determine correct conformation, your vet can evaluate structural correctness during the PPE and give you an educated opinion.

After all of the tests have been performed and the exam is finished, you’ll be able to discuss the results with the vet and then determine whether the horse is physically suitable for your needs. It’s important to understand that the veterinarian can only give you his/her findings on that particular day. Obviously, the final choice rests in your hands, but it’s always wise to consider advice when making such an important decision.

Finding a Hauler to Move Your Horse

Let’s say that you’ve found your dream horse on the Internet and you watched the video and it far exceeded your expectations. You’ve shown the tape to half a dozen friends and they are all as excited as you are. You found a wonderful vet to complete the PPE and you had the x-rays taken as an insurance policy. The horse passed with flying colors and the vet proclaims him “healthy as a horse.” You’ve sent your payment in full to the seller and the horse’s registration papers are already being transferred into your name. There’s only one glitch in this whole marvelous affair. The horse is in California, and you are in West Virginia. So, what’s next?

Well, if you’re like any enthusiastic horse buyer, the next step is to get your dream horse home. This could involve hooking up your truck and trailer and making a scenic trip across the country. Or you could hire a professional hauler.

To people who are unfamiliar with the horse industry, it often surprises them to hear that there are numerous companies devoted to hauling horses across the country from seller to buyer, mare owner to breeding farm, and show barn to horse show. These professional haulers make it their business to haul horses safely, affordably, and reliably. The question is where do you find one?

Again, as with horse shopping, the Internet puts dozens of professional haulers at your fingertips, as many transport companies have websites. Some even have their upcoming schedules posted so that you can pinpoint if a hauler has a trip headed your direction. The cost of your haul can be less if the hauler is looking to fill a load that’s already going from point A to point B. The cost will typically be higher if you want them to go to locations that are not on their schedule.

Begin by making a list of companies to contact. Besides your findings from the Internet, you can locate many transport companies through advertisements in newsstand horse magazines. Ask for quotes, compare routes, and choose the best hauler you can find. Other horse owners may be able to give you recommendations on haulers, and you can also consult the seller for advice on the haulers he or she typically uses.

There are a few things to keep in mind when booking a trip with a hauler. Ask about the hauler’s hauling policies. Does he stop every few hours to allow the horses a chance to rest and drink? Does he keep hay in front of the horses during the entire trip? Will he be unloading at various points along the way, and if so, what sort of facilities will your horse be stabled at overnight during the trip? Will your horse be traveling loose in a box stall—believed by many to be the safest and least stressful form of transportation for a horse—or will he be tied for the entire trip in a slant stall? Will the hauler be making a direct trip from the pick-up point to the destination or will he be picking up and dropping off other horses (possibly in other states) along the way? It’s a good idea to convey to the hauler that you’d like your horse delivered in as timely a fashion as possible. Your horse shouldn’t be subjected to a longer trip than necessary and doesn’t need a tour of the United States!

There is paperwork that is absolutely necessary to have prior to the horse being shipped, which include the following:
• Negative Coggins test result
• Health certificate
• Brand inspection (in states where applicable)

There may also be additional permits or forms needed for interstate travel, so be sure to check with your veterinarian or hauler, or you can contact the Department of Agriculture office for the states you will travel through regarding any other paperwork that you may need. For example, some states require that a negative Coggins test be current within 6 months, other states require it to be current within 12 months, and other states require that it be current within the calendar year. Make sure that you verify that your horse falls under state regulations.

Leasing a Horse Before You Buy

Some people feel more comfortable entering into a lease agreement before they make the commitment to purchase a horse. There are several reasons that people choose to lease a horse rather than buy. For the child rider who is going to be showing competitively, parents may opt to lease a pony that is the perfect fit for their child, then when the lease expires, move up to a larger pony or horse. This prevents the need for a long-term financial commitment to one particular horse. You can also lease a more expensive horse than you could afford to purchase outright. In lease-to-buy agreements, you have the opportunity to lease a horse for a period of time, during which you can determine whether you and the horse are a good match. If everything is working out well, you can make the decision to purchase and the lease payments are applied toward the purchase price. However, if the match just doesn’t seem right, you can part ways at the termination of the lease without further obligation.

There are a few things to keep in mind when pursuing a lease agreement. These will be detailed in the contract between the lessor (owner) and lessee (you). Make sure that the contract specifically details the exact terms of your agreement. In addition to the basic contract outlining the horse’s description, the lessor and lessee, and the duration of the lease, you will want to make a notation regarding who will be liable if the horse is injured during the term of the lease. You may list provisions on whether or not insurance is required, as well as detail any usage limitations for the horse and who will have the final say on emergency care. In a typical lease agreement, the lessor retains the ownership of the horse and the lessee is responsible for expenses (board, feed, farrier), as well as for the daily keeping and care of the horse. It’s always wise to have an attorney go over your contract before you sign it to ensure the contract is in compliance with state laws and regulations.

There are other leasing options available. A halflease (also called a share-lease or a partial-lease) allows the lessor and lessee to split expenses and use of the horse. There are many ways to arrange the details of a half-lease, depending on the situation. Some half-leases involve a 50/50 split of all expenses with the figure fluctuating from month-to-month as expenses change. Other half-leases involve a specific monthly fee which the lessee pays the lessor, regardless of exact expenses for that particular month. Many people find this to be the easiest, as both parties know ahead of time what the fee will be each month and eliminates any chance for surprise or misunderstanding. Another factor that you will need to determine is who will have access to use the horse and when. Again, this will depend entirely upon each unique situation. For instance, the lessor may have lessons at the boarding facility on Mondays and Thursdays, and the lessee may have lessons on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Therefore, the contract would stipulate that each party will have access to the use of the horse on those specific days, which eliminates any chance of both parties wanting to ride the horse on the same day. It’s also necessary to specify who will have use of the horse for showing purposes.

There are also other points that your half-lease contract might include, such as standard of care (grooming, care of tack, blanketing); who feeds and when; where and under what circumstances the horse can be ridden; who is permitted to ride the horse (lessee’s friends or family); who is responsible for veterinary care; whether trail riding is permitted; whether treats are allowed, and so on. It’s possible that the lessee will need to sign a release form stating that he or she will not hold the lessor responsible for any injuries incurred during the use of the lessor’s horse. In addition, the lessee may be responsible for injury to the horse due to his or her own negligence. Considering all of these points ahead of time can help make your leasing experience a smooth one. Many people have been very satisfied with their half-lease agreements and heartily recommend them.

Another important point to remember is that breed organizations often have regulations on leasing and whether or not it is allowed. Some breeds will not permit leased horses to compete in sanctioned breed shows, while others allow it as long as the lease is officially recorded with the association.

Trying a Horse

When you’re trying to decide if a horse is a good match for you, people may tell you to see if the seller will consent to a trial period with the horse. When you take a horse on trial, you are allowed to take the horse home to your barn or boarding facility and spend a period of time evaluating how well you and the horse suit each other. If you like the horse after the trial period (typically one to two weeks), you pay the seller and purchase the horse. If you don’t like the horse and don’t feel that you are a good match for each other, you return the horse to the seller. In theory, this scenario works and prevents buyers from making purchase mistakes and gives sellers an added comfort of knowing that their horse is going to a welcoming home.

Unfortunately for buyers, many sellers will not allow a trial period for several very legitimate reasons. Unscrupulous buyers will sometimes take a horse on trial when they are not seriously interested in purchasing it, effectively borrowing and obtaining full use of a horse without cost. Sellers sometimes receive horses back after trial periods in considerably worse condition. Many sellers are reluctant to hand over all responsibility and care of their horse to a stranger whose standards of horse care may or may not be acceptable.

If a seller is willing to allow you to take his or her horse on trial, you may be asked to place a nonrefundable deposit on the horse or leave a check for the entire purchase price (to be cashed if the horse is not returned in the same condition after a specified period of time), or the seller may ask you to insure the horse for the duration of the trial. In any case, a contract detailing the specifics of your agreement should be signed by both parties.

But what if the seller’s policy is not to allow a trial and all of your horse friends feel that you shouldn’t purchase a horse without one? What’s a buyer to do? First of all, don’t assume that the seller is hiding something because he or she doesn’t allow trials. Many perfectly reputable sellers have a policy of not sending horses on trials. It may have nothing to do with the horse, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with you personally. Find out whether you can visit the seller’s farm on several occasions to try the horse under a variety of circumstances (different times of the day, different routines, etc.), see if the seller will haul the horse to a different location (perhaps another trainer’s barn), or see if you can ride the horse at a show. These options will allow you to evaluate the horse in other environments than simply riding around his or her home arena. If you have reason to suspect that the horse has been drugged to make him quieter while you ride him at the seller’s barn, you can have him tested for drugs to set your mind at ease.

Some sellers will offer a return policy, which is essentially the same as a trial period except that the seller is paid in full ahead of time. If after a set period you discover that the horse is not suitable for you, the horse can be returned in the same condition (some sellers stipulate “physically and mentally”) for a refund.

Horse-Buying Contracts

Whether you’re buying or leasing, it’s important to make sure that you and the seller sign a contract outlining the details of your agreement. Contracts often vary in length and content, but there are certain basic elements that need to be included before both parties sign. Some sellers have a standard purchase agreement or contract that they use for every transaction, while others may tailor their contract to suit each unique situation. If you’re purchasing from a backyard horse owner, he or she may not have a standard written agreement prepared, so you may need to come up with a contract yourself.

The basics of your contract should include: identification of parties (seller and buyer); description of the horse including color, markings, age, sex, registration number (if applicable), sire, and dam; purchase price; terms; and warranties (if applicable). If everything is spelled out in black and white and signed by buyer and seller, there can be no questions later regarding the specifics of the purchase. Although it’s certainly less complicated if you’re purchasing a horse and paying the entire purchase price at once, the situation becomes considerably more involved if you’re purchasing on terms or leasing. In those instances, the contract should contain clauses that define which party is responsible for routine items such as feed, farrier, deworming, and vaccinations, as well as unexpected expenses such as veterinary care. Be certain that you clearly specify the financial arrangements, how much is due per month, when payments are due, at what point registration papers are transferred, and whether insurance is required. There are excellent books devoted to this subject and many contain sample contracts you can tailor to your own needs. By using their models, you can help ensure you aren’t forgetting a vital part of the contract. In the event of a dispute, your signed contract will help protect you, whereas a verbal agreement and a handshake will not. It’s a good idea to have a lawyer look over your contract to verify that it is in compliance with state laws and regulations.

Insuring Your Horse

As we have discussed previously, there are several reasons that you may want to consider insuring your horse. Buying a horse can be a major purchase and expenditure. Taking out a mortality insurance policy can protect your investment in the case of death, whether it’s due to illness, injury, accident, or theft. In addition, a major medical policy can protect against unexpected veterinary expenses, such as surgery. If you’re leasing a horse you may be required to insure him to prevent any financial loss to the owner. Similarly, if you’re purchasing a horse on terms and the horse is staying with the seller until final payment is made, the seller may insist upon insurance to protect all parties against loss.

There are many insurance companies to choose from, and you’ll want to take some time to compare their policies to make sure that you choose the best one for your needs. Some have higher deductibles, some will pay more than others for surgery, some companies require yearly examinations prior to the coverage continuing, and some companies will not insure a horse with a pre-existing medical condition. Other companies may not insure a horse that has had colic surgery, so make sure that you ask suitable questions prior to choosing a policy.

Want to learn more about buying, riding and raising horses? Try these other articles:

Choosing a Horse That’s Right for You
Training, Showing and Learning to Ride a Horse


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How to Raise Horses: Everything You Need to Know, by Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson, and published by Voyageur Press, 2013.