Checklist for Buying a Horse

Learn what to look for and what questions to ask when buying a horse for your ranch.

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by Ashleigh Krispense

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What questions to ask when buying a horse may be fairly stock, but selecting a working animal requires some additional considerations. We’ve compiled a helpful checklist for buying a horse for your ranch.

Not that long ago, horses were an integral part of everyday life in the United States. From transportation to field work to moving herds of livestock, these animals played such an important part in society that the purchase of a new horse was taken quite seriously.

Times have changed now, and many tend to favor the trusty all-terrain vehicle (ATV) for such tasks, but some ranches still use stock horses in their everyday operations. At our family farm, horses have made jobs that were once challenging and drawn-out, such as sorting cattle, much simpler. Most cattle will respect a horse and be less stressed and fearful than they would if they were moved around by men on foot or on an ATV.

a horse and rider standing among cattle herd

As the feed truck makes its rounds among pens of hungry cattle each morning, we ride the horses out, and the daily sorting routine begins. With the help of the ranch horses, we can pull out any sick calves we might have, for example, and move them toward the working shed to be treated.

And when it’s time to move cattle, the horses are an integral part of that process too. This past winter, we moved cows right before they were due to start calving. Their giant bellies swung from side to side as they dutifully followed the pickup down the road to the next pasture, and the horses brought up the rear of the herd and filled in along the sides to make sure nothing escaped too far from the road.

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A variety of horses have graced the north pen on our farm in the past few years, ranging from a mild-tempered older mare to a feisty Quarter Horse-Thoroughbred mix. While you might occasionally have a little luck and stumble upon an exceptional ranch horse, finding the right horse generally requires some research on your part. Horses require a large commitment of both time and money, so you’ll want to make sure you’re investing wisely.

Checklist for Buying a Horse

Once you’re ready to start looking for your next ranch horse, begin by clearly defining your wants and needs. Will you mostly be riding the horse in a feedlot, or will you be taking it out in the pasture? How much experience do you have with horses? Are you comfortable with one that needs some brushing up on its training, or would you prefer a horse that’s ready to go from the day you get it? Do you have a preference between a gelding or a mare? What’s your budget? Once you have a price range in mind, try to avoid looking at horses far outside that limit.

a horse and rider standing in a pen with herd of cattle

Consider all the questions above as you begin your search. You’ll also need to consider some basic equine characteristics.

Body conformation and size. As you look at different horses, study their conformation from the ground up. Most blemishes, such as unsightly scars, won’t influence the usability of a horse, but unsoundness or poor conformation can be serious issues that affect how much a horse can be worked. A good cow pony can be thought of like a working dog–it will need to be regularly used and exercised to keep it in top condition. Although they might complain a little at times, ranch horses are best off when they have a regular job to do, so you’ll want a horse that’s physically up to the task.

You might’ve heard the old saying “no foot, no horse.” A horse is only as good as the four feet it stands on. A solid hoof should have a nice round shape to it and thick walls, while not being too flat or spread out. The legs should sit squarely under the horse, and, if viewed from the front, the legs should be divided into equal halves by a vertical line running from the shoulder points straight down to the feet. Same for the back legs.

When it comes to sizing, find an animal that’s well-suited to your own physical size and abilities. After you test-ride a horse, you’ll get a feel for how easily you can mount and dismount. Chances are you won’t have a mounting block readily available whenever you need to hop up, so make sure the animal is easy to mount and otherwise work with. Even if a horse isn’t particularly tall, it might be suitable for you if it’s large-bodied and your legs don’t hang too low below the barrel when riding.

Training and obedience. “Cow sense” is something that’s usually determined by an animal’s genetics and breeding, but it can be gradually acquired over time through careful training if the animal is willing and of the right mindset. Cow sense refers to a horse’s ability to judge and respond to the movement of cattle. When the horse walks into a pen full of cattle, it should be focused on and aware of the cattle. As you continue to move in closer, the horse should be attentive to figuring out which cow you want to cut away from the bunch. While obedience is something that can be worked on through training, unless you truly have the experience and patience to properly work with the animal, be careful to avoid a stubborn project horse.

a horse and rider working three cows in a snowy pasture

Gender and temperament. Gender is largely a matter of preference. Geldings are generally believed to be more even-tempered and easygoing than mares, because they aren’t affected by hormonal changes. Mares may have more of an aggressive attitude, but they can also make hardworking and loyal ranch horses that form strong bonds with their rider. And, of course, the generalizations between genders are just that: generalizations. Temperament and attitude can often come down to the individual animal. Spend some time with a horse before you agree to purchase it so you can get an idea of its overall attitude and disposition.

Breed and color. Breed is another consideration that often boils down to personal preference. In general, though, certain breeds are better suited to certain jobs, so do your research ahead of time. For example, Quarter Horses are bred to be good, solid cutting horses thanks to their quick reflexes and short-coupled bodies. Our Quarter Horse-Thoroughbred mix makes an excellent ranch horse, besides the fact that she loves to run. Once she gets a taste of running after a calf, you have to work to hold her back.

Color shouldn’t play a big part in your decision, unless it’s largely affecting the asking price of a horse. For example, a less-common palomino may fetch a higher price than a bay or chestnut.

Questions to Ask When Buying a Horse

While being able to buy from someone you know is great, it may not always be an option. If that’s the case, try to find a seller who’s been in the business for a long time and has a good reputation. Reach out to other ranchers and horse owners in your area to see who they recommend. Look for someone who will be honest in their evaluation of the horse they’re offering; you’ll need to know upfront about anything that might affect your decision, such as flaws, bad habits, or previous injuries.

When the time comes to meet the seller and check out a prospective horse, be sure to ask plenty of questions. In addition to questions that cover your own specific needs, here are a few general questions to ask when buying a horse.

  • Has the horse had any previous lameness?
  • Does it get along well with other horses?
  • Does it have any bad habits, such as biting, bucking, kicking, or trouble
    with loading?
  • Will it stand quietly for mounting? Take mental notes as you watch the seller interact with the horse. If you’re present when they catch and halter it, notice if the horse turns its hindquarters toward the person in an aggressive or threatening manner. Take note of how it follows while led from the ground and how it otherwise interacts with the handler.
  • If the seller isn’t the horse’s breeder, ask how many previous owners the animal has had and why the current owner is choosing to sell it now.

Next Steps

Once you’ve looked a horse over and feel like it’s the right one for you, take the next step and set up an appointment with your veterinarian to get the animal checked out. Don’t skip this step! Especially if you’ve never bought a horse from the seller before. If the seller refuses to allow a veterinarian to perform a pre-purchase exam, consider that a red flag.

If possible, see if the seller will allow you a short trial period with the horse so you can take it home and see how it acts around a new herd of cattle. Notice what the horse does as you enter the pen. Does it seem uninterested and just wander around, or is it focused on the cattle and waiting for your cue to move forward? Note where its ears are pointed; that’ll indicate where the animal’s attention is directed.

two people riding horses through a cattle sorting pen

Be patient with the horse during this initial tryout. Keep in mind that it’s experiencing a new environment and a new rider, and it’s natural to need a slight adjustment period. Horses can sense the energy of the rider, so if you’re frustrated with the cattle, that frustration can transfer to the horse and make it uneasy.

As you look at and test-ride different horses, keep in mind that if the animal doesn’t work well with you at that time, you shouldn’t buy it with the expectation that things will change. Pass on the opportunity unless you’re willing to invest the time and money into an experienced trainer who can work out the animal’s issues. Be realistic about your own abilities and skill level.

There’s no such thing as a perfect horse, but a dependable mount will be a true asset to a rancher and their livestock operation. Horses can be helpful in the cattle pen and great fun to ride. Do your research and be patient, and take the time to refer back to your checklist for buying a horse. Don’t rush into anything, and you’ll eventually be rewarded with a truly valuable ranch horse.


Ashleigh Krispense is a farmer’s wife and freelance writer from central Kansas, where she lives with her husband, Kolton, and their menagerie of critters. You can follow along with her recipes and ramblings on her website, www.PrairieGalCookin.com.