How To Buy a Horse

He was a bay gelding in his teens when we met. A Quarter Horse with a bit of a downhill slant and it didn’t help that he was pigeon-toed. And he was a saint, an unsung hero, that elite caliber of a horse who could qualify as a lesson horse. I gave lessons to his owner, and she allowed me to teach lessons with him sometimes. I say with to flatter myself. Like all good lesson horses, he did all the work. I stood around reminding the rider to breathe and say thank you.

I’m currently planning an online class called How to Buy a Horse. It’s going to be fun; we’re going to pretend-shop. But instead of organizing my notes, I keep thinking of a certain lesson horse. I’ll call him Jack, the name his first owner gave him. I knew her, too.

Jack was no trouble, kept his feelings to himself, and didn’t scare beginners. He gave his riders such confidence that some stopped riding if they got switched to another horse. After Jack, other horses seemed complicated. Meanwhile, he toted riders to their first shows and didn’t toss his head when their hands bounced. He dutifully took their canter cues, and just as dutifully broke from the canter too soon, when his rider lost balance. More often, Jack filled in for his riders and made them feel a little better than they were.

He was a barn favorite, kid-safe. People affectionately called Jack lazy and teased him for his quiet temperament. He was a starter horse, they said, as they dreamed of more athletic mounts that they didn’t have the skill to ride. People misjudge stoic horses.

Jack plodded along to keep his riders relaxed while I reminded them to sit back and release their inside rein. Sometimes he stumbled. Not his fault, it’s harder for a horse to balance moving that slow, and those toes could get tangled. Then he’d get extra careful and go slower, fearful of another stumble. It was heartbreaking to watch from the middle of the arena. The riders kicked. Back then, some carried whips, so I’d watch them pull their whip hand back to tap his hind, pulling the rein at the same time. The halt/go command. Crazymaking for horses and riding instructors. Partly in Jack’s memory, I stopped correcting the riders and just took their whips away. I might have muttered learn to ride under my breath and Jack might have stretched his neck in agreement.

There was a thing another trainer and I used to do at a barn where we taught lessons. When the client’s passive complaining about the horses being nags wore us down, and we felt it was time to remind them who our lesson horses were, we’d tack up and ride. We didn’t announce it. Jack and I did the same. It might be on a busy Saturday when everyone came early to share lunch under the tree or lingered after. It was important that certain eyes saw us.

The first few strides were stiff, but Jack was just warming up, finding his balance. I’d use my sit bones to let him stride out and breathe into my legs, soft as bird wings. Soon he gave me an energetic marching walk. I’d imagine we’re going up a hill and his shoulders lifted, and his hooves glided over the sand. His trots were forward with me riding his up-stride, his canter active and I kept the beat lightly with my inside calf. Soon we were cruising through some complicated dressage movements, and I could feel his confidence bloom. He felt good in his body, the gift horses crave most.

Sure, we were showing off. I wanted Jack to get the respect he deserved. I wanted to let him show his riders he was proud and strong.

I don’t mean to blame his riders. Learning to ride well is an art. There is nothing intuitive about it and our instincts rarely give the right answer. Learning to ride is mind over matter and it takes practice. And it certainly isn’t just for kids. Too often horses get blamed for rider’s shortcomings. They are sold or sent to rescue, when a trainer and a few riding lessons are all that stand in the way of their literal survival.

Soon enough, Jack was lumbering along, dragging his toes and frustrating his riders, who knew he could do better. They still loved him, but that’s a poor trade for respect (or kind hands).

But alas, I digress. I have notes to finish for How to Buy a Horse. By the looks of it, I’ll have to do more than one session. I tell people to start by making a list. It should read a bit like a singles ad, your best features, and what you want in a partner. Then, just like that singles ad, re-write it and tell the truth this time. And for crying out loud, stop saying “just a trail horse.” It’s dismissive and unkind.

If the horse wrote an ad for his next owner, he wouldn’t care what you looked like, only how you felt in his saddle. He knows a good rider will elevate any horse they ride but an unschooled rider will pull any horse down. Try to be his first choice.

Continuing my outline, I list vet checks, kill pen scams, how to read between the lines of an online ad, and reasons to not ride the horse you drove all that way to see, even if he is a pretty color. And the list goes on.

Going horse shopping is like being a binging chocolate addict going into a Swiss candy store after missing lunch. We point at the pretty ones, and we think size matters. Some have two colors, and some have nuts. Jack would be the plain dark chocolate at the end of the row. He wouldn’t catch your eye or be the one “who picked me.” Humans are easy to trick because we fall for first impressions rather than reading the ingredients (calming signals).

Jack is still grazing through my thoughts. He says investment-wise, you should spend ten times more on riding lessons than the horse. He’s right. Go out and buy an Olympic horse if you have the cash but know that horse is just like Jack. He will only do what his rider knows to ask.

Reminiscing about training with Jack, I realize we’re old-timers now. Then I do the math, and I know he has walked on. His body would have let him go by now. But Jack would still remind you that all horses are lesson horses. They might come in a plain brown wrapper. You are the one who lets them shine.

The How To Buy a Horse class is on Feb. 25th at The Barn School

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42 thoughts on “How To Buy a Horse”

  1. I have had people say to me, “what a shame you don’t have a really good horse”, as they looked at my collection of cast offs and plain Janes. And I would say, “I do have really good horses. “You know what I mean” they’d say. And I’d reply, “Yes, I do know what you mean. But you don’t know what I mean.”

  2. This is such wonderful guidance! The buying and selling of horses is a painful necessity of life but it could be handled with a lot more wisdom and compassion.

  3. The way you showed Jack off to the neigh-sayers reminded me of this: A daughter was dismayed how staff at her mom’s retirement home didn’t see her as a person, so she brought in a framed picture of her mom when she was young and beautiful and put it by her mom’s bed.

    Thanks for all your thoughtful insights.

  4. Anna, a brief tale: Growing up as I did in Belfast, N.I., in the mid-1950s, we still had many horse-drawn vehicles in the city,
    from fruit veg sellers to discarded home items that were picked up by a man with the horse and cart, and other working horses. Many of them were coldbloods, of course, or coldblood mixes. Often horses that were no longer wanted might end up in this ‘new career’. I can say, definitively, I did not often see a poorly kept horse — the owners loved them, although their lives were not very good and I don’t think they escaped to many green fields. It was not a life one would have wished for them.

    In reference to your article, these beautiful or plain horses (To my eyes, there is no such thing as a plain, ordinary horse) were angels in the streets. In post-war Belfast, where the buildings were often ugly or simply covered in soot, it could be a grim time. The horses would cross the Albert Bridge (over the Lagan River) with their owners, daily, or just work around the suburban areas, but for the children who lived in the factory streets, the sight of these lovely animals often formed the only cheer they would have in their day.

    Often, the riding schools would purchase some of these horses, when they were older, for lesson programs. Or simply purchase calm coldblood mixes for lessons. These horses were the angels of the schools and they took very good care of the children, no matter what the children dished out. I remember trainers telling us to kick, kick, kick, or whip them if they did not obey us.
    It was a horrible time in that regard, and even as a child, I knew this was wrong. I always spoke quietly to them and encouraged
    them; I always used my voice. It was long before the ‘body language’ training and modern approaches.

    My strongest memories of the horses pulling the carts in the streets of Belfast, one of them would pull a cart for the ‘gaslighter’, who lit our street lamps. The cart carried his few tools and his ladder, and the Edwardian lamps were lit at dusk each night.
    This man and his horse worked together for many years when I was growing up. He always had a large bag of hay with him,
    and a bucket for his horse’s water. They worked in all weather, of course, but I know this horse and his owner were a perfect team. When the lamplighter had finished lighting one lamp, and would climb down, his horse would quietly move to the next lamp and stop. This horse worked from dusk to dark; he was always well-groomed, well-fed, and delighted when a few children would run
    up to him, offering a little apple or carrot. He was the gentlest of horses.

    The old Irishmen of that generation, who worked with horses, were not educated, but like their fathers, they had worked all their lives with their equine companions. I did not see this as cruelty of any kind. The horses had long lives and much care and affection.
    Not all of them of course.

    They have all ‘walked on’ now, of course, a long time ago. They are never forgotten.
    They are all perfect beings. We are the ones who should be honored to be in their presence.

    • It’s always good to remember that thru time,there were always affirmative trainers. Horse used as “tools” were respected on our farm. Thanks, Nuala

    • Lovely lovely story, Nuala. I think we forget that there WERE good caretakers those years ago – the harsh ones are the ones that seem to be remembered.

      • Thank you, Maggie. Lovely to share this story with anyone interested.
        Thanks to Anna for all she does for Equids and for us!
        Love, Nuala

  5. Really good advice, Anna. I remember one of the ‘things’ to look for when horse-shopping-look for a horse that stays in whatever gait you put him in-no speeding up or slowing down. Have never forgotten those words!

  6. Excerpt from a letter to my friend Melissa, June 1995:
    “… And I don’t suppose you’ve found my Jeffrey yet, not that I asked you to look. This is Jeffrey: about 14 – 14.2hh, certainly not more than 15hh. Any colour is okay, but prefer dark-ish ‘cause dark shines better, and dark eyes please. Sensible, intelligent, obliging, trustworthy, TOTALLY reliable, TOTALLY bomb-proof (Katherine says Sam is bomb-proof, but he dumped her in the creek when that tree fell, didn’t he?, so I suppose there’s bomb-proof and there’s bomb-proof). Young (I don’t want him to die on me of old age), sound, no vices, easy to handle, comes when called, goes at the speed that I want, WHEN I want, has confidence, character and a sense of humour. A friendly, “people” horse. Pretty would be nice but ugly will do if everything else is okay. With a name like that it couldn’t be a mare, so I guess gelding. But stallion is okay if he qualifies. NO, WAIT!…mare is okay. WHY CAN’T I have a mare called Jeffrey? There’s no law against it. And nice long thick mane and tail. Jeffrey is also cheap to run, and doesn’t look like a yak in winter. Well, I can dream, can’t I?

    I bought Jeffrey on 28th April, 1997, the third horse I looked at after the dream became a possibility. At the vet check the vet said she was about 11-12 years old if I didn’t buy her, he would!

    One day a few weeks after she’d settled in, she stepped back away from me then looked me in the eye. The overwhelming feeling I got from her was “now pay attention, I’m only going to do this once”. And she got me in a headlock, the biggest hug that went on for maybe a minute before she let me go. We had a mere 12 years together, she is buried on my property.

  7. Thanks for reminding me of my first ever canter on a “lesson horse” as a very young girl. I have never forgotten it: the initial fear when my instructor asked, the feeling of the horse as he entered the movement, then, the sheer exaltation and joy. THAT horse literally started my journey and gave me the best gift I have ever received: the confidence needed to know I could do it!! Thank you to all the patient lesson horses out there who do the same. And thank you, Anna, for reminding us they are the best!

  8. If there isn’t a special place in heaven for lesson horses, there should be! Here is to Jack and all those other stoic old fellows who gave so many of us our start and so much else!

  9. This makes me think of Paco a lesson horse at the first barn we (Chico & I) boarded. I’m thinking he had to be part draft – very stocky and solid, altho I’m guessing 15 hands or maybe a little taller. I have no idea how long he lived & “taught” – I never rode him but watch his lessons. Asked for a canter, he just kept it up round & round the arena – always on the correct lead. I’m sure he likely taught hundreds of new riders – and when necessary was used on the hack line!! It wasnt an easy life, but because he was so very good at his job, he got pretty good care. What broke my heart was seeing the horrible scratches scars above his hind hooves. The pretty good care didnt extend to cleaning & medicating those poor feet. I dont know how old he was when one day he just laid down & died. I just was so relieved he didnt get hauled to the auction (they had a kill pen) at the end like so many others did. Chico & I were there for four years – then moved to a really good barn – hes buried there beside one of the trails we rode.
    For sure they all deserve a very very special place in heaven.

  10. OK, this one makes me want to find a good instructor and learn how to ride! My fear is that this old dog won’t be able to learn any new tricks, or any tricks at all. Confidence in the ability to learn a new skill properly may be the death toll for adventure.

  11. These memories are fantastic, Anna; from you and the barn-favorite Jack – to JoElen knowing what a really good horse is – to that daughter displaying her mom’s picture at her bedside – to the angels in the streets of Belfast – to Kathy’s mare Jeffrey who hugged her once but Kathy never forgot – to there has to be a special place in heaven or else we ain’t going – to Paco who knew what was expected of him, so he kept on going ’round and ’round. And to all the memories not told as yet!
    One of these is Big Red who I have not thought about until this very moment. The first horse I ever rode at a summer camp that my mom was able to afford for a week. I really don’t remember how old I was but could guess I hadn’t yet reached ten years. Imagine my thrill when my “trainer” – a young man who was just a teenager himself – ran alongside me and Big Red when we had our first canter together. I distinctly remember looking down at him wanting him to let Red and me go so we could be free to be together. It would be many, many years later before I was able to experience that thrill again, though truth be told and the horses in my life would probably agree, I was better at it when I was 10 than in my 40’s!

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  13. YES! You are the perfect person to teach people how to buy a horse. I love that you showed what a good rider could do with Jack. My trainer had a gem of a lesson horse, and she’d often ask me to warm him up before he went into a lesson, with the caveat “don’t stop when student arrives, I’ll tell you when” . And she’d chat with the student at the rail. Years later she told me when her students complained their horse was a plug who wouldn’t DO anything, she’d ask me to ride right before they came. Not one of them realized the horse I was doing stuff on was “their” horse. I’m not a great rider, but we had a good connection and I was fairly light in my hands. He was older, a bit post-legged behind, and the chestnut you might not look at twice. I would have taken him home in a heartbeat.
    I had to laugh at how far I’ve come, I heard a rider say this week she was looking for replacement trail horse, and then name an exotic breed. I’m not sure a young Akal Teke is the right horse for a beginning, unbalanced, rider to hit the trails with. I was started by her announcement. It’s been so long since I considered breed as a crucial aspect, I kind of forgot it was an option. 🤦‍♀️ I know what I want, and while breed can be an place to narrow the field, I’m looking for that one unnoticeable chocolate off to the side. I’ve also learned (for me) that a Serviceably Sound horse with a few maintenance issues is fine for me, as long as pain isn’t what’s causing the slight hinkyness. Superficial looks don’t matter. I know I can take any horse, adjust nutrition, work, and grooming, and have them looking like a million bucks in 6 to 12 months. I want to know what they learned in school, good and bad, how they feel about themselves, and their current owner.
    One of the questions I always ask before getting on a new-to-me horse, is “what is their go-to spook move?” Generally the answer won’t stop me, but it will tell me a lot about how honest their owner is, and if I can rely on what they’ve told me. All horses spook, more or less. All owners know how their horse reacts to scary stuff. If they won’t tell you freely? There might be more hidden items…

    • Still hyperventilating about a young Akal Teke trail horse. If we’re ordering them up like new cars, I’ll take heated seats! (I’m stealing your question, thank you.)

      • Its the same with a horse or a dog – color or breed really isnt important – so many animals get unnoticed only because they arent “special” or “fancy” (sarcasm!!). Right now shelters are overwhelmed with too many dogs, cats & other animals. And horse rescues? So many really great horses get sent to auctions and they do NOT deserve it.
        I read something today about a dog – golden retriever – left at a rescue because she was 13 & they didnt want her anymore.
        The thought of that just breaks my heart.

  14. That is a very rich question Jane Clancy would ask seller! I did ask that about Jackson, and they said he spooked in place, which he did, when he didn’t spook by bolting.

    Good blog as usual, Anna, and a very ambitious topic to take on for a class/workshop. I imagine most of us here feel we could write a manual on buying a horse based on our experiences. I’m still amazed at how many people will buy a horse without actually meeting the horse in person. I have a large animal veterinarian friend who did that ! In the end, we do now know the horse we meet won’t be the same horse at our place. I have done much due diligence on some horses purchases, and others not enough. It is still a bit of a crap shoot it seems

    Well, bless the lesson horse Jack. The one others might complain about would be exactly the right one for me these days. I read horse buying advice this week that struck home to me. Something along the lines of don’t buy your kid a $15K dressage horse unless she has had $15K in riding lessons. Would be a waste of your money. That person went on to say a horse could be one that’s happily leaping through rings of fire, but that’s not who he will be for you unless you have the skills. I think this is exactly what you are saying also.

    I think your advice and input were critical regarding my purchase of Tango, and for the most part, I think we knew who he would be. A few surprises here and there, but overall, a very good boy. I did see where former owner had mentioned when she first got him that “this horse is a powerhouse.” If I had seen that description, I would have been more reluctant. Lightfoot was described to me as having a “big motor.” I had no idea what that meant back then, but if I had, I would not have gone to meet him or bought him. So the key words in ads or descriptions can mean a lot.

    What I see is that people ( myself included) see the horse before them as being the horse they WANT him to be, not necessarily the horse that he is. Anyhow, I’m sure your class will be quite good and if you need any examples just let me know. I’ve got plenty of material on horse purchasing.

    • You said a mouthful! Boy howdy do we see who we want them to be. I am preparing to be one big loudmouth party pooper in the class. But Tango showed up as honest as a horse moved to an alternate universe could, I thought. He was a good choice. and always a crap shoot. Thanks, Sarah.

  15. Anna, I was so lucky with the purchase of my first horse. He was a kind and steady care taker. He had been moved to multiple locations and abandoned in meager fields before I found him. He was underweight with a ragged coat and an extraordinarily soft and inquisitive eye. Sadly he left me for horse heaven three short years after we met. He was only 14. Our association, though brief, was life changing. He is the reason I’m still living with horses with a big fat grin on my face. Here’s to Tango, and all those ordinary looking phenomenal horses who have taken care of us!

    • Laurie,
      As my barn owner noted, the other day, it’s so much harder to lose a younger horse.
      But then, look what Tango brought to your life. We are changed permanently by our

      In 2017, we lost a Hanoverian named Strider. He had been jumping with other owners for
      17 years and his legs and hooves were a mess. The owner, a veterinarian, was going to
      Euthanize him. We had a horse at their barn and they asked us if we would consider
      taking him. He had given them many years — up and down the eastern coast — and,
      finally, they were giving him medications to mask his pain. It was dreadful but, sadly,
      common. He was 23 and we exchanged $1 for this magnificent being. We moved a
      few months later to another farm and he was free to run in a 20-acre pasture with a
      beautiful Palomino mare and our other Thoroughbred, Jack. He became healthier and
      was galloping beautifully, enjoying a life free of competition. After one year, we decided
      to move both horses to a new farm where he enjoyed another five years before the
      pain and a fracture ended his life. He is buried on the farm, a wildlife sanctuary.

      I had ridden him for about two years, before he began to have problems with his feet.
      Until then, he was a complete gentleman and always took care of me, even though I had
      only returned to riding at aged 59. I never had an issue with him. The prior owner told
      me, before we left their farm, that he had bucked every single rider off at one point or another.
      I was rather upset for a number of reasons, at this admission, as you can imagine. However,
      I decided that we would no longer ride him and just let him live a good life, with plenty of
      friends and good care.

      He was the gentlest horse with me and my husband, 70 at the time, rode him about once a
      week before we retired him from that work. He loved my husband, and he seemed to know
      that we would take care of him. I wish it had been longer, as you would have wished for Tango,
      but the years we had with him, with this 17H gentle being, were some of the best.

      He is always in our hearts. We still have the Thoroughbred, Jack, and the Tennessee Walker, Simon (now 28-1/2).
      We don’t ride either of them now — but take long walks in-hand with them, play games, do exercises and just
      enjoy being together. I have had the Thoroughbred since he was 3, and he’s now 17-1/2. They are our last
      horses, and every day with them is precious.

      God Bless Tango — you will see him again, I have no doubt.

      With love, best wishes,
      Nuala Galbari

      • Nuala, what a lovely journey you had with Strider and still are having with Jack and Simon. Aren’t we lucky? So many don’t know the wonder of loving horses.

    • Thanks, Laurie. It’s a horrible comparison, but with drug dealers, the first time is free. I think that about first horses, they are the gateway drug. Then we have a choice, we can help the trickier ones, like yours now. Or maybe I’m in denial, but I’ll take it for my herd here.


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