Horses For Dummies
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Unfortunately, buying a horse is more complicated than going to the mall to pick out a new china pattern. The process is complicated by the fact that you can shop in more than one type of place.

The best sources of horses for sale are individual sellers, horse dealers, and breeding and training operations. If you’d prefer adopting rather than buying a horse, rescue groups usually have them available and so does the occasional private individual. In the end, although your horse comes from just one of these sources, you don’t have to limit your search to only one. Check out each of the following horse sources as you conduct your quest, and then settle on the ones that feel right for you.

Individual sellers

Individual horse owners put horses up for sale for any number of reasons. Some of the better reasons (for you, the buyer) include:
  • A teenage daughter who’s gone off to college and left no one to ride the horse
  • A change in financial situation such that the seller can no longer afford to keep the horse
  • The desire to replace a beginner horse with a seasoned show animal
  • A loss of interest in the hobby
If you purchase a horse made available by one of these situations, you can end up with a wonderful animal at a reasonable price.

Unfortunately, individuals also sell horses for less positive reasons. Some examples include horses that:

  • Are difficult or dangerous to ride
  • Won’t load into a trailer
  • Are sick or have other medical problems
  • Are mean and dislike people
Buying a horse from an individual seller rather than from a trainer, breeder, or horse dealer can be a good way to save money, but you need to exercise caution. Individual sellers often advertise online, in local horse publications, and on the bulletin board at your area tack and feed store. Your trainer may also know of someone selling a horse that is a good match for you.

Some of the potential advantages of buying a horse directly from an individual are:

  • Getting a bargain: Under the right circumstances, you can get a really good horse for a really good price. For example, if the seller is attached to the horse yet desperate to sell him, she may charge you much less than the horse is worth if she knows you’re going to provide the animal with a good home.
  • Avoiding the middleman: You’ll probably already be paying a fee to a trainer or other expert to help you find the right horse. However, when you buy from an individual, you also avoid paying a middleman — that is, a trainer who is selling a horse on behalf of a client — which ultimately cuts down on the cost of the horse.
  • Obtaining a history: Horses that come from individual sellers often come with a known history. The seller probably can tell you who owned the horse before, what type of work the horse did, whether a mare produced any foals, and more. This information is important, because it helps you get a feeling for what the horse is all about, and if you end up buying the horse, you’ll know something about your new charge. When you know absolutely nothing about your horse’s background, any problems that come up can be frustrating.
Conversely, buying from an individual isn’t always the best way to go. Some of the potential disadvantages of buying a horse directly from an individual are:
  • Time-consuming searches: Calling around and visiting horses for sale one at a time can take a great deal of time.
  • Unappealing personalities: If you deal directly with individuals, you may find yourself face-to-face with personalities that are less than appealing to you. You may even run across people who are downright dishonest and try to pull the wool over your eyes, an uncertainty that can add to the frustration of horse shopping.
  • Burgeoning prices: Although you may find a great bargain when looking to buy from an individual, you also stand to pay more for a horse from an individual than you would through a horse dealer, especially if the individual is in no hurry to sell the horse.
When you’re thinking about buying a horse from an individual, be sure to bring an experienced horse person with you to see the animal. A person with experience can ascertain any obvious behavioral problems the horse may have. If the horse passes muster in terms of its behavior, a veterinarian can determine any medical problems during a checkup.

Horse dealers

You can find horse dealers in most areas that have an active horse industry. Horse dealers typically purchase horses at auctions or from individuals and then sell those horses to others at higher prices. In essence, they’re the middlemen of the horse-buying world.

You can get a good horse from an honest horse dealer. Most horse dealers are experienced horse people who know how to judge a horse’s disposition, quality of training, and athletic ability.

If a trainer or horse expert is helping you with your search, ask whether he or she can recommend a reputable horse dealer. Don’t approach a horse dealer without a recommendation from someone you know well and trust. Horse dealers are much like used car dealers: Some are ethical; others aren’t.

Some horse dealers will sell a horse with a guarantee that states you can return the horse within one year for another one if the horse develops medical or behavioral problems. The trouble with this type of guarantee is that, most people understandably become attached to the horse and don’t want to return him to the dealer for fear the horse will end up going to the slaughterhouse.

Breeding and training operations

Horse breeders and trainers routinely sell horses to individual buyers. In fact, selling horses usually is a large part of their business.

Breeders typically deal in purebred horses and sell young stock. The weanlings (horses between 4 and 6 months old) and yearlings (1-year-old horses) most often available from breeders aren’t suitable for a first-time horse owner because they’re so young. However, breeders occasionally offer older horses for sale, possibly a retired show horse or a broodmare that has been trained for riding.

Trainers are often good sources for older, trained horses — the kind you need to be looking for. The horse that's for sale may be one with only basic training that the trainer purchased and then schooled to a higher level. The horse may even belong to a trainer’s client, and the client has outgrown the horse, so the trainer has taken on the task of selling the animal. Sometimes, a trainer wants to sell off a lesson horse to a private owner. When healthy and sound (free from lameness), former lesson horses can make good mounts for beginning riders, and for that reason, you need to consider them when you shop.

If you’ve taken lessons from and intend to continue working with a particular trainer after you have your own horse, consider buying a horse directly from your trainer. After all, you’ve been working with the trainer, and he or she knows your skill level and personality and may have a horse for sale that is perfectly suited to you. Your trainer can also network with other trainers to help you find the best horse.

As with anything else that you buy, the seller’s reputation is important — especially when dealing with breeders and trainers. If you don’t know the breeder or trainer, ask for referrals and find out what other horse people in the area know about them. Make sure that the business or individual has a good reputation before you get involved in any business dealings. You want to make certain you’re dealing with someone who is honest about the horse you’re buying and won’t stick you with a lemon.

Horse shows

If you are working with a trainer who is helping you find a horse to buy, a trip to a horse show might be in order. If your trainer knows other trainers who are showing at a local event, you can go with your trainer to take a look at one or more horses that may be available. Your trainer will do most of the talking in a situation like this, but you can learn a lot about a horse from watching him at a show. All the commotion of a horse show is a real test of a horse’s disposition. Plus, if you are looking to buy a horse you will compete on, getting to see how the horse looks and acts in the show ring is invaluable.


You don’t necessarily have to purchase a horse to acquire one. You can adopt a horse for nothing or for a minimal fee through several avenues.

Although we like the idea of horse adoption, we want to caution you that it isn’t always the best way to go when you’re a first-time horse owner looking for a horse to ride. Some horses that are available for adoption make great riding horses for beginners, but others are not suited for inexperienced riders. If you want to pursue this option, do so with your horse-shopping expert in tow. Be honest with the rescue about your limited horse experience. Also remember to be rational and critical, the same way you would if you were buying. Don’t take a horse home that isn’t right for you just because he’s free or because you feel sorry for him. If the relationship doesn’t work out (and chances are that it won’t), the results can be disastrous not only for you but also for the horse you’re trying to help.

The following sections take you through different kinds of horse adoptions that are available.

Rescue groups

Horses are beautiful, noble creatures, but sadly, life sometimes deals them a bad hand. Neglect, abuse, and death at the slaughterhouse are problems that plague horses in today’s society.

Many people around the world are sensitive to the suffering of horses, and have banded together to help remedy the plight of these horses. The result is a bevy of private rescue and adoption groups that save horses from unfortunate situations. Many of these groups rehabilitate horses and then place them up for adoption. Some rescue groups simply give the horse a quiet place to live out his life.

Rescue groups that rehabilitate horses and place them for adoption are the ones you need to explore when you want to adopt a horse. Some of these groups take former racehorses (usually Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds), retrain them for riding, and then adopt them out or sell them at reduced fees. Others simply rehabilitate rescued saddle horses and try to find new homes for them.

Before you consider adopting a horse from a rescue group, research the organization. Visit its facilities to find out as much as you can about the group’s work. If the people who run the organization seem responsible, organized, and professional, then pursue the adoption process in the same way that you would when buying a horse. And as always, be sure to have an equine trainer or other horse expert with you when deciding to take on a horse — whether you’re buying or adopting the horse — and have a vet check the horse’s health.

You can also ask to take the rescue horse on a trial basis, because most responsible rescue groups have an open return policy on any horse they adopt out. In fact, many rescue groups insist that you take the horse for a trial period while they retain ownership. Some groups even send out inspectors to spot-check your property to make sure that you’re properly caring for the horse. In many cases, the rescue group asks you to sign a contract stating that you must return the horse to the group if and when you decide you no longer want the animal.

Wild horse adoption

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regularly rounds up wild horses living in undeveloped regions of the country (mostly in the western U.S.) and places them in holding pens. These horses are put up for adoption at BLM facilities in several states; just about anyone can take one of these horses home for a nominal fee.

On the East Coast of the United States, wild ponies rounded up from the Chincoteague and Assateague Islands off the coast of Virginia are also available for adoption in the spring. Only young foals are adopted out, and they are sold by auction.

Wild horses are beautiful animals with a wonderful, historical past; however, because these animals have lived their lives with virtually no human contact, they’re generally not suitable for first-time horse owners. Adult wild horses need extensive training before you can even handle them. Young foals are easier to work with, but they’re years away from being ridden and usually too much for a beginning horse person to handle.

If your dream is to adopt a wild horse, don’t fret. After you gain considerable experience riding and handling horses, you can always pursue that goal. When that time comes and you want to adopt a wild horse through the BLM, you need to meet certain government-established criteria before you’re allowed to take ownership. You must
  • Provide a minimum 400 square feet (20-feet by 20 feet) enclosure per horse
  • Be at least 18 years of age or older (or have your parents’ cooperation)
  • Prove that you can provide adequate feed, water, facilities, and humane care for the horse
The government has specific rules about the types of facilities in which these horses can be kept and charges an adoption fee of less than $200 per horse.

Free horses

Once in a while, people find themselves in a situation in which someone wants to give them a free horse. Horse giveaways occur for a few common reasons:
  • An owner doesn’t want the hassle of selling the horse.
  • An owner is primarily interested in the horse going to a good home.
  • A horse is such a big pain in the neck that no one will buy him.
Unfortunately, the last reason is most common when it comes to free horses. Any beginning rider who takes on a horse that is so difficult or so unsound that no one will buy him is looking for serious trouble.

Just because a horse is free doesn’t mean that he doesn’t need to fit all the same qualifications as a horse that you’d buy. If someone offers you a free horse, and you want to consider him, jump through all the hoops you would if you were buying: Bring a trainer/expert with you to help evaluate the horse, have a veterinarian examine the horse, and take the horse out on trial basis.

You may be wondering why you need to go to all this trouble when the horse is free. It seems as though you have nothing to lose because you aren’t paying anything for him, right? No, wrong! After you take possession, all of the horse’s problems become your problems. And if you’re like most people, you’ll become emotionally attached to the animal and suddenly face some difficult decisions if the horse turns out to have serious behavioral or medical problems.

If you’re hoping to save a few bucks by taking any old free horse that someone offers, you are being penny-wise and pound-foolish, as the saying goes. Don’t forget that the initial cost of purchase is not what creates the greatest expense in horse ownership; the training, housing, and veterinary bills make up the larger part of those costs. If you end up with a problem horse, those prices you pay become even greater.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Connie Isbell is a former editor and writer atAudobon magazine, as well as the editor of numerous pet books. Audrey Pavia is the author of many books on pets and animals, including the bestselling Horses For Dummies and The Rabbit: An Owner's Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet. She has been a frequent contributor to numerous pet publications, editor-in -chief of Horse Illustrated, and senior editor of The AKC Gazette.

Audrey Pavia is the former editor of Horse Illustrated magazine and an award-winning writer of numerous articles on equine subjects. The author of seven books about horses, she has also contributed to Thoroughbred Times, Horse & Rider, and many other animal magazines.

Janice Posnikoff, DVM, is a highly respected equine veterinarian with over 20 years experience. She is a graduate of the Western College of Veterinarian Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

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