Sunday, October 05, 2008

Horse-Shopping 101 Continued: From the Saddle

This is a photo of a happy horse owner. This is a photo of a happy rescue horse. I'm throwing it in, not just because it pertains to the From the Saddle recommendations for your shopping expedition, but because it represents the best that can happen when a horse and rider are so well-matched they just glow with pleasure in each other's company. Cindy, the lovely rider here, has done a fabulous job of choosing and retraining Delight. Keep this photo in your mind as you shop. It'll get you past the desire for medication.

Key to her success, Cindy says, is her willingness not only to take a flyer on an unknown but to hire professionals to help her in the retraining process. Buyers, take note: There is no shame in accepting that you will have to let someone else do the grunt work until your new buddy is ready to take his place in your horse world. Cindy and Delight have been together for several years now, and they couldn't be better suited for each other.

Back in the saddle at the seller's barn, we are not all going to find instant love with the horse who might wind up being our Best Friend Forever. Often there's just a certain spark that draws us together. It's fine to go ahead and jump right on that and buy a horse in a poke, but it's not the best approach. You really should ride the animal. Even if he's beyond your current ability, if he can't amp down a smidge, then you're not going to be happy with him no matter how cute his head is or how floaty his trot.

20. (I don't remember where I was in the numbering--I like 20) Be prepared. I already mentioned bringing your helmet and dressing appropriately, but you need to be mentally prepared as well. Make a check-list of the things that are most important to you in your prospective horse.

21. Try them all. Be sane about it--you don't want to give the poor animal a heart attack by asking him to jump 4' if he's never done cross-rails--but you should know what the basics are. Walk, trot, canter/lope for sure, and any additional skills you might think of. Lateral movement is a biggie because it indicates a willingness on the horse's part and a certain athletic ability. It may also confirm his training level.

22. If this is to be a special-interest investment, be sure to check with the seller as to the horse's experience. If he's been shown, there should be records of some sort--ribbons are nice, but trophies with the horse's photo on them are better, as are professional photos taken at shows. If he's a barrel racer, cutter, cow horse, jumper, fox hunter, steeplechaser, or has run for local government office, someone somewhere has made note of that. Ask for those notes before you try the horse at those activities.

23. If he's a trail horse, take a trail ride. While you're at it, ask for things like a step around a rock, a smooth passage through a puddle, a small hop over a fallen log. Those are things you'll be asking him to do. Don't just trust the seller, who will probably tell you "He's GREAT at that stuff!"

24. If you're buying the horse for a child, have the child with you. If the seller flinches when you say you want to throw the kid up on the horse, run away.

25. Be present. Pay attention both during tack-up and during every step of your trial ride. The devil is in the details. That spinning tail is a hint that the horse isn't happy. Could be minor, could be major. You won't know until you've checked it out. Don't be distracted by the friend or trainer you've brought along, and don't get babbling about Horses You Have Known. Just focus.

26. Be tolerant. You're a new rider for this horse. Unless he's been used as a lesson pony, he may object strenuously to having you on his back. That can pass in time with patient handling, so you shouldn't take it too seriously unless you are a) buying him for a rank beginner, or b) someone with no patience.

On this last item, Linnea Seaman (see yesterday's post) told us the story of a wonderful horse she's been riding and showing and who she decided to sell. The horse was, for all purposes, perfect. He was solid and sound and not known for hysteria . . . until she tried to sell him.

Horses are extremely sensitive. He caught on very quickly to his impending change of circumstance and made his objections known in the most objectionable ways. He's back home with Linnea, happy to compromise as a lesson horse. I've heard dozens of stories of horses who simply went postal when they realized they were in danger of losing their BFF. They are creatures of habit whose biggest habit is an incessant concern over change.

Change, for most horses, is bad. Little change they can handle--a trip to a show, a ride on a new trail, a new career entirely--but BIG change, like a new owner, is sometimes more than they are willing to bear in the short-term. Be prepared for that. It took my Dakota nearly two years to really settle in here. Now he's Number One beginner horse and everyone's buddy, but the first year he wasn't cutting us any slack at all. Not an iota. Like a lot of buyers, he'd had enough of the horse business and revolted.

So be kind and be aware that a one-owner horse may sound like a good deal because his owner has every moment of his history recorded and available. But dragging that horse into the trailer might be a challenge you weren't counting on. The horse that's been around a little--has had several owners or moved from farm to farm--might be a better bet.

Which brings me to another point. I recently learned that there are still horse dealers who will offer trade-ins. My friend and former boarder has a horse boarded at such a dealer's barn, and she has discovered to her delight that he will take her horse in trade on something more appropriate. So she's keeping her eyes on the incoming sale horses, waiting for one to wave at her and capture her heart. You won't get that kind of situation at a private seller's barn. Sales there are final, and options are limited. Occasionally you will come across an ad offering "sale or trade", but if there's only one horse on the seller's end, you may not come out ahead on the deal.

Caveat Horseman!

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