How to Buy a Horse
Horse Shopping Advice from Pat Parelli
-by Pat Parelli
Buying and selling horses is an inescapable part of horsemanship and horse ownership. But, as with everything else, there’s the horseman’s way, and the other way. In this article, I’ll share with you some strategies that I’ve found useful in the past; there’s no such thing as a 100% success rate when it comes to purchasing new horses, but by applying these strategies to your search, you’ll maximize your chances of finding your perfect partner.
The type of horse one gets is very important. You should decide for yourself which type you like and want. Don’t let anybody influence you about the style of horse that appeals to you. To me, personal choice is number one. Every person should have an idea in mind about what they want, and why.
Then follow a skeleton for buying a horse. When shopping, begin with a many-fish-in-the-sea frame of mind. Take the time to make a thorough search, because when you have a horse in your life, it’s like having a child. You’ve assumed responsibility for a dependent, living thing, and you want to make sure you’ve got the right chemistry between the two of you.
To help make a potentially confusing and chaotic process a little easier, I’ve come up with a five-step guide to purchasing a horse. As you’ll see, you won’t necessarily end up using all five steps with every horse you see. This guide will help you become more selective, knowledgeable, and practical as you look at potential new partners.
Step 1: How is the Horse’s Home Life?
Presuming the horse you’re considering is ride-able, set up the situation so that the owner does everything in the horse’s own environment.
If it lives in a pasture, a corral or a stall, go see it in its normal situation. Try not to show up at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when the horse is already saddled and groomed. The owner may have spent the past 90 minutes trying to catch it. You want to be there to see that.
Then, watch how the owner grooms and saddles the horse. Observe the communication between them. People are habitual and will show you the relationship they have with their horses, and they’ll do so without ever realizing it. You will see if the owner puts the bridle on first, ties the horse with the reins, or asks permission of the horse before mounting. You’ll see the mannerisms the human has around the horse; whether it is slapped with little “good boy” pats or rubbed. This will also give you clues about how the horse’s attitude has been shaped.
Ask yourself if the horse has a really good learning frame of mind or if that has already been ruined. Is this horse naturally open to rapport when someone starts trying to communicate? How’s his teach-ability?
Then watch the owner ride the horse before you ride. Let him or her ride first. Accidents can happen when people try out strange horses for the first time. And I think it’s safe to say that most people who are about to buy a horse don’t know about natural preflight checks, such as testing to see if you can disengage a horse’s hindquarters before throwing your leg over his back. A lot of riders are under the impression that all you have to do is kick it to go and pull it to stop. And then they blame the horse when they get hurt.
The other reason for accidents is that most horses for sale haven’t been ridden for some time. It’s common for horses to come up for sale in the spring, when there’s a lot of rust under the hood or there’s a behavioral problem. Or, sometimes, the seller has just lost interest.
Let the owner show you what’s going on. Then, after you’ve seen it, if you feel you’re still interested and it’s a safe bet, go to the next step.
Step 2: Interact with the Horse
I stress to Parelli students that it’s important not to assume that everyone else is familiar with the Parelli program. That lesson certainly applies to this situation as well.
If you are a Parelli student meeting a horse and owner for the first time, don’t immediately get out there and start playing the Seven Games. If you do, you may hear the owner say, "Wait! What are you doing to my horse?"
At this point, if it looks obvious that the horse is ride-able, I’d play a little Friendly Game, a little bit of Porcupine, and that would be it. But be subtle about it, and don’t try to start educating the owner on the Parelli program. Remember: you’re here to interact with this horse.
If you have a good, safe feeling when you get up there, then go for a ride. See how comfortable the horse feels. Are the gaits comfortable to you? Despite what the owner may say, you’ll know what’s comfortable and what’s not.
Assess what you like about the horse; its size, color, gaits, its general personality and its spirit. Then that’s about it for the first day. Decide if you’re really convinced that this horse is still worth pursuing.
If you like 80% of everything about this horse, if everything so far feels really good, then the next thing to do is ask the owner if he or she would let you try the horse for no less than a week at your place. Not many people are going to allow you to do that, and if they do, they’ll probably require a deposit. I wouldn’t blame them. Suggest an agreement you both could live with.
Use this time to sleep on the purchase. Let the emotional part of the purchase wane somewhat to see if you’re still in love with the horse. Once you’re in a more objective frame of mind, see how you get along with the horse when you start playing the Seven Games.
Some horses naturally love rapport. Others learn to love it. See if you can get to Level 1 within the week you have.
If all of that checks out, and you’re at least 80% confident that this is the horse for you, you’ve got two more major steps.
Step 3: Hello, Ma? I’m Getting Married
Take your horse home to meet your mother. That means finding someone whose opinion you respect. As in dating, an engagement, or marriage, let others indicate how this new love sizes up in their eyes.
Let them see you interact with the horse so they can give you the upside and downside from their perspective. Since they’re emotionally detached from the purchase, they’re able to say, "Gee, John, you’re 6’9", and that horse is only 13 hands. Are you sure that’s a good match?"
Someone else might see something you can’t, or suggest something that’s worthwhile, good or bad. If all that passes, we’ve got one last step.
Step 4: The Vet Check
I would suggest a veterinarian pre-purchase examination. I’ve seen people who put this into the wrong spot, making it the first step. They look at a horse and tell its owner they want it vet checked even before riding the horse. I would wait entirely to the end of my evaluation.
Something very important to be aware of is its soundness. There’s almost no such thing as a perfectly sound horse. But the health check will tell you the status of this horse. Your veterinarian will suggest to you the extent of the necessary exam.
Now, if you’re gong to buy a horse to go to the Olympics or for world-class competition, you should be more careful than if you’re choosing a partner for recreational riding or for personal development and relationship.
I’ve seen horses with bumps and dings on their legs that were still ride-able until they were 25 years of age. They wouldn’t have passed a vet check as perfectly sound, yet they were still perfectly serviceable horses.
I’ve seen people pass up a good horse just because it was not perfectly sound. This is a mistake a lot of people make. Assess just what the apparent defects will mean.
Step 5: Adios, Amigo
Pay for him, smile, and ride off in the sunset.
These five simple steps will hopefully lead you to be the best horse you have ever had. At the very least, you’ll become more selective and educated when it comes to this exciting process. It can be scary, yes, but it can also be one of the most fascinating experiences a horseman can have.