Buying the dream. The risk, reward & reality of buying horses.
Sugar Beach Ranch, NSW.
I was once told that the true value of a horse is the price they fetch at the knackery- everything over that is human emotion. That has stuck with me, and I do believe it’s true. People don’t set out to buy a horse, they buy a vision. A hope for the future. A social status. And there, along with any emotional and financial investment, is the risk of a broken heart and a broken bank. With the stakes high and there being no such thing as a perfectly risk-free horse, can the buyer swing the odds in their favour? Despite the best thought out checklist, things don’t always go to plan. But that’s ok, life and horses are not meant to be a perfect process. You win some, you learn some.
Being on the market for your next equine partner can be much like hitting the dating scene. Feelings of optimism tainted with anxiety mark the start of the journey to find ‘the one’. Thumbs stop the morning scroll and hover for a moment as a sale ad comes rolling up the screen. It is quickly scanned for the basic details- height, age, breeding- then the excitement creeps in a little as the ad gets a second tap, to see if this horse continues to tick boxes. Could this be the one you’re looking for? The one that promises to jerk your dreams away from the pipe and into reality.
This can also be a very anxious time. There is a lot to lose should a poor choice be made. Like dating, often the current search will be hued by previous experience. A person that has not felt the heart break and financial loss of a horse that didn’t work out will probably approach each prospect with more optimism- focusing on the positives, being quicker to
forgive the faults, and possibly rush into buying something less then suitable.
A person who knows how wrong it can go, may be more likely to quickly write off a horse, especially if its weakness resembles a pain point of the past. The risk of being burnt again renders them unable to see past minor faults in an otherwise suitable horse. It’s difficult, because there are no hard and fast rules. There’s no guarantee a horse with perfect legs and feet won’t have lameness issues- nor that the mildly club footed one ever will.
Of the list of attributes every horse has to recommend it, which are the most important? Conformation? Pedigree? The trainer? Its achievements? Or even the colour of the packaging? These qualities will appear in different order of priority on people’s carefully curated wish lists. Of course, a flawless horse doesn’t exist, so which faults are acceptable trade-offs? Unfortunately, without a crystal ball, no one can answer that for sure. But, through my own experience of buying horses that have both worked out and ones that haven’t, and also friends that have done the same, there’s a few things to keep in mind. Here is my 2 cents worth on a few ways to mitigate the risk of it being a total disaster.
Tip 1. To help in not making a wrong choice. Yin-yang. Pick a horse whose natural energy is compatible with yours. Be the yin to your horse’s yang. Some horses feed off the rider’s energy and others don’t. If you are a rider whose confidence vacates at the first sign that your horse is contemplating even the smallest act of wilfulness, you won’t be a good match for a horse that will easily get drawn into your chaos. You will likely be more compatible with a horse who has a non-reactive disposition. One who is less reactive than you are nervous. This horse will give you a feeling of confidence. You will get drawn into their calm.
On the other hand, a quiet, confident rider, who can remain unfazed amidst a total shit storm, will be able to draw a reactive horse into their calm, confident leadership. The reason I mention this is because a horse’s age and experience aren’t necessarily a reflection of this quality. Some young horses are born with a steadfast temperament, whereas some 20-year-old seasoned campaigners still won’t make a kid’s horse. Training and the right rider can make a naturally reactive horse seem like a kid’s pony- which is great, that’s what good riding is about. I have one of these. An accomplished open campdrafter who is 20 years old. To anyone watching, or let’s pretend a potential purchaser, he would look like a totally placid character. And for me, he is. But, if a rider hopped on and gave tense, or mistimed aids, the anxious ball of insecurity that I knew 15 years ago would reappear in an instant. This is hard, because these horses can be well educated and look as though they tick all the boxes, but it doesn’t mean they can’t lose their confidence under an incompatible rider. On the other hand, some green horses can be quiet and safe. Their energy type, or how easily they are influenced by another, is more a feature of nature than it is of training level.
Tip 2. To help to not pass on a suitable horse, take vet checks with a grain of salt. Gosh this is a tough one. Getting a pre-purchase examination can often complicate a decision more then clarify. Of course, we want someone to be able to accurately gauge the likelihood of future soundness, but it’s just not possible. Look closely enough at any horse and there is sure to be something less than ideal that may or may not indicate some risk of perhaps, maybe, this horse may or may not develop some sort of maybe mild, or maybe serious, soundness issue one day in the near or distant future. I have seen plenty of horses pass vet checks only to struggle with lameness within a couple of years. I also know of horses that were bought cheaply because of failed pre-purchase exams, that have gone on to have long and successful careers. I know everyone would love a sure-fire way to mitigate the risk of having to deal with lameness or health issues, but that, unfortunately, is just not possible. It is always going to be a risk that comes with horse ownership. I’m sure glad I could make this clear as mud for you. I think what I am trying to say is, think hard before dismissing an otherwise suitable horse for something that only bares the potential to become a problem as there are no guarantees either way.
TIP 3. To ease the sometimes crippling pressure of having to get it right. Consider resale potential. Consider how saleable the horse should be if it doesn’t work out. By now we have ascertained that there is no magical way to be sure we are buying the right horse that is going to work out just the way we hoped. When buying your next horse, ask yourself the question, “will this horse be easy to get out of if it’s not right for me?” Will it be easily resold for a similar value to what you purchased it for? Does it have any major quirks or issues that you’re happy to overlook but might make it hard to move on? You can breathe a little more when buying if you know that a horse will be easy to get out of without too much loss or heartache should it happen to not be your forever horse.
Like any decision we make in life, we just want to get it right. In no small part because we simply don’t want to feel stupid for getting it wrong. It’s easy to reflect on a decision with the luxury of hindsight and wonder how we went astray, but there IS NO WAY to be truly sure that a horse will work out perfectly. Try to have a little grace with yourself if you went ahead with a horse that isn’t what you had hoped. All a person can do is use their best judgment at the time and let time tell if the right decision was made. We’ve all done it. It can be hard to admit this and feel like we must persevere and not ‘give up’ when we find ourselves with a challenging horse. For sure, perseverance is sometimes the right course, but it is also 100% okay to make the decision to move a horse on.
How do you know when it’s time to call it quits? I would say when a horse no longer inspires you. You don’t enjoy it, you don’t feel safe, or you just know it’s not right.
Even if you’ve made a complete doozy, wasted thousands trying to solve an issue for no result and wound up with an unneeded paddock feature, all is not lost. What are the silver linings of choosing a horse that ended up with some challenges? Typically, the most valuable lessons we learn in life are the ones we don’t really enjoy learning at the time. While it sucks when you’re in the thick of trying to manage a soundness issue, trying to figure out the right diet for a horse with weight or behavioral problems, looking into the source of a chronic sore spot, or improving your riding skills and knowledge to overcome a training hurdle, its likely you will educate yourself in these areas far more then you ever would have otherwise. You’ll develop a keen eye for a quality shoeing job. Know how to prevent and manage laminitis. Learn 100 different ways to teach a flying change. Become an expert in saddle fitting. Perhaps all your research and effort trialing different things will help with this horse, and all will be well in the world. Or maybe it won’t. But challenges we face with our horses stretch and shape us in ways we otherwise wouldn’t be. These lessons will form your future training and management. This has certainly been the case for me. In many ways, I am more grateful for the challenging horses and issues I have had to learn to manage. While, at the time, I dearly wished things weren’t so bloody hard, and it felt like nothing was working out, I am truly grateful for coming out the other side just a little bit wiser.
Buying a horse is more than just buying a horse. It is buying a dream. Everyone has their criteria a prospect must meet, some ‘wanted to buy’ ads openly stating they are after a unicorn. Unicorns don’t exist and neither do perfect horses. Riders can only make the best decision they can with what knowledge and experience they have. Knowing what the ‘non-negotiables’ are and what things can be compromised on will be a good start to making the right call when assessing a prospect, but still doesn’t guarantee success. Remember to look for the silver linings and give yourself a break if things head south. Take your hard-earned lessons with you and let all your future horses’ benefit.
Meagan Hopkins - The Campdraft Coach
Image courtesy of Jo Thieme.
Meagan is a mum of two beautiful boys and has almost 20 years of experience campdrafting. Her most memorable campdraft success is winning the Canning Downs campdraft in 2013 riding her beautiful mare, Miss Sunny Rebel. Her mission is to find new ways to help campdrafters get from where they are in their campdraft journeys, to where they want to be.