Warning: if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
I'd gone to a regional horse sale merely as a curiosity seeker-something to do on a mild, midwinter's day. My pre-tense was to see how the horse market was faring.
Although the bleachers were full, it quickly became apparent that those with serious intentions were few and far between. While a frustrated auctioneer scolded the crowd for its lack of appreciation for the quality consignments, I watched as one horse after another was either passed-out or went for bargain-basement prices.
Like a satiated person at an all-you-can-eat buffet, I made the mistake of walking by the dessert table. I couldn't resist bidding on a few choice head. Fortunately, other bidders quickly surpassed my initial offerings as I tried to contain myself. No second helpings. Although in the back of my mind, I was thinking, "Wouldn't it be nice to have another broodmare?"
At least a hundred lots had passed through the ring when I glanced to the right and saw a darling bay mare enter the alleyway. I skimmed my catalog just long enough to take in her age and the popular cowhorse breeding in her pedigree. I jumped off my seat and went to get a closer look at her doll's head, straight, clean legs and smooth hip.
"Does she crib?" I called out to the trim woman in the saddle as she rode forward into the sale pen. "No bad habits," she responded .
That's as much as I knew.
By the time I got back to my seat, bidding was underway. The ringman must have seen my keen scrutiny-something he likely zeroes in on. He turned and pointed a slight finger at me, mouthing where the bidding stood.
I raised my eyebrows, glanced at the mare again, and without really thinking, nodded yes with the certainty that this pretty mare would command quite a bit more before the gavel came down. There was a brief interchange between a competing bidder, but horse and rider were already heading toward the outgate. The ringman turned my way and smiled reassuringly. "You got her."
My first thought as I signed the sale ticket was "Uh-oh." I felt like a naughty 2-year-old who has dropped her pacifier one too many times. Had I really meant to buy a horse I knew nothing about-regardless of how cute she was? Other people do it all the time, I reasoned. And at that price, how big of a mistake could this be?
Feeling as though I had just stepped into a reality TV show without an audition, I gathered my wits, checked my stabling guide, and headed toward the barn. Time to kiss the bride.
With one spontaneous nod at a horse sale, I was like the groom at a prearranged marriage who meets his betrothed for the first time on his wedding day. How to make the best of it?
I avoided the impulse to drink multiple glasses of champagne. Much too late for that. Instead, I needed to take some of the mystery out of the impending honeymoon by asking the seller some relevant questions.
What I really needed to know were the ordinary, everyday things that would help me get off to a good start with this mare. But one word of advice for others who may be in the same boat: The sale barn may not be the best environment in which to conduct an in-depth interview. The consignor may have more horses to get ready to sell, or he or she may be in a hurry to get on the road.
I had purchased a late lot number, so my seller had already put in a long day. She was obviously emotionally attached to this mare, whom she had bred and raised, and was having a difficult time staving off tears at the thought of leaving her behind.
After a few cursory questions and the reassurance that the mare would be well cared for, I got her phone number. She assured me that I was welcome to call any time. So that's what I did.
Following are the top 20 things I wanted to know.
1. What is the horse's nickname?
Although this may seem like an inconsequential thing, many horses do know their names. You and your new equine partner may bond more quickly if you can relate on a personal level. Respect that he or she has a past as well as a future.
2. What have you been feeding, how much, and would you characterize the horse as an easy keeper or a hard keeper?
My new horse went on a bit of a hunger strike when I first got her home. She turned up her nose at the oats, sweetfeed and grass/alfalfa mix hay that I offered. When I learned she had been a Strategy girl and was used to a pelleted ration along with straight grass hay, it was easier to remedy her anorexic behavior. I eased her into a new ration in such a way that she did not take on the appearance of a greyhound.
While some horses have iron constitutions, others are sensitive to change. It's important to introduce dietary changes slowly so as to not upset their digestive systems and thereby invite colic or diarrhea.
3. What kind of living environment is she accustomed to?
Knowing whether you're dealing with a hothouse baby as opposed to one who has been range-raised is extremely important in helping a horse make a safe and happy adjustment to her new home.
My purchase grew up in the suburbs with her own comfy stall and a small, attached run. She lived in close proximity to one other mare and was turned out in a one-acre paddock for free-choice exercise. This mare would have been lost and frightened if I had simply kicked her out in a 24-acre pasture with six other horses. It also would have been the proverbial "accident waiting to happen."
Keep in mind that it can be equally distressing for a young horse who has been ranch-raised to suddenly find herself confined to a 12' x 12' box stall, physically isolated from her buddies. Armed with some background, you can make decisions of how best to transition your horse into her new world.
Remember, too, that it's always good to quarantine a new horse so that you don't inadvertently introduce any illness into your home herd.
I initially put my new mare in a stall with an attached run where she could see, smell and hear the pastured horses. After an appropriate interval, I moved her to a safe round corral within the pasture where she could visit and interact with her soon-to-be pasture-mates over the fence. I then swapped their places; the pastured horses were confined to the corral, and the new mare was given the freedom to explore the neighborhood.
Before turning her loose, I walked the fences with her, outlining the boundaries. Then I released her in close proximity to the round corral so she'd have a sense of security, a notion of where home base was, and the reassurance of the other horses. Without having to defend herself from the gang, she could explore at leisure.
4. How would you describe this horse's personality and position in the herd hierarchy?
Because every herd has its pecking order-and that order has to be reestablished each time a new horse enters the group-it's invaluable to get the previous owner's perspective of where that individual fits in the social ranks. An exceptionally dominant or aggressive horse may feel compelled to take on every horse in the bunch, while an extremely timid one may be ill-equipped to deal with a hostile herd.
By asking the question, I learned that my acquisition had little experience in a herd environment. She had been turned out with one other mare, and her owner characterized her as "extremely submissive" to the dominant horse.
To avoid any butchery when it came time to integrate the herd, I first turned her out with the lowest ranking horses in the existing hierarchy and watched to see where the chips would fall. True to the seller's prediction, even among the submissive group, my new mare was relegated to the bottom rung.
Next, I introduced the middle-ranking mares. They were the toughest on her, but fortunately she didn't have to contend with them all at once. When the dominant horses rejoined the clan, she was so acquiescent that they couldn't be bothered with her. In that way, she became a part of the herd with relatively minor skirmishes and a minimum amount of hair loss.
5. What vaccinations did this horse last have and when?
Generally, sale horses are required to have a clean bill of health (including a current Coggins test), signed by a veterinarian, before they can be brought onto the sale grounds. However, you'll want to know specifically what vaccinations have been given and when, since the duration of immunity and recommendations by region vary. Is the horse current for equine encephalomyelitis (EEE, WEE, VEE), West Nile virus, influenza, rhinopneumonitis (EHV-1 and EHV-4), Potomac horse fever, strangles, rabies and tetanus?
In addition, you'll want to know when she was last dewormed, what was used, and what kind of schedule the owner had been following.
6. What, if any, health problems, past illnesses or previous injuries should I be aware of?
While you may think that a previous owner would be reluctant to divulge any past problems, it's amazing how forthcoming people will be if you ask matter-of-factly about colic episodes, strangles or how a noticeable blemish was acquired. Maybe a horse required hock injections when she was in training, or developed a cough when fed alfalfa hay. You won't know unless you ask. You might also learn that your new horse has been amazingly healthy all along, and that's good to know too.
7. How is she to load and haul, and what kind of trailer is she used to?
Obviously, if you buy a horse at a sale, he or she got there somehow. However, given the number of horse-fair clinicians who regularly address the issue of problem loaders, this is a fair and important question.
My new mare had not been hauled a lot. When she did go, she was transported in a three-horse, slant-load trailer with a ramp.
Rather than try to wrestle her into my own two-horse straight load, I hitched a ride for her with friends who had a six-horse slant load and the horsemanship skills to encourage her full cooperation. She arrived without mishap. Once home, it was then a simple matter to teach her to load into my own small trailer-especially because we hadn't started with a battle.
8. What can you tell me about her ground manners?
This is a very broad question, and you may need to break it down into specifics, such as: How is she about being clipped-any problems with doing ears, bridle path, muzzle or legs? How is she about routine health care such as deworming and vaccinations? Is she used to being blanketed? What about having her legs wrapped? Has she ever been cross-tied? And so on…
While any new relationship requires some cautious experimentation, knowing what a horse has been exposed to and how she reacted will help you work around that animal more safely. You wouldn't want to approach a horse, clippers abuzz, with a false sense of security. And you won't if you know that the previous owner used scissors, not electric clippers, to shear a bridle path because the horse behaved badly to the noise and vibration.
9. Is she easy to catch?
Before you blithely turn your new horse out on the open range-never to be seen or touched by human hands again-you might want to find out if you've purchased a cagey prankster or a "people horse." There are certainly solutions for reforming the hard-to-catch, but it's best to know that when you still have options and control of her proximity to you and other handlers.
10. How is she about having her feet handled and being shod?
Both you and your farrier will appreciate being forewarned if a horse is less than cooperative about having her feet handled. The feet themselves may provide some clues-especially if they're already expertly shod-but with a barefoot horse, that may be harder to discern. What's more, a discussion of hoof care might provide insight regarding any specialized shoeing or trimming requirements, such as a need for clips or pads.
11. What can you tell me about her training?
The more you know about who started your horse and any special skills she may have been taught, the easier it will be to get along with your horse and to progress with her training.
Was the horse worked on a lunge line or in a round pen? Did the trainer follow a specific program, such as that of John Lyons or some other clinician? Does this horse respond to voice commands or specific body signals, and if so, what are they?
For example, if you know your horse was taught to trot when she hears a cluck and to lope when kissed to, you've got a head start-even if you want to change or refine those cues later. The less confused you are about what your horse knows, the less frustrated your horse will be as you begin your riding journey together.
12. Is she cold-backed or cinchy when you first saddle or swing aboard?
I don't know about you, but I want to be forewarned if a horse tends to be "cinchy." While conscientious saddling techniques may eliminate the problem of a cold-backed horse, nobody wants to be blindsided or caught off guard. A cautionary word from a previous owner can spare the new one an unpleasant surprise or potential injury if a horse is prone to hump up. If a brief warm-up routine in the round pen or on a lunge line can alleviate the tendency before you step on, that's a good thing to know.
13. What kind of riding have you done with this horse?
While the sale catalog may provide some insight, this simple question may give you a much broader perspective of a horse's utility, aptitude and experiences.
Despite the reining and cowhorse breeding that appeared on my mare's pedigree, the notes read "trail riding" as her single resume point. By talking to the owner, I learned the mare had actually been with a reining trainer as a 3-year-old. But the previous owner had also shown all-around horses in addition to taking dressage lessons. She had worked with this mare along those discipline lines as well, so my new horse's repertoire included sidepassing, two-tracking and the like.
14. What kind of bit or bridle have you been using?
Although most horses readily adapt to new equipment when it's introduced and used considerately, it's good to know for starters whether a horse has been ridden in a snaffle or a shanked bit. Applying leverage to a mouth, poll and chin unaccustomed to the unfamiliar pressure could have dangerous or disastrous consequences, such as a young horse rearing or flipping over out of fear. Ditto for cavessons, martingales and other such devices.
A bit discussion might also give you more insight as to the horse's level of training and experience. The mare I purchased, although she was turning 6, had just recently made the transition to a shanked bit with a broken mouthpiece. I made a conscious effort to be light with my hands as I discovered how she would respond to the reins.
15. How would you describe this horse's attitude in new situations?
Some horses seem to take everything in stride; others tend to be nervous, flighty or insecure when faced with new tasks or situations. Knowing what kind of attitude or personality type you're dealing with can be a definite advantage. You can develop a horsemanship plan and better prepare yourself psychologically to work with this horse. The insight may also give you more patience.
Although my new mare was 6 years old, her life experiences had been extremely limited. Her days were characterized by routine. She was ridden frequently, but the work generally took place in the same arena and over the same trails. She lived in an unchanging world, where she was happy, secure and cooperative.
When she was sent to an outside trainer as a 3-year-old, she became nervous and insecure, said her owner. This cued me in that she probably needed time and patient handling in order to learn how to deal with change without fear or resistance.
16. Can she be ridden alone?
Some horses are terrified of being alone. They take all their comfort and security from being among their peers. Whether you buy a show horse, a trail horse, or even a mare that's going to do duty as a solitary breeding horse, it's important to know whether they have learned to trust and take their leadership cues from their handlers and riders. Having some insight is important before you head down the trail alone on horseback.
17. Has she ever been bred before? If so, what was the outcome?
Knowing your horse's reproductive history is important if you plan to breed her in the future. Details such as heat cycles, conception, length of gestation, ease of foaling, number of foals produced, and mothering abilities will be valuable to you and your vet.
18. What can you tell me about her sire and dam?
Some owners might not be able to tell you much about your new horse's parentage, particularly if they didn't raise the horse. But I learned lots of tidbits, including the fact that my mare's mother was a beloved family pet and a multi-talented show mare.
While it doesn't change the individual you bought, it does make you feel good to know your new horse comes from good stock. It can also make a difference in the marketability of any foals you might choose to raise in the future.
19. Does she pull back when tied or have any other idiosyncrasies that I should know about?
Sometimes horses end up in sales rather than being sold by private treaty for undesirable reasons. Knowing whether a horse can be safely tied, cross-tied, led, handled, or saddled and bridled before taking on these tasks is a good precaution. It's amazing what you'll learn when you ask. Fortunately, when my seller said "no vices," she meant it.
20. Has this horse been around cattle, sheep, llamas or other livestock? What about kids, dogs, bikes and commotion?
Getting background information like this might spare you some headaches and a possible wreck. My new horse wasn't used to the sights, sounds or smells of sheep, cattle and llamas, which just happen to occupy the next pasture. After one runaway incident due to an untimely introduction to the adjoining livestock, I was able to devise a plan to introduce her to her new neighbors. Having grown up in suburbia, kids, bikes, dogs and general commotion were not a problem for her, just a routine part of the neighborhood.