Buying a Horse: Tips for First-Time Owners

It might be just one horsepower, but before riding off into the sunset on that new horse you've just purchased, make sure you know what you are getting.

Michael Martin, DVM, equine field service clinician at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, has offered some tips on selecting a horse and how your veterinarian can help.

"There are many aspects involved when buying a horse, in addition to answering health questions," Martin said.

"Buy a horse that is experienced and dependable, one with a good attitude." –Dr. Michael Martin
"The concern for a first-time buyer should, most importantly, be the safety of the horse," said Martin. "Buy a horse that is experienced and dependable, one with a good attitude."

Martin recommended that the "attitude" judgment be made by a friend or trainer who is qualified and knowledgeable about horses.

"Veterinarians only spend a very limited amount of time with the horse evaluating its medical condition, so many veterinarians may be reluctant to make a judgment about the disposition of the horse," he added. In addition, veterinarians may be reluctant to make judgments about conformation unless it relates to a lameness issue.

Martin said three basic medical examinations are performed by a veterinarian on any individual horse. A health certificate, insurance exam, and a  prepurchase exam provide different levels of information about the health status of a horse.

The health certificate is used to determine if a horse is free of any infectious or contagious diseases and is usually done when a horse is crossing state lines. An insurance exam is more in-depth and focuses on satisfying the specific questions of an insurance company. The company might be more concerned with what kind of mortality risk the particular horse presents.

The prepurchase exam is performed to inform the prospective buyer of the medical status of the horse at the time of examination so that a more knowledgeable decision can be made.

"Find a veterinarian to perform the prepurchase exam who is knowledgeable and familiar with the discipline in which you desire to use the horse," Martin noteed. "Then the veterinarian can evaluate the horse performing in that particular discipline and provide a more accurate assessment of possible medical problems."

Another important aspect of buying a horse is to become aware of the management techniques used to care for the horse.

"New horse owners will generally not be as realistic about all the requirements of managing a horse to get the most enjoyment out of it." –Dr. Michael Martin
"When buying a horse, be sure to have a plan and be knowledgeable about how the horse will be managed to include feeding and exercise programs," Martin stressed. "Ask several questions about the horse's history and specific needs.

"It is important to recognize differences between farriers," Martin added. "Ask if the horse requires special shoes, or if leg or hoof problems exist."

In addition, Martin said he believes buyers should ask questions about the amount of time the horse is kept in a stall versus outside. "Horses are managed differently as far as turnout time. Turnout time (meaning outside the stall) can make a huge difference in attitude," Martin said.

Before you purchase the horse, a particular problem might not have been present, but horses might develop bad habits because of a change in management techniques, Martin said.

Horses might vary concerning the amount of time they will tolerate in the stall. Martin suggested that horses be turned out for at least three to five hours a day on days they are not ridden. "The ideal situation is if your horse could be out eight to 12 hours a day," he noted.

"New horse owners will generally not be as realistic about all the requirements of managing a horse to get the most enjoyment out of it," Martin concluded. "Asking questions about the horse that you are thinking about purchasing, taking someone knowledgeable with you, and including a veterinarian's evaluation in the process can go a long way towards making the right decision for you and your new horse."

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