Horse Power

As more and more people become interested in buying a horse, isn't it time they learned how to do it right?

The minute I first saw Teatime, I knew she was perfect for me. A small copper-colored mare with a russet mane and tail and a white diamond between her eyes, she had a gentle canter, a lofty jump, and impeccable stable manners. When I reached out to touch her muzzle, she nickered encouragingly, and I was sold. Nine years old and not knowing any better, I judged her based on beauty, comfort, and disposition. Because she was my first horse, I knew nothing of build or conformation (her legs were too short for her body); asked no questions about her competitive experience (she had none); didn't take one x-ray (she had a bony protrusion on her right front leg); and didn't look at her teeth to see how old she might be (at least four years older than we'd been told). There was no vet exam, the deal was done on a handshake, and no insurance covered her shipment to my farm. My parents, horse neophytes both, and I broke every rule of purchasing a horse, except one of the most important: listening to instinct. Our intuition that Teatime and I were a well-suited pair thankfully proved accurate: Despite her imperfections and personality quirks (she liked to bite the vet), the horse and I got on famously. Nonetheless, that was the last time I approached such a major purchase so casually. Since then I've bought nine horses, and with each one I learned a few more questions to ask and risks to consider.

The fact that a horse has a heart, a brain, the power to exercise free will, and the strength to do so despite your efforts to control him makes him a complicated, unpredictable creature that is often difficult to assess in a single encounter. Like all living things, horses have good and bad days and respond differently depending on their environment—not to mention their rider. Moreover, their behavior will evolve under the same rider over time. In short, what you see is not always what you get.

It can be difficult to determine a horse's value unless he has been professionally trained and has competed, proving his mettle in an easily quantifiable way. And even then, a seasoned show jumper that has won tens of thousands of dollars under a particular rider may not do as well for another rider of equal ability. Chemistry plays an enormous role between a horse and its owner. Conversely, there are stories about Thoroughbreds plucked from backyard barns that have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby or the Nations Cup.

Breeding and training, age and conformation (build), temperament and disposition all factor into the price tag. Being easy on the eye raises it, whereas a splint (a usually harmless bony enlargement) on the foreleg lowers it. There is no guarantee that you will get what you pay for—nor, even if you do, that the horse will live up to its promise. Buying a horse, in short, is an inherently risky endeavor, but there are plenty of simple steps you can take that will minimize potential problems:

Know what you want It's best to have a carefully thought-out game plan prior to horse shopping. A dapple-gray mare who floats when she trots has been known to blind even a seasoned eye to slight imperfections in conformation or manner—defects that could later negatively affect performance or resale value. A sexy environment—a professional show barn bursting with world-class show jumpers with heart-stopping power and price tags—can lure you in over your head, both financially and in terms of your riding ability. Always buy a horse you can ride and resell.

Remember, it costs nearly the same to feed, shoe, house and clothe a $2,000 horse as it does his million-dollar peer. Factor the horse's keep into your budget, as well as vet and farrier bills, training for you and the horse, transportation, entry fees, and at-show stabling if you plan to compete.

Pick a breed that suits your discipline First identify what you want to do with your horse (such as show jumping, hunting, or dressage), then choose a breed well-suited to that discipline. Respect the legacy and limitations of each breed—don't expect a 15.2-hand quarter horse to become a grand prix show jumper (though there have been some) or a German dressage horse to keep up with Irish field hunters galloping cross-country to hounds. If you have your heart set on a flashy palomino quarter horse-Thoroughbred cross, surrender your dreams of winning the Marshall Sterling equitation class at the ultra-restrained Devon Horse Show and go shopping for a pair of chic chaps.

Understand your horse's needs Be honest about how the horse will live and what will be expected of it physically. The blood horses—e.g. Thoroughbreds—need considerably more exercise and turnout and can be difficult to handle in the winter in colder climates. The European warmbloods, a cross between a blood and a draft horse, have more docile dispositions and are more mentally suited to being kept inside show barns with limited turnout. When it comes to riding and training, a highly bred and schooled horse will need more attention than one that has been used solely for pleasure—but remember, all horses require the same diligence in terms of care.

Be realistic about your abilities It is critical that you buy a horse that suits you physically, emotionally and in terms of your riding ability. There is a saying that goes: Young horse, old rider; old horse, young rider. Resist the temptation to take home a fiery four-year-old unless you have a lot of experience riding green (relatively untrained) horses. Remember that pretty is as pretty does, and that a flashy youngster that's unridable or capable of frightening or hurting its rider is far less valuable than a more average-looking mount with impeccable manners and a comfortable, safe way of going.

"If you're not an experienced rider and can't handle a horse, you can really mess each other up," advises Elizabeth Rufenacht, an equine broker in California. "I had a client, an executive in New York, who wanted his daughter to compete in junior-division events. His trainer had found them a nice horse for $80,000. But the horse turned out to be too much for the daughter to ride. She had a lot of refusals [when the horse stops short in front of a fence], so she didn't feel safe. Simultaneously, the horse developed so many problems that I was unable to resell it when they asked me to try. They spent a substantial amount of money, and the daughter ended up losing a year of what could have been good riding experience."

Age is relative Though a horse's prime years for competition are typically between six and 12, many horses remain sound and healthy well into their twenties. "I know of a terrific 16-year-old horse that can jump four feet nine inches," says Rufenacht. "Some people fear his age and wouldn't consider buying him, so he's a great value."

Thoroughbreds bred for the racetrack are tattooed on the inside of the upper lip with a mark that indicates their year of birth. The age of other breeds can best be determined by a professional equine veterinarian, who will inspect the horse's teeth. If the horse in question is a purebred, its date of birth will appear in the registration papers, which show its lineage.

Hire a trainer or broker to help you One of the best ways to ensure that you find a good match is to employ the help of a top trainer in your field of interest. Besides being able to accurately evaluate your ability and that of a prospective purchase, trainers are often well-connected to reputable horse dealers in breeds appropriate for a given discipline. Such connections can make your search efficient, both in terms of time and money. You'll have to pay a trainer a commission (usually between 15 and 20 percent), but often his or her expertise and insider information is worth every penny. Another advantage is that a trainer will often opt to "test drive" the horse in question—a wise option, as occasionally sellers will misrepresent a horse's way of going (as in "He's very quiet," when in truth he bucks like a bronco).

"It's like looking at houses with a buyer's agent," Rufenacht says. "Sometimes the clients say they feel great on a horse, but it doesn't look like a great match to me. So I take a video camera and shoot them on the horse, to show them what I saw."

A broker is also a good ally. Despite the negative connotation of the expression "horse trader," there are many honest and talented brokers whose help in finding a horse is well worth their commission. Often, brokers will assemble several horses in one location to make your selection easier and more convenient. Or they might scout ahead, saving you legwork and time. A broker's future is built on repeat business; the good ones seek customer loyalty by offering to take back a horse if it isn't suitable after a period of time, while helping you to find your next ride.

"Hiring a broker is a really good idea, especially for people who don't have experience buying horses," advises attorney Julie Fershtman, the author of Equine Law and Horse Sense (Horse & The Law Publishing Co.). "It's helpful to have someone to give you an expert opinion on the horse's possible problems and potential."

The best way to find a good broker or trainer, Fershtman says, is through word of mouth; studying show results to see which ones have been most successful over time; and calling a breed association. The American Quarter Horse Association, for example, has a referral service of professional trainers, in addition to keeping records of complaints filed against trainers.

Be aware that with both trainers and brokers, commissions can sometimes include multiple middlemen. Try to determine just how many people are involved in the deal; obviously, the fewer the participants the closer the price paid will be to the actual value of the horse.

Do due diligence Be sure to check into the background of your horse. If it is registered, as most purebreds are, you can verify its lineage. Registry by discipline (such as with the United States Dressage Federation) will enable you to look up its performance records. This way you can ascertain whether the seller is being honest. Speak to its previous trainer and/or rider(s) if possible. "I always get a written history of the horses I buy," says Patrick Dwyer, a horse broker and trainer in California. "I've met a lot of people who have been told a certain horse can do things but it can't. So I go to the breed association or the show-jumping association and look up the horse's history. I want proof."

Observe the horse in different situations Once you've found a horse you like, try to see it, several times if possible, in different environments to get a sense of the spectrum of its behavior. Even the most consistent horse will exhibit some degree of change in new places, or when the weather shifts. Show up unannounced and ask to see the horse; take any hesitation on the seller's part as a bad sign. Ideally, take the horse home on trial for several days. The seller is more likely to agree to this if you are working with a professional trainer with a good reputation, as it is a huge risk to let a horse stay in an unknown environment. A trial period will allow you to see how the horse behaves when not under saddle.

Watch how the horse behaves around electric clippers, while being groomed, and when in the wash stall. Pick up his feet and touch his ears (a head-shy horse will be difficult to bridle). Simulate medical care (such as worming) and load him on and off a trailer. Look in his mouth (this is not a gift horse). Observe how he behaves around kids, dogs, and other horses. It's not a good idea to turn a horse on trial out with other horses, as he could get hurt in the inevitable re-sorting of the herd's pecking order. You'll get a sense of whether he plays well with other horses by his stable manners. Beware of bad habits, or vices, and horses that are "hard keepers," or fret in the stable and are hard to keep weight on.

Make sure you like the horse's name A small consideration for the superstitious: the name. It is considered very bad luck to change a horse's name. You don't want to be stuck shouting "Countess LadyLocks" across the field.

How will you know you've found The One? It's different in every case. But it's a pretty good sign when you can echo William Shakespeare's sentiment:

"My horse—I will not change my horse with any that treads. He bounds from the earth; when I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk. He trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it. The basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes. He's of the color of the nutmeg and of the heat of the ginger. He is pure air and fire, and the dull elements of earth and water never appear in him, but only in patient stillness while his rider mounts him. His neigh is like the bidding of a monarch and his countenance enforces homage."

Regan S. Hofmann profiled polo player Adolfo Cambiaso in the July/August issue of Departures.

Where to Buy

The best way to find a horse is through your trainer or broker But if you're looking for a really high-level mount, you should consider a shopping trip overseas. Europe has the best and widest selection of sport horses in the world, particularly when it comes to warmbloods, such as Hanoverians, Holsteiners, and Westphalians, the centuries-old products of cross-breeding draft horses with Arabians.

"Every top rider from the U.S. flies to Europe to purchase horses," says Mark W. Bone, a broker-trainer in southern California. "Now a lot of amateurs are starting to do the same." Top riders often travel to Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Holland to purchase horses trained for dressage and/or jumping, and to Ireland and England for those trained in eventing. "When you pay good money in Europe, you're getting solid bloodlines," says Francie Dougherty, a horse trainer in Maryland.

Europeans have standardized systems of training and riding horses—something that does not exist on a wide scale in the United States. "European horses have been schooled since they were four or five years old," explains broker-trainer Dwyer. "They are more consistent. Riding them is like pushing a button." That is, if you can handle them. "German riders tend to be big guys; they ride in a different way," he adds. "The top German horses can be harder to manage for American amateurs."

Bone concurs. "The Europeans have big, strong horses, so as riders they're very deep-seated," he says. "We Americans are lighter on horses, we sit more out of the saddle."

There is also the issue of value. "You definitely get more horse for your money in Europe," says Rufenacht, another California broker who accompanies clients there. When you go to sell a European horse on the American market, you'll find that it automatically commands a higher price than one bred in the United States. "The European horses usually start around $40,000 to $50,000 in the U.S.," says Dwyer.

But be forewarned: There are risks involved in buying abroad on your own, one of them being that you may not end up receiving the horse you purchased. "I heard of someone who bought a horse overseas," Rufenacht says. "When it arrived, he found out that the x-rays he had been shown originally didn't match the horse that was sent. The one he got had something wrong with its legs."

There's also the chance that the horse will perform very differently in its new home. "You're changing its entire world," Bone explains. "For instance, here in southern California we don't have huge fields that give horses room to run around. They live inside more of the time, are kept in stalls for large portions of the day—of course they're going to behave differently."

The best way to reduce your risk of problems is to hire a professional American horse broker and/or trainer to accompany you overseas in making the purchase. Ideally, the expert you choose should have experience buying horses abroad, including connections with sellers who will work hard in the hope of continuing the already well-developed business relationship.

"Good sellers have a very personal interest in buyer satisfaction," says Dougherty, "and that is especially true in Europe, where there are a lot more family businesses. It's a matter of honor there, as if the horses they sell have their own brand name on them. They don't want anyone to go around saying that they made a bad deal."

Experts also caution against shopping alone at horse auctions overseas, such as those held in Verden, Germany, several times per year. "You have less time before the auctions to become familiar with horses that are being sold," says Dwyer. "If you end up buying one, you may get a seven-day trial period. But while private sellers will often take horses back if you discover something you don't like, that's less true when it comes to horses bought at sales."

Before You Buy

Hire an independent veterinarian to do a prepurchase exam "One of the biggest mistakes people make is not having a vet check out the horse before they buy it," says Dr. Mary Rose Paradis, an associate professor at the Department of Clinical Science at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. "A veterinarian can see problems that the seller may not be telling you about."

Don't rely on the vet that the seller may provide, but hire one of your own—specifically, a vet with horse experience or a degree in equine medicine. This is also where it helps to have a broker or seller helping you, as they usually know reliable vets. "The vet's fee is small compared to what you can lose," Rufenacht says.

The vet will perform tests, including x-raying the horse's feet and joints; inspecting its eyes for signs of anterior uveitis, which can lead to blindness; and seeing how well its legs flex to predict whether it will go lame. Dr. Paradis also has someone ride the horse, galloping it and performing the activities that the buyer intends to use it for (such as jumping). Then she checks the animal's heart and lungs for irregularities.

Fershtman recommends having blood tests performed. "Sometimes medications are given to pep up certain horses, or tranquilizers are given to calm down others," she says, "so I always do a complete blood count, or CBC, and a drug screen."

Get everything in writing There are two documents you should be sure to procure: a bill of sale (a receipt for the money you spent, stating exactly what you're getting) and a purchase agreement (a contract that specifies all of the agreements between the buyer and seller). A written bill of sale is especially important for insurance purposes. Without one, claims can be difficult to resolve.

Included in the purchase agreement are such things as the condition of the horse; whether the seller has agreed to house and train the horse; and that the seller owns the title and can legally transfer it to the buyer. It should also stipulate reimbursement of your deposit if the prepurchase exam reveals problems with the horse that the seller hadn't disclosed.

Although it may seem logical to expect agreements in writing, in this field most deals are still done verbally. "The horse business isn't the same as any other business," says Dwyer. "Most transactions are done on your word; there's not much paperwork."

Fershtman agrees. "People just seem to drop their business savvy when it comes to buying horses," she says. "I represented one client who sold a horse for $400,000 on a handshake, and later on got sued for sales fraud."

Ask a lawyer who specializes in equine law to review or draw up a sales contract for you. One option for locating such an attorney is to log onto the Martindale Hubbell law directory Web site (

Take out an insurance policy "You can screw up a horse in one day just by crashing a jump with it," says Rufenacht. Insurance can protect you if your horse dies or is hurt, lost, or stolen, or, if it's a breeding horse, becomes impotent or barren.

Here are the main types of insurance you may want to consider:

MAJOR MEDICAL INSURANCE covers surgery and some diagnostic tests, as well as general medical care for accidents, illnesses, and disease. It is not available for professional racing horses. Often there is a $5,000 or $7,500 limit. At American Equine Insurance, such coverage costs $150 per year. It will include treatment for colic, which Hart says accounts for 30 percent of all the claims his company receives. "A horse can die in a matter of hours from it," he says, "so you want to be able to get immediate assistance." Make sure the coverage starts the day you buy the horse.

You can also opt for surgical insurance alone, which normally covers up to $5,000 of surgery by a licensed veterinarian. It often won't cover surgery related to a preexisting medical condition. Most policies do not cover elective surgery.

MORTALITY INSURANCE is often combined with the major medical policy, and covers the death of a horse resulting from accident, illness, injury, theft, or humane destruction (when you put the horse to sleep under the direction of a veterinarian). The premium is usually about three or four percent of the amount insured. To get a policy, you first must provide evidence that your horse is in good health in the form of a medical exam by a licensed veterinarian. Ask whether the policy will give you "actual cash value" (ACV) or "an agreed value." For the former, the insurance company will determine the refund amount based on the fair market value of the horse at the time of its death. For the latter, it will pay you whatever you both agree the horse is worth when you complete the application.

LIABILITY INSURANCE covers unintentional situations in which another person is injured by your horse—for instance, if it kicks someone or runs out into the road and causes a car accident. The horse may be covered by your homeowner's policy if the injury occurs on your property. "But it probably doesn't extend to your horse if it's off your premises, or being used for commercial purposes," says Hart. Policies usually range from $300,000 to $1 million.

"CARE, CUSTODY OR CONTROL" INSURANCE Say you agree to take care of your neighbor's horse and your barn burns down, then your neighbor sues you. According to Hart, liability insurance normally excludes property in your care, and this is the only policy that will cover it. At his company, the minimum coverage costs $200 per year and covers $5,000 per horse with a maximum of $25,000 annually (the maximum coverage is $100,000 per horse with a $500,000 annual total).

LOSS OF USE INSURANCE covers you if your horse suffers from a condition that renders it unable to perform its designated function, such as showing. It costs three or four percent of the insured amount. There are two types: "accidental external visible" and "full loss of use and economic destruction." The former covers such eventualities as a horse crashing into a fence and becoming disabled. The latter offers coverage when a horse is ill or injured and permanently and totally unable to return to its intended use. That can include the horse getting cancer, a knee injury, or losing its sight.

"The hard part is proving that your horse is totally incapable of what it's supposed to do," says Fershtman. "For instance, if you have a $200,000 Olympic show horse that gets injured and can't compete on that level, it may still be able to compete in local shows. So it's not a total loss of use."

Travis Neighbor Ward wrote about designing the perfect pool in the March/April issue of Departures.

The Best Breed for Each Discipline

SHOW JUMPING For the grand prix level, riders favor the lighter warmbloods—Hanoverians, Holsteiners, Selle Français. But Thoroughbreds also make good showing in the jumper ring. If the horse moves like a cat, spider or crab and can jump a house, it may make a good show jumper. The dispositions of top show jumpers can sometimes challenge the ability of more junior riders, but as they say, the best horses are the hardest to ride.

FOX HUNTING The Irish have long been known for their superior field hunters. While almost any of the lighter breeds can hunt, if you want a truly great ride across hill and dale, find an Irish horse. Irish hunters typically resemble American Thoroughbreds, with slightly larger feet and bones and a cooler head. Look for a horse with a comfortable, ground-eating stride that is brave in his approach to the jump but careful navigating it. He should gallop willingly but still have great brakes.

DRESSAGE European warmbloods are in high demand for the dressage ring. There are many breeds—Dutch and Swedish warmbloods, Oldenburgs, Trakehners, Westphalians—capable of the great power and grace required to put in a winning dressage test. Top dressage horses share a poetry-in-motion way of moving and, often, a commanding presence. A balanced, straight, correct way of going is important, as is flexibility and the ability to collect and extend the stride.

SHOW HUNTERS/EQUITATION Breed is less important here than conformation (particularly for the conformation hunter) and way of going. Most newcomers to this discipline will buy a seasoned horse, so the trick is to find a horse that's comfortable—one that will provide the smoothest "platform," allowing you to maintain your position with the greatest ease. For hunters, look for a horse capable of a beautiful bascule (way of arcing over a jump) and tight knees over a fence, and a lovely cadence to the canter.

PLEASURE RIDING If your goal is riding for pleasure, you'll want a quieter type of horse, one that will let you stop and smell the roses, literally. Quarter horses and their cousin, the Appendix (a Thoroughbred-quarter horse cross), make wonderful trail and pleasure horses. They are often docile by nature, not too large (which makes for easy dismounting and remounting out on the trail), and generally sensible when it comes to dealing with things one encounters while hacking: cars, tractors, joggers, and dogs. Pleasure horses should be easygoing, comfortable and well-mannered.

THREE-DAY EVENTING Given the excessive physical demands of this sport, which requires a horse to be a triathlete—performing a dressage test, galloping and jumping cross-country, and jumping in the ring—the speed and stamina of the Thoroughbred are always in top demand. If it's born to run, is bold (has no fear of water or obstacles), scopey (jumps with room to spare), and careful, it's born to event.


From Iceland with Love

Of all the trends in American horse buying, the small but growing craze for Icelandic horses—to date, there are only a few thousand in the United States—is among the most controversial. Some consider them the ultimate riding experience. "Icelandics offer the comfort of a Lexus and the disposition of a dog," says Janine Gordon, the president of a Manhattan PR agency who owns an Icelandic and has been riding since she was five. "The first time I rode one it was unlike anything I'd ever tried. They want to work with you."

Others say they would never consider buying one. "They're cute pets—big, overgrown ponies—that can only be used for trail riding," says Mark Bone, a horse broker in California. "They're not competitive at all. Riding an Icelandic horse in a serious horse show would be like racing a Volkswagen in a car race."

Because they normally stand 13 to 14 hands tall (52 to 56 inches at the withers), Icelandic horses are classified as ponies by traditional show standards (to classify as horses they must stand at least 14.2 hands tall, or 58 inches at the withers). Yet enthusiasts argue that they are stronger than adult horses of other breeds, pulling 1.6 times more per pound of body weight. "They're really horses," insists Karen Winhold, owner of Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm. "They can easily carry a 250-pound adult. The idea that adults have to ride a huge horse is just the result of fashion." And they're fast, too; Winhold says that a top Icelandic can go 25-35 miles per hour.

Icelandic horses were originally brought to Iceland from northern Europe around A.D. 865 by the Vikings, who used them mainly as workhorses. Shortly thereafter an edict was passed stating that no other breeds could be imported into Iceland, and that once an Icelandic horse left the country it could never return. The law still exists today, making the Icelandic horse one of the purest breeds in the world. But while on the European continent there was a push to breed ever-larger mounts to meet the increasing needs of the military, in Iceland the horses continued to be bred primarily for the comfort of the rider rather than for brute strength.

"Unlike other horses, the Icelandic is, in a sense, frozen in time," says Dan Slott, owner of Millfarm, a 2,000-acre Icelandic horse farm in Columbia County, New York. "It hasn't gone through the evolution of conventional horses. Modern Icelandic horses have the same look and gait as their ancestors."

Icelandics are five-gaited, which means that in addition to the usual three gaits (walk, trot, canter), they naturally perform two others: tölt (an exceptionally smooth, bounce-free walk at speeds up to 25 mph) and flying pace (the front and hind legs on the same side move forward and backward simultaneously). "When an Icelandic horse tölts, it brings its head way up, steps high, and softens its back," says Gordon. "You just sink into the saddle."

Slott agrees, "They move differently than conventional horses; they're built differently." He currently owns 95 high-end Icelandic horses, which on average cost $20,000 to $25,000. (In general, trained Icelandic horses can be found for as little as $7,500 to $15,000; top breeding horses from Iceland cost anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000.) He believes that the horse-rider connection is far more important than the horse's size. "We're stuck on the concept of the proportion of a person to a horse," Slott says. "But it depends on how you ride it. Saying that adults can't ride Icelandics is like saying you can't put a big person on a motorcycle." Besides, he adds, there's a huge difference between riding an Icelandic horse and riding a pony. "The pony's movement is usually stilted and short," says Slott, "but the Icelandic's movement is huge and flexible."

They also tend to have soft mouths, responding willingly to the bit. "In conventional riding, you think about performance. But riding an Icelandic horse is more about developing a partnership and making each other happy," Slott says. "The Icelandic is a riding horse. It's about going over the countryside and being one with the animal." See Sources for information.




TUFTS UNIVERSITY, Department of Clinical Science at the School of Veterinary Medicine: 508-839-5395



MARK W. BONE: 818-225-7346


PATRICK DWYER: 760-802-6276


Equine Insurance




Equine Law

JULIE FERSHTMAN: 248-644-8645; author of Equine Law and Horse Sense (Horse & The Law Publishing Co., 800-662-2210)


Icelandic Horses


MILLFARM (contact: Dan Slott): 518-329-0185;


VERMONT ICELANDIC HORSE FARM Waitsfield, VT: 802-496-7141;; e-mail,