Yes, the title is ironic: Whenever I hear someone talking with giddy delight about the prospect of horse shopping, I find myself inwardly cringing and thinking, “greenhorn.” Because anyone who has actually ever horse shopped knows that the agony is just this side of the Bataan Death March, but with tack. And whether you’re the buyer or the seller, the experience can leave you curled up in the fetal position, whimpering.
No one gets off easy—it’s equally miserable for everyone.
The first joy is the introductory call or email, where the buyer (or buyer’s agent) and seller connect for the first time to discuss the prospective animal. This is often a great place to practice your linguistics skills and your translation abilities. Here are a few examples:
Translation for buyers: The ad says that the horse needs “no maintenance.” What they actually mean is, “We’ve not done anything about his hitchy right hind leg in the five years we’ve had him.” Or the seller boasts that he’s “been ridden by children.” What that actually means is that it happened once, “on a longe line in an arena, and he hasn’t left the arena or done anything else in 10 years, so when you try to take him home he’s going to have a breakdown.”
Translation for sellers: It helps if you can guess what the buyer isn’t saying, usually by leaving off the ends of the sentences. For instance, if they say, “I’ve jumped 3’6,”they’ve left off “25 years ago, once, on a school horse whose name I don’t even remember.” Or if they say, “I want something competitive,” what they’ve left off is “because my trainer hasn’t had the heart to tell me that the problem with my current partnership is not the horse.”
The next joy is the trial ride, where buyer and seller meet for the first time over the equine under consideration. Think of it as the worst blind date you’ll ever have. One side is pretty much sure the other side is a criminal out to rob them blind, and the other is desperate to be liked but is hoping that the person driving in their driveway isn’t actually an axe murderer.
This is one of those moments that should be fun, but it’s really mostly dreadful. If you’re the buyer, you have to try to feel comfortable on a strange horse, in a strange setting, while being stared at by strangers who may be thinking that you’re ruining their lovely horse. As the seller, you’re letting a complete stranger climb up on your horse, and you’re simultaneously praying the beast behaves itself and hoping the person rides half as well as they claimed to. (Don’t forget to have the buyer sign the liability release form!)
If, by some miracle, everything goes well with the trial ride—and the second trial ride, and the trainer watching the video, and then the trainer coming to try the horse, and (I swear this has happened to me) the childhood friend who once owned a horse that looked like your horse coming to see him—you then progress to the next joy, the pre-purchase exam. This would seem to be a relatively straightforward step, right? I mean, it’s science, yes or no, thumbs up or thumbs down, right? If it only it were so crystal clear!
Here’s a fun vetting fact: Thanks to the marvelous leap forward in technology, vets can now see things on x-rays and ultrasounds that would have been impossible to see only10 years ago. But the tricky bit is that no one can tell you whether that little spur on the joint is an issue, or whether that shadow on the bone is actually a precursor of lameness or just something that horses have always had (and been sound with) but we never noticed before.
Along with the pre-purchase exam, you have the fun little thing called expectations (mostly the buyer’s expectations): The most common one is expecting that a 15-year-old, experienced campaigner will have legs that look like an untested 4-year-old’s (or that it needs to). Surprise—he doesn’t. The buyer wanted a horse with mileage—what does she or he think mileage looks like on legs?
Also, while most vets are educated, experienced and carefully judicial, sometimes you get an outlier, the practitioner who was available for this exam because no one else uses him. An example is the vet who once told me (I’m not making this up) that he would never pass an off-the-track Thoroughbred for an eventer because everyone knows that Thoroughbreds don’t like water. What? And on what planet is that a parameter of your examination?
But miracles do happen, so let’s assume that a buyer and a seller have agreed on the horse’s qualities, that a vet has been satisfied, and that a deal has been struck. But both parties still have more joy to endure, additional periods of misery to suffer. For the seller, the time between the handshake and the horse being taken away by the buyer is one filled with terrible dread: What if the beast manages to hurt himself before departure? Should I keep him in his still or still turn him out? But what if he gets gassy and colicky because I’m keeping him in? Maybe I’ll just sleep in the stall . . .
For the buyer, there period of misery comes a bit later, because after decades in the horse world I can say I’ve never known a single person who, about two weeks after buying a new horse, no matter how fabulous, hasn’t experienced a crushing case of buyer’s remorse. Sometimes it’s done in public, sometimes it’s private—crying, “What have I done?” in your shower at night. The good news is that it usually passes after a few convulsions, some minor alcoholism, and the turning of the earth.
I always say—and I firmly believe—that the right horse exists for everyone and that the right person exists for every horse. But the process of getting there is often rather messy.
And not even a little bit fun.