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Buying a Horse

It's important that you complete the following steps before you buy a horse:

  • Decide what you want to do with your horse
  • Determine what level of rider you are
  • Arrange for or build a safe place to stable your horse
  • Decide who will feed and care for your horse

Check out AQHA's Buying and Owning Your First Horse report, packed with tons of great information to help you find the horse of your dreams.

Breeders

One of the best sources for purchasing a horse is a breeder. Breeders normally have a large selection of horses on hand, representing an array of ages, levels of training and dispositions. The main advantage of working with a breeder is that you can often gain credible insight about a horse. You have access to view other horses that have been bred by the owner; a chance to discuss pedigrees, performance and race records; see the kind of environment in which the horse was raised and/or trained; and compare other horses of similar type. The breeder also can discuss the advantages of particular bloodlines, as well as provide additional information about his / her individual breeding program.

  • Breeder Referral Program - AQHA's Breeder Referral Program matches buyers with reputable American Quarter Horse breeders who are guided by the Breeder Referral Program's strict code of ethics. Breeders belonging to the program are Members in good standing with AQHA and have bred registered American Quarter Horses for at least three consecutive years.

Owners

Another means to purchase a horse is directly from the owner. The owner can provide the history of the horse’s
performance. Owners also may give helpful information regarding training and habits. Plus, most owners will allow prospective buyers to “try” a horse several times before purchasing. This working one-on-one helps establish goodwill between buyer and seller. The American Quarter Horse Journal is an excellent resource, as it often advertises horse sales and horses for sale by owner.

Sales

Many beginners often look to horse sales for finding a horse, since they are geographically widespread and offer horses of different ages, training levels and prices. However, beginners must first understand that there are different types of sales, and not all may be the best place to purchase a horse. To get a better understanding of the types of sales available, take a look at the following.

  • Production Sale - A production sale often features horses produced by breeders. A variety of horses may be offered, including young horses, geldings, mares and stallions. Horses in production sales are often bred similarly, or have similar purposes in mind, offering a basis for comparison. These are excellent opportunities to buy quality; however, horses with extensive training in a particular discipline may not be offered. 
  • Consignment Sale - In consignment sales, a variety of horses have been consigned by their owners to be sold. The advantage of consignment sales is that they offer horses of different ages, sex and training. The disadvantage is that these horses are obtained from a variety of backgrounds, so you may not have access to information on disposition and training level. Since there is little time to view the horse once it is in the ring, it is a good idea to arrive prior to the sale. If you find a horse you are interested in purchasing, try locating the owner and discussing such characteristics as disposition of the horse, health and past performance. 
  • Racing Sale - Unlike any other type of sale, racing sales feature horses specifically bred for racing. The most popular type of sale features yearlings — horses between 12 and 24 months of age — that are in training to be raced as two-year-olds. “Mixed sales” feature both racing stock and breeding stock, in addition to weanling prospects. Prices largely depend on market demand for certain bloodlines and the potential of each horse. 
  • Dispersal Sale - Dispersal sales may offer a unique opportunity to purchase a breeder’s lifetime efforts. Like a production sale, a dispersal ordinarily features stock owned by one particular person or entity, with the age, sex and training of the horses varying. Because this may be the first, or last, opportunity to purchase from a reputable entity, prices for these horses may be higher than at production or consignment sales.

Professionals

Professionals, such as trainers, can serve as agents for prospective buyers, in addition to training horses and instructing clients. By discussing your needs in a horse and your skills, a trainer may help locate a horse that best fits your goals. Trainers usually charge a commission for helping you find a horse.

  • AQHA's Professional Horsemen - AQHA's Professional Horsemen program can refer you to professionals in your area who can help you with all your training needs. From training the horse to training the rider, AQHA's Professional Horsemen are respected members of the equine profession who have pledged to follow the program's strict code of ethics.

Other locations for finding horses for sale include:

  • State, Provincial and International American Quarter Horse Affiliates
  • “Trading posts” in feed and tack stores
  • The American Quarter Horse Journal Classified Ads

Questions to Ask a Breeder

  • What experience do you have in the horse industry?
  • What experience do you have in my chosen discipline?
  • Who else have you helped and what kind of success have they had under your guidance?
  • How are your fees structured?
  • What references do you have from other professionals?

When you retain a professional to aid you with your riding and competition, be sure to explain your goals thoroughly to your professional, and discuss candidly how much you can afford for purchasing a horse, feed, board, veterinary care and other considerations.

Visit the Breeder or Owner

Once you have found a prospective horse to buy, there are steps you can follow to aid you in purchasing a horse. If you are visiting the farm of a breeder, owner or professional, it’s a good idea to start by talking to the seller and establishing a good rapport. Some excellent questions to ask the seller are:

  • How much has the horse been ridden during the past year?
  • Who has ridden the horse the most — trainer, amateur, youth?
  • How easy is the horse to handle after being turned out for a while and not ridden?
  • What kind of equipment has been used?
  • How much training has the horse received and in what areas?
  • What type of feed and roughage does the horse eat and what is its feeding schedule?
  • Has the horse ever had any colic episodes?
  • How often is the horse dewormed or shod? How does the horse react?
  • Does the horse have any vices? (i.e., cribbing, biting, trailer shyness)
  • How often has the horse been away from home and what is his behavior in different surroundings?
  • And the best question — Why is the horse for sale?

Evaluate the Horse

After you’ve identified and targeted a goal for yourself, and located a prospective horse, the next step is an evaluation process whereby you determine if that horse will allow you to accomplish your goal — call it determining “suitability for purpose." While it’s safe to say that any horse with acceptable past performance in your chosen endeavor is suitable, even beginners should have a basic understanding of the factors which influence a horse’s abilities within a given activity, and utilize this information in the evaluation process. What are those factors? Generally, it can be said there are three: conformation, disposition and movement.

Conformation

One of the most important criteria in selecting a horse for purchase is conformation, or its physical appearance. While it could be assumed that most horses with several years’ seasoning and past performance have acceptable conformation, your goal in selection should always be to find the best conformed horse possible, regardless of past performance. The reason? Horses with less-than-perfect conformation may encounter health problems as they mature or when stressed through competition.

Rating conformation depends upon objective evaluation of the following four traits: balance, structural correctness, degree of muscling, and breed and sex characteristics. Of the four, balance is the single most important, and refers to the structural and aesthetic blending of body parts. Balance is influenced almost entirely by skeletal structure.

To gain a better understanding of ideal balance in an American Quarter Horse, there are several helpful ratios which may be drawn in your mind’s eye. Start by viewing a horse from its profile, and imagining a straight line determining length of back (the distance from point of withers to croup) and one along the length of underline (point of elbow to stifle).

Ideally, the length of back should be one-half that of the underline. Next, draw an imaginary line down the top line of the neck (the distance from poll to withers) and the bottom line (the distance from throat latch to neck/shoulder junction). Ideally, the top-to-bottom-line ratio of neck should be 2-to-1. Horses which deviate greatly from these two important ratios, becoming 1-to-1, are often deemed unbalanced.

What causes the deviations?

Nothing is more critical to balance than slope of shoulder. When the shoulder becomes more vertically sloping, or “straighter,” it shortens the top-to-bottom-line ratio of neck. The withers move forward as the shoulder becomes straighter, resulting in a longer back. Thus, the straight-shouldered horse has the appearance of being a tube.

Since a short top line and long underline are desirable, it is incorrect to compare shorter horses to taller horses, because horses of different sizes should not have the same length of body or underlines. The ratios are important in determining balance, and these are directly affected by the slope of the shoulder. Moreover, when the shoulder is straight, other structural angles in a horse’s body become straight, resulting in a horse with a short, steep croup, straight stifle and straight pasterns. These latter traits are undesirable and contribute to a horse’s lack of balance.

As balance is directly related to structure, the poorly-balanced horse often lacks structural correctness and fundamental soundness. In general, the angle of the pasterns will correspond almost identically with the angle of shoulder, so that a horse with too much slope to its shoulder also has weak, sloping pasterns. This condition, called “coon-footed,” may be so severe as to allow the horse’s fetlocks to hit the ground as the horse moves. The ideal slope of shoulder is approximately 45 to 50 degrees, however, the angle may vary from ideal. You should not be overly influenced in demanding exact degree of slope of shoulder. Instead, concentrate on balance and blending of structure.

Once you have evaluated a horse’s overall balance, then structure, muscling and breed and sex characteristics can be more definitively evaluated by examining individual body components, starting with the horse’s head.

Head

A horse’s head provides insight into a horse’s total conformation, as well as its behavior. In general, there is no physiological benefit to having a “pretty head” on a horse. However, most people don’t like an ugly-headed horse, so selection is based upon beauty. What makes an attractive head? The set of ears, shape of eye, size of nostril, depth of mouth and overall proportionality of the head are important considerations.

Another useful tip in evaluating a horse’s head is to visually measure the distance from the horse’s poll to an imaginary horizontal line between the eyes. Ideally, this distance is approximately one-half the distance from the horizontal line to the midpoint of the nostril. Thus, the eyes will be positioned one-third the distance from the horse’s poll to muzzle. When the width across the orbit of the horse’s skull is measured, that distance should be almost identical to the distance from the poll to the line between the eyes.

The ears should be proportional to the horse’s head, and sit squarely on top of the head, pointing forward with an alert appearance. Any deviation in placement or carriage of the horse’s ears detracts from the beauty of the head, and thus, the horse’s overall beauty. Since horses are proportional, length of head is the same percentage of height for both tall and short horses. Therefore, the term “long headed” is somewhat a misnomer, as long heads are simply indicative of tall horses.

The head has qualities that are important when evaluating other factors, including behavior. Most notably, the eye provides insight into a horse’s disposition. Large, quiet, soft eyes normally indicate a docile disposition, while small, “pig” eyes are associated with horses that are sullen and difficult to train. Look for a bright, tranquil eye with a soft, kind expression.

For American Quarter Horses, bulging, well-defined jaws are preferred, particularly in stallions, who are naturally deeper and bolder-jawed than mares. Pretty-headed horses will always have a well-defined muzzle, flaring into a refined chin and prominent jaw. For beauty’s sake, look for large, flaring nostrils. Regarding depth of mouth, many horsemen indicate that the shallower the mouth, the softer and more reactive the horse. Guard against horses which are thick-lipped and heavy across the bridge of the nose, for these are often less responsive to the bridle. Finally, make sure the horse is not parrot-mouthed (upper teeth in front of and over the lower teeth) or monkey-mouthed (lower teeth in front of the upper teeth).

Neck

After evaluating the horse’s head, move on to the neck. The throat latch should be trim and refined, with the depth being equal to one-half the length of the head. If the horse is thick in the throat latch, flexion at the poll is restricted, and thus, the horse may be prevented from carrying his head correctly during competition because of an inability to breathe correctly.

Some horsemen talk about “long, thin necks,” when in reality, priority should be given to horses with an appropriate top-line to bottom-line neck ratio. Again, the top line of the neck to bottom line should be 2-to-1 on a balanced horse. Invariably, horses with shorter necks are shorter-bodied and since the horse is connected from its poll to tailset, a horse with a shorter neck may lack the flexion and suppleness desired for more advanced training.

Shoulder

In addition to overall balance, the slope of the shoulder influences the length of stride. Thus, the straighter the shoulder, the shorter the stride. The angle of shoulder and pastern also serve to absorb shock when the horse moves.The straight-shouldered horse also will be shallow-hearted, as measured from top of withers to chest floor. Unlike the balanced horse, with legs that will measure approximately the same length as depth of heart, the straight-shouldered horse’s legs will be longer than depth of heart. A straight-shouldered horse will always feel rough-riding compared to a horse with a desirably sloping shoulder.

Withers

The ideal withers are sharp, prominent and slightly higher than the horse’s hindquarters or croup. A balanced horse will appear to be sloping downhill from front to back. When the withers are higher than the croup, the hindquarters are properly positioned under the body and contribute to athletic ability. Strength of the top line, over the back, loin and croup, also is important in athletic ability and overall balance and soundness.

Barrel

As you view a horse from the front, always evaluate spring of rib and depth of heart, as they indicate athletic capacity. Select against horses which have a “pinched,” flat-ribbed look, which do not have a rounded, convex look to their rib cages.

Hindquarters

When viewed from the side, the hindquarters should appear square. How the corners of the square are filled in will depend on the breed, with American Quarter Horses being more desirably muscled when the hindquarters complete the square. The croup should not be too flat (resulting in too much vertical action in movement) nor too steep (associated with a collected, but very short, choppy stride).

The ideal American Quarter Horse has a hindquarter that is as full and as long from across the horizontal plane of the stifle, as it is from point of hip to point of buttocks. Muscling is an important criteria in judging conformation of American Quarter Horses. It is important to realize that muscling is proportional (i.e. as one muscle in the body increases, total muscle mass increases). Horses visually appraised as heavily-muscled generally have greater circumference of forearm, gaskin and width of hindquarter than lightly muscled horses. The horse is a balanced athlete that is muscled uniformly throughout.

Feet and Legs

Structure of feet and legs are major considerations when evaluating a horse’s conformation. When standing beside the horse, drop an imaginary line from the point of the buttocks to the ground. Ideally, that line should touch the hocks, run parallel to the cannon bone and be slightly behind the heel. The horse with too much angle to his hocks is sickle-hocked, and the horse that is straight in his hocks is post-legged.

Ideally, when viewed from the rear, any horse should be widest from stifle to stifle. Another imaginary line from the point of the buttocks to the ground should bisect the gaskin, hock and hoof. It is not critical that a horse be perfectly straight from the ankles down as viewed from the rear. In fact, most horses naturally stand with the cannons parallel and toe out slightly from the ankles down. This allows the horse’s stifle to clear his ribcage in flight, resulting in a longer-striding, free-moving horse. However, when a horse is bowed inward at the hocks and the cannon bones are not parallel, it is cow-hocked. The horse that is cow-hocked has a tendency to be weak in the major movements that require work off the haunches such as stopping, turning, sliding, etc. Occasionally, there are horses that actually toe-in behind and are bow-legged, most of which are very poor athletes.

The horse should stand on a straight column of bone with no deviation when viewed from the side. A horse that is “over at the knees” is buck-kneed, and the horse that is “back at the knees” is calf-kneed. Obviously, calf-kneed is the most serious condition since the knee will have a tendency to hyper-extend backward.

When the horse is viewed from the front, an imaginary line from the point of the shoulder to the toe should bisect the knee, cannon bone and hoof, with the hoof pointing straight ahead. When a horse toes out, it is splay-footed and the horse will always wing in when traveling. When a horse toes in, it is pigeon-toed and that horse will always paddle out. The most serious of these is the horse that wings in. If the cannon bone is off-centered to the outside, it is bench-kneed.

Soundness and Structure

All horses should be serviceably sound. In young animals, there should be no indication of defects in conformation that may lead to unsoundness. An unsoundness is defined as any deviation in structure that interferes with the usefulness of an individual. Many horses will have blemishes — abnormalities which may detract from the appearance of the animal — but are sound. You should become familiar with all of the common unsoundnesses and learn to recognize them.

Riding and Movement

After a basic evaluation of conformation and behavior, the next step is evaluating a horse’s movement. Movement is an important criteria, particularly when selecting a horse for performance events, as most arena classes place some level of preference on movement.

For even a beginning recreational rider, a horse should at least walk, trot, lope, and accept leads in both directions. The horse should stop easily when asked “whoa” by the rider, and yield to leg aids. Ideally, horses should also demonstrate the following:

  • The walk must be alert, with a stride of reasonable length in keeping with the size of the horse.
  • The trot should be square, balanced and with straight, forward movement of the feet.
  • The lope should be a natural, three-beat stride and appear relaxed and smooth. Horses should accept both leads, and change with little difficulty.

In selecting a horse for arena performance, consider the following criteria:

Western — The horse should have a free-flowing stride of reasonable length in keeping with conformation. The horse should cover a reasonable amount of ground with little effort and carry his head and neck in a relaxed, natural position, with the poll level with or slightly above the level of the withers. Ideally, the horse should have a balanced, flowing motion and be responsive to the rider’s commands, yet smooth in transition of gaits and leads.

English — The horse should move with long, low strides reaching forward with ease and smoothness, be able to lengthen stride and cover ground with relaxed, free-flowing movement. Horses should be obedient, have a bright expression with alert ears and respond willingly to the rider with light leg and hand contact. When asked to extend the trot or canter, the horse should move out with the same flowing motion. The poll should be level with, or slightly above the withers. The head should be slightly in front of, or on the vertical.

Reining or similar advanced disciplines— The horse should be willfully guided or controlled with little or no apparent resistance, and responsive to the rider’s commands. Any movement on his own must be considered a lack of, or temporary loss of control. The horse should be smooth, demonstrating finesse, attitude, quickness and authority in performing various maneuvers while using controlled speed.

Disposition — Probably the most important, and most abstract aspect of the evaluation process is determining a horse’s disposition. While American Quarter Horses have been selectively bred for generations for good disposition, and most often possess an inherently gentle nature, you must still place importance on this in the selection process. The reason? While a horse may be impeccably conformed and move like a champ, it still may not possess the correct frame of mind which will allow both you and the horse to realize your true potential. Evaluating disposition is particularly important for beginners. It can be frustrating to try and learn how to ride a horse which simply isn’t cooperative. The rider may lose confidence and become afraid — the horse simply becomes confused. Often, both problems multiply if not corrected via professional help.

While evaluating some conformational traits may help determine disposition, the best method is seeing how a horse behaves when being groomed, saddled, ridden and trailered. While the seller’s opinions may be helpful, use your own eyes. Observe the horse being groomed, saddled, and trailered. Does the horse:

  • Stand quietly when approached by the seller and yourself, or does he flinch or draw back?
  • Halter or bridle without difficulty?
  • Paw, set back or lie down when tied?
  • Accept the saddle?
  • Stand patiently as a rider mounts?
  • Load easily into a trailer?

Any signs of nervousness, pawing, bucking in place, biting or refusal to comply during grooming, saddling or trailering should be considered faults on the part of the horse. Since the horse may respond correctly with the owner, ask the owner if you may perform these tasks yourself, if you feel comfortable doing so.

Next, evaluate the horse’s disposition during riding. Does the horse:

  • Walk, trot and lope, and accept these gaits willingly?
  • Take both right and left leads easily?
  • Respond and stop when asked to whoa, or when pressure is applied to the bit?
  • Back without straining against the bit?
  • Follow your commands, or act on its own?

The horse’s disposition during riding is largely dependent upon the rider’s skill. While beginning riders may experience varying levels of resistance or loss of control when performing the aforementioned tasks, at no time should the horse buck or act as if he is running off. Ideally, the horse should perform all requirements willingly, with little or no resistance on the bit. Any bracing or straining against the bit should be considered faults.

If you are a beginner, or even an intermediate horse person, it is always a good idea to have a professional with you if you choose to groom, saddle or ride a horse. Ask the owner if your professional can ride the horse. As with any diagnostic process, you are always better off with a second opinion.

A good thing to keep in mind through the entire evaluation process is this: Remember that you are buying not only a horse, but a relationship with a horse. All horses have different personalities, and it’s your goal to find a horse that best compliments your personality. While conformation, behavior and movement all play a role in the horse’s suitability for purpose and personality, the final analysis often relies on one simple question: How am I getting along with this horse? The answer often is derived strictly from intuition.

Purchasing Exam

If a horse seems like a good prospect, and meets your approval through the evaluation process, you may want to arrange to have a purchase examination performed by an experienced equine veterinarian. You can contact the American Association of Equine Practitioners at 1-800-GET-ADVM (1-800-438-2386) to find an experienced equine veterinarian in your area.

The purchase exam may involve X-rays and a variety of diagnostic techniques, but all should include examinations of the following:

  • Eyes and head
  • Back and neck
  • Nose
  • Legs
  • Mouth and teeth
  • Ankles and hooves
  • Ears
  • Heart and lungs
  • Tail (for compliance with AQHA rules)
  • Hocks and knees

Although the veterinarian’s findings may or may not affect your buying decision, it is always a good idea to have a purchase exam performed in order to have an experienced medical professional evaluate a potential purchase.

Physical Conditions To Be Cautious Of When Buying A Horse

Condition: Laminitis (founder)
Symptoms: Inflammation of the hoof, usually affecting front feet. Affected horse stands with hind feet bunched together under the body with head low and back arched, rocking. Front feet are placed forward so weight is on heel of the foot. Difficult to get horse to move, and then gait is shuffling. Noticeable heat rings on horse previously affected.
Cause: Numerous factors which may include excessive consumption of grain, water and grass; concussion to the feet due to hard work or fast work on hard surfaces; symptomatic infections.
Treatment: Reduced diet, anti-inflammatory drugs
Affect on use: May reoccur but can be managed if caught early. Horses with laminitis may be used for light riding depending on the severity of the condition.

Condition: Navicular disease
Symptoms: Both front feet affected. Horse stands with both feet too far in front or points alternately with affected toe. When walking, the affected toe lands first resulting in a choppy stride. Bone and tendons develop adhesions which cause pain and lameness.
Cause: Upright conformation may weaken the navicular bone resulting in misalignment of bones in feet and pasterns. Excessive concussions to the hoof also may increase chances of navicular disease.
Treatment: Anti-inflammatory drugs, corrective shoeing. Neurectomy (cutting of nerve to delete pain) offers a more permanent solution.
Affect on use: Amount of work dictates suitability. The more stressful the workout, the higher chance of horse going lame.

Condition: Parrot-mouth
Symptoms: Overlapping of the upper jaw, resulting in overgrown front teeth, malnutrition.
Cause: Inherited condition.
Treatment: Little can be done to rectify problem.
Affect on use: Horses such as these have difficulty in eating. AQHA will issue registration certificates for horses who have this condition. However, horses with this condition, foaled on or after January 1, 1992, shall have this condition designated on their registration certificate and the records of AQHA. It is the responsibility of the owner to report said condition to AQHA upon its discovery.

Condition: Ringbone
Symptoms: Lameness, swelling of pastern area.
Cause: New bone growth at surface of pastern bones resulting from trauma to joints by excessive use or direct blows to pastern areas.
Treatment: Can be verified through X-ray. Anti-inflammatory drugs, rest and denervation.
Affect on use: Lame