When I think back to buying my first horse, I am envious of how naive I was. Now that I’ve been working equines in harness for a dozen plus years, choosing a new horse is a much more complex exercise than it was when I got started. At this point, I know the characteristics I like and the problems I’ve had that I want to avoid in a new working partner. And with the horse market in its current state, I know how hard it is to get rid of a poor choice of horse, so I’m less likely to buy and try and resell. So when someone asked recently how to choose a horse, I didn’t have a ready answer because there were so many follow-up questions.
How should I choose a horse?
To help answer this question, I decided to see what other Rural Heritage folks had to say on the topic. I visited the Front Porch on the website and was particularly struck by two similar posts. KM said, “Buy what you like or you won’t work it.”1 And Jonathon Shively followed on with, “It doesn’t matter if you are working a cross of a zebra with a giraffe, if you love it and it works for you, you will use it more and it will become more useable for you.”2 I have definitely found these statements to be true. I am much more likely to work my favorite mare than any of the others. And I have invented ways to put her to work because I enjoy our time together so much.
How do I avoid buyer’s remorse?
While I was quite successful in choosing my first few work partners, I haven’t been nearly as successful since. Apparently I am not alone. Pat Parelli says 80% of new horse owners lose interest in their horses during the first year, and 80% of the remaining 20% lose interest within five years.3 According to the Unwanted Horse Coalition, part of the unwanted horse problem is horses that fail to meet their owner’s expectations for performance.4
So if buyer’s remorse is a very real possibility when choosing a horse, how does one avoid it? On the Front Porch, Will Beattie gave a pretty good answer: “First you have to decide and get to know what you like and want.”5
How do I decide what color or breed?
Some people are advocates for a certain breed of horse because of their involvement as breeders or their own positive experiences. Others prefer crossbreds, claiming an advantage from hybrid vigor. For some, color is an important factor in their choice of equine partners. Others say that the choice depends on the use to which the animal will be put.
The best advice is to evaluate each horse as an individual. While a particular breed may be known for a certain desirable characteristic, it’s important to recognize that there is more variation within a particular breed than there is between the breeds. Just buying a purebred animal doesn’t guarantee that it will perform typically for the breed or that it will have that certain desirable characteristic.
Doug “Doc” Hammill is often asked by clients to help choose a working horse or evaluate one. An instructor of “gentle horsemanship” for several decades, Doc considers himself a bridge between an almost lost generation of master teamsters and the current generation of horse people.6 Doc agrees that each animal is unique and must be evaluated on its own. He also says, “There is definitely something to cold bloods and hot bloods. If someone wants a smaller horse, I recommend the draft pony breeds rather than a cross with a riding horse because there’s a greater tendency to get hotter horses with these sorts of crossbreds. But when considering the draft pony breeds, there are two distinct types in the breeds, just as there are in the drafts: working types and showing types. So even there, it’s important to evaluate individuals.”
And just whose advice should I heed?
On the Front Porch, Rodney from Texas stated, “Lots of great horse folks out there to learn from at no cost for just asking for help. They may have just the horse you need to start with or know one close by.”7 Before buying my first horse, I spent several weekends with a friend and her horses. The time I spent volunteering there was invaluable. It prepared me in more ways than I could have imagined to be successful once I brought my own first horse home. I learned not only what I liked and didn’t like in her horses but also about daily care and management routines, housing, hoof care, water supplies, climate considerations and more.
The second piece of advice that caught my attention on the Front Porch was shared by two people. Linda from Nebraska said, “Doesn’t matter the breed, find something older and broke. Whatever you pay for a truly broke horse will be worth it and much cheaper than a hospital bill or a liability bill.”8 And then Phil said, “A team of smoothmouth- been-there-done-that, in my mind, is the way to go. I just recently purchased my first team of horses; never grew up with them and had little experience with horses other than the willingness to learn. I purchased an 18-year-old team of Percherons that were Amish horses, the best move I could have made. The horses will teach you and give you the confidence down the road to get into a younger team if you so desire.”9 Like Phil, my first horse was a been-there-done-that type, and she’s still teaching me 13 years later without a single hospital or liability bill. When I bought my first horse, my friend insisted that I have a pre-purchase exam done. It ended up being sage advice, as the mare had strangles. The seller had to resolve that health issue before I took possession.
When I bought my second horse, I didn’t have a prepurchase exam done, and the horse had a minor health issue when it arrived that I got to resolve myself. As a result, I had a pre-purchase exam done prior to my third equine purchase.
Now, with clear hindsight, I feel there are two types of pre-purchase exams: those conducted by a veterinarian and those conducted by someone knowledgeable about putting horses to work. While my friend insisted that I get an exam by a veterinarian, I realize now that her exam of my mare was just as important in the purchase process. When Doc Hammill evaluates horses for clients, he wears both hats, as he is a veterinarian by training and able to evaluate the aptitude of working horses as well. In addition to evaluating the health and soundness of the animal under consideration, Doc also evaluates what he calls the “willingness to submit” that is an important characteristic in a working equine. In particular, on a halter and lead Doc asks the horse to:
When Doc is evaluating a horse for a client, he prefers to visit on two separate occasions. He also doesn’t want the horse caught before he arrives. “The way a horse reacts to these requests tells us a lot about its attitude, its nature, its intelligence, its determination, and its willingness to submit.”
How do I know it will get the job done?
On the Front Porch, several people discussed matching particular equines to particular types of work. Will Beattie described his horses as having fire. “Somedays that fire gets real old when you are trying to farm and usually doesn’t last all day with real work. It lasts just long enough to be a nuisance at the beginning. So, you also have to ask yourself why you want the fire. Are you truly going to farm with them or occasionally use them to farm [but mainly] do a lot of fast-paced wagon riding?”10
Janet W. McNally said, “I’d like to make the point that a horse can be built well for draft work, and not have the right mind, or vice versa … Just because they are built for work, there is more to it than that.” She then defined what she called the right mind and the right body. “By mind I mean they have a great work ethic, are not overly sensitive, they can be rock solid when properly trained, and are never inclined to kick out behind.” Janet defines the right body as “wide in the chest, lower center of gravity and powerful hind quarters.” She described her experience with her horses with various combinations of right mind and right body and pointed out that when a horse lacks the right mind and right body, “… it’s not that she could not be trained to work in harness, but life is so much easier when these things just come naturally.”11
My first mare has the right mind but is not ideal in the right body department. To upgrade, I have evaluated animals in breeds that are supposed to be suited to draft, and while they had the right body, they lacked the right mind. Assessing their willingness to submit brought this fact out before ever hitching them and exposing them or me to safety issues.
When instructing students, Doc Hammill stresses our increased responsibility to the horse when working in harness. “This is a big thing for me. I’m constantly pointing out the difference between riding and driving to people. There are so many more opportunities for problems when working with equipment than when under saddle. Our only point of contact is the lines, so we have to know that the animals are willing to listen.”
How can I keep the jobs we do fun?
I got into working horses because I wanted to get my work done in a way that I could enjoy. When my working equine partners are not enjoying the jobs that we do, they are more challenging to work, and my enjoyment diminishes. My work approaches drudgery then, and the whole reason to have working horses has disappeared.
After many years of teaching students and evaluating horses for clients, Doc Hammill has observed that the minute someone buys a horse, the horse begins to get retrained. “You can buy the best team in the world, but if you don’t know how to keep them that way, they won’t stay that way.” He emphasizes in his teaching that everybody that interacts with horses is training all the time. “You must be willing to stop and train at the drop of a hat. The most important interactions we have with horses do not occur in a formal training session or necessarily even in harness. It’s the little things we do everyday around them. The things we ask them to do and not do for us when we’re on the ground is what keeps them respectful.”
Doc continues, “If you want to farm with horses but aren’t interested in a relationship with the animals, don’t even consider it. There are more horses that can’t work for psychological reasons than for physical ones. We don’t tax their bodies nearly as much as we tax their minds.”
Where do I buy the horse that I need?
Dena T. is starting a carriage business in California. She has been doing some of her horse shopping on the internet. Friends have been surprised by how well she has done in buying good quality animals via a medium that seems so impersonal and far-removed from flesh and- blood horses. When asked how she does it, she says it’s not about the horse as much as it is about the seller. “I get to know them by talking to them, asking them questions, and listening carefully to their answers. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they talk about their horses. I’m not interested in anyone or anything where the owner doesn’t demonstrate some level of care and concern for the animal they are selling. If they can’t send pictures or video, I don’t do business with them at all.” In contrast to her good experiences, Dena described a common internet horse-selling scam. The seller asks the buyer to send money, and then transport and delivery will be arranged. “Don’t ever send money first,” says Dena. “Make sure the seller is legitimate and that the horse actually exists before ever signing a contract or spending a dime.”
In contrast to the internet, at least at auctions it’s possible to see and touch the animal being sold. Speaking from personal experience, though, I can say that auctions provide an easy way to buy a horse but a challenging way to buy the right horse. I learned the hard way that even though a picture shows a horse being used in harness, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the horse is broke for work. And if the horse isn’t presented in the sales ring in harness, then maybe it isn’t the right horse for the job.
Doc Hammill has attended and even staffed many auctions over the years. “Auctions are always a risky place to buy a horse for beginners and even for some experienced horsemen. The time available for evaluation is very limited, and often you can’t get much previous history about the horse. Also, people can get away with a lot in that environment that they can’t at home. Some horses don’t represent themselves well in that environment and others are better behaved than usual in that environment.”
How do I replace a favorite steed?
As Dena T. is assembling her horses for her carriage business in California, she has been considering the issue of replacements. “What if I go out on a Saturday morning when we’re scheduled to do a wedding, and one member of my team has become lame overnight? How will I deal with that issue? How can I still ‘make it to the church on time?’ What contingencies do I need to have in place? How do I make sure that I have replacements that are good matches in terms of size and appearance? Choosing unusual colors or sizes of animals may not be a good choice for my situation unless I can work them singly; I can’t afford to have one member of a team go down and not be able to replace it instantly. For my situation, I’ve decided I have to have an entire backup team.”
In Dena’s case, color and size are issues. Doc Hammill emphasizes minds when he works with clients on replacing horses in teams. “When replacing teammates, it’s important to match up the minds so they react and respond similarly. I encourage people to try the animals out together before buying.”
Jim Buzzard is known to many Rural Heritage readers for his six-head of Haflingers that pull a 2-12 inch gang plow. Jim attends 20-25 plowing events a year in Illinois as well as the six surrounding states. About seven years ago, Jim increased from four head to six, and I asked him how he found and integrated the newest pair. “I saw them on the internet, but the owner would only sell them with a wagon and harness, and I wasn’t interested in the extras. I contacted him again about six months later, and he was willing to split the horses out, so I went down to Missouri to see them. They were supposedly broke. They weren’t exactly what I wanted in terms of color and markings, but I drove them on a wagon and they were broke to that but not field work. To get them into my set-up, I put one of the new horses in with three of my existing horses and actually plowed. I then did the same with the other one. Then when putting the six of them together for the first time, I put them on a sled. It was clear they could learn quickly enough and get to work. Within a few days we were traveling to a plowing event, and I put them all together on the plow and away we went. I put the new horses on the outside, leaving my experienced horses in the furrow.”
Is breeding my own a reasonable course?
When I went looking for my first horse, I knew I wanted a draft pony rather than a draft horse. I had in my mind something between 13 and 14 hands and built for work. What I really wanted was a Norwegian Fjord Horse, but because I was just getting started, I couldn’t justify their high prices. Yet it was surprising how difficult it was to find a large crossbred (and therefore cheaper) draft pony. I ended up with something affordable but much smaller. While this mare had plenty of heart, there were some jobs we needed to do for which I needed more horsepower, so within a year I was looking for something bigger. I ended up with the Fjord horse I wanted. I also ended up with breeding stock.
“Sometimes people think that breeding is a cheaper way to get a horse, but there are many hidden costs,” says Don Sanborn, AQHA reining horse breeder.12 “Over all, breeding is not an economical way to get a youngster. If you are lucky, you can do it economically, but overall it is hard to breed something for yourself that you couldn’t buy cheaper.” says Linda Haines, a Connemara breeder.13 I can concur with these two comments. Breeding is not a cheaper way to get the horse you want. It may be logistically easier, but I have found it to be much more expensive than buying something already on the ground, including a purebred animal. I’ve spent 10 years, for instance, getting to the point that I’m producing the right combination of mind and body in my youngstock. It’s taken a lot of feed bills and vet bills to get to where I am now. While the experience has been intellectually stimulating, it has not been economically rewarding. Especially in the current horse market where there are so many horses for sale and so many people desperate to sell them, it seems to me that the easiest way to bring a working equine into your life is to buy, not breed.
Choosing a horse is obviously a very personal decision. Ultimately we each have to decide what we need, why we need it, the best way to get it, and what will keep us engaged with it once we have it. Doc Hammill has found that a person’s past experience with horses (or lack thereof) is much more crucial to the ultimate success of the partnership than the use the animal will be put to. In fact, he has found that inexperienced people often turn out to be the very best trainers for their horse because they have more patience and enjoy the steps along the way. Doc echoes the experience of many horsemen when he says, “Horses choose us more than the other way around. If a person is really serious about learning this art and doing work with horses, the perfect horses come into our lives.”