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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Part 3 - Pointed Questions

This is part 3 (and the last!) in a series on buying and advertising an endurance horse, which was born out of my frusteration with endurance horse ad....I don't claim to be an expert, and if you read far enough down you will see not even I follow my own advice! This is meant to be an entertaining series designed to provoke some questions about these wonderful athletes that do endurance and recognize that they have skillz!

So let’s assume you have managed to find an ad that was written slightly above Neanderthal-level, by a person that seems to have a clue that an endurance horse has skills, and through some phone question and answer, you have decided to see the horse.

Now what?

At this point, I have gotten the basics out of the way over the phone – height, color, age, breeding history, ride and competition history etc. After seeing the horse I can start to judge whether I’m interested enough to take my time (and the sellers time) to ask detailed, pointed questions.

Based on any conformational defects I will ask whether the horse has ever been lame in THAT hoof, or THAT leg.

If height is important to you – bring your own tape/stick. Do NOT stand there and argue with the seller on advertised height versus what you *think* it is, no matter how good you think your eye is. Depending on build, horses can be VERY deceiving.

If I see white hairs on the back, I’ll ask what kind of tack was used that caused it, and what changes were made based on the appearance of the white hairs.

Depending on the asking price, I will ask BEFORE the appointment to have vet records available, with the understanding that I will be following up with the vet personally afterwards.

I’ll let the seller talk….and talk and talk and talk. Working at a food processing plant, I’ve been audited a LOT. I’ve also audited co-packers a LOT. Use these strategies –

  • Ask questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no question
  • When the seller answers in general terms – “we” – or makes general statements – “I think he would be good at (why?)”, or “He doesn’t like….(how do you know?)” – dig deeper and try to get specifics
  • If there are other people around, get their opinions and “feel them out”.

Ask to see the horse’s bridle. Ask if there’s multiple bridles depending on the situation (arena work, rides, conditioning etc.). If so, ask to see them all. If a horse is being advertised as having a “dressage foundation” I would expect to see a dressage legal bit in the mix somewhere.

Ask the rider to FULLY describe their ride set up – martingales, breast plates or collars, cruppers, saddle bags – and ask WHY. If they use a breast plate instead of a collar – WHY? If they don’t use ANY back saddle bags – WHY (is the horse goosey? Can’t be trusted while you mess with them?). It could be totally innocent/personal preference of the rider, but it could also give you insight into the horse’s temperament.

Take notes. (or don’t). If you are just trying to get the seller to talk – don’t take notes. This will generally make them feel more comfortable and they will talk more. If you are trying to pin them down on an important point – take out your note pad and write it down as you ask questions.

Be very polite and friendly and smile a lot. Make sure you aren’t unconsciously passing judgment on them or their practices. You are there to evaluate and perhaps buy a horse. However you personally feel about their operation, in my opinion, this is not the time to address it. Chances are, you are going to be the nosiest buyer they’ve ever had. Make it a point to be the friendliest one too.

Competition History
As I write on this subject, remember that I’m a mid-pack endurance rider who enjoys the one-on-one relationship that occurs when I ride one horse for the majority of my events. I’m not looking for a top 10 horse, or a BC horse. I’m looking for a horse that will enjoy it’s job for many many years, that is versatile, and with training will be consistent horse I can trust on the trail and is a pleasure to ride.

If the horse has any endurance RIDE history I will ask very detailed questions. I will have brought an AERC print out. The scenarios that worry me the most are:

  • A horse that has top 10’ed at its first ride. Even if it’s accompanied by a BC
  • A horse that has done several fast LD rides.
  • A horse that is advertised as “conditioned and ready to go to it’s first ride!”

I want a horse that has been brought up slowly over the past year and has 2-3 50’s (with perhaps some LD’s mixed in) with finishes in the mid pack near the end of the year. OR I want a horse that has just started their conditioning.

In my experience, one of the biggest risk for injury in a potential endurance horse is during the first year of rides, especially between the end of the primary conditioning period and into the first 1-2 rides (admittedly I don’t have tons of experience, but this has been my experience and from talking to others, their experience as well). I either want the horse safely through that period (a year of slow and steady rides), OR far enough away from it (ie just starting conditioning) that I feel like the that period is under my control.

If I did buy a horse that was near the end of their conditioning cycle, advertised as “ready to go”, I would “redo” the conditioning program from the beginning, but in an accelerated fashion, looking for any “holes” or inconsistencies. Where I might take 7-12 months to bring a horse to it’s first ride without any previous endurance conditioning, the “acclerated” program might be as short as 3-4 months.

Of course – all the above information changes if I’m buying from a breeder/trainer/friend that I trust. I’m assuming that the horse is coming from a stranger, or a person you know only casually.

Sometimes there’s a really good reasons a horse shows some very high placings or fast times in an LD. Take a look at Farley’s record her first year…..A first place 30 mile finish, a top 10 in her next LD. Than a 55, followed by 4 more LD’s at an INSANELY fast speed. In that case I could justify her record by presenting the following facts:

  • In her first LD, placings were not recognized, therefore no reason to race. I happened to be first, but if you calculate my pace, you will see that it’s a very moderate pace that would have put me mid-pack in most rides.
  • In her second LD, again placings were not recognized, the pace is generally appropriate, but I do agree it was a little fast. I was preparing her for her first 50, so I wanted something a bit faster to let me know if she was ready to move up. I stayed longer at the hold than required for the LD’s (I followed the 50’s requirement) toward the goal of preparing for the 50. And truthfully – we did go faster than I would have liked – she was a bit of a *&(*^%( that ride….
  • In the 4 day death valley ride, there were very few riders each day so placings can be ignored….There were so few LD’s that we were piggy backing on the shoulders of the 50’s and thus the distances, and total hold times that are accounted for are a bit suspect…..I have GPS data that shows a reasonable pace.
  • The strong mid-pack finish in the 55 before the death valley ride, and the 65 afterwards should alleviate any lingering concerns, as well as the rest of my record that shows a consistent mid-pack finisher.

I’ll finish my soap box on training with a quick note on dressage: Ideally, I want a horse with no dressage training at all, OR correct training that is heavily based in the foundations of dressage. I would rather see a horse that is taking contact and relaxed, than a horse curling behind the bit but “looks pretty”. I strongly feel that dressage is a life-long journey for the horse and I’m in no hurry to see it move up the levels. One of the final deciding factors of my decision to take dressage lessons was learning that Elmer, the “wonder” horse of the competitive trail world, still did near-daily dressage to keep him fit and limber between rides.

To barter or not to barter
Personally, I HATE bargaining. Either the animal is worth the asking price or it’s not. I buy my vehicles the same way. I am honest. If I don’t think that the animal is worth the asking price (but I would be willing pay a price fairly close to the asking), I will let the buyer know that it is a nice animal, however I feel that based upon my evaluation, the asking price is too much for me right now. At that point if the buyer would like to revise the price – great, but I’m not going to go back and forth about it. But again, this is a personal preference and dislike of bargaining.

And then there’s the caveat….
Of course, you might follow up on an ad that is exactly two sentences long, talk to a guy on the phone who gives no real information and is difficult to understand because of an accent, THEN go SEE the horse, only to realize the facility is chockfull of barbed wire, the only bridles available are a wire snaffle and a tom thumb (thank goodness you brought your own saddle…..). And then decide for some crazy reason to BUY the horse at the ASKING price, in cash. And then realize that the paperwork/registration states the horse is older than originally represented. And end up with a Tevis horse.

And that’s life.


  1. Mel,

    So when and what factors would lead you to consider that a prospect is "KAPOOT", a deal breaker, or otherwise washed up to the sport?



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