How to Shop for a Horse

how to buy a horse, horse pre-purchase exam, equine pre-purchase exam, shopping for a horse, horse shopping, sellng a horse

how to buy a horse, horse pre-purchase exam, equine pre-purchase exam, shopping for a horse, horse shopping, sellng a horse

By April D. Ray

Shopping for a horse can be one of the most exciting activities, yet it can often be frustrating, too. With a little planning and lot of forethought, you can make it more of the first and less of the latter. Help ensure that you end up with the right horse for your needs by having your coach or an experienced person you trust help you in the process. Regardless of whether you are working with a professional or going it alone, here are a few steps to take to make the process more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Determine your ISO

Figuring out your ISO – in search of – should be your first step. This means determining exactly what you are looking for in a horse or pony, and the budget you have to work with. I like to make a wish list of age, height, level of training, and temperament, and decide how far you are willing to travel. Depending on your budget, you might have to sacrifice a little of that wish list. They say you can’t have sane, broke, and sound for cheap.

Recently when looking for a horse for a client of mine, we created the following ISO:


how to buy a horse, horse pre-purchase exam, equine pre-purchase exam, shopping for a horse, horse shopping, sellng a horse

I posted this in various Horse for Sale groups on Facebook, and it helped attract more leads on horses. 

Start Searching

how to buy a horse, horse pre-purchase exam, equine pre-purchase exam, shopping for a horse, horse shopping, sellng a horse

Buying a horse is an exciting process, and finding your perfect equine partner can be a dream come true. Aside from the emotional investment, your new horse represents a significant long-term commitment of money and responsibility that should only be entered into after careful consideration of all relevant factors.

Once you have created your ISO, start searching for horses for sale. Facebook is an excellent tool for doing this and I was able to join multiple groups dedicated to horse sales in various regions, sticking to ones within our buying area. Technology has dramatically changed the landscape of horse sales in recent years, and it’s so much easier now to find horses, get pictures and videos, and communicate with sellers. It should be noted that while Facebook has been and continues to be a great tool for buying and selling horses, selling animals on Facebook has recently been designated as prohibited content and against their policies. Because of this, posts may be reported or deleted, and this will likely continue in the future as these policies are enforced. 

When speaking to sellers, ask lots of questions to weed out the horses that might not be suitable. Ask for photos and video before making any try-out decisions. Be upfront about your riding ability and exactly what you are looking for; overselling your skills won’t do anyone any good. If something seems off, trust your gut; I always approach horses for sale with a certain level of skepticism. For the most part, people selling horses have everyone’s best interests at heart, but there are some who only care about selling the horse at any cost.  

Related: How to Understand Horse-Related Contracts

Trying Horses Out

how to buy a horse, horse pre-purchase exam, equine pre-purchase exam, shopping for a horse, horse shopping, sellng a horse

A perfect partnership. Photo: Donald Peterson

Many people have successfully purchased horses sight unseen, but I strongly recommend seeing and trying the horses on your shortlist. If you are traveling far, arrange to see multiple horses to make the trip more worthwhile. It can be hugely beneficial to have your coach along for the trip, and they can help you make decisions with your head, not your heart. Sometimes it’s easy to fall in love with a horse and ignore red flags or signs that something might be amiss. Take notes and videos for every horse, especially if seeing multiple horses. It’s very helpful to see the horses in their home barn, watch as they are caught and tacked up, and watch them being ridden by someone else before deciding to get on yourself. Often the seller will have the horse tacked up and ready to go by the time the buyer arrives, so don’t be afraid to ask them to wait for your arrival before catching the horse and getting him ready. This will give you an opportunity to see how the horse behaves on the ground and in the barn, which can be just as important as how he behaves under saddle.

Some sellers may be open to a trial and allow you to take the horse for a short period to see if he is a good fit for your needs. While this can be an excellent opportunity to learn more about the horse, it’s not always possible and is not without risks. A seller may be reluctant to allow the horse to go on trial due to risk of injury should the potential buyer not follow instructions for the horse’s care and workload.

If the seller is willing to allow the horse go on trial, make sure you are aware of the horse’s regular feed schedule, any medication or supplements required, his current fitness level, workload, and any other management concerns that may affect the animal’s health and performance while in your care. Some sellers may also require a deposit before the trial period starts. The seller can also limit what the buyer can do with the horse, who can ride it, and what type of equipment can be used. Some sellers require the potential buyer to insure the horse during the trial period. The seller still owns the horse so their wishes must be respected. Have a detailed, written agreement covering all contingencies, signed by both parties.

Typically, the trial would be limited to one week, as the longer the trial, the greater the likelihood that something unfortunate may happen. Stay in touch with the seller throughout the trial period, as the seller may have good insight on issues that crop up, and staying in touch will assure the seller that their horse is in good hands.
If you are unable to take the horse on trial, try the horse more than once, and do as much research and due diligence as possible before making a decision.

Related: How to Take a Great Horse Confirmation Photo

Pre-Purchase Exam

how to buy a horse, horse pre-purchase exam, equine pre-purchase exam, shopping for a horse, horse shopping, sellng a horse

During the pre-purchase exam, the veterinarian makes informed observations about the horse’s soundness and health. This information will help the potential buyer decide whether to purchase the horse. Photo: iStock/Chalabala

Once you have found a horse you want to buy, the next step should be a pre-purchase exam. If you take the horse on trial, the pre-purchase exam can be done during that time. Buying a horse is a huge responsibility and something you should approach with eyes wide open. Keep in mind the job you need the horse to do and whether you will have to resell the horse in the future.

Dr. Sue Ashburner of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine advises purchasers to consider the three S’s – sustainability, serviceability, and soundness – when doing a pre-purchase exam. The veterinarian will examine the horse’s physical condition and search for potential problems that could limit the horse’s career. This information will help the buyer determine whether the horse is suitable for their intended needs, and allow the buyer to make a more educated decision as to whether or not to proceed with the purchase.
Offer and Sale

You have decided to purchase the horse. You can make the offer to purchase yourself, or have your coach look after this aspect for you. Anything that showed up on the pre-purchase exam may give you a little bargaining room when negotiating the price. Once the buyer and seller have agreed on the price, the sale agreement should be signed by the buyer, the seller, and any agent involved.
In buying a horse you are making a significant long-term investment of money and responsibility. Help to ensure the success of your new partnership by being patient and exercising due diligence, and don’t hesitate to ask someone you trust for help. If, despite best efforts, your new partner doesn’t work out, don’t be discouraged. There are no guarantees, but there are always other horses and tomorrow is another day.


Many horse trainers and sales agents charge a commission for buying and selling horses to compensate for their time, expertise, and personal connections. While most trainers have their client’s best interests at heart, some might look at horse sales as a way to bring in extra profit, and undisclosed commissions are unfortunately a widespread issue in the industry. Not only is this unethical, it may legally actionable and or even criminal depending on the situation. If the trainer discloses the profit and the client agrees to it, there is nothing wrong with charging a commission. Having a clearly written commission agreement will help avoid misunderstandings and keep everyone honest while managing expectations.
Typically, commissions are between 10 and 25 percent of the purchase price, although a trainer and client can agree on any percentage. If you are hiring a professional to help with your horse purchase, you should feel comfortable with their business practices, and should receive timely answers to your questions.

Related: How to Afford to Ride Horses

To read more by April Ray on this site, click here.

Main photo: iStock/AnnaElizabethPhotography