How to Buy a Horse Avoiding the Common Pitfalls

How to Buy a Horse Avoiding the Common Pitfalls

Buying a horse is always an exciting experience but buying your first horse is extra special. Even experienced horse owners will tell you stories about “my first horse” and will recall in amazing detail what it felt like.

Sadly, it is also easy to make a lot of mistakes when you are buying your first horse and some of these can be costly – both financially and emotionally. The best way to avoid making these mistakes is to read up on as much information as you can about the process. We have condensed everything you need to know into the following guide so this is a great place to start.

What You Need to do Before Buying Your First Horse

Preparation for your first horse purchase begins a long time before you start looking at ads or horse sales. Start by asking yourself three key questions.

  • Do you really want to buy a horse? This may seem a strange question but it is important to understand the difference between being a horse lover and a horse owner. Is there any other way in which you could ride a horse regularly? Perhaps you could enquire at a local stables if there is anyone who owns a horse and needs someone to ride them. You could also lease a horse. This is an arrangement where you get a certain amount of riding time on a horse. In return, you have to pay either a fixed monthly fee or a percentage of the costs of the expenses associated with the horse such as the boarding facilities and food. Your local horse trainer or riding instructor may know of where you can set up this sort of arrangement.
  • Is your riding ability good enough? If you are going to regularly exercise your horse or pony, you must be a competent rider. A novice rider would not have the necessary skills to exercise the horse on their own. Beginner riders would also struggle to deal with all the different situations (including different riding surfaces and weather conditions) that they may have to face. Before you proceed any further with your horse buying plans, get plenty of riding experience under your belt. Enroll for some riding training sessions with an experienced instructor.
  • Can you afford it? Untrained horses may be cheaper but will never be the best option for an inexperienced owner. The amount of money that you spend to buy a horse is just the start. Purchase prices are also very variable. They range from a few thousand dollars up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then you have to factor in the cost of boarding, bedding, feeds, veterinary and farrier fees and a lot more.

chestnut horse runs gallop on a spring, summer field

Best Type of Horse for a First Time Horse Owner

The final thing that you have to do before you buy a horse is to decide what type of horse would be suitable for you. Your first horse is unlikely to be the only horse that you ever own. It needs to fulfill your current needs in terms of competitions and the type of riding that you want to do. Here are the main things that you should think about.

Your Safety as a Rider

This must always be your number one priority when horse shopping. At the very minimum, a first horse must be well-trained so that beginner riders can handle it. It should have a kind and well-mannered nature and be a quiet and steady ride. It is basic common sense to avoid a challenging horse when you are not an experienced horse owner. You will need to ride the horse at least once on a trail ride to find out its nature. If possible, take your instructor with you. They will know how to test out the horse and what questions to ask the horse dealer.

Horse or Pony Personality

A horse that kicks and bites is completely unsuitable for first time horse buyers and these should be deal breakers. It is easy to make mistakes when you start riding a new horse so your mount should be forgiving and very tolerant. As a minimum, you should be able to catch the horse and place a halter around their neck. They should allow you to lead them to a grooming area and stand still as you groom them and put on their saddle and bridle. The horse must also know how to stand still as you mount them.

As part of the horse buying process, you should observe the horse carefully. As the seller leads them around, do they walk quietly and slowly? Does the horse stand patiently whilst they are tied up. A bad-mannered horse uses the people around them as scratching posts. A good-mannered horse will respect people and will not prance in front of the seller as they are being led. When you go to see the horse, ask the seller to saddle the horse in front of you so that you can observe the process. Horses that stand very still for saddling and grooming are suitable for first time horse owners. Horses that swing their bodies around and generally make it difficult are not so great as a family horse for novice owners and riders. This type of horse may also step around as the seller is trying to tighten the girth and surge forward as soon as the rider is in the saddle. Some horses do this even before the rider has their feet in the stirrups. You may also notice some ear-pinning and some tail wringing which are also bad signs.

Horse Personality Test

Try this simple horse personality test when you go to buy a horse. Take any kind of jacket with you and place it on a fence somewhere near where the seller is riding the horse. Don’t worry if there is no fence, just place the jacket on the ground.

How does the horse react to the jacket? Does the horse just ignore it or casually note it and then accept that it is there with no reaction? This is the sort of horse that you want. If the horse stops suddenly, jumps sideways or rears up it indicates that they have been spooked by it – they may also roll their eyes and snort. These horses are hard work! You will spend a lot of time reassuring them and helping them realize that every day items are not out to get them! This is not something that a first time horse owner with little experience is equipped to cope with.

Size of Horse

This is very subjective and will be dependent on your own stature but the right horse for you will be one that is not too big! Horse ads are not always that accurate when it comes to stating the actual height of the horse. This may be because some sellers are not that good at measuring it! This does not mean that you have to take a measuring tape with you when you are buying your first horse. You should be able to tell if it is the right size as soon as you mount the horse. Don’t forget that the size of the horse’s girth is also important. Once you have mounted for your test ride, your feet should not be dangling a long way under the horse’s barrel.

Best Breed for a Pet Horse

Each breed of horse has been cultivated over hundreds of generations to obtain certain characteristics. One breed may be cultivated as a trail horse but others may be cultivated as a working horse for pulling carts etc. So, what is the right horse for a new owner?

It may be a good idea to opt for a breed that tends to be more docile. The Quarter horse, the Paints and draft horses are typical examples. For a more spirited and high energy horse, you would do better to choose an Arabian or a Thoroughbred. Your riding instructor will be familiar with the various characteristics of different breeds so have a chat with them and ask for their advice before you start horse shopping. However, don’t forget that horses are individuals and have their own personalities so nothing is guaranteed.

The Best Age Horse for You

When you are choosing a new horse you should also think about what age that horse will be. Horse ads should accurately describe the age of the horse. Here you can apply an old saying to the logic of assessing horses for sale if you are buying one for a child. The saying states that the combined age of the horse and the child should add up to 20. So, if you are buying a horse for your 10 year old child, you need a 10 year old horse. However, a 15 year old child would be able to handle a 5 year old horse.

This is based on the fact that older and more experienced riders are able to handle younger and less experienced horses. However, a young rider would do better with a more experienced horse who would be more forgiving with their mistakes. As horses live up to 30 years, a 15 year old horse still has plenty of active life left for you to enjoy together. It may seem a sweet idea to choose a young horse for a young child thinking that they can be friends and grow up together. In practice, this is a recipe for disaster and will not work.

However, beware that you do not confuse age with experience. An old horse that has spent all their life wandering around pasture could be no better than a young horse. This is because they have so little riding experience. Look out for terms in ads such as “needs finishing” as these horses and not sufficiently trained for a first time owner. They may also be described in ads as “green”. Also, check with the seller or with the horse sales documentation that the horse has the type of experience that you want. If you are looking for a new horse to use in horse trails, make sure that they have trail riding experience. If you want a show horse, you need one that has already been competing successfully and has a proven record.

Should You Choose a Gelding or a Mare?

The most important point here is that a stallion will never be the right horse for people who have never owned a horse before. So, if you are buying a horse for the first time, it will have to be a gelding (a castrated male horse) or a mare (a female horse).

The choice between the two is not straightforward. Some people prefer a mare and many of them are very quiet and placid. However, when they come into season (which can every 20 days or so in the summer months) they can be a little less reliable and even moody. Therefore, if you are buying a horse for the very first time you may prefer a gelding as they tend to be steadier and more reliable.

Should You Worry About Color?

This is entirely up to you. You may have your heart set on a particular color and that is your personal decision. However, you need to be aware that having a fixed color in mind will limit your choice. If you have found a horse that is exactly the right size and level of experience for you at a price that you are happy with, it seems a shame to walk away from the deal just because of the color. Ask yourself if it’s really that important!

Red horse with long mane in flower field against sky

How to Buy a Horse

It is best not to start this process on your own. Whilst most sellers are very honest and will do all they can to help someone who is buying a horse for the first time novice owner, there are still some unscrupulous people out there who will try to take advantage of you. Buying and selling horses can involve large sums of money and can attract the wrong type of people.

To avoid any difficulties, ask your instructor to be involved in the process. If possible, get them to look at the advertisement for the horse. It would be even better if they could recommend a seller that they know. Preferably, they should also come with you when you go to see the horse. They could carry out a quick exam to make sure that the horse is fit and healthy. Often, you have to be an experienced horse person to spot when something is wrong. If the exam does flag up a problem, they will know what questions to ask.

A lot of horses are sold by word of mouth so start by asking in the horse community and amongst your horse friends in your area. You may be surprised at how small the horse world is! You can also look at classified ads or internet sites. There may also be adverts for horses for sale at feed stores and at tack shops. Decide how far you are prepared to travel and don’t forget that you will need to arrange transport for the horse from wherever they are currently stabled. How will you transport the horse home? If it is going to be in a trailer, are they used to trailers? If they are not, it could turn into a very stressful journey for both you and the horse. You will also also want to travel there to see the horse prior to agreeing the sale so that is at least two journeys!

Horse auctions are not a good place for inexperienced people to buy a horse. It is quite stressful and rushed. If you do not have a trained eye, you will not spot problems and there is no time for a thorough examination. You simply cannot find out what you need to know about the horse’s history, health or nature.

How to Buy a Horse Without the Pitfalls

As with many other purchases, there is a long list of horse buying pitfalls that you have to watch out for. It is your responsibility to look out for these – the seller may not flag them up. Always try to take someone experienced in buying horses with you – a second opinion is very useful.

If you find out any of the following information in the advert, don’t waste your time traveling to see the horse because it will not be suitable for a first time owner.

  • Health issues: If any sort of health issue is mentioned, do not proceed any further. Veterinary treatment for horses is very expensive and you could be taking on a lot of hassle. However, if the horse has been described as “serviceably sound” it may be okay. Just make sure that you get your vet to check the horse over before you buy it – they will be able to ask the right questions.
  • Pregnant mares: This may seem like a great idea to start off with. After all, you are getting two horses for the price of one. However, if the horse is described as ‘in foal’, you should walk away. You will not be able to ride the horse until she has delivered the foal. Then you will have the responsibility of looking after a young horse. This is not something that inexperienced horse owners should take on.
  • Unsuitable horses: Some sellers describe horses as ‘unsuitable for beginners or novices’. They do this for a reason! The sellers know that the horse needs an experienced trainer to keep them in check. This is a red flag and means you should not go any further.
  • Untrained horses: New owners should never buy a horse that is not 100 percent trained. If the seller has described the horse as a ‘prospect’ or as ‘in training’ then this is not the horse for you. Read the information provided carefully. If it mentions terms like ‘potential’ or ‘needs finishing’ or describes the horse as ‘still growing’ or ‘ready to start’ they will be too challenging for you to take on as they will still need a lot of training.
  • Horses with too much energy: Obviously, you want a horse with plenty of energy so that you can enjoy long rides together but some take this too far. Again, read the information that describes the horse. Does it use words such as ‘needs strong rider’ or ‘needs quiet rider’ – these horses are suited to someone who has a lot of experience. Also look out for sellers who have described the horse as ‘spirited’ or ‘endurance prospect’ because they have clearly noted that this horse is a handful!

Have a good chat with the seller before you travel to see the horse. Be honest about what you are looking for and about your own riding ability and ask for honesty in return.

Visiting Your New Horse

Having found a list of potential horses and narrowed it down by excluding unsuitable ones using the ad information and asking the seller questions, it is finally time to start visiting some. This is the most crucial stage in horse shopping!

Here are some top tips for that all important first meeting when you are buying a horse:

  • Take your instructor or trainer with you. If your instructor does not have the time, take someone who has a lot of experience in riding and looking after horses.
  • Always make an appointment and try your best to arrive at the right time. The seller is probably a busy person and may even be selling several horses. If you have to cancel, try to give plenty of notice. The seller has to spend a lot of time getting horses ready to be viewed and will not appreciate it if you waste their time.
  • Leave children and dogs at home. If you are buying a horse for a particular child then obviously you will want to bring them with you. However, leave all other children at home if you can so that you can focus on the horses and take your time to look at them properly.
  • Dress appropriately for riding. All the people who are going to be riding the horses need to wear appropriate clothing as well as a safety helmet. Take your own. Do not assume that the seller will have one for you to use. Everyone else needs at least a strong pair of boots. Horses are usually surrounded by quite a bit of mud!
  • Don’t turn up with a horse trailer. This makes you look far too keen! Buying a horse is all about negotiation. Even if you fall in love with the horse, you should try to negotiate on the purchase price. You can’t do that if you have already indicated that you will buy it by turning up with transport to take the horse home.
  • Take a video camera. You should at least have your smartphone with you so that you can record what the horse looks like and any exam of their condition that is carried out. You may also want to make some voice notes to remind yourself about key features.
  • Make a list. Have a written list of questions to ask the owner. They should be very knowledgeable about the horse and should be able to tell you everything you need to know. If they don’t have the answers to your questions you should walk away.

Arabian horses grazing on pasture at sundown in orange sunny beams.

During Your First Visit with Your New Horse

It can be easy to get carried away with the excitement of seeing a new horse but try to remain calm and objective. You are looking out for a mixture of good and bad signs relating to the horse, the seller and the area where the horse is stabled. Here are the main things that you should look out for when buying horses.

What Are the Stable and Pasture Like?

Does the area look as if it is well tended and organized? Is it overgrown or covered in trash and debris? Do the other horses look like they are in good condition? Are the buildings kept in a good state of repair? One red flag to look out for are tubes of horse calming paste in the trash cans. This should make you highly suspicious about the temperament of the horse.

How Does the Seller Interact With the Horse?

Always ask the owner to ride the horse before you do. This serves two purposes. Firstly, you should see that there is a bond between the owner and the horse. This means that you are buying a lovable horse! If no one has bonded with the horse, there will be gaps in their training and you will have to fill these training gaps. You may not yet have the experience or expertise to do that.

Secondly, it is safer for you to see someone else ride the horse before you get on it. You may even decide to walk away without riding the horse yourself if you don’t like what you see. Watching someone else ride the horse will allow you to observe them as they are moving and note any issues that need to be checked out in a vet’s exam later on.

Is the Documentation Readily Available?

Veterinary records and registration documents should be available for all horses. Veterinary records will reveal any chronic conditions that may require on-going and expensive treatment. They will also show what vaccinations and check-ups the horses have received.

Have you seen proof that the person selling you the horse is the legal owner? Sadly, many horses are stolen every year and a large proportion of them are sold on to unsuspecting first time owners who do not ask for the official documentation. Ask to see ID for the seller and check that it matches the name on the documentation.

Can You Test the Horse in a Specific Setting?

Everyone has their own plans for their new horse. If you are looking for a trail horse, ideally you need to test them on a trail with other horses. Some horses are called ‘buddy sour’ meaning that they are not great around other horses. This is going to be a problem if you always go riding with pals. Other horses are ‘barn sour’ and this will need to be checked out too if you intend to ride in a barn.

If you are looking for a jumper, try them out over jumps and if you are looking for a barrel horse, make sure that they can do barrels. Don’t take the owner’s word for it. Always check it out for yourself. This may require a long test ride. A good trail horse must be sure-footed, they must be sensible and calm and must be able to hack in a large group. It can take several hours to confirm this.

How Does the Horse Behave?

Watch carefully as the seller approaches the stall and opens the door. You want to see the horse acting in a calm way but with their ears pricked forward. It is not a good sign if they have their ears pinned back as this indicates fear and aggression.

If the horse is out in open pasture, how are they relating to the other horses? How easy are they to catch and do they mind having the halter put on them? They should have a sure-footed walk when they are being led and each foot should strike the ground with equal and even force. Look for any signs that they are stiff or lame.

Also, have a good look in their stall. Kick marks mean that they have a habit of kicking out. An uneven floor shows that they paw or weave at the ground surface. Damaged timber surfaces indicate that they chew excessively. All of these are signs of physical or psychological issues that often cannot be cured and will cause a new owner a lot of hassle.

A quick check of their feet and shoes will show any unevenness that could indicate lameness even before you see the animal walking around.

Negotiation and Final Checks

There will be a purchase price made available for the horse but this is not the price that you will pay. There is always a process of negotiation during which you will decide on what you feel is a fair price for the horse.

Vet Checks and Exams

Before this process starts, you need to arrange for a vet exam. Vets have years of training and a high level of expertise so they will be able spot problems that you will not notice. You will have to pay for this so make sure that you are certain that you want to buy the horse and have completed all your own checks before you get to this stage. You need to be present during the exam and the vet should be appointed by you and not by the seller. It should be a vet that has not seen the horse before.

Don’t expect a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from your vet. It is likely to be much more complicated than that. They will make their observations and you will take them into account when making your final decision. Sadly, some owners will take steps to disguise health conditions and behavioral problems during this exam. They may have given the horse pain killers or even a sedative. The only way to overcome this is to ask the vet to submit a blood sample for analysis. They may also want to carry out x-rays to investigate potential problems further. A typical vet exam can cost several hundred dollars but it is better than getting a nasty shock several weeks after you have purchased the horse.

Negotiating the Price

It is important that the people that you take with you to see the horse (such as your instructor or a vet) do not disclose what your budget is. They should not discuss the price, that is down to you. This is where you have to be firm and not let your love for your new horse show! Your acting skills will be very valuable. You will need to pretend that you are not that interested in the horse. If the seller tells you that another buyer is interested, don’t panic. There may not even be another buyer and if there is, you will soon find another horse. Play it cool!

All sellers will be willing to drop the asking/advertised price by a certain amount. The exact sum of money that they are willing to accept will depend on a number of factors.

  • How many other similar horses are there for sale in your area? If there are many similar horses available when you are making your purchase, you are in a better position to negotiate. The seller will know that you can walk away and go elsewhere to get a horse without any problem. This is called a buyer’s market. If there are very few horses available, then you will have trouble getting the seller to drop the price because there will be loads of other people also interested in the horse. This is known as a seller’s market. Overall, you will have more choice in the fall and in the spring. Horses are cheaper in the fall because sellers are trying to avoid winter feeding costs by selling the horse. Horses are always cheaper in the winter but there will not be much choice.
  • How long has the horse been for sale? If the horse has only just been advertised, a seller will be reluctant to accept a low price. They will rather wait for a few days to see if someone else offers them closer to the asking price.
  • How quickly does the owner need to sell the horse? If the owner has a replacement horse arriving the next day and only one stable, you are in a strong negotiating position! They may also need the money in a hurry to clear debts etc. This will make them more likely to accept an offer from you rather than starting all over again with another purchaser.
  • Does the seller like you? This is where buying a horse differs to buying a car or a house. For most people, there will be a certain amount of emotion involved. The seller should have formed an attachment to the horse and should want them to go to a new owner who will love and care for them and give them a comfortable home. They may ask you some questions about how you intend to look after the horse. If they like what they hear, they will be more likely to let you buy it at a reduced price.

Be realistic about what sort of price negotiation you can achieve. If the seller seems to be selling the horse too cheaply and seems desperate to get rid of it, this should also sound the alarm bells. Do not offer a price that is more than 20 percent lower than the asking price. You could ask for a blanket or halter to be included in the sale.

Once the purchase has been made, you need the paperwork to prove the conditions of sale such as a contract and warranties. You obviously need full contact details for the seller in case any dispute arises.

Now you can start life with your new best friend!


  1. Tips For Buying or Selling a Horse, World Horse Welfare
Sharon Parry

Sharon is a Ph.D. scientist and experienced pet content writer. As a life-long animal lover, she now shares her family home with three rabbits, a Syrian hamster, and a Cockapoo puppy. She has a passion for researching accurate and credible information about pets and turning it into easy-to-understand articles that offer practical tips. When it comes to our furry friends, she knows that there is always something new to learn!

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