Open air auction
Buying a Horse

Buying your horse at auction, pt 3: Don’t buy a horse on looks alone

If you’ve had horses before you might already have an idea about the kind of build and temperament you’re looking for in a horse.

Otherwise, you’ll want to get a calm and collected horse, a little older, with more experience and ready to ride.

Be sure to test in various ways that a horse you’re interested in is something that you can work with and suits your needs.

The overall look

  • Does the horse look like he is swollen in the belly, joints or lymph nodes?
  • Does he have nasal discharge?
  • Do his eyes seem cloudy or alert?
  • If the horse is very lethargic, he could be tranquilised to show better in the ring.
  • Run your hands over the horse to check a) where he allows you to touch him and b) to check for signs of hot spots that might indicate inflammation or infection. Keep an eye on how he reacts to you and your touch.

If a horse is dirty and/or has a long coat, try to see beyond the dirt and fur, and see if you can spot any skin problems underneath.

A long coat can also hide a skinny horse. Feel the horse with your hands to determine the body condition and picture what the horse could look like with some TLC and good grooming.

Body condition

If you’re in a dry area and find an underweight horse that still has good teeth and sound hooves, it is very likely that the horse has been kept outdoors during a drought.

This could very well be a horse that has just encountered hard times in the drought but could make an excellent horse with some care and proper feeding.

An overweight horse could have been put out to pasture or been fed too much grain without proper exercise. Perhaps it has an owner that has lost interest in owning a horse or hasn’t had the time for it.

In either case, you can expect to be monitoring and adjusting the diet of the horse for around 6–12 months to achieve an ideal weight and condition.


Always consider the age of the horse and think of what it means in terms of what the horse has been used for.

A horse is skeletally fully mature at around the age six and having been ridden too early or broken in by someone inexperienced (or too heavy-handed) can have caused damage that may or may not be permanent.

In some cases, horses with permanent damage can still be ridden or used for light activities, but aren’t likely to ever meet the demanding work required to succeed at competing.

An older horse can still make a great companion for another horse or pony, and could be a bargain due to its age.

Do consider that getting an older horse might come with bigger or smaller issues, most certainly it will require a bit of extra care compared to a younger horse.

An old horse is usually calmer and less energetic than a younger horse and can be a wonderful first horse for younger children who are only just getting used to horses.

If you’re getting a horse for a child that has already committed to riding, leasing a horse is a great option instead of buying, as you can then “trade-in” when they outgrow the current horse.

The back

Horses can often have a sore back, and the reasons for it can be many. By running your thumb and forefinger along both sides of the spine, with light pressure, you will see if the horse tries to squirm away from your touch.

In a worst case scenario, this indicates that the horse is lame and you should check to see if the walk and trot are symmetrical.

If the gait seems fine and you can’t see any other signs of lameness, it might be a sore back from being ridden too soon, being ridden with an ill-fitting saddle or being ridden by an inexperienced or incompetent rider.

If there is no lameness, it is very likely that the problem is fixable, but do you have the skill, time, money and commitment to take it on?

The teeth

  • Are the teeth overgrown and need floating? If so, the horse could have been left without proper care and vet treatment for a long time. Overgrown teeth can cause secondary problems.
  • Is the horse very old?
  • Is it missing teeth?
  • Learn to tell the difference between poor teeth and a young horse shedding its deciduous teeth (their babies’ milk teeth).

The hooves

If the horse is avoiding stepping on a foot or holding it awkwardly, it might be a sign of pain or injury.

Having a hoof pick in your pocket when inspecting horses will come in handy. If the horses have very dirty hooves, you won’t be able to see the real condition of them.

By picking the hooves, you will not only get to see the actual condition of the frog (a healthy frog is essential for horse health), but you will also be able to gauge how well the horse allows its hooves to be picked.

If a horse is not used to handling necessary maintenance, such as hoof picking, it may become very challenging, and the horse may need a good bit of training.

  • Do the hooves look sound?
  • Are they well taken care of?
  • Do they look like the kind that will be strong and healthy with a bit of TLC? Look for rings, cracks, splits and unevenness.
  • Is the frog healthy?
  • Does the hoof feel warm or hot anywhere?
  • Do the ankles look swollen or feel hot to the touch?

Horses with hoof problems are always a risk. Hooves are not only essential for walking, but also for good cardiovascular health, as the hooves act as secondary pumps aiding the heart.

A horse that has laminitis can have many reasons for it and one of many types of laminitis.

Horse hooves are naturally predisposed to heal and over time, with proper diet and care, will strive to grow back sound, but you should always prepare for the worst with a case of laminitis.

The disposition

Check how the horse reacts to people coming into her space. Is she interested? Does she frisk visitors for treats? Does she ignore them, try to bite them, turn her rump to them in preparation for a kick?

Also, check how easily the horse scares. Don’t ever do this test in a place where you can get hurt by a panicking horse.

Do something small but sudden, to spook the horse, like waving a plastic bag near her head. The point is to see how long it takes for her to calm down again.

The faster the horse calms down, the more steady she is in her disposition and the more likely she is to listen to your authority in a scary situation.

Horses with behavioural problems or stable vices can often be re-trained and their behaviour modified with feeding, exercise and meeting their species-specific needs. It requires that you have the time to commit to it and the skills to do it.

When wild or feral horses are being sold, they might look very wild in the ring or around people.

A frightened horse, ready to flee or defend itself (doused in stress hormones), should not be confused with an aggressive horse.

Wild and feral horses have just not had much contact with humans and are in a new, frightening environment.

Wild and feral horses can, with proper training, become wonderful companions and successful at competing. However, they almost always require an experienced rider and trainer.

Next: In the auction ring

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