Livestock production: How to buy a horse

Question: I would like to buy a horse. What should I look out for?

There is more to buying a horse than simply picking out the one that appeals to you. Before you embark on horse ownership, you need to ask yourself a few questions.

Buying a horse represents an investment in both time and finances. Do you have the facilities and funds needed to own a horse?

Remember that buying the horse is often the cheaper part of the equation. Monthly costs such as food, hay, deworming and fly control, tack, groom, farrier and vet fees can quickly accumulate.

A horse requires a field or paddock for grazing and exercise, shelter such as a stable, and water and feed storage facilities. Equipment is required, such as grooming and feeding kit, saddle and bridle, rugs.

Remember that horses are sociable animals, so avoid keeping a horse on its own. They need fellow equine friends.
The time required to care for and exercise a horse properly adds up to many hours each week.


First of all you need to decide what kind of discipline or riding you want to do, and then choose a horse to suit the discipline.

Are you more interested in show jumping, or a sport such as endurance riding? Certain types of horses are more suited to certain disciplines.

Smaller, lighter Arabians are more suited to endurance sports, while heavier, powerful Warmbloods are ideal for showjumping.


An older horse could be a great “school master” for young or inexperienced riders.

Think carefully before buying a stallion; they generally require experienced handlers, and may need better fencing than a gelding.

The age of the rider is often the deciding factor when it comes to the size of horse to buy. Smaller ponies are ideal for children, while larger, heavier riders should think about larger, heavier horses.


Newspapers, magazines and the internet offer a wide variety of horses for sale.

If you decide to go the horse dealer route, choose a dealer who has a good reputation and who will make a real effort to find a horse that suits you, and never buy a horse sight unseen. That is asking for trouble!


One of the most important factors to take into consideration when buying a horse is the animal’s temperament. Is he calm or nervous when handled? A kind, calm temperament is ideal.

The horse should not be lazy, but it should not run off either. Untrained, dangerous horses could cause injury to the rider and others.

  • Look carefully for any undesirable vices, such as kicking, biting and bucking.
  • Check if he is head shy and difficult to tack up.
  • Watch the horse walk, trot and canter.
  • Is he lame or does he move unevenly?

Get the owner to trot out the horse, and perhaps even ride it; watch its movement, and look out for signs of lameness.


It’s easy to let things get complicated when it comes to conformation, but here are a few simple rules to apply:
1. The legs should be straight to support the horse’s weight. If the legs aren’t straight and stick out at an angle, the pressure of the horse’s body weight will not be centred. Look for crookedness, such as inward-bent knees (knock knees) on the front legs, and inward-bent hocks (cow hocks) on the back legs.

2. Pressure on joints should always be central. Uneven wear could lead to lameness.

3. Examine the horse from all sides and check for swellings, lumps and bumps. Pay particular attention to the horse’s tendons and joints.

  • No horse has perfect conformation, but there shouldn’t be anything so wrong that it would affect its functioning.
  • Look carefully for strong, well-conditioned hooves. Uneven, cracked, severely ridged hooves are a bad sign.
  • Ask the owner if you can take the horse for a trial ride (but remember to always wear a helmet when you ride).
  • Ask yourself if this is the right horse for you? Did you enjoy yourself? Is there anything that worries you?


1. Never buy a horse without seeing it first. Photographs cannot show a horse’s temperament and conformation! In my experience, almost every horse bought by clients over the internet has produced problems.

2. Never buy a horse unless it has had a full veterinary inspection. There may be something wrong with the horse that only a vet can detect.

You want a healthy companion for years to come; buying a disease-prone horse could cost you a fortune in vet bills.
A full clinical examination will be undertaken, and the horse is trotted out in various ways and on different surfaces to check for any signs of lameness.

If any problems are observed, a more thorough work-up – including nerve blocks, scans and x-rays – can be done. The horse should have an up-to-date “passport” containing a record of all vaccinations. Your vet will check this for you.

Some horse sales have a built-in trial period, which allows you to take the horse home with you for a few days and try it out. This is a really good opportunity to see if the horse is what you expected, and gives you the option of returning the horse if he turns out to be the wrong animal for you.


Once you have found a potential horse, compile a list of questions to ask the owner or seller:

1. Why is the horse for sale? This is the most important question of all. Are they perhaps trying to get rid of a lame or problem horse?

2. What frightens the horse? Is he or she scared of traffic?

3. How long has the owner had the horse?

4. Is the horse easy to catch?

5. Has it had any health concerns? Colic, lung and hoof problems, for instance.


Take a knowledgeable friend or a riding instructor along with you to help you choose the right horse. If the owner will not allow a riding professional or a vet to examine the horse, walk away. Chances are, they are trying to hide something.

Also read: Crop cultivation: The benefits of animal traction

  • This article was written by Dr. Marc Walton and first appeared in Farming SA.

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