When you’re looking at a horse to buy, it’s good to know what you can fix. That’s very different from knowing what’s fixable.
The important question is: What can you fix?
To answer the question, you should consider your own abilities and dedication and the three categories of horse fixes: physical, training, and state-of-mind.
Physical fixes: Your vet is your guide to physical issues that could be of concern, which you might notice when you look at a horse or which might come up during a pre-purchase exam (PPE).
If a physical issue is fixable but you can’t afford to fix it…if a physical issue might be fixable but you can’t live with the outcome if the fix doesn’t work…or if spending money trying to fix a physical issue will affect your ability to buy another horse, then it’s best to pass on the horse. If the issue comes up after your PPE, there’s nothing you can do but cry in your oatmeal about your diminished horse budget after you pay your vet bill. When your tears are dry, you can be thankful you paid for that PPE (and those radiographs).
Skinny is easy to fix. So is a dull coat or rain rot. You can build muscle but you can’t necessarily repair muscle wastage. Sometimes chiropractic or massage work can fix stiffness or crookedness or pain, and it can be helpful to ask for a consultation from your chiropractor or massage therapist before you put Dobbin on your trailer.
Training fixes: You can learn a lot from riding the horse you’re considering, and even more from a trial if you can get one. Have you been told that the horse is “looky,” but you test that with distractions and find that he’s totally focused on you when you ride? If so, you probably have the tools to turn that particular problem around, if it’s a problem at all. If the seller or the seller’s agent rides the horse less well than you do, that’s also good sign that you’ll be able to fix basic problems.
If there are training issues that you’re not comfortable fixing on your own, you need to know what your trainer can fix. As a dressage rider, you may not know how to fix slow hind feet but your trainer should be able to. If you’re a hunter rider, you might not be able to handle a horse that overjumps a 2’6″ fence by a foot, but your trainer should be able to stay in the tack while your horse gains confidence.
If training rides aren’t in your budget, the question of what you can fix becomes more serious, even if you’re ready to take a few lessons a week (it’s even more serious if you’re once-a-week). Training your horse and you together how to fix things is something a good trainer can do, but the success will be dependent in part on your experience, the specific nature of your horse’s training problems, and your dedication (and/or courage and/or grit).
Sometimes, trainers can disappoint. A trainer you love can move to another barn or another state. You may find out that, as you grow as a rider, you and your trainer see things differently. Or your trainer might not get the job done. Be prepared with a back-up plan. Maybe you’ll want to seek out a clinician that’s compatible with your goals even though it might involve travel or extra expense. Be realistic about the resources available to you and their cost, if you require professional help.
There is a bright side. Depending on your goals and abilities, there may be training problems that are advantageous. Here’s one: let’s say you have no interest in showing but want to learn dressage, and you come across a Fourth Level horse that sticks his tongue out and is priced the same as that First Level/schooling Second horse you looked at last week. You might even fix the problem. It’s been done.
I welcome horses with mouth problems, because I can fix mouth problems and I enjoy “making a mouth.” Horses with mouth problems are often a bargain. But if you’ve never made a mouth or fixed a horse that has contact issues or curls, you may be setting yourself up for a long, hard and disappointing road, even with professional help. Maybe that’s something you’ll be good at or enjoy, but you don’t need to buy a horse with a mouth problem to find out. There are so many horses with mouth issues, that you can easily find out by finding someone else’s horse’s mouth to fix. Then you can look for the bargain horses or one of those super-sensitive Thoroughbreds. Just be aware that a mouth issue may be a neck issue, and that’s another kettle of fish.
State of mind fixes: You’re rolling the dice when you take on a state-of-mind that you want to fix. It’s entirely possible that a spooky horse has a magnesium deficiency or that a grumpy horse has ulcers or that a horse with a faraway look is simply bored. Unfortunately, it’s equally possible that a spooky horse is a spooky horse…that a grumpy horse has something physically wrong that isn’t easy to diagnose or to treat…or that a horse with a faraway look just doesn’t care for people and never will.
One thing is certain: love will not save the day. At least not love alone. It won’t transform a horse’s state of mind any more than it will keep an alcoholic from drinking. So don’t buy a horse because you feel sorry for her and think that all she needs is love to stop being spooky or grumpy or to change faraway look in her eye. It’s true that she might need love, but you’ll need a good supply of patience and perseverance and maybe even some luck as you work on the problem.
That’s not to say you can’t change a horse’s mind. If you’re a thinking and feeling horsemen, chances are that a horse’s state of mind will change for the better in your presence. Just be aware that the more extreme the disconnect or disorder, the less likely you’ll be able to fix the problem, or fix it in a timely fashion.
If a good challenge doesn’t really excite you, if you want to get into or back into the show ring, or if a horse that’s difficult can make you sad or mad, then buy a horse whose state-of-mind is easy and comfortable for you to be around. Of course, if you like a challenge, I’m all for getting a horse that needs fixing. There are plenty of them around and they need your help. I think there’s nothing as rewarding as turning a troubled horse around but then, my walls aren’t covered with ribbons.
Things that need fixing — whether mental or physical or due to improper training — have a way of sticking around, while our tolerance has a way of diminishing with time. So before you go shopping, think about what you can fix, how easily you can fix what you want to fix, and what help you can get while you try to fix whatever it is that needs fixing. If you’re considering a big fix, think twice.