Not the horse’s eyes. Your eyes. And someone else’s. Or more than one someone else’s.
When you see a horse that’s for sale — whether on the internet, in photos or videos, or in person — it’s easy to notice some things and overlook others.
When you’re shopping for yourself, it’s all too easy to be distracted by the horse or some quality of the horse, something you’re delighted to see.
Later, if the horse interests you enough for you to pursue your inquiry, it’s all too easy to be distracted by the horse’s agent or the horse’s owner rather than use your time with the horse to really see the horse.
You may be one of those people that falls in love easily. Or to whom it’s important to be polite or be liked. If that’s you, it’s even more critical that you have someone else’s eyes (and likely, mouth).
If you have a trainer, find out how your trainer can assist you. No one knows you as a rider and horseman as well as your trainer knows you. He or she will be working with you and your new horse. Maybe even training your new horse for you. It’s well worth paying a commission to your trainer for helping you find the right horse. Ask your trainer how it works, because different trainers work differently when it comes to horse shopping.
Maybe you have a friend who has a good eye, who is knowledgeable and experienced. Why not ask your friend to take a look at the horses you’re considering? If you have more than one friend with knowledge, experience and good eye, you’re in luck. If any one of them has a really good eye for subtle lameness, you’re really in luck. One of my trainers had that eye, and he helped me develop mine. I will always be grateful to him for helping me see.
The more people you trust who can help you evaluate a horse before you call your vet, the better (and if you follow my advice, you won’t purchase a horse without calling your vet). Not every vet has a good eye, but many do. And that’s only part of the service they provide to help keep your heart from breaking when you buy a horse.
Your vet can help you understand your horse’s story. Every horse has one, and the more time on this earth, the longer the story is, and often, the more elusive. It’s surprising how often the story is fiction rather than non-fiction. So get your best investigative team on the case, to help you find out what that true story is. A lot of it will be in the horse’s body and behavior. But it’s very hard for one person, no matter how observant, to capture every clue.
Luckily, these days, most everyone makes a video of a horse that’s for sale, so you can see a lot more than you used to before you make a commitment of time or money to go see a horse. Unfortunately, most videos show you only a fraction of the things you’d like to see. If you’re dealing with an eager or reasonable seller or agent, he or she may agree to take additional videos to show you the things you’d like to see.
If you like everything you see and you’re wondering what’s wrong with the horse (could it be nothing?!) and the horse is nearby or well-priced, I’d encourage you to go see the horse in person as soon as you can. Of course, if the horse is half-way across the country or further or in a different country, it makes sense to ask to see whatever it is you want to see before you make the trip (which should be as much as you possibly can).
When you’re seeing with your own two eyes, make sure you’re really looking. Do you remember those diner placemats for children that were puzzles with “hidden” objects to find…or a sequence of letters that spelled words out vertically, horizontally, diagonally or backwards? You needed to look at those placemats with different eyes than the ones you used to read the menu. Those different eyes are exactly the ones you want to be using when you’re looking at horse.
Enraptured by that really beautiful tail? Don’t be. It doesn’t matter. It’s a bonus. If you buy the horse you can admire it later. It has nothing at all to do with the purchase, any more than the window boxes on the front of a house with a “For Sale” sign in the front yard. What if that tail turns out to be the best part of the horse you buy because you were so distracted by how beautiful the tail was that you forgot to notice the grapefruit-sized swelling on the horse’s knee? Believe me, it happens.
I’ve missed things, and I’m sure I’ll miss things again. Years ago, I bought a grey Thoroughbred and I thought I knew every inch of his body before I brought him home. It was a month later that I noticed a thin, straight black line coming out of the right side corner of his mouth. It was a scar…from what, I didn’t want to know and I still don’t. It went a long way, though, in explaining his mouth, which I eventually fixed, and his difficulty being bridled. I wish I’d noticed it — or someone had — before I bought him. I might have bought him anyway. But it might have factored into the decision. And it would have helped me make sense of his story.
So forget the admiring looks. Look for problems instead. Look critically. Examine. And look at everything. Look at the legs and the bone and the feet and the angles of the pasterns. Look at the back and where the tail comes out of the back and whether the hips are even. Look at how the neck is tied in and how thick the throat latch is. Look at the way the horse stands and if you see post legs or cow hocks or a horse that stands camped out. Look at the mouth. There’s even more to look at once the horse is moving. I could go on and on, because there is an almost unlimited list of things that can be less than ideal in any given horse you look at. You’ll want to see them all.
Some will matter and some will not. All should factor in to your decision. And how can they, if you don’t even see them?