It's a big, mean, heartless world out there, and if you ever need a reminder, try buying a horse off of Craigslist.
This is, by no means, a slam against Craigslist. I love Craigslist. I like being able to sell that pile of unused goods for a couple of extra dollars and give someone else a deal in the process. I like it because it has that hippy grunge feel to the site, an online free-festival flea-market of sorts. I like that the ads are free, so you can post an item for two dollars in hopes it will have new life and you'll have half the money you need for a Mocha Latte Capuchin Monkey at Starbucks.
I even enjoy the livestock ads, which are posted under "Farm and Garden." The horse world is a small and incestuous world in some ways, and I often recognize the photos of horses I see, or the phone number of various horse sellers. There are lots of repeat users, as we Craigslist addicts know, and a lot of repeat offenders when it comes to off-loading some scary (or, more often, scared) horses.
In a previous post, I offered some suggestions to those of you who are trying to sell your horses on Craigslist -- too often you're your own worst enemy by the verbiage of your ad, the photos you attach to it, and the dishonesty that steals your own credibility when you advertise a 14H horse as 15H (like no one's going to notice, right?) If you're in the unfortunate position of selling your horse on Craigslist, please take a look at that post -- and I sincerely hope it will help you place the RIGHT horse with the RIGHT owner.
If you're trying to buy a horse through Craigslist, I'll offer you a few suggestions in hopes it will make your experience more pleasant and, most importantly, safer. I'll also offer some positive energy. I'm not the type to send "angels" to you, but if there's ever an occasion you'll need them, it's now. This is not a "how to buy the right horse" guide -- it's specifically geared toward buying in today's market off today's Craigslist.
You'd think now is an ideal time to buy a horse, because the market is down so low and people are selling some unbelievably good horses at killer prices -- or less. At the moment, hay is expensive; horses are not. The strange thing is that these economic forces have done some weird things to the horse market. Desperate people are trying to make a few easy dollars, and they're asking money for horses that often would be given away -- the "companion" horse or "project" horse, in industry terms. I knew we were at a strange juncture when I saw someone advertising baling twine for sale. Not new baling twine, but used baling twine, the kind we cut off our hay and toss in the trash or, in some particularly redneck areas, the kind that's left on the ground or all-too-often left in the horse pen amid the muck and manure.
So keep that in mind: people are desperate right now, despite our fearless leader in Washington's constant reassurances that all is well and rosy and we're thriving.
You'll also have to bear in mind that as hay prices have escalated and jobs have vanished, horses aren't getting the care they might have expected eight years ago. Whole generations of horses have been raised on the cheap, and there are a lot of stunted, splay-legged, sad young horses out there who've never had proper feed as they matured, or didn't receive good first aid when they slashed open legs in those inevitable young-horse incidents. Even the adult horses who've had great care most of their lives may be underweight and under-wormed, or overweight and under-worked. You may have to look past the bones on over-grown hooves in front of you to see the champion performance horse that was once inside. Don't discount a skinny horse or a flabby horse; that's where you need to do your homework and check into past history and show results.
On the other hand, don't assume the horse has had appropriate veterinary care or hoof maintenance. Take a good, hard look at their feet and the "body damage" they might have had. You won't find Bondo on horses as you will on wrecked cars, but you'll see scarring, atrophied muscle, curly hair from ill-fitting saddle, and knots, windpuffs, splints, and other abnormalities on the legs.
When first reviewing the ad, if the typical Craiglist horse-ad photos are all you've seen, and you'll have a good distance to travel to look at the horse, ask for better photos. (See my other post for those issues.) When I have a buyer ask me for specific photos -- front legs only, from the front, for example, or from the side with no saddle or tack, standing square -- I know right away I'm dealing with a smart, knowledgable buyer. You can spend all day looking at lousy horse after lousy horse if you want -- but if you want to narrow your search to viable candidates, ask for photos and demand quality shots. There is absolutely no excuse in this day and age for someone to be unable to photograph their horse and upload a picture for you.
Do not be swayed by the fact there's a kid on the horse in the photo, or that there's a 25-year-old cowboy standing on the horse's back (to me, this is the equivalent of an online dating photo with the subject taking their own picture in the bathroom mirror -- why?) I've gotten so jaded I look at the kids-on-horse photo and think, "Gee, is the horse kid-safe, or are the kids just expendable?"
If you arrive and the horse is tied, let that be a clue. Is the horse colicky? Hard to catch? Lame? The owner will, of course, tell you that they just gave the horse a bath and they don't want him to roll. Ask them to turn the horse loose and move it around -- in a round pen, a corral, anywhere -- for you. Watch to see if it wants to lie down, if it's lame, or if it's mean and tries to kick as the owner approaches.
If the horse is already saddled when you get there, and is sweaty, be forewarned -- there's likely a reason they didn't want you to see it when they saddled it, or what it's like when you first get on. I leave my horses dirty and in the stall when expecting a potential buyer. I already know what the horse is like to brush and saddle; they don't, and I want them to get to know the horse before they ever set foot in the stirrup.
Ask how long they've owned the horse -- and later, if you're still interested in the horse, ask for proof. Old photos, bills of sale, registration transfers, veterinary care receipts -- ask. There are a lot of individuals right now who buy up horses at auction, wash them up, clip them up, and saddle them up, and then post them for sale as a "kid-broke, husband-safe gentle bomb-proof performance horse" and they'll tell you they've had the horse for years. Verify! If they tell you they've owned the horse for three months, that's fair. If they tell you they've ridden him for hundreds of miles and for three years, they should have some sort of photographic record for you.
Ask for photos! If you see pictures of the horse in a parade, and he's looking calm and dignified, that tells you a lot -- in a very good way. A proud horse owner who really hates to sell that great horse will have a lot of photos of their beloved horse. Look for the horse's body language in the pictures -- tense? Alert? Drugged? Happy? Resistant?
For your own safety, ask the owner to get on the horse first. Watch how they interact -- are they fearful and nervous as they ride him? Ask them to perform the maneuvers you want to see -- turn on the hind, turn on the fore, back, obstacles, lope on both leads -- and you'll be able to assess if the owner knows the horse well, and if the horse works
Know the secret vocabulary of the horse seller. Be careful when you hear certain words. An honest seller will use these words to accurately convey the degree of training and experience a horse has, but a dishonest seller will use them to minimize bad behaviors. "Cold-backed" too-often means the horse is a bucking son-of-a-gun. "Prefers to follow" often means the horse is herd-bound and has separation anxiety, or is unsafe when ridden alone. "Occasionally mare-ish" translates to "nightmarish" and means the mare is a kicking, biting, squealing furry bag of nasty hormones. "Companion horse" means lame, and "project horse" means behaviorally challenged. "Advanced rider only" often means dangerous, and "loves to go -- no deadhead" can mean flighty, high-strung, and out of control.
Ask specific open-ended questions -- do not ask yes-or-no questions. Rather than asking, "Is he good out on the trail alone?" ask, "What does he do when he's in front of a group?" "What is his response when horses ahead of him take off at a faster pace?" "What happens when something frightens her? What's her exact response?" If you do ask a yes or no question, watch for hesitation in the answer. I suggest always asking, "Has this horse ever injured you? Has she injured anyone that you're aware of, even unintentionally? What, exactly, happened?"
Do not buy a horse long-distance, sight unseen! Please, don't do this. There are some very specific exceptions to this -- but if you're using Craiglist, they probably don't apply. If you're looking for a horse by a certain stallion that's shown well in certain discipline, great -- but you won't be doing this bloodline search on out-of-state Craigslist sites. Do not ... do NOT ... buy Craigslist horses sight unseen. The amount you'll pay for shipping would be better spent adding to your budget for buying, and the amount you'll pay for returning the horse, or off-loading it at a local auction after weeks of expensive remedial training, would pay for a darned good local horse.
It's tempting right now to try to snatch up some good deals on horses at low prices, and often we set aside our usual caution "because we're not paying much." But as all of us know, the base price of the horse is a very small fraction of the first year's expenses for the same horse. Get that vet check done, even on a $400 horse, because the $400 horse can quickly turn into a $2,500 piece of yard art if it has a physical issue that will require a lot of diagnostics and treatment, only to tell you it'll never be sound. More importantly, you can't put a price tag on heartache and heartbreak, and a $400 horse can break your heart as easily as a $20,000 one can. Don't compromise just because the initial purchase price (if any!) is within your budget. Horse care is far too expensive to "invest" in a horse that is inappropriate for your needs and wishes.
Good luck with your search. I hope you find a sane, safe, and sound horse that is capable of carrying you where you want to go!
(C) Copyright 2013 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this may be reproduced in whole or in part without the express permission of the author; however, this link may be freely shared.