An equine behaviorist’s guide to horse shopping
It’s not every day you go shopping for an item destined to be a decadeslong responsibility, a huge financial commitment, a critical prerequisite for your sporting endeavors, and, likely, one of the best friends you’ll ever have.
You’ve confirmed with your coach the horse’s athletic potential. You’ve had your veterinarian assess his health and soundness. But there’s another major consideration to keep in mind when in the market for a new horse—one that could make, or break, the partnership.
“It’s often overlooked, but buyers need to think about evaluating prospective horses from a behavioral point of view,” says Sharon Madere, certified horse behavior consultant by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and owner of Equilightenment, in Ocala, Florida.
“People need to be asking themselves—knowing the person, the job, and the environment—is this horse going to be a match?” says Madere. “Is this going to work? Will there be a few challenges? Or is it going to be really, really tough?”
While that’s anything but an easy task, it’s critical, adds Lisa Ashton, MSc, an equitation science consultant based in Stafford, U.K. “When you’re aiming for your ideal horse, finding a horse that fits you is more important than anything,” she says.
To help you meet this challenge, we’ve teamed up with equine behavior specialists to learn what’s on their horse shopping lists. Remember, aside from the red flags listed in the sidebar, these are all goals, not requirements. You don’t have to rule out a horse that doesn’t meet every description on the list. “Depending on the buyer, some of these things might be workable and even solvable—but some might not be,” says Madere.
Also, never shop alone. “Love is blind!” Ashton says. “Just like your best friend can see all the flaws in your new perceived Mr. Right, an experienced outsider pair of eyes can be really helpful when looking for your ‘perfect’ horse.”
When searching for a new horse, aim for one that:
1. Engages with people
Make sure you’re teaming up with an animal that enjoys human companionship, our sources say.
“Does the horse seem bright and engaged and interested when people come up to him?” Madere asks. “What about when a new person shows up? Does he want to interact, or does he actively avoid that new person?”
Some horses naturally distance themselves from humans, which can be a sign of past welfare issues, says Madere. That’s particularly true if the horse turns away from humans or acts “shut down and sort of zoned out,” she says.
Alice Ruet, PhD, welfare science engineer at the French Horse and Equitation Institute (IFCE), in Saumur, recently studied this behavior in riding school horses. She found that when they kept a “flat” posture and showed little reaction to people approaching, they were also more reluctant to move forward under saddle. This depressive state can stem from long periods of poor welfare, even if the caretakers didn’t realize it, she says.
“There’s a reason they don’t want to be around people,” adds Madere.
Through evidence-based conditioning, horses can emerge from this “emotional coma” over time, she says. However, what lies beneath might not be any better. “They might have a whole lot of reactivity that was just buried under the surface.”
2. Is more curious than skittish
Shop for curiosity, says Ashton. Horses that show an interest in discovering and investigating new objects, places, humans, and other animals tend to be easier to train because they pay attention and “learn that they can learn.” An added benefit is potentially stronger emotional bonds, as these horses’ curiosity often extends to social relationships. “Look for horses that are curious about humans, curious about other horses, and curious about making connections,” she says.
Our sources add that a curious horse is more likely to investigate a scary situation than bolt and run away. Usually, fearfulness is not a trait that lends itself to a safe or fun ride. Fortunately, people can test horses’ curiosity and fearfulness before they buy a horse, says Madere, by bringing novel objects such as inflatable pool toys or folded tarps to the trial.
“You can place it on the ground at a distance and observe how the horse responds,” she says. “Is he curious? Does he approach cautiously? Is he really worried and won’t go near it? This can help you judge the extent of his reaction and get an idea of how he’d respond when you take him to competitions or on trail rides, for example.”
3. Gets along with others
A horse that gets along with other horses will make everyone’s life easier, our sources say. You can ride or tie him safely near other horses; you won’t have to warn others that he kicks; and you can confidently turn him out in groups.
“Get as much history as you can about the horse’s relationship with other horses,” Madere says. Unless you have unlimited pasture pairing options, “go for a horse who’s not a bully that beats up other horses and not such a wallflower that he’s getting himself beaten up and harassed. You want him comfortable, confident, and relaxed with other horses.”
No matter their typical social standing, for safety’s sake, it’s important to supervise new horses as they establish their place in the herd, says Ruet.
4. Could live and work peacefully in a new environment
Madere says to think about what the horse’s management situation will be: “Where and how will he be housed? Can he be separated from other horses? Is the new life going to be a radical change?”
While most horses can adapt to new situations, some can’t, she adds, recalling an Iberian stallion a buyer recently imported to the U.S. from Portugal. “He’s an upper-level riding horse, and he’s wonderful for that,” she says. “But he can’t settle around other horses, and he can’t stand being alone either. He’s an emotional basket case.”
Ashton has seen such instances, too. “You can have an idle horse that suddenly gets separation anxiety after changing yards (stables),” she says, adding that such behavior can have a ripple effect, making the new owner afraid of the horse.
For a happier horse and owner, be sure the horse can cope well in an environment like the one you’ll be putting him in, our sources say.
“The most helpful thing is to understand just how much difference there will be between the management the horse will have with you versus what he’s experienced in his life previously,” says Madere.
5. Has good ground manners
Though it might seem like it’s “just a training issue,” you’ll want a horse with good ground manners: standing still for grooming and tacking up, picking up his feet easily, waiting patiently at the mounting block, keeping a safe distance from handlers’ feet when being led. When considering a horse, ask behavior-related questions such as how he handles various health care procedures and how he loads and ships in a trailer.
Behavior is often a reflection of training (or lack thereof); decorum in hand suggests the horse received good training and care as a youngster and has learned to respect humans’ personal space, Madere says.
“In my professional experience, I’ve seen a number of horses present with somewhat abnormal ways of interacting with people (on the ground),” she says. “They might move into the human’s boundaries or even show inappropriate aggression (nipping, threatening to kick).”
Such behavior could be deeply ingrained. “Sometimes this comes from poor social exposure as youngsters, separated too early from other horses before they could learn good social behavior,” she says. It’s also more common among horses that were orphan foals or raised only with their dam, without other horses to interact with.
6. Has a known—and good—life history
Researchers have found certain behavioral and personality aspects—such as curiosity, vigilance, fearfulness, and sensitivity to touch—are hereditary. So, if you’re considering a young horse, looking at his dam, sire, and siblings might give you a window into what to expect, behaviorwise.
If you can find out about his early life, too, that can be insightful. Weaning, for instance, is usually the single most stressful experience in a horse’s life, and how it’s carried out could have lifelong consequences on the horse’s behavior, says Ruet. “You’re better off buying a horse that’s been weaned progressively rather than abruptly, especially at a very young age,” she says.
Madere agrees. She practices “soft separation” weaning—a process that occurs over several months—on her breeding farm.
Other relevant history could include traumatic experiences such as trailer accidents or barn fires, previous management and training techniques, and prolonged periods of stall rest.
“If we could be a sleuth and trace back as much of the history as we can, I think that would be great,” Madere says.
7. Doesn’t crib or weave
One behavior question buyers commonly ask is whether their prospects have any stereotypies—specifically, cribbing, wind-sucking, or stall-weaving. While these behaviors have long been considered bad habits, they’re typically manifestations of high stress levels and possibly poor welfare, Madere says.
Stereotypies aren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but they do require consideration. Understand you probably won’t be able to stop or fix these behaviors, and they rarely go away completely. Rather, make sure you can accept and manage them in a healthy way, says Madere.
8. Matches the rider’s personality and behavior
The right horse is a unique fit for each rider, says Ashton. “It’s never one-size-fits-all, but always one-size-fits-one,” she says.
To be a successful match, the horse’s behavior and personality need to blend well with those of the rider. That requires honest introspection on the rider’s part—which isn’t always easy to do, Ashton says. “In many ways the whole process of finding your ideal horse is really a reflection of who you are,” she says.
Ashton has her clients teach prospective horses a simple skill, such as taking a step forward in response to a new cue. If the horse masters it quickly, that suggests he learns fast—in some cases too fast for the rider. “I’ve had clients say to me, ‘She is such a quick learner that I know that she’ll just pick up the wrong behavior from me, because I’m a bit slow with my timing,’ ” she says. “That’s actual wisdom.”
Getting the right personality mix is also critical, says Ruet. “There are no good or bad horses, but just horses that are more or less fitted to different people,” she says. “All the variations in personality help adapt each horse to a certain discipline, a certain way of life, and a certain rider.”
Fearful horses, for example, might be too dangerous for lower- or intermediate-level riders, she says. But her team has recently shown that fearful horses are stronger habit-formers. Once they learn a cue, best taught by an advanced-level rider, they respond to it consistently and with light aids.
Meanwhile, buyers should also take a hard look at themselves to see what they’re capable of giving to the horse-human relationship, Ashton explains. “How consistent can I be? How can I add value? Can I be the secure base for her to experience attachment to a totally different species?” she says. “Actually, it’s not that different from dating! How can we expect to have our ideal horse if we’re struggling to meet her needs?”
Shopping for the perfect horse requires careful consideration of not only breeding and athletic ability but also the horse’s behavior and personality, our sources say. Taking a hard, honest look at equine prospects from a behaviorist’s perspective can help lead to a good match.