10 Horse Sales Fraud Warning Signs

Learn how to protect yourself when buying your next horse with these tips from an experienced equine-industry attorney.
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10 Horse Sales Fraud Warning Signs
Whether you’re purchasing a high-end show horse or a recreational mount, take precautions to ensure the seller and/or agents are representing the horse fairly and that it meets your needs. | Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Dishonest and unlawful sale practices permeate every level in the horse industry, from $500 horses at the feedlot auction to private sales of Olympic-level horses. Horse sale fraud is so rampant that shopping for a used car seems practically risk-free by comparison.

Although clever fraudsters can dupe even experienced equine professionals, nonhorsey parents buying a horse for their child and first-time horse buyers are particularly vulnerable.

Here are some warning signs that a horse deal might be shady:

1. You’re paying someone other than the horse owner.

Examples: Your trainer tells you to wire the purchase price to their account instead of the seller’s account. Or, the seller’s trainer tells you to make out the cashier’s check to them instead of the seller.

Why this is a potential problem:

  • The person receiving the money might not actually pay the owner for the horse, or might not pay for it in full.
  • The true purchase price of the horse might be much less than you’re actually paying. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for trainers (and it can be the seller’s trainer, the buyer’s trainer, or both!) to tell the buyer the purchase price is one amount and tell the horse seller the horse sold for a lower amount. One or both trainers then pocket the difference.
  • The person receiving the money might be paying kickbacks to other people involved in the sale, such as the prepurchase exam veterinarian or the “bystander” who told you how great the horse is while you watched it perform.

2. You can’t talk directly to the horse owner.

Example: You ask to talk to the horse’s owner, and the seller’s trainer and/or your trainer stonewall you with excuses such as, “Oh, they’re out of the country right now.”

Why this is a potential problem:

  • The person representing the horse might not have authorization from the owner to sell it. Yes, that’s right—the horse owner might have no idea their trainer is offering their horse for sale. Or, the horse might even be stolen!
  • In this case, also, the true price of the horse might be less than you know. The seller’s trainer could be planning to pocket the difference, or even split it with your trainer.
  • The horse owner might tell you facts likely to kill the deal, such as they’ve spent a fortune in vet bills trying to keep the horse sound, or the horse has a behavioral issue.

3. You don’t get a bill of sale.

Example: You pay for the horse, and ask for a bill of sale. You’re told you will get one, but you never receive it.

Why this is a potential problem:

  • In some states, such as California, the horse seller is legally required to provide the horse buyer with a bill of sale.
  • If a question ever arises about whether you’re the legal owner of the horse, a bill of sale can be important evidence in your favor.
  • Once again, you might be paying more than the horse’s true sale price.
  • And, also here, the person representing the horse might not be authorized to sell it.
  • If the horse is registered with a breed or discipline association, such as the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), you might need a bill of sale to transfer the registration into your name.

4. You can’t get a vet check.

Example: The horse is at a horse show that’s ending soon. Your trainer tells you that unless you buy the horse before the show ends, the seller is going to take it home and it will cost you a lot of money to have the horse vetted there and then shipped to you.

Why this is a potential problem:

  • The horse might have a lameness issue or other health problem that the prepurchase veterinary examination would reveal.
  • You won’t have a baseline to show the horse’s condition at the time of sale.
  • If the horse has a soundness or health issue, you won’t be informed about what that condition is and what’s required to manage it. Without management, the horse’s condition will likely decline, perhaps to the point where the horse is not longer suitable for your intended use.

5.Your only option for a vet check is the seller’s vet.

Example: You ask for a vet check and the seller agrees, but then the seller takes issue with every vet you suggest. The seller urges you to use his or her vet.

Why this is a potential problem:

  • While we’d like to believe all veterinarians are honest professionals who put horses’ welfare first and would never be swayed by client loyalties or monetary concerns, that’s not always the case. The seller’s vet might not provide you with an independent, fair, thorough examination of the horse.

6. Your only option for a vet check is the horse show vet.

Example: The horse you are considering purchasing is at a horse show. Your trainer suggests you hire the show vet to do the prepurchase exam and says it will be a lot more expensive to have another vet come out to the show grounds to do it.

Why this is a potential problem:

  • Although some show veterinarians are honest professionals willing and capable of providing a thorough, independent prepurchase examination, others are not. It might be best to hire a veterinarian off the showgrounds for prepurchase exams.

7. Someone is telling you not to drug-test the horse.

Example: You mention that the prepurchase exam vet will do a blood draw. The seller’s trainer tells you there’s no point in doing it, because they had to give the horse a sedative to body-clip it, so the test will come up positive.

Why this is a potential problem:

  • The horse might very well have received a sedative but not for the reason you’re being told. Or, the horse might have received other types of medication to mask lameness or behavior problems. Short-acting sedatives, such as acepromazine, don’t test for very long, and it would therefore be simply a matter of waiting a few days and then doing the prepurchase exam to get a clean blood draw.

8. Someone is pushing you to make a quick decision.

Example: The seller’s trainer tells you there’s another buyer waiting to purchase the horse if you don’t, but they want to give you “first dibs.” The seller tells you he or she has someone coming to look at the horse, or have the horse vet checked, later that day or tomorrow.

Why this is a potential problem:

  • Whoever is pushing you to make a quick decision may be trying to avoid giving you time to ask for a vet check, do any due diligence, or otherwise exercise good sense.

9. The horse is advertised as a show horse, but has no show record

Examples: You are considering purchasing a $75,000 horse your trainer says is perfect to help your teenage daughter achieve her show goals. When you ask if the horse has a show record, you’re told it does, and the show record is excellent. You ask to see a copy of the show record but you never get to see it. Or, your trainer says the horse has no show record, but he or she prefers it that way so they can train the horse the way they like.

Why this is a potential problem:

  • Some national discipline registries, such as USEF, do not require DNA testing, microchipping or any other reliable proof of identity. Therefore, if a horse has a less than stellar show record, it is fairly common practice to re-register the horse under a different name and falsely represent that it hasn’t competed at recognized competitions. Sometimes, a single horse or pony is registered multiple times under a variety ofnames.
  • Unless you’re buying a young horse, if you’re paying top dollar for a horse that has never competed in a recognized show, you’re probably paying way too much for it.

10. The horse is at a show but isn’t competing.

Example: The horse is at a show with a trainer who has a string of horses that are competing. But the horse you’re considering purchasing isn’t being shown, or you’re told it already competed in the show (and did very well) but has finished all of its classes.

Why this is a potential problem:

  • Although there are some innocent explanations for why a horse might be at a show and not competing, such as the horse is young and just there for the experience of being in a show environment, there are some more nefarious explanations. For example, the horse might be lame, have a behavior issue that becomes obvious in the show ring, or is otherwise not likely to compete successfully. The horse may also be on medications not permitted by show rules, or in amounts exceeding permitted levels.

Take-Home Message

Whether you’re purchasing a high-end show horse or a recreational mount, take precautions to ensure the seller and/or agents are representing the horse fairly and that it meets your needs.


¹As of December 1, 2017, USEF will require all hunters, jumpers and equitation horses to have a microchip number recorded with USEF to earn USEF points, and a broader microchip recording requirement will go into effect in 2019.


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Written by:

Rachel Kosmal McCart is the founder and principal attorney of Equine Legal Solutions, PC (ELS), an equine law firm based near Portland, Ore. McCart is a graduate of the Duke University School of Law and licensed to practice in four states: California, New York, Oregon, and Washington. She is also admitted to practice before the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. ELS represents clients in litigation, helps resolve equine disputes, drafts customized equine contracts, represents clients in horse industry disciplinary hearings, and incorporates equine businesses. Learn more at www.equinelegalsolutions.com.

One Response

  1. Hello, I am looking for legal representation in the state of South Carolina. Can you point me to the right channels for representation or the name of an equine attorney?

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