Cut Through Sales Hype

"Bombproof." "Push-button." "Professionally-trained." These terms saturate equine classified ads in newspapers, magazines and on Web sites. Do they mean something, or are they simply sales hype? To find out, I turned to two horse-world leaders: Bob Avila and Kathy Daughn. During their successful careers, both have bought, started and shown hundreds of horses. I asked them to help decipher misleading advertising come-ons that can lead to costly mistakes.

Safety First

The terms "bombproof" and "child-safe" send chills down Avila's spine.

"Those are some of the scariest words you can find in a horse ad,"says the California trainer. Avila says there's no horse that won't panic if the wrong situation arises. Certainly, there are pretty darn good horses, especially older ones that've "been there, done that." But, he urges, never assume a horse will take care of a child or a beginning rider.

I can identify with Avila's advice. I once had a wonderful Morgan mare. "Jessica" didn't panic when squads of bees stung her; she toted noisy, wiggly kids on her back and crossed all obstacles calmly. But the first time she saw a llama, Jessica bolted through the fence and jumped into the neighbor's pasture. Until she met a llama I might've called her bombproof, but that episode taught me a good lesson: You never know how a horse will respond to new monsters.

"There's no such thing as a push-button horse, either,"Avila remarks. "I've never ridden one, and sure don't know where those buttons are to push. And bombproof? Who wants to check out that?"

Avila says the biggest mistake people make is buying a young horse for a child. Some folks even use this as a selling point. "They talk about how great it is for the kid to 'grow up' with the horse," he explains. "But would you have another second-grader teach your second-grade child? It just doesn't make sense."

Run, don't walk, from that kind of sales pitch, Avila recommends. "Instead, find a mature, gentle horse for a youngster or beginning rider," he advises.

Daughn, Gonzales, Texas, agrees. "A beginning rider needs a very experienced horse,"she says. "I've seen horses ruined and people hurt by pairing an inexperienced horse with an inexperienced rider. A green horse and a green rider is the worst possible combination."

In the Blood

Avila says buying a prospect is different from buying a trained horse. "You're buying potential and breeding history when you purchase a young horse,"he explains. "Bloodlines aren't the only factor, but they're a good place to start."

In registered horses, bloodlines are carefully documented, making inaccurate sales hype easy to check. But, Avila says, sellers sometimes promote a young horse by saying its parents would've been great, but didn't show because of an injury.

"I rarely buy that story," he states. "It's important to know what the parents have actually done."

Avila says he might consider a young horse with that kind of history, but only if he really likes the bloodlines and the young horse's looks.

"The lack of parental show history certainly lowers the show prospect's price,"he contends. "Expect to pay more for a youngster out of a proven show mare or by a successful stallion."

Daughn recommends attending several auctions before buying a horse. Go to area or regional auctions if you're looking for a weekend pleasure or local competition horse. But if you want to compete on a national level, attend one of the larger auctions held in conjunction with national competitions.

"It's part of your education to go to these sales," she insists. "You'll find a wide range of prices and need to understand why some horses go for more than others."

As an example, trained geldings at a recent show-associated auction ran from $15,000 to $100,000. In youngsters, the higher prices most often go to those with proven pedigrees.

Avila says first impressions are critical when looking for a prospective show horse. Despite the seller's claim for potential greatness, if the first look isn't impressive, your horse will be at a disadvantage.

"The judge in the ring or the buyer at an auction has instant first impressions," he explains. "If I'm shopping for a horse I intend to resell, and I don't have a positive first impression, I probably won't buy it."

Even if you're considering a horse with stellar bloodlines, beware of sellers who make predictions of show-ring success. A wise horseman once said that breeding horses is a crap-shoot. All you can do is breed the best to the best and hope for the best.

Experience Counts…Somewhat

Ads often make statements about lifetime earnings or points accrued, but that doesn't mean much to Avila.

"It might mean the horse doesn't have anything left in it,"he contends. Avila says he almost always insists on seeing an older horse compete. He wants to see how the horse behaves, whether it's honest and if it has any bad show habits. "It doesn't matter if it wins," he says. "I look for behavior."

Daughn agrees that attending shows is a critical part of making a good buying decision. "Go to area shows and get a feel for who frequently wins the open classes," she advises. "Through time, you'll see the type of horse that does well in a specific event or a trainer who consistently produces winners. And you'll get a feel for what you like and don't like.

"I recommend people buy the best horses they can afford, as long as the horses are the right matches for them. If you can afford a well-trained winner that's still sound and has a good attitude, then buy it," Daughn advises.

Some of these experienced animals can be excellent family horses, she says. Often, they can be shown by different family members or ridden for pleasure by parents and children alike.

"One horse can do a lot for a family if it's the right horse,"she states. "Just make sure it's well-trained and has been in a good, solid program."

"Professionally Trained"

The statement "90 days professional training" is often found in horse ads. But what does that mean?

"It usually means the horse has flunked out of the training program,"Avila says. "Good trainers can usually tell within 90 days if the horse will work out. Those that don't are sent home."

Then, Avila says, he frequently sees an ad a month later offering the horse for sale and listing the trainer's name to add false credibility. "That puts the trainer in a bad spot," he contends. "Sure, I started the horse, but I didn't keep it for a very good reason."

Furthermore, both Avila and Daughn caution buyers to beware of the term professionally trained. Anyone can call himself a trainer, but that doesn't mean he knows what he's doing.

Days of training also mean different things at different facilities. Even though most trainers bill customers at 30-day intervals, that doesn't mean the horse got 30 days' riding during that time. At Avila's barn horses are worked five to six days a week. When he's at shows, his assistants continue the training. But at other barns, training might mean working the horse three days a week and not at all when the trainer's gone.

Two Final Cautions

Take your trainer along when you look at horses, Daughn advises. But, she adds, that doesn't let you off the responsibility hook.

Caution 1: "There are good and bad trainers, just as there are competent and incompetent people in any profession," she cautions. "It's in your best interest to be as knowledgeable about horses as possible, even if your trainer is there to help you."

Caution 2: Daughn says, when you've found a horse you want to buy, insist on a prepurchase veterinary exam.

"Never buy a horse without a veterinary check," says Daughn. "A lot of experienced horses undergo physical changes, especially in the hocks, that you want to know about. But minor damage is to be expected and isn't a reason to turn down a good horse."

Although a veterinary check won't find all the health or behavioral problems a horse has or might develop, it can screen for major health issues. As always, the experts warn, it's buyer beware when horse shopping. But, they say, arming yourself with knowledge and keeping to a plan is the best way to avoid falling into the sales-hype trap.

Other Considerations

No matter what trainer starts a horse, Avila says that a horse with 90 days' training is a green horse and unsuitable for a beginning rider. How do you know if you're a beginner? It's not how long you've ridden, but rather how well you ride. A beginner might've been riding for two months or five years.

A friend got upset when a trainer called her a beginning rider. After all, she said, she'd been riding for years. That's true, but she'd been riding on easy, flat terrain on a well-trained horse. She was a passenger, not a rider.

Although a beginning rider shouldn't ride a green horse, Avila says an intermediate rider can ride an intermediate horse with guidance.

"Intermediate riders can ride well," he explains, "but they don't always know why they're doing something. The trainer still has to explain to them why they're practicing a particular thing and what the intended result will be."

The intermediate rider is just beginning to read a horse and understand how to respond to different behaviors.

To the horse-shopping rider, an intermediate horse transitions decently between gaits, is beginning to neck-rein well and can keep the desired cadence at a given gait. Each specialty has its own maneuvers, as well. For example, intermediate reining horses, Avila says, work on the half-pass, side-pass, flying lead change and planting a foot when learning to spin. Depending on the horse, Avila might work on sliding stops, rollbacks and achieving "the lightest mouth I can get."

An ad that says the horse is "suitable for experienced rider only" is a red flag. Taking on someone else's training disaster is time-consuming, costly and often dangerous. Most people simply don't have the experience necessary to ride a problem horse safely.

The author, a frequent contributor, lives in Idaho.