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Advice On Buying A Horse Sight Unseen – 6 Points For Success

Whether you should buy a horse unseen is a controversial topic that is often raised in equestrian discussion groups and is one that usually produces strong opinions either way. What with the current changes to the world and the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, it got me thinking about what can be done to increase the chances of such a purchase being successful.

Before lockdown number 3, I was a phone call away from buying a horse without actually seeing it. I had found, on paper at least, my new dream horse – everything I wanted in age, height, experience, breed, and temperament – or so the advert claimed. Lengthy phone calls with the dealer backed up these assertions. I did what research I could on the dealer too, and everything seemed to stack up that the seller was reputable.

The horse was at the other end of country, other people were lined up to see him, and I didn’t want to lose out by not seeing him first. I canvassed a few friends about whether, subject to vetting, I should buy him unseen. Most opinions were unequivocal – ‘don’t do it!’ But the lure of my ‘perfect horse’ was powerful, and I was very, very close to calling the dealer and paying a deposit to stop anyone else from seeing him.

In the end, only one thing stopped me. What if I brought him home and I just didn’t like the feel of the ride? Many things can be worked on and improved, but if I just didn’t like how he felt in his way of going, I was scuppered. Of course, those of us that have taken on an unbacked youngster take that gamble. But that’s a different article altogether...

In these unprecedented times of lockdown, social distancing and restricted travel, how do we go about the business of buying horses? Do we just put everything on hold until the world opens up again, or is there a successful way to buy horses ‘unseen’?

Feedback from those who have bought unseen

I put the question out there in a poll on social media: What were people’s experiences of buying horses unseen, good or bad? I had a staggering 400 plus answers. Clearly lockdown is not the only reason for buying a horse unseen, and many people have been doing it for years. Most of the horses bought were youngsters, but buying a blank canvas doesn’t seem nearly as daunting as buying an established ridden horse. I was interested in finding out if you can buy your dream (established) horse without meeting it first.

It turns out that many have. “Best thing I ever did”; “Best decision I ever made”; “Bought 3 unseen and all turned out great”; “Best pony ever”; “I’ve bought several unseen, all were wonderful”; “exactly as described”; “no regrets whatsoever”; “best horse I’ve ever had”. In fact, the majority of responses to my unscientific poll were positive success stories. I was really surprised.

But there were others that told a different story. “Never again”; “The seller ‘forgot’ to mention a couple of problems that led to me being injured”; “The worst decision. Sent back a week later”; “The worst experience”.

As you’d expect, buying unseen could go either way. As the horse you’ve never met arrives, you could open the lorry and come face to face with your forever horse; or you could be opening a painful, upsetting and expensive can of worms.

Minimising the risk – Advice from an experienced ‘unseen’ horse buyer

So, what can you do to ensure that your decision to buy a horse unseen is a good one? How can you reduce the risk of taking delivery of a horse that’s not what you were expecting? I had to ask someone who has years of success in buying horses unseen.

Sue Deakin, together with her daughters Tilly and Poppy, produces hunters for the show ring and competition.

“The one thing I would say is that you must get a full vetting.” This surely has to be the number one, no compromise rule. If you don’t get a 5 stage vetting, and the horse turns up ill or lame, then you won’t have a leg to stand on... pun intended.

Sue continues, “I have bought many unseen with varying results. It all boils down to asking all the right questions. Ask as many questions as possible. Tell the seller what you are after, and ask them if their horse would suit. Do this in written messages, so that you have all the answers in writing. Take screen shots, and save all your messages.”

“You obviously need to speak to the seller as well. Ask them to send photos of all legs from all angles, videos of walking towards and away, trotting to and from camera, working on the lunge etc. If the seller won’t oblige, don’t purchase! Basically, you need as much evidence and written information as possible, because if the horse is not as described, or not fit for purpose, you can return the horse. So ask a million and one questions!”

“Speak to the seller directly because you can get a feel for them. Get as much information about the horse’s temperament. What’s it like in the stable, in the field, with others, on its own, hacking out… Minimise the potential for misunderstanding and mistakes. Again, get it in writing and screen shot the answers”.

Sue is not a dealer herself. “I buy horses for my daughters and myself. I only buy what I like. If you can, get a recommendation from someone who knows the seller. Through the years, I have some trusted contacts, and have experience of knowing what questions to ask. You might know what you want in a horse, but you might not know the questions to ask to get what you want.”

“The first horse I bought unseen was from someone I knew and respected in Ireland. I bought the horse as a hunter, and we ended up taking her to HOYS. But if you’re buying from someone you don’t know, or who hasn’t been recommended, it can be a minefield. Ask for photos of the passport. Ask if there are any quirks, vices or issues. Take your time and trust your instincts."

“The only horse I had that wasn’t what I was expecting was because I bought in a hurry. It was greener than I thought it was. If I had spent more time asking the right questions, I would have known this before it arrived. By the way, the horse is still lovely, and will come right in time.”

In light of all of her experience, I asked Sue what she would say to someone contemplating buying a horse unseen. “If you’re not experienced, and haven’t done this before, and you don’t have a trainer or experienced friend to help, my advice would be don’t do it.”

On the flip side, what does Sue think about selling to someone who has never seen her horse? “I like to buy horses from people who love their horses. Which makes me uncomfortable about selling horses unseen. I would be reluctant to sell unseen unless I have thoroughly established that they will like my horse in the same way that I do. I want to know that I can look my horse in the eye and know that they are going to a good home.”

Asking the right questions

Everyone’s next dream horse is very different. So the questions you need to ask will be unique to you. If you don’t have the necessary know-how, enlist help from a trainer or friend who has more experience than you. Even with the most honest seller, if you don’t ask the question outright, you may not get the answer you need.

So if something is really important to you, no matter how silly you think it sounds, ask about it! We all know how wonderfully individual horses are, and how they all have their quirks – some more loveable than others. I had a mare that could never be left alone on a lorry once you’d parked up at a show, even for a minute – she would literally kick her way out. For some people, that would put them off buying that horse. Others don’t care if their 1.30 show jumper tries to bite them every time they go anywhere nearby. Maybe you don’t mind if your otherwise perfect happy hacker has to be sedated for the dentist and farrier, or your child’s pony will only travel to pony club rallies if accompanied by its field mate. But each of these things will be a deal breaker for someone.

For more advice on the type of questions to ask and getting a 5 stage vetting, please see the ‘Prior to viewing a horse’ and ‘Pre-purchase considerations’ sections of the article ‘The Ultimate Guide To Buying A Horse – Everything You Need To Know!

However, none of these questions will tell you how the horse feels to ride. How safe do you feel? How comfortable? How off the leg is it? How scopey? How exciting? How absolutely brilliant?

Perhaps it boils down to this. There are some things that we can live with, and some things that we really can’t. And everything else is just an adventure on the way to getting to know our next equine partner. Either way, if it’s an established riding horse you’re buying, I still believe that you need to ride it to know if you like what you feel… But that’s just me. The world will open up again, and in the meantime, if you do find your dream horse online, there are plenty of things you can do to improve your chances of bringing home the horse you’re dreaming of…

Top tips for buying horses unseen

So, if you’re serious about buying any horse ‘unseen’ – whether that’s due to distance or the current restrictions – the most important points to remember are;

1. Do your research – if you don’t know the seller and they haven’t been personally recommended by someone you know, make sure you do your research so you know who you’re buying from. Check online for any mentions of them on Facebook or in equestrian forums. The better you know the seller, the greater the chances of a successful purchase.

2. Always get a vetting – never purchase a horse without having had a full, 5 stage vetting (including a blood test) performed by a qualified vet. It’s best to find and contact a vet local to the horse yourself, rather than letting the seller arrange the vetting, so that you can be sure it’s impartial. You could also request that the vetting is filmed so that you can see it and share it with your own vet or equine medical expert, along with the report.

3. Ask a lot of questions – you should ask the seller as many questions as possible about the horse and make sure you get record of their answers in writing, so you can refer to them in the case of a problem further down the line. If you are unsure of what to ask, consult a professional for help and advice. Never be too shy to ask; it’s a lot better to ask too many questions than too few. Ask for photos and videos of the horse; from all angles, in action, and performing certain tasks (lunging, hacking, loading, clipping, etc) and share them with a trusted trainer or experience friend.

4. Speak to the seller – talking to the seller directly will give you a feel for them and help you to get to know them. Make sure you feel that they have the best interests of the horse at heart and see how obliging they are of your various requests – the likelihood is, the more honest the seller, the more obliging they’ll be! Asking for a video call with the seller can also be a great way to get a better feel for them and the horse in question, and provide ‘live’ reassurance of whatever has been communicated in writing.

5. Get a purchase contract drawn up – if, after having done all the necessary checks, you feel the horse really is your perfect partner, it’s important to get a legally binding purchase contract drawn up. This not only protects you, the buyer, but also acts as a deterrent against deceptive sellers. It is much safer for you to be the one to have the agreement drawn up and have it signed by the seller, rather than the other way round. This way you can ensure you are not pressured into signing an agreement you don’t fully understand, or that could have loopholes in the wording / be missing vital information, etc. If they refuse to sign it, that should be a red flag and you should withdraw your offer of purchase.

6. Take your time – never rush into the purchase of a horse, however tempting it might be to want to secure it for yourself. Buying a horse under any circumstances carries its risks; these risks naturally increase dramatically when it comes to buying a horse unseen. If it’s meant to be, then the horse will still be available once you’ve taken the time to do your research and ask the relevant questions.

Almost all of the checks a buyer can make when buying a horse that they are able to view, also apply to the process of buying a horse unseen; adaptations of the process may be necessary in the stages prior to purchase, but if enough information and documentation is provided by the seller on request, a lot of the checks can be made remotely.

For more advice and guidance on finding the right horse for you, whether buying unseen or not, please see ‘The Ultimate Guide To Buying A Horse – Everything You Need To Know!

Mary Bannister
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 16-02-2021
Mary is an equestrian journalist and video producer who helps all kinds of businesses, large and small, to engage with their customers and elevate their brands. “Everyone has a story to tell and I love helping them to tell it. I like to ask questions and find answers to the things you’ve always wanted to know.” Mary works to keep her two horses – an Irish Sport Horse ‘Mr Blue’ and a Connie x TB ‘Mo’ – in the manner to which they have become accustomed. If you have a question to ask, a story to tell, or a mystery to investigate, drop Mary a line!