Horse Shopping on a Budget

NO, I’M NOT HORSE SHOPPING. Everyone calm down. I think the only thing that could possibly ratchet up my anxiety level any higher than it already is at the moment would be horse or saddle shopping. But a reader (hi Christine!) emailed me and asked for a post regarding how I’ve gone about finding and buying horses on a low budget, what’s worked for me, what hasn’t, what I look for, etc. Input and experience from others is welcome, as well. Before I share my own thoughts, I will repeat my favorite caveat: I am not a professional. But for someone who isn’t a reseller, I’ve bought some horses before… some great, some not, and I’m more than happy to share what I’ve learned along the way.

Buy the 17+h 4yo halter broke TB out of someone’s backyard for $350? Sure why not.

My budget has always been really low. As in, of the 14 or 15 horses I’ve purchased, none have cost more than $1500. Let’s be real right off the top – you aren’t going to get a sound, trained, sane, good quality horse for that money. Pick one of those qualities. At 5k, which is still pretty limiting, you’d have more leeway. So while you’re looking, keep saving your money. I’ve always shopped projects, either out of someone’s backyard or off the track. I’ve bought a couple off of craigslist, one off of facebook, one off of a literal paper ad in a feed store, one from a herd dispersal that I heard about randomly, one from CANTER, one off the old forums on pedigree query, one through a local thoroughbred charity, one at an auction, etc etc. Keep your eyes and ears open, and definitely TELL people that you’re looking. You never know what you’ll find via word of mouth. If you see one you like, act quickly, and have your money ready. The good ones get snatched up fast.

I’ve also very rarely gone out deliberately shopping for a horse. I think I’ve tried a grand total of three horses, and only actually bought one of those three. Most of mine have just fallen in my lap. I see something I like, and if I have the scope to take it on, I buy it. But I really like projects, I get a lot of enjoyment out of taking raw material and turning it into something. Usually for me that has meant a horse off the track, but I’ve also bought a few unstarted horses, or ones that had previous issues/mishandling. I think the blank slates were the easiest to bring along, although I will always love me a recycled thoroughbred. That said, starting horses under saddle is certainly not something to take on if you’ve never done it before – outsource that job. And while I dearly love thoroughbreds, they aren’t for everyone, especially straight off the track. Be brutally honest with yourself about what you can handle, and if you’ll need professional assistance to get the horse where you want it to be. If you do, be sure to factor that into your budget as well.

Impulse purchase auction pony. $325? $375? I forget. Pretty sure he was a welsh cob or a morgan cross of some kind, but no papers.

The question of what I look for in a horse is a little bit harder to cover. Mostly I look for something that seems reasonably athletic and intelligent. An athletic, trainable horse will always be good at something, so even if I end up not keeping it, the horse still has value as a resale. I’ve been open to different breeds, although most of the horses I’ve owned have been thoroughbreds because they tend to suit my purpose best. Depending on what you want to do with the horse, a lot of breeds could be appropriate. Never discount a quarter horse or a draft cross. Shoot, for the lower levels of eventing or for dressage, you could look at all kinds of breeds, including ponies. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just athletic and trainable. Everybody wants the fancy warmblood but very few actually need (or can ride) the fancy warmblood. Remember that the trot can be improved quite a bit with training, so if you’re going to buy off of one gait, I put the most emphasis on the canter. Especially if you’re going to be jumping.

this one came off the track
but when he did, he looked like this

I’m definitely really into pedigrees, but it’s not the be-all-end-all. To me a pedigree is a factor, but it certainly won’t be the one thing that my decision hinges off of. There are certain lines I don’t care for, but if I really like the horse I would buy it anyway. And there are certain lines that I really love that will definitely make me take a harder look at a horse. I think anyone who has ridden or bought/sold enough horses develops favorites, and they vary from person to person. I personally will stop dead in my tracks to look at any thoroughbred with Danzig in the pedigree.

When you’re shopping on a small budget, you also need to develop the ability to see a diamond in the rough. People ooooh and aaaaah over the big fat shiny horse with all the chrome and the high quality photos, but can you picture a version of the same horse in a scruffy winter coat, 200lbs lighter, with 10 inches of mane, nary a white mark on it, and bad cell phone pictures? Learn to see bone structure and proportion, not fat and muscle. Look at other peoples’ before and afters. You can change so much about a horse’s appearance just with good care. The best deals I’ve ever gotten were found in the plain, non-descript horses who weren’t presented well. If you learn how to spot those horses through the rough exterior, you can snag a really great horse. Pretty is as pretty does.

first ride at home
a few months later

Close your ears for this one, children: I’ve vetted precisely zero of the horses that I’ve purchased. I know, I can feel you cringing. To be clear, I would never recommend that to someone else, but it’s the truth. I’m pretty realistic about the fact that no horse is going to vet absolutely spotlessly, and all sorts of things can show up on a vetting but never be a hindrance to a horse for the job you need it to do. So, definitely get the horse vetted, but also be realistic about the findings, especially as they relate to it’s intended job. A lot of people hear one relatively minor thing and bolt – that’s a mistake, IMO. My best horses, and soundest horses, certainly would not have vetted perfectly. Oh, and uh… if you buy a mare, make sure she’s not pregnant. I learned my lesson on that one, and it happens more often than you realize.

Go ahead, ask me how I learned.

I think the most important thing is to be realistic. You aren’t going to find a trained, sound, issue-free horse for next to nothing. Well ok I’m sure it’s happened, but the odds of it happening to you are slim to none. Give up on that dream. Instead sit down and really think about what you can handle as a rider, what you really need (size, age, training, certain gait or temperament or conformation features that are your must-haves), what you can live with, and what you can’t. Also don’t forget that if you’re shopping cheap, you’re probably signing up for a long process to get that horse to your end goal. Don’t look at other people’s endings and think they’re a realistic beginning. Henry is my favorite horse that I’ve ever had, and he’s taken me places I never imagined, but he was a walking basket of training problems when I got him, some of which will always be there, and it’s taken 5 years to get as far as we have. Keep good professionals in your corner that are available to help. Involve a couple of good friends that you know will be honest with you no matter what, not just tell you what you want to hear. And at the end of the day – trust your gut. It’s never steered me wrong, whether I’ve actually listened to it or not.

What advice would you give to someone who’s horse shopping on a very limited budget? Let’s help her out as a group!

29 thoughts on “Horse Shopping on a Budget

  1. Interesting comment regarding pedigree. My OTTB has Danzig in his pedigree on his damn’s side but also Storm Cat (Sire’s side) which I’ve heard negative comments/concerns about Storm Cat lines. I know next to nothing about TB lines/pedigrees and this particular OTTB fell into my lap so I didn’t consider pedigree when I got him BUT I’m curious to know what you’d put more emphasis on. If you saw Danzig but also something else you didnt like would you still be interested? What about Danzig do you like in offspring?


  2. Welp… I got drunk and made an offer on May, so I am probably not an example anyone should follow. I have only bought 2 horses in my life, and I have only sold one. So… also not an example for anyone.

    When I bought May, my thought process was literally, “Well, I could sell her as a trail horse for what I paid without an issue.” AND I was getting out of a horse that had started to really frustrate me.

    I bought sound (at least as far as you can tell without a PPE) and sane. We didn’t know if she could jump higher than starter for a while after I bought her, and she didn’t really steer. The canter transition took a minimum of 20 fast trot steps. It was a complete mess.

    Overall, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Buy the useful type. Put the training/conditioning in. Move on if it isn’t what you personally want.


  3. The number one thing I followed when I got my horse was to stick with something that I could really work with. My budget was around $4L which had me initially looking at OTTB’s but the more I did that the more I realized my lifestyle called for something with an “I don’t care about anything, I’m up for whatever” attitude and tendency toward lower maintenance. Hence the pony thing I wound up with and he fits that bill perfectly. I came close to taking a thoroughbred on trial who would’ve been a challenge for me because he was gorgeous and had some eventing experience, but I caught myself reasoning through big training holes and personality aspects I was not prepared to deal with.


  4. Amen on the “off” breed. I would have never guessed I’d be happily gallivanting around BN/N on a SADDLEBRED and an athletic, packer one at that. Sure, some things aren’t as natural to him, but guess what, I don’t have giant jump aspirations and he’s been so much fun to learn to event on. While a TB might be fun for my next one, I’m definitely way more open to all sorts and kinds now.


  5. Being realistic about what you actually can handle and what you really need as a rider is huge, and being realistic about the commitment you want to make. If you want to ride 2x a week, you need a horse that is ok with working twice a week. If you want to ride 6x a week, you need a horse that is build to handle a higher workload. It’s easy to say, but harder to adjust our expectations in real life I think.


  6. OMG I agree with every single comment you made- all I can ask is that you SAY IT LOUDER FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK!
    My horse shopping ventures have been so hard, but I also had realistic expectations. The reason a certain Barbie Dream Horse ended up with me is because of his potential based on his canter and conformation. The reason I could afford him is because he’s tall AND spooky (aka hard to sell) and have legs that Quasimodo would cringe at. (Kidding, but only sorta)


  7. My best advice: (1) work with professionals who you trust and who know you, and (2) be brutally honest about your abilities and goals.


  8. Definitely know what you like in the build of a horse, and what horse’s that do the job you want a horse to do look like. (Example, I hate riding long backed horses, so I want a short backed horse at best or average at least.) Definitely be confident and open in your abilities. If your new horse doesn’t end up liking the job you bought him for, can you prepare him for another career and help fund another adventure?


  9. lots of solid advice in the post and the comments. I spent a lot of money both purchasing and vetting Runkle and Indy. I don’t think I’d spend that much on something that green ever again. I got Spicy for a $500 donation and didn’t vet him (his knees could be full of chips for all I know) and it’s going better than it did with either of the other two, so sometimes a budget is a good thing.

    I think also people get hung up on like… ‘fancy’. And ‘fancy’ is all relative, and do you really need ‘fancy’? especially when it comes with a bigger price tag?


  10. Definitely agree with all of the above. Don’t be afraid of a less popular breed. Be realistic with what you actually want put in and get out day-to-day. How often do you actually have time to ride and spend time with your horse? Do you have the financial backing for a higher maintenance keeper? Don’t be afraid of an older horse either as long as it’s sound.

    I’ve only purchased a handful of horses in my life. Beyond sound and reasonably put-together my biggest thing is temperament. I want a horse who has a good relationship with people. I had one horse who couldn’t care less and I only had him a year and a half. I am an adult amateur and I want this horse habit to be fun (at least most of the time).


  11. diito everything you said x 100. Be ready for challenges and surprises and give everything a big ole dose of time and patience. I love the old adage trained, sound, and cheap – pick two!

    I got my horse from craigslist for a song and while i knew he had some soundness issues, I was pretty sure we could work through them with better care and exercise (horse was sitting in small paddock for a year with crappy feet). He had a great mind and build (plus those Danzig bloodlines) and I just loved him instantly. Loaded him on the trailer with no vetting. His shady past cropped up in a few ways, and it was like peeling back the layers of an onion to getting him healthy.

    I have had him for 4 years and I feel like just now we are getting on track with really upping our workload and improving him as a dressage horse and letting his athleticism shine. He has taught me how to be a MUCH better rider and to think like a trainer. It is very different dealing with a horse who has ‘holes’ in his past health and training vs a more expensive horse who has been well brought up a trained to do your disciple its whole life. You will spend lots of time on the basics, and having a professional to help is imperative! I couldn’t afford weekly lessons until recently, but OMG do I wish I could have found this trainer earlier. So be ready to admit when you need help – cheap horses typically require much more work and knowledge than a well trained horse since you will need to go back and re-learn things (which can take months at a time)


  12. Love this blog post – I’ve had so many of the same experiences (including the unexpectedly pregnant mare…my “BOGO baby” is a yearling now). It is so rewarding to work with diamonds in the rough and really fun to see others’ photos of the same.


    1. Agree! It would make a great series, if you’d be up for blogging about it. Ya know, with all your free time 😉
      Breed/Age/Experience level, what you paid for them, where you found them listed for sale, how long you owned them, what they became suitable for, and what type of home they ultimately sold into.


  13. All so well said–I think also look at the older horse depending on your situation–they can still have so much to give! My pet peeve is buying for coat color! SMH…Though i did end up with a grey–not why i bought him!


  14. My advice to anyone looking to purchase is to find a friend who you trust that has already made all the dumb horse purchase mistakes. Better yet, just ride her horses beause she has 9 now thanks to her Easter morning surprise foal!


  15. Excellent advice! And I have to echo Olivia about being realistic about your needs. Something extremely green or unbroke will take a big time commitment. And I don’t mean that it takes years to get there, I mean you have to spend time EVERYDAY working with that horse (or most days at the least). Also, a horse like that takes a certain level of guts on the rider/trainer’s part. I get nervous when shenanigans go too far. I know this about me, and because of that, I don’t buy anything unbroke. And if it’s very green, my trainer will be heavily involved so my chicken problems don’t become said horse’s chicken problems.
    As far as actually finding horses to try, I suggest asking your friends. Let them ask their friends. My best finds have been through trusted friends and acquaintances that know me, know my program, and have my best interest at heart. You have a much better chance of having what’s advertised wind up in your barn.


  16. I’ve had, I think, a total of 10 horses in the last 23 years, and I have shopped for exactly one of them — the first one, and he was the second horse I looked at. I still have him 23 years later, though he’s been retired for a lot of those.

    I always tell people that I cannot give them ANY advice in horse shopping. Never be like me. I’ve never spent more than 2k for one (and she was a yearling that fell into my lap and I said “yes” to, as I thought “wtf am I doing?!”)

    I’ve never vetted one either, though I have bought one and taken in one with injuries I already knew about (say hi to the OTTB standing in my pasture right now). Mostly, my horses have all found me, and it has worked out for me mostly because I haven’t had huge, high hopes AND I love the process of helping one work through its issues and become a useful animal. I’ve re-sold only two in all that time, so also? Don’t be like me and collect horses with issues!

    I can’t wait to see if Spider will get to event (maybe to the RRP!) but I had no problem throwing him out for a year, and don’t have ambitions past BN, so whatever he ends up doing will be ok with me.

    I think, actually, my best advice on horse shopping is to think REALLY hard about what you want. If jumping right into showing is what makes your heart sing, don’t buy a project. But, if you love fixing the broken, there are a lot of projects out there that need a soft place to land.


  17. I had the sad shock of finding I’d bought a drugged horse. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth for about three, four weeks, then the wheels fell off. It took quite a while longer before the penny dropped with a clang. By then the seller had vanished and I had no proof or recourse. The lesson? Listen for the “tell”. In this case, I met the seller at a broker’s barn, tried out the horse and all seemed well. When I said I liked the horse, but needed to think about it (she was more $$ than I’d ever paid before, $5K), she looked stricken and blurted out, “You’re not taking her today?!” At the time, I just thought, “Good grief, couldn’t she see I didn’t have a trailer with me?” and that she was sort of naive as a seller. Later, of course, I realized that “You’re not taking her today?” was the giveaway. She’d had the mare drugged with reserpine (sp?) and although it was a long-acting trank, she wanted her good and gone before it wore off. (Another hint was that she lived in Ohio but brought the horse up to a sales barn in Michigan.) When I got the mare’s papers a while later, they revealed that she had been sold on every two years or so as people gave up on her (she was desperately, frantically, and ultimately, fatally barn sour. After a few dramatic years, I retired her to a nice small breeding farm. One day, while the owner was picking up paddocks, the mare made a dash for the barn and clotheslined herself on a rope gate.) So if your Spidey sense alerts you to something “off” in the seller’s verbiage, pay attention!
    A sadder-but-wiser gal.


  18. Involve a trainer or a knowledgeable friend. Also I’d add to be honest with seller what you are hoping to achieve with prospective horse!


  19. The only horse I ever vetted ended up being the one that caused me the most problems!

    What I learned from that was bad feet are always something to walk away from, even if the vetting says it’s not an issue. They are big heavy animals and the effect bad feet can have on them long term is not worth it. I’m sure plenty of people have maintained horses with poor feet but there are plenty of nice horses for not much money, good build etc. that don’t have this issue so don’t make it harder on yourself.


  20. well I bought a bunch of shit over the years but always managed to find homes for them. I only vetted one horse and i ended up not buying him. He was six with knee issues.

    Then there is Remus who I found on craigslist for lease. I got a good friend and basically a free horse out of that ad. I just did the math and I am going on 7 years in with my ‘free lease’ I have offered to buy him numerous times but she just says she would give him to me. I dont have papers on him but fat quarter horse that events lower levels needs no papers.

    But as to buying, look at breeds that aren’t popular and you can often find steals. Also if you aren’t looking for youngsters take a look at older guys. If I bought something I would not mind something older been there and done that with some maintenance. it is what you want to do with it that matters so open your eyes to things that might not usually catch your eye.

    If I got another horse I would love another Morgan. Or even an Arabian/Quarter cross. Grew up riding both of those types and enjoyed them. But I was there for some of your ‘ahem’ auction buys……and boy was that fun! That pony is gonna KILLLLLLEEE YOU 🙂 HA HAHA


  21. The photos show a good eye for horses! Clearly you like a balanced horse with good lines.

    I think the most important thing as a buyer is to decide what the one, two or three most important things are to me, and don’t buy anything without them. 🙂 Some of the best advice I ever got was not to even look at a horse that didn’t fit my criteria. Why do people even ask me to do that? Well, because they hope I’ll buy what they want to sell, not what I want to buy.

    Why is it that when I broadcast widely that I am looking for a 16.2+hh TB gelding, 4-7 years old, (tall, I said, I want tall), everyone wants to show me a 15.2h QH mare? “Just come look.” OK but no. LOL During that period somehow all the tall boys had disappeared and nothing but short mares were available. (I finally found my tall guy, thanks everyone with a QH mare. 🙂 )


  22. I don’t vet horses – but I’m a vet. I ride endurance so I have a pretty good track record with horses that “failed” in other disciplines. As to advice – gender doesn’t matter. Colour doesn’t matter. In reality height (in the ad) doesn’t matter because SO MANY horses aren’t actually the advertised height in real life! And a 15hh horse with a really good barrel can fit you just as well as a slab sided 16hh. And breed doesn’t matter that much unless you’re looking to go 2*. Always ask for more photos. Don’t even get in the car unless you have GOOD conformation shots and GOOD pics of the front and back legs. If they “can’t” get any, there’s a good reason for that. Don’t fall for the old “making a downhill horse look level by the angle of the photo” trick. and photos of feet need to be on concrete, not grass!


  23. THis is such a great post!

    I bought Newboy (who, at this point, is going to remain nameless till he actually comes home, but QT farm has been calling him Dunny) from one of the ‘kill pen rescues’- a friend was local and was able to go take a look and he was friendly, personable, and had nice (if in need of a trim) feet. (He was also snotty and not feeling his best but still super interested in attention.) He’s broke, and polite enough leading and trailering, but exactly what he knows is a mystery. But mostly I felt like he was put together decently enough to be worth the gamble. My very beloved childhood horses were mostly auction/sale horses and while we had some stinkers, for “usin’ horses” (as my grandad put it- backyard/farm horses who did a bit of moving cattle, a lot of carting us kids around on adventures, and the occasional gaming day) we had a good track record overall. (Tazzie came from the previous incarnation of the kill pen Newboy came out of, even, before it was called such- I kinda feel like the kill pen thing is just a remarketing of regular old horse traders…)

    I’m in for a reasonable amount with vetting and QT (and shipping) but well… he’s the size and build I wanted (and couldn’t find locally for under about $4k – and my discipline is ‘trail horse’. Local preference is for Bitty And Cow Obsessed and I wanted chunky, taller, and chill.) So I’m not super fussed about what I’ve got in so far, and while I don’t think I have the knowlege to take on a baby or totally green horse, I’m comfortable enough training animals in general and with lots of reading and video watching to feel like I can manage a refresher course with some assistance from a trainer, and we’ll be in a lesson program- hopefully twice a week, once getting him started to drive and one under saddle.

    Was it a dumb financial decision? Well, yeah, horse ownership is pretty much always a dumb idea, moneywise. But I think it’s one that will make me happy.


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