Vet Adventures: Searching for Mr. Right

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The Horse Illustrated Vet Adventures columnist, who is a veterinarian, has trouble finding the perfect horse for her daughter.

Vet Adventures - Looking for the Perfect Horse
Photo by Erica Hollingshead/Shutterstock

I was trying to find my youngest daughter a new horse for Pony Club. We’d recently had to retire our faithful Atlas due to his worsening Cushing’s disease, and as any parent of a rider knows, replacing a beloved horse is a daunting task.

I knew that the quality of horse that I wanted was more than likely inversely proportional to my budget, and it would be an incredible feat to find a safe, kind and affordable mount that could perform at the level we needed, have potential to go further, and not have lameness problems.

On the Hunt

I began the search optimistically, first polling all of my friends and clients. A flurry of offers came my way, none of which were remotely what I was looking for, which also put me in a very awkward position of having to reject my own patients as potential candidates.

Word of mouth spread quickly through our small community, and I received numerous emails and cold calls offering me 19-year-old warmbloods for only $18,000 or off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) that “just needed an experienced rider but had a ton of potential.” In other words, if your kid can hang on to this partially trained piece of dynamite without getting killed, he just might become the jumper you’re hoping for.

I have absolutely nothing against Thoroughbreds. I’ve known several clients who have adopted OTTBs successfully and ended up with excellent horses. Unfortunately, what often happens is that these animals are bought cheaply by well-intended people hoping to find and train the next diamond in the rough, only to realize that they came home with a lot more horse than they realized and that they’re in over their heads. After a few wild rides, and a few unscheduled dismounts, the disillusioned buyer lists the horse for sale as a “potential eventer” or “great project horse” for experienced riders only.

Losing Hope

I got good at politely saying no, and eventually the calls and emails slowed. Still hoping to find something before the summer ended, I moved on to the sales websites. After several unsuccessful weeks of scanning ads and searching databases of available horses, my hopes really began to sink. Nothing was right for my daughter. The horses were either too young, too untrained, unsound, or too expensive. Or on the other side of the country.

I became an expert at reading between the lines of the ads, particularly if there was video attached. “Lots of chrome” usually meant a former show horse with bad hocks. “Just had chiropractor out” meant “lame.” “Hasn’t been ridden in a few months” also usually meant “lame.”

When the sellers realized that I was a vet, they’d often open up about the issues with their horse for sale but would assure me that with hock/stifle/back/fetlock injections, IRAP therapy or surgery, the horse would be great for my daughter. And could they just ask me some questions about their other horse’s medical problems while they had me on the phone?

Some ads were hysterically honest, with sentences like, “We’ve done light work with her and she turns into a monster when you ask her to do stuff (rears up). Someone spoiled her rotten, and she needs an experienced trainer to fix her.”

I began to see a pattern with the price ranges. Under $1,500 often meant either unbroke, feral or ancient. $2,000-3,500 usually featured more reasonable horses but not what I was looking for. $6,500-10,000 meant a half-trained warmblood 4 to 8 years old, or a former high-level show horse who had probably had some sort of major surgery, or an OTTB that had “potential” in [insert equine discipline of choice] for an experienced rider only.

The $4,000-6,000 range was the scary one.

This price range often meant that someone was running out of money or space to keep their horse, but wasn’t quite ready to sell unless you were ready to sign a notarized document giving them first right of refusal should you ever want to re-sell the horse, as well as subjecting your lifestyle, property and facilities to an FBI-level inspection, and reading through a set of encyclopedia-sized records on every single thing the horse had ever done, not done, liked, didn’t like, how he ate, slept, how not to lead him, what kind of bit to never use and how to ride him correctly. A massive video file was sure to accompany the documents, and you were guaranteed hours of phone calls and 10,000-word emails from the owner.

A Possible Winner

After glumly studying yet another slew of lame-horse videos, I was ready to give up when a client suggested that I consider a Saddlebred for my daughter. I’d always considered them an excitable and fussy breed based on the ones I’d vetted over the years, but I was astounded to learn that they often excelled in dressage and jumping. As they are typically underrated as sport horses, they are often very affordable, and with growing excitement, I began to search for Saddlebreds for sale.

I was studying some possible candidates when one day I saw a video that stopped me in my tracks. The horse was a 13-year-old Saddlebred gelding, and I’d never seen such perfectly balanced movement and such effortless athleticism.

I knew in my gut that I’d finally found our horse, provided that he was sane and sound. Since I’m a vet, I could do my own pre-purchase exam, so I loaded up my stethoscope, hoof testers, X-ray unit and a medical kit, and the whole family piled into the truck as one of our adventures to meet this beautiful animal to see if he was the perfect horse for my daughter.

TO BE CONTINUED NEXT MONTH…

This Vet Adventures columnist’s search for the perfect horse appeared in the March 2021 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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