Whoa — don’t rush in when buying your first horse

First-time horse buyers can be tripped up in many ways, says trainer Roy Sturgeon

Roy Sturgeon goes on Kijiji four or five times a day to find his next horse. And with the lifetime of horsemanship under his belt, he can afford to be a little less picky than the average buyer.

“Most of the horses I buy, I buy thinking there’s some sort of hole in them that I’m going to have to fix,” said Sturgeon, a former jockey and owner of Flying Cross Ranch near Lacombe, where he keeps close to 40 horses.

For first-time horse buyers who lack his experience, fixing a problem horse isn’t an option.

“People make it an emotional, impulsive buy,” said Sturgeon, who has ridden “over a million horses” in his lifetime.

“They’ve got a 12-year-old daughter who watched “Heartland,” and they’re going to tame the wild stallion. It doesn’t work that way.”

A lot of people buy a young horse because “they’re going to grow together,” but that’s the wrong approach, said Sturgeon.

“Unless you have a trainer on staff — which most people don’t — you are in a lot of trouble,” he said. “You’re basically putting one idiot on top of another.”

First-time buyers often turn their noses up at an older horse, but in many cases, “they know more than the person that’s on them.”

“I don’t care if they have three or four months left in them. For some people, that’s the horse they need.”

Another problem is buying “too much horse” because they like the breed or look of the animal.

“Every person in the world imagines themselves riding something, and that’s fine,” he said.

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“But if you want to barrel race, you don’t have to have a quarter-horse. If you’ve got some fat old crossbred paint and you’re comfortable and safe on it, that’s more important.”

Not asking for a trial period to see how the horse handles in different environments and situations is another common error.

“If you haven’t tried this horse enough, that horse may be really good for the first week, and all of a sudden, these horses don’t work. Then you’ve bought a $500 to $15,000 lawn ornament.”

Horses are always at their best in their own environment, and are generally well exercised and well tended before the buyer comes to visit.

“A horse in a ring, you can do almost anything with it,” said Sturgeon. “But you get him outside… it’s a totally different horse.”

Some sellers even tranquilize a horse with bute (short for phenybutazone) or Atravet before a showing — a practice Sturgeon calls “chemical warfare.”

“Tell them you want to take a blood sample of this horse,” he said, adding that a seller who refuses is a red flag.

“In reality, the blood test is more money than you’re ever going to spend, but you’ll bluff most people.”

Finally, be wary of too low a price, said Sturgeon, who once spent $12,000 training a $600 horse.

He recommends one or two years of regular horseback-riding lessons to “work some things out” before committing to buying a horse.

“A lot of people have this romantic notion of loping majestically across the Prairies, and it takes a lot to get to that point,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re a 1,200-pound animal that will hurt you if things go wrong.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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