If you've ever dreamed of buying a unicorn jumping like a freak off a YouTube video or a site like ehorses.com, you're not alone. Buying a horse sight unseen, from the comfort of your own home, is risky -- but enticing.
Is this a crazy idea destined to fail or a way to find your new prospect during a pandemic, while saving on traveling costs?
As a Canadian horse agent based in Belgium, I am seeing a drastic increase of horse purchasing by video. This buying technique is not unfamiliar to me; some people have bought horses from me this way before to cut the costs of planning a trip to Europe. The difference now is that the pandemic obliges us to stay home, but the demand of horse purchasing somehow remains strong.
Like I have mentioned in past articles, buying a horse is not an easy task. A lot of knowledge and experience comes into play when it comes to selecting the right candidates, establishing the budget range, organizing trials, negotiating prices, selecting a veterinarian, executing the vet check, planning the transport, etc.
This process is exciting and draining at the same time. The objective should never change, no matter what disappointments may surface along the way: find a suitable horse that allows the rider to have fun while accomplishing their personal goals. It's without saying that buying a horse comes with risks -- they are live animals, not IKEA furniture with an attached manual (even those are pretty complicated…).
Now, the reality of translating the buying process behind a screen decouples the level of risks and stress. That is why I would never suggest to anybody to go through that process if they are not ready to accept those risks and blindly trust the seller (broker, agent, trainer or other intermediary). Some lose and some win. In my opinion, the most important key to stack your odds of success is finding a trusting eye to see the horse in person and give you their impression. Basically, to see everything you couldn’t see on the 2 minutes footage.
To avoid turning this wonderful acquisition journey into a horror scenario here are my 5 steps guide to ease up the digital buying process.
1. Don’t trust the special effects.
After many years in the industry, I am still astonished to see how good horses can look on a video compared to reality when you go see them upfront. Once, a client of mine called me from the USA asking me to go look at a prospective 3yo she wanted to bet on an online auction. After doing my research, I found the breeder to take an appointment. The breeder was more than nice, we made the horse go free and jump a few jumps. The difference between publicized videos and reality was alarming. Maybe the horse had a bad day, let's give him the benefit of the doubt, but after seeing the footage I took that day, my client was not ready to take on that amount of risk.
I would always suggest asking the seller for fresh videos. It doesn't need to be over big fences, but you want to know how the horse is looking today, or this week. We all know that with different programs, environments, a horse can change quickly mentally or physically.
2. Find your liaison.
Never underestimate the value of an eye on site. You might not know someone directly, but do your research and talk to your entourage. If you can’t try a horse yourself, sending a third party to go try the horse and take videos of everything certainly helps to check up some boxes. This person should be competent enough to give you a report on how she or he felt on the horse, what they observed, etc. Before planning a trial for your liaison, I always suggest asking for existing x-rays and have your home veterinarian read them.
3. Do a background check.
Show results don’t make a horse, but it helps you trace a storyline. Finding show results may take a bit of legwork, since every country has their federation with their own not-so-user-friendly system. Unless they are FEI results, ask the seller for the horse's latest results. Don’t hesitate to Google the name of a candidate and use apostrophes (ex: name_horse”) in the search bar to have a more specific search. You might find pictures, videos, articles, results, etc.
4. Choose your experts for a good purchase exam.
Vet checks are important. Find a vet who speaks your language and is able to film the clinical test. If one or more x-rays is giving you pause, always take a new set or ask your veterinarian which angle you should redo or add. Vetting a horse can be pricey, but this is not where you should cut your costs.
If you import a horse from Europe to North America, don’t forget to do an importation blood test before you seal the deal. Horses can carry disease that prevents them from importation. Make sure to specify to the veterinarian to draw blood while doing the vet check, and you can decide later if you want to proceed with the analysis or not.
5. Inform yourself on imports costs before sealing the deal.
You're so close to the end! You've selected your horse, the vet check is good, and only a few steps lays in front of you: negotiating the price, signing a contract (or detailed invoice), and selecting your transportation. If you chose an overseas import, you won’t have to pay European taxes, but you will have import taxes, so make sure to ask your shipping company about the percentage of those and other import fees. This way you will be able to calculate efficiently enough the total price of the horse with expenditures.
Even with all these precautions, I can’t repeat enough that horses are not easy commercial products. They are alive, they have a history and baggage that can not always be seen at first sight. A lot of you will be pleased with your new superstar, but whatever happens, keep cool and take your time in this process. Online horse shopping is fun and doable if you do your homework. At the end of the day, we just want to find our unicorn wherever it may be.
Written by Anne-Sophie Milette
Anne-Sophie started show jumping at the age of 11, despite coming from a non-horsey family. She has developed her own ‘best-of-breed’ approach, guided by instinct, experience and good counseling. After performing at top levels and training with the best in the business, she is now based in Belgium where she rides professionally and is specialized in finding the right horses for her international clientele. You can learn more about her at www.topnotch.horse.