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Buy A Healthy Horse — Summer 2008 | Out Here Magazine

A 'cheap' horse ends up costing more in the long run

By Carol Davis
Illustrations by Tom Milner

The true cost in buying a horse isn't in the purchase price. That's just the down payment, so to speak. The true cost is in the upkeep and maintenance for the duration that you have that horse.

So if you're looking to buy a cheap horse, well, there's no such thing. If the selling price is temptingly low, there's a reason for that. The horse is probably old or not in the best of health and you can expect the vet bills to quickly pile up and continue for a long stretch of time.

Take a close look at your potential horse. Then look even closer. A seller is going to try to present a perfect horse, so don't overlook clues such as lumps, scars, or a dull coat. Give particular attention to the feet and legs. A horse is no better than its underpinnings, so sound feet and legs are vital, says the University of Missouri Extension. Any foot or leg problem is enough reason to decline buying the horse.

Spend the money and make the effort to get a purchase exam by a veterinarian. For a pleasure horse, this should cost around $100 or so. For a more thorough exam, expect to pay in the range of $250-$500.


The vet will check the horse for:


  • Age

  • General condition — health of the eyes, ears, heart, lungs, digestive system, and alertness

  • Skin and coat health

  • Soundness of the muscular and skeletal system — limbs, conformation, and foot condition

  • Internal and external parasites (worms, ticks)

Before you reach that step, however, you can do your own examination to make sure you're not getting tied up with an animal that will cost you financially and emotionally.




Very few horses possess perfect conformation — physical appearance determined by its arrangement of muscle, bone, and other body components — but those with good conformation avoid lameness and other structural problems.


In evaluating a horse's conformation, consider balance, structural correctness, and breed and sex characteristics, according to the University of Missouri Extension.


Balance. A horse with a long, moderately sloping shoulder, which is the ideal, will typically have a long neck, a short back, and a smooth stride. Also look for a long, moderately sloping croup because it has room for more muscle mass, enabling the animal more speed, the extension service says.


Structural correctness. The horse should show significant width from shoulder to shoulder and from stifle to stifle. It should have strong forearms, a deep quarter, and strong gaskins.


When the front legs are viewed from the front, a line should bisect the forearm, knee, cannon, fetlock, and the bulb of the heel, the extension service advises. If the toes point outward, the horse is considered splay-footed; if they point inward, the horse is pigeon-toed.


In viewing from behind, a line should bisect the gaskin, hock, cannon, fetlock, pastern, and foot. If the hocks turn inward, the horse is considered cow-hocked.


Breed and sex characteristics. A stallion should appear more powerful and masculine than a mare. The gelding falls between the two.



Keenly observe the horse when it is first led to you and watch for even slight indications of limping, stiffness, or the favoring of a leg or foot.


Make sure that the legs are straight. Cannons should be positioned squarely below a flat knee, says the University of Missouri Extension. Fetlocks must be strong for shock absorption and pasterns should be sloping — not straight — between fetlock and hoof. The hoof should be well shaped and form good angles to the wall.


Look closely at the fetlocks, pasterns, and hocks. Any swelling should raise a red flag regarding soundness.




Examine the hooves to see that they're hard, smooth, and free from dryness or ridges. They should not be broken, cracked, or appear to be poorly cared for. The frog should be supple and flexible.


As the horse stands still, see whether all four feet are planted squarely. Toes should not drastically turn in or out. Check that the hoof size is in proportion to the horse's size; a horse with too-small feet may experience lameness.


Watch for signs of laminitis, more commonly referred to as founder, which is an acutely painful inflammation of the foot, usually on forelimbs.


Horses with laminitis stand in the typical "founder stance," in which the forelegs are stretched forward to shift the weight from the toes to the heels and hind legs, which are tucked well under the body. In severe cases, the horse may constantly shift weight from one foot to another.


Horses unable to chew food and digest it correctly are more prone to deadly colic, so teeth problems reach far beyond his mouth.

Infected, lost, broken, abnormally long, or excessively worn teeth are signs of a horse that hasn't received proper dental treatment. Also look for abscesses and ulcers resulting from poor dental health.


A horse's teeth grow continually through most of his lifetime and as they get longer, uneven wear can create sharp points and edges, which may produce sores on his tongue or cheeks. Well-cared-for horses will have had their teeth "floated" by a veterinarian, which means to smooth and contour the teeth with a file.




A horse's eyes should be bright, clear, and fully open. Be watchful of tearing, cloudiness, or discharge of any kind. Check his vision by taking the horse inside a barn or stable, allow his eyes to adjust, and then walk him back outside. The pupils contract quickly if vision is normal, and the horse shouldn't squint.


Horses can see very well at a distance but are primarily monocular, meaning that they see with one eye at a time and often can't focus and see objects near them — directly in front or behind, says the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service. Therefore, if a horse allows your hand to move close to an eye or he bumps into objects, chances are, vision is not good in that eye.

Out Here editor Carol Davis' childhood horse, Babe, may not have had the best conformation, but she was considered the most beautiful horse in the world.



Shiny, glossy hair is a good indicator of a healthy horse. It depends, however, what season you're horse hunting. A summer coat should be short, sleek, and glossy; a winter coat should be longer and thicker to keep the horse warm. But if a horse doesn't shed his winter coat each spring, it may — with the exception of the Bashkir Curly, which wears a curly coat year-round — have a health problem, such as Cushing's disease. Cushing's is a pituitary gland problem, which, if untreated, could cause discomfort and eventual death. Older horses also are known not to shed their winter coats as thoroughly as they did when they were younger, so consider that.


Body Fitness


Either an underweight or overweight horse can spell problems, so take a close look at the amount of body fat covering particular skeletal points on his body, such as the spine, ribs, hip, buttocks, etc.


Ribs should not be visually distinguishable, but they should be easily felt. The tailhead should not be prominent, and should feel somewhat, but not too, spongy. The neck, withers, and shoulder should be rounded and blend smoothly into the body.


If a horse is overweight, you'll notice a thickening of the neck, the withers area feels fatty, the ribs can't be felt, the tailhead is very soft, and significant fat is deposited along the horse's inner buttocks.