Age Isn’t Just a Number: Considerations When Purchasing a Horse

There are plenty of distinct advantages and disadvantages to buying either a younger or older horse. Contributor Jillian Hill discusses a few considerations to keep in mind when horse shopping.

Flickr/TKCA Photography/CC

Flickr/TKCA Photography/CC

You have driven to every barn, backyard and county trying to find the perfect equine partner for your next investment. After days spent surfing online classifieds and social media sales posts, you have narrowed down the selection to your favorites. Everything about the pretty dark bay and the leggy chestnut is perfect, from saddle fit to price. There is just one thing holding you back – age.

This isn’t just a number in the horse owner’s world. It is one of the top factors people consider during purchasing. The miles on the bay have you worried about underlying issues, and you are already counting costs of injections and supplements in your head; meanwhile the chestnut’s lack of experience has you looking at the calendar wondering when you will have the time for training, and the thought of taking a horse over its very first jump is daunting.

Whether looking for an older, more experienced mount with settled behavior patterns and possible maintenance issues, or a younger, project horse that needs serious training, it is imperative to know what you are getting into. Fear of maintenance or inexperience can leave a rider – for lack of a better word – horseless. Working with a trainer and a veterinarian can help eliminate the fears of age, planted by own past experiences or others. The best approach is to know as much as possible about the pros and cons of buying a horse at either age.

Sally Parkwood, owner of Parkwood Equestrian Center in Idaho Falls, trains and sells hunter/jumper horses of all levels. She mentioned that typically the people who come to her looking to purchase a horse are looking for something between the ages of seven and 12, but she thinks people need to expand and not have such tight limitations on age.

Parkwood finds it is a good investment for a rider to purchase a younger horse that needs a little work if the horse is safe and if they are willing to receive help from a trainer. On the other hand, it can also be a good investment to look into an older horse that is “still trucking around” but just needs a little maintenance.

Expanding limitations on age when looking to buy should be paired with knowledge. Breaking down the various factors affected by age and being mindful of what will need to go into each individual horse is key.

Considerations for the older horse

When looking at purchasing the older horses, Karl Hoopes, a veterinarian and extension assistant professor and equine specialist at Utah State University, said there are three things to pay attention to in an older horse: teeth/diet, muscles and joints/lameness.

Working horses’ joints take a lot of pounding, which over time causes wear and tear and eventually affects their performance.
Watching jumper rounds, it’s easy to see how hard the horses land on their front ends with all their weight, and one would assume the front end would go out first. What is a little more difficult to see is the extreme pressure put on the back end during take-off.

In Hoopes’ experience, it is the horse’s back end which experiences problems first, primarily the stifle and hock joints.

“Some individuals will want x-rays in a pre-purchase examination, because even though we may not see something in a lameness exam or a flexion test, looking at the x-rays will show if there is arthritis in the knees, hocks, or stifles,” Hoopes said.

Just like with humans, joint medications are widely used to manage, prevent or slow joint deterioration. Medications like glucosamine and joint supplements can be given orally, while there are other joint medications that are injected such as Legend and Adequan. These are injected into the horse and not into the joints themselves.

For equestrians who fall neither into the category of pros nor wealthy amateurs, injections start to look a little pricey. Fortunately, there are businesses such as SmartPak that provide supplement packs where medications are broken down by month and become more budget-friendly.

The next pressing issue in an older horse is changes in musculature. With each passing year, it becomes easier for muscles to soften and lose shape.

Keeping older horses conditioned maintains their muscles and their stamina. If the older horses have a lot of down time, it’s not as easy for them to bounce back like the younger ones. Even though they can’t be worked as hard, it is more important that they receive the consistency. Moving and light exercising is also key to combating the onset of arthritis.

This leaves the teeth and diet; teeth need to be in good order for a horse to maintain its body weight. Teeth start to show wear and tear with age, and the body condition of an older horse will drop immensely if they hurt. Fortunately, a veterinarian can do a lot to correct problems with the teeth.

Considerations for the younger horse

Of course, then there are younger, greener horses, which are abundant and usually pretty cheap. It’s a fantasy of many riders, training the young project and bringing it through the levels.

Equestrians looking to purchase a younger horse should expect to spend a lot of time on a training program, as well as ground work. Trying to bring along a green horse can also cost the owner their confidence and enjoyment of the sport, if this huge commitment is not responsibly approached.

“I think the biggest piece of advice I could give someone who is looking for a project horse is to put aside your ego and really assess your abilities very honestly,” said Lizzie Einarson, an amateur eventer who has owned two young, green horses.

There is no shame in having to contact a professional for some guidance. Parkwood suggested contacting a trainer before the purchase, because they are the ones who will be working with the horse on a daily basis.

“And finally, I think it is important to assess how much time, energy, and money you can afford to put into the horse,” Einarson continued.

Younger horses typically require more work than others when it comes to their training, and it is crucial to have an in-depth understanding of how much work the horse you’re interested in buying will require.

It’s an expensive sport no matter the age of the animal. So to those too terrified of the cost of training or maintenance, might want to consider leasing instead of purchasing.

Before writing that check and falling in love with the horse connected to the end of the lead rope, make sure you have educated yourself on the topic of age. Using professional resources, such as veterinarians and trainers, can make the world of difference when taking that leap and bringing home your dream horse.

Jillian Hill is a 23-year-old hunter/jumper enthusiast. She graduated from Utah State University in 2016 with a journalism degree. Horses are her passion in life, with journalism a close second! She has a soft spot for grouchy geldings and owns two: Donny and Atlas. They compete in hunters.

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