Finding Nemo, Part I: Ignoring the Red Flags

“Sometimes, despite the red flags, we decide to take a chance.” Victoria Shields shares the story she never saw coming of a too-good-to-be-true Haflinger named Nemo: in Part I, with the benefit of hindsight, she looks at all the red flags she chose to ignore.

Nemo, pre-purchase. All photos by Victoria Shields

If you’ve ever gone through the horse buying process, or just been around horses for long enough, you start to learn what red flags to look for. We joke about how “forward ride, a little green” can translate to “does not stop” and repeat the old adage, “green + green = black and blue.” We know how to spot a horse that’s been drugged, and the right questions to ask to find out what the buyer might not be listing in the ad.

But sometimes, despite the red flags, we decide to take a chance.

In early January, my friend and jump coach sent me an ad for a horse that sounded too good to be true. In hindsight, that was the first red flag.

Nemo was a five year old, 15hh grade Haflinger gelding who was listed as “green, but a good boy.” He came with all of his tack for the grand price of $600.

$600?? For a beautifully built, 15hh Haflinger? Even if he was grade, the price was enough to get my attention. My head saw a red flag, but my heart decided to look into it further.

I already own a wonderful Quarter Horse gelding that I have done some low level eventing on (read: under 2’6” and Intro level tests), but he injured his suspensory in a pasture accident last year and we have been taking it extra easy since then. My husband has also been showing an interest in riding, so I had been keeping an eye out for a second horse that would be safe for my husband to learn on as well as and fun for me to do some casual jumping and dressage on. A big, well-built Haflinger gelding seemed like the perfect candidate. Besides, I had always loved Haflingers.

I had a feeling this horse would go fast so I immediately messaged the seller, who told me I could go look at him the next day. I went to bed dreaming about braiding long white manes and taking bareback canters through fields of flowers in the spring… and woke up the next morning to freezing rain, snow, and bad roads. I messaged the seller and asked him if I could push back the time a little to let the roads clear, and he agreed. The roads never quite cleared, but I managed to avoid winding up in a ditch.

When I arrived I saw Nemo alone in the seller’s yard, in a makeshift run-in and a small pasture. As soon as I pulled in I noticed him cantering back and forth along the fence line, looking stressed and calling out over and over. He was certainly more high-strung than I expected, which should have stood out as a second red flag on my search for a husband-safe horse.

The seller met me at the barn and told me a little more about Nemo. Apparently he had been picked up from an auction known to be frequented by kill buyers at less than a year old, and then sold several times before the seller bought him to be a family horse. I briefly wondered how a well-built Haflinger had wound up in a kill pen, but I ignored my questions and reminded myself that good horses wound up in bad places all the time. I also found myself wondering why he had been sold so many times, which should have been another warning, but I pushed it aside.

Nemo, day one.

The seller continued, telling me that Nemo had some sporadic training, but hadn’t been worked regularly. The seller had fallen off of him and had unrelated medical problems now, and couldn’t risk another fall.

So he would be a project, I told myself, but it was one I could handle. Right?

The red flags continued when we went into the paddock and the seller couldn’t catch him. When I put my hand out, however, he trotted right over to me, put his nose in my hand, and let me halter him. I felt like the horse whisperer in all of the cheesy, unrealistic horse movies I’d watched as a kid, and it made my heart melt just enough not to worry about the fact that he would be pasture-boarded when he came home with me, and I would need to be able to catch him. That was something we could work on, after all.

Of course, the horse-whisperer fantasy didn’t last long. Nemo showed himself to be pushy and nippy, and tried to kick me when I asked him to lift his feet. There were proverbial red flags flying in my face by then, and I was casually tossing them aside. After all, he had a beautiful trot on the lunge despite the frozen, snowy ground, and a kind eye. I decided to take the plunge and offered to buy him.

The man who sold me Nemo was nothing but honest. I wasn’t being tricked or fooled. The red flags were all on full display, and I decided to purchase him anyway. I think, as horse riders, there come times when we have to know which “warning signs” to try to work through, and which ones to turn and run from. Despite all of the worries gnawing at my brain, nothing I saw made me believe I couldn’t make it work with Nemo with some time and training. And at his price, I could afford to put some professional training on him. I had a good feeling about him, right along with all my worries.

Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, I had no idea what I was getting into. It would turn into a much bigger ordeal than I ever imagined, including broken equipment, vet bills, surgery, and a few tears. My expectations would be completely shattered, and not in a good way, but I have now come to realize that was exactly what I needed to learn all of the things he was waiting to teach me.

Nemo, day one.

Catch Part II here.

Victoria will continue telling Nemo’s story in upcoming installments — keep an eye out for next week’s chapter!

Victoria is a Horse Nation reader and a horseback rider from Ohio. She currently has a nine year old Quarter Horse gelding, Houdini, and a five year old Haflinger gelding, Nemo. 

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