I would venture to say nearly everyone who has ever been in the market for a new barrel horse dreams of striking that magical balance with the horse they ultimately buy. Everyone wants to “click” instantly with a new horse, and most sellers want it that way too. However, there are some common pitfalls that can happen when a horse changes homes, and I want to talk about some things a person should be prepared for during and after the buying process.

Our horses are bred to be sensitive and responsive. Ironically, the horses I’ve seen have the most trouble with a new owner are the ones that are really good at what they do. Horses that try very hard and are fast and smart tend to go down faster if they encounter stress and frustration with a new rider or an unfamiliar environment.Buying a horse is a major investment, so it’s very important to take into account all the specifics regarding the horse’s care and maintenance. If you don’t take care of them to keep them at the level they were when they came to you, it’s like taking a match to your money. All the specifics that go into the care of that horse are things you will have to learn and do to keep them physically and mentally sound. The last thing you want is to get home without a well-advised plan for care, training and conditioning and then decide the horse is no good. If someone was riding that horse and winning, then learn every detail from them—how they rode and worked the horse, overall care, conditioning and maintenance.

I’ve always made an effort to help whenever I sold a horse, or I knew of someone who could help the new owner, and I think most people are willing to help if you will pay close attention, ask questions and listen closely.

Photo credit Megan Parks.

The Transition Period

Realistically, I think it takes on average six months to really get with a new horse. Give it time, because everything changes overnight for that horse, and there is an adjustment period for the horse and the rider to learn the feel of each other. The real key to buying a horse winning at the top level is a rider must have the ability to ride at that level to keep the horse there. Have realistic expectations and the willingness to learn and ask questions. Watch videos and analyze everything the previous rider was doing. Set up time with the person who was riding the horse and learn the work required during the week away from competition.

It’s very important, particularly if you’re not a professional barrel racer, to have the mindset that you will probably have to adjust some of your riding habits for the horse. Be very diligent about the small details—the exercise routine, how much work on the barrels and what type of work on the barrels fit that horse. Pinpoint all those little things, and as your timing comes together with the horse, you will probably adjust a few things for what suits you. Stick with the previous owner’s original program through the adjustment period, because it will eliminate stress on you and the horse.

Horses are trained to expect certain cues; a certain feel of the rider’s timing, seat, style, rein pressure, hands and overall feel. When you get a new horse home, it might not immediately understand the feel of you as its new rider. It might not be a bad horse innately, rather just confused by unfamiliar cues or mistakes. When horses get frustrated they get nervous, so listen to them and get some help when nervous symptoms surface.

Horses are not robots, so pay very close attention to learn everything you can to make the transition smooth.

Home Sweet Home

When a horse is uprooted completely from his surroundings, there is a readjustment period—it’s few and far between that this doesn’t happen. Age plays a part in that too—younger horses need more routine because they are usually a bit more insecure. Older horses are a lot more forgiving in general.

It’s important to keep your new horse content. You can help do that by sticking to the same schedule of feed, exercise, maintenance, shoeing—all the same things that were working before you got the horse. If the horse was on a winning program, stick to it precisely. A lot of people fall prey to switching to a mediocre shoer without taking into account there are very few great shoers out there. That farrier can make a huge difference in the overall soundness of your new horse.

Also, find out how the horse was being stalled or if it’s accustomed to pasture turnout. Stick to the same everyday routine to give the new horse time to adapt to its environment. Your new horse might not be accustomed at all to being out in the pasture, so it might be a change you make very gradually over time to not worry the horse or get him hurt. Another example is if the horse you purchased paces in the stall or has a little quirk, how did the previous owner manage that? Learn their management practices because changing homes, going to an all-new environment to a new rider with a different personality and a lot of expectations is a big change for a horse, not just physically, but mentally.

Keep it Positive

Part of really doing all your homework includes being on the lookout for what kind of pens your new horse excels in—deep ground, hard ground, small or big arenas. Conditions vary so much, and there may be situations more favorable for that particular horse. Knowledge of what setting the horse excels in will guide your expectations as a rider. Some horses perform better at jackpots, and others respond very well to the rodeo atmosphere and different ground conditions. Just remember they are horses and all respond differently to varying factors.

It also never hurts to have a little luck thrown in there, so be optimistic. Horses feed off optimism. It’s just like your or me—we prefer to be around happy, positive, optimistic people, and I think horses are the same. It’s amazing to watch the reaction horses have to different personality types. I think horses are much more sensitive than people in that way. They are so in-tune with what the person’s mindset and attitude is—so be happy! If you’ve done your due diligence, there’s no reason you and your new horse shouldn’t click.

Trying Horses

When trying horses, I think it’s a good idea to get on two to three horses. You might try 10 horses before you find the one you feel good about that fits you and your personality. Not only do you need to really like the horse you buy and like his personality but also that of the seller, because you want to buy from a credible, reliable person whom you feel comfortable contacting in the future with questions.

When I first get on a horse, I try not to override the horse so I can see what they’ll do just working under me. I don’t want to pressure the horse. Bad habits and a lack of confidence can develop if you jump on expecting to win the first weekend out. You want to build trust over time and not rush into the stress of forcing things in a competitive setting. Some horses are totally forgiving when they’re miscued a little bit but others are not at all. Some horses will start to react negatively to miscues and mistakes after just three or four times, while others will keep doing exactly what they were trained to do even if they’ve been cued incorrectly 50 times. It just depends on the horse’s attitude and personality.

Since some people broker horse sales, talk to the trainer if that person is different from the seller. A little something you pick up from the trainer might really be a key thing to getting with the horse.

It goes without saying that when a person has a nice horse they let you try, be respectful of them and their property. They are letting you ride a horse they’ve probably put a lot of time and effort into caring for and training.

The Pre-Purchase

I believe a pre-purchase exam from a very qualified veterinarian is important for both the buyer and seller. I’ve always wanted to be aware of every little thing going on with my horses, so I want to know if there’s a need for maintenance or an issue that could develop due to the age or conformation of the horse that I should be aware of and plan for as we move forward together. If everyone’s on the same page with the vet check, there aren’t surprises later.

Robert Lewis, DVM, at Elgin Veterinary Hospital in Elgin, Texas, is where I prefer to go for my vet checks. It’s very rare that a horse does not have anything at all come up in the vet check, particularly a horse that is a performer. I’d rather take one with a few issues I can manage that can go win. A good vet can give you some objective feedback and help you weigh your considerations.

 For more information on Charmayne James and her books, videos and clinics, visit charmaynejames.com. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected].