"If there's a hole in that horse, I don't know it!"
Few things rankle my nerves as much as hearing someone utter those words. Yes, I know I'm not being polite here, but it's just more than a person can stand sometimes.
I've not had the "pleasure" of being around a horse trader in many a year and I'd nearly forgotten the special brand of hell their barns can be. A friend and client of mine had been searching for a well-broke trail gelding for some time, and had traveled far and wide looking for just the right one. To her, a horse is member of the family, one to be cared for and loved for the rest of its life, so it only made sense to be particular on the choosing of the new family member. She'd invited me to come along a few times for an objective opinion, because let's face it, buying a horse is an emotional experience, and more than a few of us are guilty of making emotional purchases that someone not involved might have warned against. When we want a horse so badly and see one in need of help, it's easy to fall into what I call the "Rescue Trap". Some traders know this and use it to their advantage. I rode for one as a young teen and when I complained about him not feeding the skinny horses enough, he actually admitted to me that keeping them looking like that helped sell some of them because inevitably some sweet lady would come along and want to rescue the poor thing. How utterly sad and disgusting.
If you have never had the experience of dealing with a trader, please allow me set the scene for you. Usually, he or she has a barn that can be anything from a ramshackle old building that looks like it needs to be condemned all the way up to a shiny modern facility. More often than not, a quick peek inside tells the true story. Most traders have regular, non-horse related full time jobs. They say they just love horses and therefore work with them in their free time. Some say they do it because they are retired and it's a hobby. Some come off like used-car salesmen and some are smooth talking, seemingly nice individuals. Some actually are nice individuals, if you take the horses out of the equation. The problem is, whether they were ever decent hands or not, many either don't have the time or knowledge, to properly work horses, so invariably they will have someone, usually a "trainer" (often a fearless teenager who KNOWS that to ride you merely sit on the horse and kick and pull and jerk until you get them to go where you want) that rides their horses for them. I know this, because when I was fifteen years old, I was one of those kids, except I was already realizing there was a better way -- but more on that later. The hired "trainer" will ride (and by ride I mean pull, jerk, kick and generally irritate the sheer devil out of) the horses until they just give in and either act like dead-heads, or are so mad that they want no part of humans. It used to be that the ones who couldn't take it would end up in the killer pens, but nowadays with the slaughterhouse market gone, they may just get passed around until someone gets hurt or they end up starving in a pasture somewhere.
Some common trader training tricks are: starving them till they are too weak to fight, using Running W's to jerk their feet out from under them to "teach" them not to run away, beating them into submission, sedation, bigger, stronger, more tortuous bits until their mouth is so torn up and their jaws so sore they just give up, throwing them and hogtying them while starving them of water and even taking the extra step of throwing a tarp over them in the hot sun until they are sure they are convinced they are dying (and nearly are) to "break" them of fighting back, etc. This is by no means a complete list, but these are all things I personally witnessed as a child and still continue to hear about (from the people who still DO them, not hearsay from a third party) today. I can't even type the words out without feeling sick to my stomach at the things people will do in the name of "training".
So, when my friend called me and asked if I'd go to a trader's barn to look at a horse, I was incredulous that she was even considering it. "Do you know this man?" Yes, she did, and she basically said, "We've bought a horse or two from him in the past, on rare occasion he will get a good one and will let you know the truth about it." Wow. I was stunned. That she was seriously so desperate for a good horse that she'd even consider going there was hard for me to grasp, but on the other hand, I was interested to see if things had changed in the years since I'd last visited a trader's barn so I said that I'd come along.
It was like stepping back in time. The place was a mess. Junk was strewn everywhere. The smell of ammonia from urine-soaked stalls, and a barn that looked like a death-trap for horses sat amongst pipe fencing that leaned this way and that. The hair stood up on the back of my neck as we walked in and the smell got stronger. The first thing I noticed was a kid, probably around 17 or 18, riding a sad looking sorrel gelding in the round pen. The horse was unshod and untrimmed. Its feet were a decent length, but were ragged and broken off in splinters. It had obviously not had any hoof care in a long time. The boy was riding in a rope halter and lead rope, and a roping saddle. He was slouching so hard that his spine was in the shape of a C, his legs stuck far ahead of him. The horse was completely strung out, traveling with its nose stuck straight out and up in the air, and was trotting around in bone-jarring choppy strides. Its neck was poorly muscled: thin on top and thicker on the bottom, as is typical of horses that are ridden badly for a long time. Its face registered nothing but annoyance and irritation as the boy slammed down onto its back with each bounce. The kid tried to neck-rein the poor horse, but it had no idea what he was asking and just looked more irritated as he pushed and shoved with the rein. Finally he just used it drag the horse around in a circle and started back off at a teeth-rattling trot in the other direction. "Good boy!" he said, patting the horse on the neck as it hollowed its back out even more and lifted its nose higher. He looked smugly in my direction, clearly proud of himself. Part of me wanted to ask him what the heck he thought he was doing, but what was the point? I was a guest here and should probably just mind my manners and let it go. I watched for another minute as the display of "horsemanship" progressed. Finally I just walked away and busied myself looking at another horse in a stall. I kept my ears open and listened as the trader explained to my friend how gentle and good that poor horse was, how his own boy had roped off it last year, and how they'd had it for five years. (The horse was a coming seven-year-old.) I was shocked. In five years they hadn't managed to train it to carry a rider properly, to respond to subtle cues, to work with a rider, or to do anything other than be nagged and pulled into turning different directions, kicked into faster speeds, and jerked to a stop. I heard the trader say anyone could ride it and that because it was such a good horse with an excellent pedigree, he'd need $2,000 for it. "If there's a hole in this horse, I don't know it". I nearly choked.
Now, apparently my friend hadn't realized that when I walk away from a horse like that and busy myself studying some other thing like a barn cat, dog or cute pony off in the corner, it means I've seen enough and am finished with the business at hand. Experience tells me that there's no use trying to explain any of these things because if the trader has been doing this for many years (like most) he has no interest in hearing anything from a visitor about the sad state of affairs that he thinks is a training program. I'm not there to preach. My only concern is keeping my friends and clients from getting into a bad deal. Well, that and saying a prayer for the animals in the trader's care. I should have just walked over to where they were all standing and said, "Thanks for your time but this isn't the horse we're looking for", but I didn't. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.
While I stood there petting and rubbing on the pony in the stall, I couldn't help but notice the fresh straw that was likely thrown down for our visit. I shook my head as I noticed the huge piles of manure it only half covered. With a sigh I turned away and found my friend preparing to the ride the horse. Part of me wanted to ask what the heck she was doing that for, but I kept my mouth shut. She'd likely go about 25 yards, realize how awful the ride was and turn around and come right back. I really didn't feel up to causing a scene, so I quietly walked over to look at another horse. Its feet were horribly overgrown and it stood at the back of the stall, eyeing me warily. My spirits sank even lower.
Meanwhile, my friend was riding the poor gelding around the huge piles of junk in front of the barn. It wasn't pretty, but the horse was being kind, if clueless as to what it was supposed to be doing. Several minutes later I realized horse and rider were nowhere in sight. Nervously, I looked off in the distance. There they were, both walking along on foot back towards the barn. She didn't look the least bit happy. The horse trailed along miserably. My mind raced. Had she been thrown? She was walking normally, and other than her body language screaming her displeasure, she looked okay. Her husband and I met her halfway to the barn. "What happened?" we asked, nearly in unison. "The $%@#% thing reared with me!" She was clearly shaken. Once away from the barn, the horse had decided to sneak in some bites of tall green grass as they were walking along. When she'd insisted they go forward instead, he'd gotten fussy. Fed up with his arguing with her, she'd turned him for home, pulling him away from the grass. As he turned, he did a half-rear to show his displeasure. She said it wasn't much as far as rearing goes, but if he was willing to resort to that over not being allowed to throw his head down and eat grass then surely she didn't want to stay on him any longer. We agreed and said that we'd seen more than enough, it was time to go. The kid snorted and swung up on the horse, kicking and slapping it on the rear until it trotted off into the direction my friend had just come from. The horse did its awful trot, dropping into a walk once or twice for a stride or two before jumping back into a startled trot. Its nose so high in the air that there was no way it could even see grass, much less try to take a bite. He rode back at a canter that was just as unbalanced as its trot and said "Good boy" as he dragged it to a stop, its nose rooting out even higher than before. If it'd been raining, the poor thing would have drowned. The kid stared at us as if we were from another planet. "Ain't nothing wrong with this horse!" he said. Laughing softly and shaking my head, I just headed for the car.
My normally sweet and calm friend was clearly upset as she led the beast back to the barn. "Just say 'Thank you for your time' and that the horse is not what you are looking for," I advised as she walked away. Her husband and I exchanged looks and waited. The look on her face as she came back said it all.
Fortunately, that was a fairly mild episode. Folks tell me regularly of adventures they experience while going to look at horses for sale. This past year, another friend looked at around thirty mules before he found one that was exactly as the owner described and hadn't been messed up. He'd actually been thrown and had several near-misses in the months of searching. As you can guess, the good mule he ended up buying did not belong to a trader, but a kind gentleman who'd raised and handled the molly with gentle but firm consistency and respect. She was, and is, a joy to work with.
If you're looking for a mule or horse, please take care to find a respectable trainer to help you. The cheapest animal is usually not the best animal, and neither is it necessary to spend a fortune. If you aren't sure about someone, ask for references. Do your homework. Will the seller let you test ride the animal on several different occasions? Or do they want you to bring a trailer and buy it after spending only twenty minutes with it? Ideally, if you are looking for a trail animal, you should be able to go out and spend real time with it on the trail. Riding it out away from the owner's property is good idea. Spend hours getting to know it.
When you arrive to meet the animal, it should be loose, not tied and saddled ready to go. If it's wearing a saddle and there's sweat on it beneath the pad, or anywhere, they've already been riding it. Why do you think that is? That's not to say someone can't work the devil out of one, wash it and put it away so it looks like it's just standing around when you get there, but by going to visit on more than one occasion you can get a better idea of what you are actually dealing with. If an owner gets angry at your being particular, walk away. It's that simple. Never let yourself be pressured into buying today. If you think you might be, leave your trailer and money at home. Bring an impartial friend, one who won't let you get caught up in the emotional aspect of buying a horse. Take time to look at all the details of the situation. How do its feet look? Are they neglected? Is the horse well nourished? Are its eyes and nose runny or clear? Is that scar on its leg old or is it a new wound with swelling? Is that an old, healed splint? Or is it hot and tender? Blemishes are nothing to be concerned with, usually, but learn to tell the difference between a blemish and an unsoundness issue. Please don't be afraid to ask a knowledgeable horseperson for help. I still make a point to take along another experienced friend, trainer or even vet sometimes when I'm considering buying a horse. You're never too old or experienced to benefit from having an objective second opinion.
It's okay to be particular when looking for that next four-legged family member. Avoid traders and trainers who are out to make a quick buck and have no interest in maintaining healthy, well-trained animals. Take your time and find that horse or mule that you can build and enjoy a safe, long-lasting, healthy relationship with.
Remember, this is an animal to which you will be entrusting your life. Don't you deserve to have a partner that has been handled fairly and with respect? Or are you okay with one who hates people and will likely never trust anyone again due to mishandling and neglect? Sure, most can be rehabilitated, but are you willing and able to put that kind of work and/or money into it, knowing there's a chance it may not work out?
It's all about the relationship.
Why not get off to the best start possible?