Whether due to lockdown, location or time, some riders make the daunting decision to buy a horse without first seeing it in the flesh. Andrea Oakes talks to those who have first-hand experience
“WE call him the gazelephant,” laughs Ellis Simister, whose pandemic purchase Cornetto turned out to be rather larger than expected. “We thought we were buying a 16hh working hunter stamp, nothing too flamboyant, who might event at low level. What turned up was a just-under 17hh beast who is built like an elephant but leaps like a gazelle.”
Ellis is one of the many who bought a horse “sight unseen” during the first lockdown last year. Happily, hers is a success story, but parting with your money without first seeing a horse in the flesh is not without risk – as Ellis knows first-hand.
“We regularly buy Connemara ponies unseen from Ireland,” she explains. “We’ve been pretty lucky, but we have discovered some mismatches on arrival. I would never buy another without a vetting; one pony turned up with his front teeth missing and was also unsound and windsucked. The sellers told me to keep riding him and he would come right.”
While Ellis admits that buying unseen is not for the faint-hearted, she feels she has the experience and facilities to work through most issues.
“It’s a massive risk and you certainly need to prepare yourself for the worst,” says Ellis, who had planned to view Cornetto, a recently backed Cornet Obolensky gelding, but the lockdown kicked in. “I love the challenge with the ponies, but a horse is another matter.
“Cornetto is without doubt the furthest from what my ‘perfect’ horse would be on paper, but he’s amazing – a blessing in disguise,” she adds. “We’ve given the ride to Scottish producer Kirsty Aird, to unleash his full potential.”
Chad-Tavis Rowson is also well aware that a hasty buy can backfire.
“You hear about people who have bought disastrous horses blind – that’s why they come to me,” explains Chad, who runs a breaking and schooling service. “But during the first lockdown I decided I’d like a new project to produce for eventing. I saw two photos of a gangly six-year-old racehorse called Supreme Soviet, known as Big Ben, and I just felt drawn to him. After a short conversation with the seller I made arrangements for our local horse transporter to pick him up the next day.
“I don’t know what came over me,” he adds. “The morning after paying I thought, ‘You idiot – what’s going to arrive?’, but off the lorry strolled a super-smart, rather large teddy bear of a thoroughbred. It was instantly love.
“It’s not something I would advise my clients to do, but it worked for me,” says Chad, whose worst-case scenario plan was to reschool the horse to sell on. “Benjamin is trainable, athletic and tries his heart out. He ticks every box as my future eventer.”
VIEWING a horse may be ruled out for various reasons. International event rider Mark Kyle was competing at Bramham when he spotted a Facebook video of a potential new pony for his showjumping daughter Tabitha.
“We would normally go and look, but I knew the pony probably wouldn’t be around for long,” says Mark, who bought four-year-old Playboy Van De Zoetewei from the Netherlands. “There’s always risk, even if you try it. A top horse that goes to a new home might not suit a new rider.
“He was green but fully vetted and was coming into a professional yard,” adds Mark of “Bugsy”, who has since taken multiple 138cm championships with Tabitha. “If you’re used to buying, you know the pitfalls.”
Elizabeth Strilkowski bought eventing mare Omard Ala for her daughter, Anya, last July, from videos and photos.
“Ala had previously completed a three-star and had a reasonably good record, but we couldn’t get up to see her,” says Elizabeth, who had a distant connection with the owner through Anya’s coach. “With that calibre, you have to strike while the iron is hot.
“She was reasonably priced, although still a sizeable investment,” says Elizabeth, who admits she is “a risk taker”. “We’ve had some good results so far; Anya hopes to do some junior trials this year and her first intermediate.”
The right contacts can help, says equine vet Malcolm Morley MRVCS.
“With a professional purchaser buying from another professional, there’s often a relationship of trust between parties,” he says. “If you already have 10 horses, it’s a bit like a portfolio of investments – you might be prepared to take more risk. But if you’re a private purchaser, buying from someone you don’t know, you stand to lose everything.
“Although most vets will carry out a pre-purchase exam on behalf of a buyer who has never seen the horse, it’s not ideal,” adds Malcolm. “Some purchasers ask a lot of questions, such as ‘do you like the horse?’, that stray outside the remit of the examination.”
Event rider Laura Schroter worked closely with her vet last year when she bought three horses unseen – something she had vowed she would never do.
“Covid made travelling abroad difficult and I was getting desperate to find some young horses leading up to Brexit,” explains Laura, who describes herself as a “very, very fussy” buyer. “I took the plunge and bought unseen from the Netherlands.
“With the first I had help from a very reputable agent, who sent me videos from all angles and attended the vetting, but the second two were unbroken and from an online auction,” she says. “My [UK] vet was fantastic and checked all the vettings and X-rays. I did as many checks as I could, and the auction had extensive terms and conditions and seemed very supportive to buyers.”
Laura sold the first horse sooner than intended, to young event rider Georgia Bartlett. “I’ve no idea how we managed it, but all three horses are spot on,” she adds.
THE outcome is not always successful, as Jane Patching discovered when a horse she bought unseen from Wales arrived tired and lame. What rights, if any, does a purchaser have?
“Whether the horse is seen or unseen, when buying from a private seller the principle of caveat emptor – ‘let the buyer beware’ – applies,” explains Ian Dexter from HorseSolicitor. “A seller cannot make false statements to induce you to buy; this would constitute misrepresentation, and if they refused to take the horse back you would have recourse to court proceedings. But ‘no win, no fee’ agreements are not usually available, and, depending on how the purchase was arranged, you may not even have the seller’s real details.
“There are statutory rights if you buy from a dealer, but buying unseen from a private seller is a very risky proposition,” adds Ian. “It makes sense to ask as many questions, in writing, as possible beforehand, and to validate that the seller has the horse – and they are who they say they are.”
Undaunted, Jane tried again – this time through a dealer and with help from a yard-owning friend. It was 11.30pm at night when her new horse, a 16.1hh part-bred Irish Draught mare called Molly, arrived.
“Molly came off the lorry at 100mph, spinning around on the lead rope, and I went home thinking this was a bad idea,” says Jane, who had hoped for something safe to share with her teenage daughter. “Now she has settled, she’s a fabulous, fun, opinionated but loving mare, and we wouldn’t be without her.
“I’ve visited horses pre-Covid and seen, tried and tested, only to find out then that they were unsuitable, so it can be just as bad if you use the conventional routes,” she adds. “If buying unseen I highly recommend enlisting the help of someone knowledgeable and impartial, and trusting their judgement, and tracking the previous owner via the horse’s passport. It’s also worth being open-minded and keeping expectations realistic.”
When Hannah Wallis was finally in a position to buy her own horse, she used a dealer with a “stellar” reputation. With connections with Geraghty Sport Horses in Ireland, along with an independent five-stage vetting and a money-back guarantee, she bought six-year-old gelding Charlie.
“I strongly believe that a good dealer won’t sell you a bad horse and jeopardise their reputation, provided you’re honest about what you want and your capabilities,” she says. “David [Geraghty] sent videos and pictures of Charlie standing straight from all angles, jumping loose and ridden, being mounted, in traffic – far more than I could have experienced in a 30-minute viewing.
“Charlie is exactly as described,” she adds. “We’ve had the most wonderful time during lockdown, getting to know each other and working on our flatwork and jumping. I couldn’t be happier.”
What I ordered… and what I got
SIZE can be an issue. When Sarah Coulten bought a 10-year-old Lusitano mare advertised
as 163cm during lockdown last year, it was clear upon arrival from Spain that she stood
at just 158cm.
“In various emails I had made the agent and the stables aware of my height and the minimum I needed,” says Sarah, who is nearly 6ft. “They refused to come up with a refund, or allow return, or any acceptable solution to the issue of their making.”
An English lawyer based in Spain advised Sarah that while she had been mis-sold, a court case could be lengthy and expensive – with no guarantee that money owed would be repaid.
“I had examined their vet certificate and X-rays, but they don’t measure the horse as standard,” she adds. “I now have a lovely – but small – Lusitano mare to sell.”
William Pittendrigh was surprised when his “tiny” Irish Sport Horse youngster turned up from Ireland, measuring around a hand smaller than stated.
“He was a bit of a fright, but otherwise everything I expected,” says William of “Lucifer”, who has since grown to the 16.2hh advertised. “From the photos I liked his eye and could see that he had so much bone, a big head and a really big shoulder – a proper frame to fill.
“I’ve bought unseen before and the horse that arrived was not even the one in the photo,” he adds. “But I was prepared to take the risk with Lucifer. He’s fantastic.”
You can also read this feature in the 20 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine.
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