Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Horrors of Horse Hunting, Part I

For good reason, horse themed magazines are filled with articles regaling readers with hilarious tales of horse hunting. The phrase "horse trader" well earns its pejorative connotation. In the right mood (and fueled by a couple of beers), I too can sit around with horsey pals and swap stories about crazy sellers and loco horses. My friend Susan has some of the best anecdotes I've ever heard, including one about an old guy who tried to demonstrate a horse's jumping ability but kept falling off at every cross rail. She thought he would die before he ever had a chance to sell the horse.

So it was with trepidation as well as anticipation that I embarked on the grand search. Most people have been surprisingly professional, fessing up to vices, such as cribbing, or problems with hooves and old injuries. I have run into the occasional unrealistic seller like the woman who claimed her horse was perfect except for his habit of cantering up to a jump on a cross-country course, spinning, and then running off in the opposite direction. This is not, to put it mildly, what I want in a horse.

So far, I've looked at a Belgian Cross at a local farm that seemed nice enough but too green. The connection just wasn't there. I tried a thoroughbred with a meltingly lovely face and luminous big eyes, but his trot tossed me up and down in the saddle, not a great movement for my aching lower back. I saw an adorable Haflinger pony that I would have bought in a heartbeat--he and I truly did "connect"--but he's been ridden the last three years by an adolescent boy who's taught him to run at everything. He goes from a walk to a gallop with little in between, and I didn't feel like retraining him to be a sensible mount. The pony needs another young rider who also wants to chase deer on horseback, a fitting pastime for a fifteen-year-old but not a middle-aged woman all too aware of her increasingly brittle bones.

Then there was the heartbreaker of the lot. My trainer Nina and I avoided him as long as possible for one very good reason: he was in Arkansas, and we're in Maryland. We loved the video, though, and we really liked the horse, so I did a truly crazy thing and bought us tickets to fly down to Arkansas to look at said horse. This gelding, a paint draft X, wasn't perfect, mind you. He turned out to be younger and greener than we expected, but Nina felt confident that with time and training he would make a great all-round horse. I worried about some weakness in his hind end, but we scheduled thorough vetting to disclose any potential problems.

This experience turned out to be my first truly strange horse encounter. I must admit to concern at the outset, when the seller played games with the price, dropping it by two-thirds. Who advertises a horse for three times what it is worth? One expects, especially in this economy, some wriggle room of 10-15% but not 65%. Then there was the demand for a deposit to look at him, 10% of which was non-refundable, a condition that stopped me dead in my tracks. It's like a home-owner asking for a down payment before you even see the house. I outright refused and more negotiations ensued. As soon as I bought our tickets, the seller called and claimed that she had other folks flying down. We had no way of knowing the truth of this statement, but I was sufficiently worried that I moved up our visit by three days.

The trainer in Arkansas was pleasant enough and very kind in letting me ride both days. And Arkansas proved far prettier than I expected, lush and green with lovely farms as far as the eye could see. I had a chance to hack out and see firsthand the horse's calm, sensible nature. By far, this gelding was the most comfortable horse I've ever ridden: his canter was a revelation after years os struggling with Beau's choppy, uneven gait. So I left Arkansas fully intending to buy the boy.

Then all hell broke loose. The trainer didn't seem especially interested in getting the horse to vetting in a timely fashion, and the delays concerned me, especially given the weak hind end. I've heard too many stories of drugging horses, and I know that many drugs wash out in seven days. Nonetheless I set up the vetting, and then the seller wanted a deposit--without anything in writing on her part. Two days of hassles ensued. As we got close to an agreement, I learned that she was still flying down other buyers while demanding a deposit from me. I asked that the horse be withdrawn from the market if I was going to put down part of the asking price. More hassles. The seller refused, claiming that folks were flying out that evening. When I inquired the following morning about the other buyers, she accused me ofsuspecting dark motives and professed ignorance about other prospective purchasers.

I thought about forwarding the long paper trail of e-mails to refresh my lady's memory but decided ultimately to bail. By this point, I was exhausted, fed up, and not a little worried that the seller was either wildly duplicitous or not entirely of sound mind. Either way, it didn't feel right. I called a couple of horsey friends I trust who advised me to get out--quickly--before I lost any more money.

The upshot is that I won't be hopping on planes anytime soon, swanning around the country like I'm Jackie O searching for the perfect hunt horse. But I still keep thinking about the horse that got away . . .

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