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Lockdown prices: a horse seller’s market… or is it?

With the responsibilities of all parties involved in the selling and purchasing of a horse so vastly mismatched, it seems obvious that anyone involved has to exercise extreme caution

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that “lockdown puppy prices” aren’t just for puppies – horse prices have also gone through the roof. When COVID hit, there were concerns that the recession would result in another “equine crisis”, with people unable to afford their horses. However, the demand for horses rose sharply and inevitably so did their value. So much so, in fact, that many horse breeders and suppliers in Ireland now have “empty shelves”! As relieved as we all were to see horses being valued so highly, it has not been without its downsides.

As the buying frenzy gathered momentum, we saw increasing numbers of horses “bought from video”. Yes, that is people buying anything up to 700kg of muscle which they are planning to sit aboard, without having even tried it. Then, when vets were declining to perform vettings due to COVID restrictions, people were buying the horses regardless. And even when vet visits were available, they were often cancelled because the horse sold in the meantime to someone who didn’t care about having a vetting. This manic horse-buying saw prices rocket.

Of course, the sale price is not the business of the attending vet. However, it was hard to not balk when the obese cob which arrived from Ireland three weeks earlier was being sold for £9,500 to a family on the other side of the country, who were “buying from video”. It couldn’t canter. It literally couldn’t bring its ginormous body into a pace that even resembled a canter. After listing another dozen significant findings, I felt like walking out with my head in my hands. On calling the buyer’s agent there was palpable disappointment and disbelief at having just spent a few hundred pounds on a vetting which was a complete waste of time. At least that crisis was averted and the vetting did its job, as it were. More cringeworthy are the panic-buyers who are only just now having it dawn on them that the horse they spent tens of thousands of pounds on still hasn’t risen to the dizzy heights of their expectations and they are instead embarking on complicated “poor performance” examinations to decipher what went wrong since it passed the five-stage vetting they paid for. They are probably wishing their lockdown purchase had been a sports car now.

Well-meaning purchasers wishing to spend their hard-earned cash on high-quality, professionally trained (mostly dressage) horses are finding the current market to be a bit of a minefield. It would seem that horses which may have previously been sold off cheap, or perhaps not sold on at all, are changing hands for price-tags which formerly would have been reserved for established, well-bred horses with a watertight competition record. The market has become increasingly bold and this only seems to attract more attention from the hungry purchasers. The trouble is that the more you spend on a horse, the greater the disappointment when it doesn’t work out. If you buy a retired schoolmaster with a long list of “currently manageable” issues, you are expecting to get a season or two out of them with a little help perhaps, but you would not be kicking yourself if the wheels fall off after 6 to 12 months. Equally, when buying a youngster, you might not be surprised when that blank canvas doesn’t turn out to be the “diamond in the rough” that you were hoping for. All horse purchases come with risk. The biggest trigger which can tip any horse over in terms of physical health, performance and trainability is going to be when it changes hands. These horses are changing not only rider, but also management, diet, arena surface, etc – all of which can result in sometimes catastrophic change for that horse. This is a severely overlooked problem in the world of horse sales. It is incredibly common for a seemingly “Dr Jekyll” – a perfect horse – to “pass” a meticulous vetting and arrive at its new five-star home, only to deteriorate into “Mr Hyde” – the NHS-loyalty-card-worthy kelpie.

Sadly, when this scenario arises there is the immediate desire to point fingers. The belief is that someone has missed something. That someone is usually the vet and/or the seller. If the seller is assumed to be innocent, or can prove that they are (a previously flawless competition record always helps!), they are usually in the clear. If they are guilty of selling a “duff” horse, then they usually have all the tricks up their sleeve to dodge this bullet in any case. So, the next target is naturally the vet. Sometimes previously discussed findings from the vetting are suddenly viewed in a different light, highlighting the importance of keeping contemporaneous notes. Alternatively, the new owner requests that the horse is examined for “poor performance” by their own vet, which inevitably uncovers something which can be blamed for the disappointment this horse has yielded. This is often low-grade pain originating from bilateral combinations of any of the following: proximal suspensories, hocks, front feet, sacroiliac, back, etc – none of which were probably detectable at the time of the vetting for various reasons we don’t have time to go into here.

Then comes the request to run the “vetting blood” (which costs a few hundred pounds and is a sure indicator this is all going to get messy), which nearly always comes back clear and only adds fuel to the flames which are already lapping at the feet of the vet involved. The only conclusion which the owner now seems able to reach is that the vet must have missed these findings because they are a bad vet. Never mind that it took two days of sequential nerve blocks and repeated ridden examinations, screening X-rays and ultrasound to find the needle in the haystack that was the cause of this horse’s aversion to performing canter half-pass left with its new owner, or indeed its reluctance to hack out alone from its new home. And therein lies the problem. If you go looking for a cause of poor performance in any horse, you can nearly always find one. The trouble is that the horse can’t speak to tell us that the hock pain and slight discomfort in the sacroiliac region has actually been there the whole time it’s been out winning with its previous owner. What has now upset the creature is that it has lost its mates, the new saddle feels weird and, quite frankly, the new rider hasn’t got a clue how to get a tune out of this horse yet. I am no fan of anthropomorphising horses, believe me, but I honestly don’t think it is too much of a long shot to hypothesise that the gargantuan changes in this horse’s life might have more effect on its performance than the low-grade, chronic hock arthritis that has been niggling in the background for years.

I think horse owners need to appreciate that they are not buying a two-seater sports car, despite the uncannily similar price tag and the fact that this would have been a more sensible and enjoyable use of their money. They are buying a living, breathing, incredibly sensitive and relationship-dependent herd animal. The sale might not be such an exciting and positive change for this member of the partnership as it might be for the one parting with the cash. Instead, we have the perfect recipe for disaster: unprecedented sums of money being spent alongside inflated expectations, being met with the harsh and grim reality that is buying horses.

With all the responsibilities of all parties so vastly mismatched, it seems obvious that anyone involved has to exercise extreme caution. The murky underworld of dodgy dealers and undetectable drugs used to sell horses to unsuspecting buyers is actually not nearly as prevalent as we tend to imagine. More often, it is a horse which has served a purpose for one person, and has probably picked up some wear and tear along the way, being sold in good faith to someone else, albeit in the knowledge they might be advertising the horse as more “perfect” than it is, of course (few people like to consider their horse has acquired “wear and tear” under their ownership). They want to get as much money back from that horse as they can, naturally, so they advertise according to the market at that time. Then the buyer assumes and expects to get what they are paying for. Ergo, the perfect storm awaits.

Lucy Grieve

Lucy Grieve, MA, VetMB, MRCVS, is an ambulatory assistant at Rossdales Veterinary Surgeons, Newmarket, and past president of BEVA (2020 – 2021).

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