Legal Considerations When Buying a Horse

May 19, 2023

Hi, I'm Paige, half of the duo behind Fairway Stables™

This website is the one I've been searching for, for years; a compilation of knowledge on all things horsemanship, including practical advice on how to start an equestrian business.

No matter your experience level with horses or homesteading, I hope this is a place you can get lost in, and learn something along the way - we welcome everyone from vets, to lifelong ranchers, trainer, to nonprofits contributing.


Few things are more exciting than buying a horse. Unfortunately, a lack of knowledge or due diligence can turn this excitement into a disaster, even for experienced horse owners.

A little research and common sense can make all the difference. Buying a horse is an investment and legal decision, after all, and taking appropriate steps to protect yourself can minimize your hassle, expense, and heartache.

Here’s what you need to know when buying a horse.

Consider Your Risks

  • Does the agent have the authority to sell the horse? It’s possible that the agent may not have the authority to carry out the principal’s request to sell the horse.
  • Is the agent exceeding restrictions on price? The seller may have given the agent restrictions on the horse’s minimum sale price, which was violated by selling for a lower price.
  • Confirm the authority of the agent or seller. Before making a purchase, you should confirm the authority of the seller or agent. In some cases, you may have a legal duty to determine the agent’s authority. The burden may fall on you to do your due diligence.
  • Use a contract. Your contract should be carefully worded to indicate that the agent has the authority to enter into a transaction, which is binding for the seller.
  • Contact the principal. Obtain contact information for everyone the agent is representing in the transaction and confirm the agent’s role in the sale. All of the horse’s sellers, if applicable, should sign the sale contract.
  • Pay the principal. In some cases, sales agents have “skimmed” a disproportionate amount of the sale proceeds and concealed the price from unsuspecting principals, or sellers. Because the equestrian industry often relies on “gentleman’s agreements” or handshakes instead of carefully worded contracts, this complicates the situation. Both buyers and sellers should protect themselves by requiring payment directly from the buyer to the seller and including the agent’s commission in the contract

Avoid “Gentlemen’s Agreements”

You wouldn’t buy a home or a car on a handshake or gentleman’s agreement. With the rising costs of horses, their purchase should be no different. They are property under the law and you need to protect yourself as a buyer.

Don’t Buy with Cash

During sales disputes, the seller often seeks a refund of the purchase price and incidental expenses. With a cash sale, you have no record of what you paid to the seller if a dispute arises. If you do pay with cash, get a bill or sale or contract that reflects the amount paid and the seller’s receipt of payment.

Take a Test Ride

Horses have individual personalities, preferences, fears, habits, and quirks. A horse in a new and unfamiliar environment with a new and unfamiliar owner may behave differently than in its sale setting, and that could mean all the difference with the sale.

It’s always smart to have a test ride and trial period to ensure that the horse is a good fit, not just for you, but for the rest of your stable. You shouldn’t purchase a horse from an owner who will not allow you a trial period of at least 30 days. This is a reasonable expectation, assuming you take the appropriate precautions for risk of injury or loss. If a seller does have a problem with a trial period, they may be trying to hide something.

Allocation of Risk

A horse is a living thing, so many things can happen between the purchase or lease and the time the animal is in your possession. Horses are notorious for illness and injury, or worse. Who bears the risk of loss before the horse is in your possession? Who is responsible for the veterinary bills or choosing a veterinarian? You may not be in agreement as to the veterinarian or the decision for how to proceed with treatment.

There are also concerns if your prospective horse injures another animal or person. Who carries the liability insurance in between the sale and the horse arriving on your property? Who carries the insurance during a trial period, if there is one?

All of this information should be part of a written agreement before money is paid and the sale is finalized. The trial period is important as a buyer, and you should be responsible for injuries or losses that occur during the trial period – barring any existing health problems.

Proof of Ownership

Horses can have multiple owners throughout their lifetime. Horses may even have co-owners. If the person selling the horse to you, representing themselves as the legal owner, is lying or mistaken, you may not have any rights if something goes wrong. It’s important to confirm that the party selling the horse has 100% ownership – without co-owners – and the agreement should have a provision that releases you of legal claims of ownership from others in the future.

Breeding Rights

Many people purchase horses for breeding, but it’s possible that the seller will ask you to agree not to breed the horse. It’s important to know what breeding rights you have, such as whether the horse can be bred at all, who has ownership of the offspring (with permit breeding), and what other terms may govern breeding the horse. Contracts should include this information to avoid disputes later on.


If you choose to enter a co-ownership agreement with another party, the purchase agreement should include information for you as the co-owner, but also information in a separate agreement with the other co-owners. This agreement should cover allocation of costs, risk, responsibilities for care and management, and details to handle disputes between owners. For example, a partnership may dissolve or there may be disagreements about the horse’s care.

Common Legal Disputes When Buying a Horse

buying a horse
Buying a horse? It’s important to do your due diligence.

Soundness and Serviceable Soundness

A horse’s soundness is the overall health of the animal. A sound horse has no lameness or illness.

Conversely, serviceably sound is a horse that’s capable of regular work, but it may have some health issues or past injuries.

Before purchasing a horse, it’s important to get a pre-purchase exam to identify any pre-existing conditions that may impact the horse’s ability to perform in a certain discipline. The veterinarian may perform multiple exams that include:

  • A thorough identification of the horse, including color, age, distinguishing markings or characteristics, brands, and tattoos.
  • Assessment of vital signs
  • A urine sample to test for performance-enhancing or performance-altering drugs.
  • An assessment of the horse’s body condition with a score ranging from 1 to 9, 1 being emaciated and 9 being obese. Ideal body weight should be 4, 5, or 6.
  • Visual assessment of soundness with the horse in motion and at rest, as well as gauging soundness by touch. This will also include a thorough hoof examination.
  • An assessment under saddle, depending on the horse’s intended discipline. This may include movements to test straight lines, circles, passive and active flexion tests, and jumps.
  • Diagnostic testing, including nuclear scans, ultrasounds, and radiography.

A basic neurological exam may also be included.

The veterinarian performing the exam should be qualified and experienced. Choose a veterinarian without bias for the seller. With high-end horses, it may be beneficial to get exams from two different veterinarians to ensure soundness.

If you’re purchasing a horse from a different location and shipping and quarantine costs are a factor, it’s even more important to get exams from multiple veterinarians. Be sure to obtain all documentation to verify the horse’s soundness or serviceable soundness.


A horse’s suitability refers to fitness for a particular discipline at a particular level. This is closely tied to soundness and the horse’s ability to perform, but also the horse’s suitability for the rider – and vice versa.

Suitability is not nearly as black and white as soundness. It is partially determined by the experience and skill of the rider and the personality and willingness of the horse. For example, a sound and capable jumper may have an issue with refusals, but is that on the part of the horse or the rider, or both? Even the best horse and the best rider can be an ill fit for each other.

With this gray area, suitability disputes can arise. Sellers often try to make the sale by emphasizing the high points and minimizing the low points, which can create issues in the future. It’s possible for a horse to be “too much” for the rider at that point, but the seller may be overly eager to push the sale. If this situation happens and the sale can’t be rescinded, it can lead to a dispute.

Communication is key during pre-purchase. Sale listings, oral descriptions, text messages, and emails are all considered binding contracts, even if they’re not included in the written contract. Buyers should retain all written descriptions or representations and insist on formal written contracts that remove all ambiguity.

Buyers need to be clear about the type of horse they’re looking for. Don’t misrepresent your experience level or assume anything is implicit. These types of omissions or vague representations can become an issue if a suitability dispute arises.

For their own protection, sellers should never take the rider or trainer’s word for experience and skill level. The seller can easily vet the rider to ensure they’re at the level they claim and offer the appropriate horse. Casual and careless statements to make the sale can be binding in litigation, so it’s vital to be clear in communications.

Tips for Buying Your First Horse

buying a horse: legal considerations
There are many legal considerations when buying a horse. Don’t let excitement cloud your judgement.

Buying a horse is a major investment. Though becoming a new horse owner it’s exciting, you should always enter into it with the mentality of an investment. Here are some tips:

Consider Your In Search Of (ISO)

Before you can shop for a horse, you have to know what you’re looking for. Not every horse or every breed is ideal for every activity. Consider the breed, size, and sex that’s appropriate for your discipline.
For example, you may not want to look at off-the-track thoroughbreds for a beginner trail horse, nor would you seek older draft breeds for jumpers.

Size is important for not only the discipline, but your size as well. The horse’s height and weight should be a close match to your own. Ideally, you and your tack should be about 15% to 20% of the horse’s weight. And generally, taller or larger horses are better suited for taller riders. Of course, some horses take up more or less leg, but this general guideline should give you a good starting point for your search.

Gender is more important for breeding than for choosing a horse for a particular discipline, but it may factor into your decision. Stallions are generally not suitable for most disciplines, especially at the lower levels. Some riders get along with mares better than geldings, and vice versa, but this can come down to a personality fit.

Similarly, color and markings are a matter of preference. Some disciplines have colors that are more common, however, such as bays or chestnuts with a blaze and white socks in hunters or unique roans or paints in western pleasure classes. But ultimately, color should not be a dealbreaker if the other requirements are met.

Finally, consider the qualities that are negotiable, or “nice to have” vs. the ones that are fixed. For example, you may have high standards for soundness to compete at a high level, or you may be looking for a trail horse and some minor past injuries aren’t a problem.

Define Your Budget

Now that you have an ISO, the next step is determining your budget. You should have a minimum and maximum limit for your purchase. The maximum is for obvious reasons, but the minimum is a measure of protection to keep you from buying a horse that’s “too good to be true.”

For example, if your ISO gives you prospects in the range of $50,000 to $75,000, that’s the market price for the horse you want. If you find a horse that fits your requirements for $10,000, it’s way below market price and there may be a reason for that.

Prices vary by region, name, training, talent, and more, but having a budget range gives you a means to narrow your options.

Don’t forget to consider the other expenses related to owning a horse. Board varies greatly according to location, amenities, and the type of facility. Some facilities include feed, hay, and bedding, but you may need to pay for those yourself outside of your boarding fees. You also need to pay for tack and equipment, insurance, lessons, training, veterinary and farrier care, possible training, transportation and show fees…the list goes on.

Your budget should consider all the additional expenses. The last thing you want to do is blow all your money on the horse, leaving nothing left over for the ongoing expenses.

Search for Horses

Searching for horses can take a long time. If possible, involve your trainer or instructor in the buying process. You can also search classified ads on your own, including online ads in your area.

Eliminate ads for horses that are outside your ISO requirements or too far for you to reasonably see in person. Consider wording in ads that may be a dealbreaker, such as “spirited” or “prospect” if you’re a beginner. Sellers may try to minimize problems with code words like “stubborn at times” or “needs an experienced rider.” Other code words or phrases may include “needs finishing” and “loads of potential.”
Words that are positive in an ad may include “bombproof,” “quiet,” “calm,” and “proven youth horse,”

Try Horses Out

While horses may be purchased sight unseen, it’s best to try horses out in person if possible. If you’re looking at multiple horses that are far away, make arrangements to see multiple horses on the same day or weekend.

Take notes and videos for the horses you see to keep track of your experience. Pay attention to the owner bringing the horse in from the field, tacking it up, and ridden by someone else. Sometimes, owners will have the horse ready to ride when you show up, but ask if you can bring the horse in and get it ready yourself. This gives you a chance to assess its ground manners and look for vices.

Legalities when buying a horse
Pay attention to red flags when buying a horse.

Watch Red Flags

Inconsistency From Seller

Inconsistent answers or explanations from a seller could indicate a problem with the horse. When you ask questions like “why are you selling?” or “where did you acquire the horse?”, the seller should provide consistent answers. If you’re getting different stories each time, the seller could be hiding a limiting injury, significant behavioral issue, or other problems that may impact your decision.

Too Good to Be True

There are a million great horses out there, but if the horse sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

A horse that has stellar performance as a jumper, cattle horse, trail horse, and Grand Prix dressage horse, all without health issues and no behavioral problems or spookiness doesn’t exist.

And with that, the seller may give you “reasonable” explanations for every problem you encounter.

Every horse has some flaws. If you’re not hearing any, you’re not dealing with a truthful seller who’s looking out for the horse’s best interests.

Bad Relationship Between Horse and Seller

If the seller doesn’t seem interested in how the horse will be kept or cared for after the sale, they’re not looking out for where the horse ends up. Even if it’s a business transaction without an emotional connection, a reputable seller should be concerned about who they’re selling the horse to.

No Vet Records or Registration

As mentioned, you must make sure that the seller or agent is legally permitted to sell the horse. Registration papers not only confirm ownership, but they have markings, conformation, and characteristics to confirm that the horse you’re buying is the same horse that the seller is permitted to sell.

Some horses may not have breed registration papers, but you should still be able to see documents for where the owner acquired the horse. You should also have veterinary records to ensure that the horse has been cared for and to identify any pre-existing conditions. Along with a veterinary exam, these are key documents to verify the horse’s soundness and history.

No Test Ride

If the seller balks at the idea of taking a test ride, walk away from the sale. Whatever horse you’re in the market for, it’s important to make sure the horse is capable of performing as you need. A test ride shows that you’re dealing with a horse that is free of behavioral issues that may influence your decision, such as a spookiness in a prospective trail horse.

No References or Poor References

Every bit of information you can obtain about your prospective horse’s health and training history is filtered through the seller. There needs to be some trust between the seller and buyer, and the seller’s reputation comes into play. You should be able to check references and learn about past sales. The horse community is relatively small everywhere, and references should be easy to come by. If a seller has no references, or worse, poor references, that’s a major red flag.

Happy Horse Shopping!

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the thrills of shopping for and buying a horse. But remember, buying an inappropriate horse can only lead to problems. Listen to your head, not your heart, and do your homework to ensure that you’re legally protected when you purchase your horse.

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