Bring on the (Free) Dancing Horses

Recently I made an observation on Facebook that finished with “…back when horses cost money.”

Horses still cost a bundle – more than ever, what with transportation and alternative fuel eating away at the corn that forms the basis of most prepared feeds, and drought, flooding and urbanization eating away at the fields that give us our hay. A few years ago, the cost of grain per bag went up every single week that I went to the feed store, for a good six months. It was a horrifying realization: even kept at home, horses were moving out of my reach.

But the actually getting a horse, that part seems to be easy. Possibly far too easy. My first OTTB, in today’s market, would be free. In fact, the seller probably would have to pay me several hundred dollars for taking him away. Five years old, virtually no training off the track, terrible feet, rain rot taking most of the hair off his body, and several hundred pounds underweight – somehow in 1993 you could still get money for a rescue like this.

These days, if you pay cash for a horse like that, certainly more than a couple of hundred token dollars to keep it out of the auction ring, you’re a fool soon parted from your money. Horses are free, didn’t you know that? Young horses, old horses, skinny horses, fat horses, draft horses, racehorses, short horses, tall horses…

A quick search of CANTER NE, and I find a mare with dressage show miles for $650. Practically free.

There are plenty of speculations, and plenty of evidence, of what happens to free horses. Every now and then, an experienced horseman gets hold of one and turns it into something wonderful, a Final Call or a Bon Appeal story. My history is full of happy endings for free horses. Spunky teenagers with good trainers, re-riders who suddenly find themselves with a little horse-money and a pasture to keep one in, all the poor-but-talented working students and day-job riders who need a good horse and don’t have the spare twenty thousand lying around to buy one with – it’s a good, good thing.

Then there are the bad endings. There is the eight-year-old girl whose parents unwittingly adopt a three-year-old Standardbred for her, without realizing the ultimately good-natured but confused horse has never worn a saddle or been allowed to break into a canter. (Or, as I recall, even knew that it was three until after the long-delayed vet exam confirmed its extreme youth.) There was the five-acre waste lot on my street in Florida, which went from an old trailer in the middle of an apparent junkyard, to an old trailer in the middle of an apparent junkyard AND six horses from weanling to extreme old age, in a matter of weeks. People who can barely afford to feed themselves find free horses and take them home. The results are not pretty.

Should horses be free? Oh, I don’t know. That’s a cop-out, I do know. Horses should be free to professionals. Good horses with lots of potential should be going to trainers who can make great horses out of them. They should be going to those spunky teenagers with competent instruction. They should be considered valuable in terms of their future potential, and their value should be going to the trainers that put the work into them. They should be considered risky in terms of the unknown histories that could have rendered them free in the first place, and their risk, too has to go to the trainers.

And the trainers, who make free horses into dancing horses, worth actual money, worth saving, worth feeding, worth big fancy stalls with polished brass nameplates and two feet of wood shavings? They deserve special recognition. They took the risk. They could have held out for the expensive European imports. They took on a cheap broken-down claimer, or an auction find, instead. And instead of just making another expensive toy, they turned a life around.

As for the average rider, or the newish rider, there are other options. My favorite is CANTER and ReRun – any of the organizations that go pick up the retirees at the racetrack and get them started for you. The hard work is done. Go to the links on the right-hand side of the article and find your next horse that way. Craigslist is for the professional only, in my opinion.

Going back to the concept of pre-purchase exams (which you probably can’t/won’t/shouldn’t do on a free horse – either take it or don’t), here at A Year With Horses is the blog post on doing a toxicology screen on a potential purchase. This seems like a great idea. Although I imagine the stories of drugged rogues being sold as children’s mounts are probably disproportionate to the truth, it’s scary enough of a concept that I think I would seriously consider screening a horse, especially if he was too quiet and wonderful to be true!




Filed under Selling Horses

5 responses to “Bring on the (Free) Dancing Horses

  1. Thanks! Our family has only had one experience with a “free” horse, and it ended very badly – for the horse and almost with some of the people handling it. My daughter, who is working to develop her training skills, took on a beautiful 10 year old Oldenburg that was on a quick trip to euthanasia. The mare had fabulous bloodlines and had been in training for dressage, and then the owner send it off to be a broodmare because she “didn’t like it”. We’re pretty sure the horse hadn’t been abused. Hmm . . . When my daughter got the horse, it could not be handled or approached – it would charge and attack with teeth and feet. She worked with it for almost a year, and kept herself safe. The horse progressed, very slowly, to the point that it could be safely fed, handled and ridden – it turned out to be a nice horse and my daughter was hoping to sell it as a children’s hunter. The only trouble signs where that the horse would still push its body into inexperienced people, and seemed not to have a connection with anyone other than my daughter – it would actually nicker to her and seemed to like her.

    My daughter moved the horse to a new barn and things went downhill fast. The horse attacked one of the barn workers in the stall – the lady had just gone in to top up water – and kicked her and would have done more if the lady hadn’t managed to scramble out of the stall. The barn was a very calm and quiet place, and the horse had been handled with consistency and kindness. The horse immediately reverted to its extremely aggressive behavior, and would attack anyone who came near it, or even up to the fence. I was able to handle it on the ground and feed it by keeping it out of my space, but I wasn’t sure how long that would hold. No one else could go near it. We aren’t sure, but we think the horse may have had some sort of inborn neurological problem – when it attacked the horse wasn’t even really “there” – the eyes would go blank. My daughter made the very hard, and I believe correct, decision to have the horse euthanized. Long story – beware “free” horses.

  2. thatkyragirl

    thank you…i bought a mare this summer for $500, and am learning the joys of riding a retired racehorse, but not knowing much more than what I can find with her tattoo. Kali is almost 19, beautiful, and fast! I am learning all over again, what thoroughbreds are about, after riding arabians for the past 15 years. I have a lot to learn about the differences. I really enjoy your blogs by the way!

  3. Shannon

    Hey – I have 2 TBs… my mare is now 10, not tattoo’d – they sent her to the track and the trainer sent her back home cuz she was so slow. I rode her 2nd level dressage this summer and scored mid-60s in shows… will start training her for 3rd level next summer. She was $1/lb and this was 6 yrs ago. ($1500) She is fabulous and I love her, love her, love her.

    I brought her half brother home – same dam – 4 yrs ago. He raced, started 8 times, earned $500. He was free. He’s had more issues than my mare physically and mentally…and it’s sure been a learning curve! Rehabbed some tendon issues…found some bad back pain… he developed a cataract in one eye (doesn’t seem to bother him at all) … fixed all the painful issues and had eye specialist to look at the eye to make sure he wouldn’t lose it…….. he is a bit over at the knee (grin from your prior post) and I hope to get him going this winter. But he is sweet and very lovable. Yeah – I suspect his “issues” helped him be free… but he is nice to have around.

    Enjoy the blog – thanks for writing!

  4. Read about the CANTER horses who are already restarted and going out on our blogs:

    I love helping people shop at the track but it is pretty hard to make the first match the first time when you are faced with so many unknowns. If you let the horse down and give them 30 days undersaddle you have a much better idea of what they of person they will fit and a better chance that everyone will be happy.

  5. Thanks for the shout out, Natalie. We love you too!

    Christine Orman
    ReRun, Inc.

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