By all means, yes, look it in the mouth
You’ve undoubtedly heard the advice, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” I looked in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to see exactly who said it, but the answer wasn’t there. Whoever it was, he or she was not very familiar with horses.
It’s imperative that any new horse owner look in a horse’s mouth, even if it’s offered for free. For one thing, a horse’s age can be determined by its teeth, which grow longer and at a greater angle as they grow older. These horses are like people – often wise and experienced, but burdened with more physical problems. They can’t be ridden hard.
Young untrained horses, also sometimes available for little initial cost, present the new owner with the time and cost of training and no guarantee of how they will really develop as they grow up.
The temptation is great to jump at the offer of a “free” horse, especially when the potential horse owner has found the purchase price for most horses will be four figures and up.
Gift horses usually come from two sources: a caring owner who wants the best for his equine friend and wants some assurance that it will be well cared for, loved, and treated with respect, or an owner who has simply “run out of gas.”
The caring owner can’t stomach the idea of selling the horse to just anyone, not knowing its future. Perhaps they can no longer ride, or are moving, or the horse needs an easier role than the one it performed in the past.
The other owner may simply have lost interest, is short of money, or just “inherited” a horse with new property, and wants to get out from under the responsibility. Usually a recipient of such a horse has little information on the horse’s past history, including its health records.
Either way, to accept a gift horse may be the answer to a dream or the start of a bad one.
Through the years, I’ve been most fortunate to have acquired many wonderful horses through donations to nonprofit institutions with horse programs, or for use by my riding students. They’ve come from many sources, from individuals to large show and training facilities.
When a horse is donated to a nonprofit, such as a riding for the handicapped program or learning institution, the donor and recipient may work out the paperwork so it is a tax benefit.
But as a recipient, it’s critical that a clear contract be agreed on. Most of my own sponsored and gift horses have stipulations that I will notify the donor if the horse has any behavioral and health problems, if I would like to sell it, or if I wish to return it.
It’s important to decide up front who pays the bills if the horse has critical medical problems, or who has the final say to euthanize. It’s not an easy decision, but keep in mind that a colic surgery can run upwards of $10,000. Then your “free” horse is not a true gift.
By accepting such a horse, one assumes full responsibility for its feed, board or your own barn and pasture, regular shoeing, veterinary care, liability, having appropriate tack and equipment, and having enough knowledge not to innocently abuse the horse. New horse owners need advice and help with proper care, riding and training.
Therefore, lessons are invaluable for a good experience. Happily, there are numerous sources for such help here in Nevada County, including riding instructors, horse trainers, boarding stables, information through tack shops and feed stores, the Resource Conservation District, Farm Advisors Office, and by reading and viewing magazines, books and videos.
If you sponsor or accept a gift horse, the former caregivers will usually want to visit and keep in touch because they still care deeply for the animal. This horse deserves the same attention as a mount you’d pay thousands of dollars for. Be considerate of the horse and former owners.
Those things in mind, your “free” horse can be one of the greatest gifts you’ll ever receive.
Felicia Schaps Tracy is a Certified Horsemanship Association advanced-level certified instructor, an American Riding Association certified instructor, a founding instructor for the Northern Mines Pony Club, and led the horsemanship program at Ojai Valley School. Write her in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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