So you’ve found an ad that catches your eye, something about that young horse makes your heart leap and you think to yourself: “This is an interesting prospect!”
You probably have your own set of questions that are right away popping up in your head.
I wanted to share with you what questions I, as a breeder, wished I was asked more often and as a bonus, I will tell you why I think those answers matter.
(This is not just for sport horses, in fact, I purposefully tried to remove any specific breed bias here.)
For those in a hurry: here are the top 10 questions and I will explain why I think they are important below.
- How often is the foal handled and what kind of things is it exposed to?
- How much room do the foals have to roam?
- What does it eat? (stay with me on this one…)
- Why did you choose that stallion for that particular mare to breed this foal? What were your goals?
- What deworming protocols do you use?
- What vaccines did the foal receive and when?
- How is the foal registered and what does it mean exactly?
- What are its siblings like (if any)?
- What is the foal’s temperament really like?
- Do you have any past clients I could talk to as references?
Over the years and with probably hundreds of “serious” inquiries on foals we’ve had for sale the most common questions we got (besides things that were already posted in the ad) are:
- How tall will the foal be?
- What will be the foal’s future abilities?
- Is the price negotiable? Do you take payment plans?
Thankfully one of those questions is easy to answer: the price is somewhat negotiable and you have between 5 and 6 months to pay-after that arrange things with your bank. The other two questions are a lot harder to answer honestly.
The other questions I have the answers to (and therefore enjoy answering) are:
- What is the dam like?
- What is the foal like?
- When will he be weaned?
- Can I have a video of the foal doing X?
- Can I board the foal with you until it is older?
- What do you like about this foal?
- Any health issues?
But there are important questions that don’t often come up and yet I think they are very important.
1- How often is the foal handled and what kind of things is it exposed to?
There is no right or wrong answer with this one but it is useful to know how much will the foal have learned and be exposed to if simply to set expectations. Different breeders will have different approaches to handling foals. It can be hard for lard scale breeders to handle them very regularly unless they have a hired hand dedicated to this. The logistic of bringing them in, mare and foal, the mare leaving the herd, the screaming and yelling, the gates, etc.. in those larger operations, the foal is handled when the mare comes in either to get bred, checked, or get her feet done.
Some smaller breeders handle their foals extensively- depending on how much time they have and the facilities available to them. Be aware that the pet foal could have been handled too much. Such horses often grow up to be pushy and have limited manners.
If you are experienced enough with horses you might not care either way. Some horsemen say that less handling is better, that the foals all figure it out at weaning or eventually, and that no experience is better than bad ones. There is certainly truth to this but setting expectations is useful.
Is the foal seen once every few weeks to get his feet trimmed or does it come into the barn every night for grooming etc..? If the foal is feral, you should know that it will not handle coming in and sleeping in a stall and being sprayed with fly spray without batting an eye. If it never saw a farrier the first trim might be difficult for everyone involved. Has it seen lots of other horses? Dogs running underfoot? What about electric fences, waterer, tractors, tarps. You will need to invest time to introduce all those things if they are not familiar to them. It’s only fair. On the other hand, if the foal is a pampered animal and you plan on letting it live rough outside in a herd of older horses it will need to learn that skill too.
2-How much room does the foal have to roam.
Studies after studies prove it: to grow well and to have long-lasting soundness foals need to move, they need to cover ground, over varied terrain, it builds the limbs, their heart their proprioception (knowing where its body is in space). Horses of any age do better with lots of room to move but the reality is that working horses are often kept in paddocks for convenience or health reasons.
Young horses should have plenty of room to go for a spin, get away from other horses, run away from new things as they explore the world. The bigger the room the better frankly. Sorry but no foal should be raised in small paddocks, if someone wants to breed horses they should have the room to have them be horses.
Excluding health reasons, foals should be out and about with their mothers on a minimum of a few acres. They need shelter and good fencing, good ground (gopher holes and swampy areas clearly are not suitable) good pasture mates that won’t run them into fences or into trouble. Be wary of horses born at boarding stables with limited turnout. When you take the foal home you should offer them the same or find a place that does.
3-What does it eat?
Ok, that might seem like an odd question but one that should be asked. There is a lot of choices and opinion out there for feeding young horses and if anything at a minimum you should know what has been fed to your growing partner so that you can transition it to your feeding system smoothly. But keep in mind that what it was fed in the first few months of its life can have a lasting effect on its growth, its metabolism, and its future soundness. You might also want to ask to see if the breeder’s approach to feeding matches your own. If nutrition in your adult horse concerns you, you would do well to be particularly concerned about the young horse’s diet. A lot of bone and cartilage are laid down in the first 6months of life, starches and sugar can have an impact on your horse’s metabolism for life.
Number one your foal should have had access to good pasture for at the very least 12 to 14 hours a day. The key here is that horses are designed to eat grass, lots of it and there are things in grass that simply can’t be found in rations. Mainly vitamin E and beta-carotene. More about vitamin E here: What you need to know about vitamin E.
If the horses are not on good pasture 24/7 they must be fed hay. Ask if the breeder has the hay analyzed. The answer will tell you plenty about the importance they take in nutrition. Hay and grass are often deficient in key minerals and amino acids that are necessary to grow equine athletes. They are fine for wild horses that will never be asked to carry a rider and jump or train regularly so it’s important to know the difference between “nature provides” and “optimal for riding horses”.
Again it can be difficult for large-scale breeders to provide a balanced diet specific to all horses. They generally have to rely on hay analysis and a customized feed ration that complements it. As to how much mares and foal each eat that is mostly left to chances and pecking order.
Again it is important to know to set expectations. If your foal was raised on a lot of hay (what kind ?) and not a lot of pasture be ready to supplement it with vitamin E (and copper and protein) once it is weaned and in your care. If it was already on a tailored feeding program try to make the transition to the ration that you use gradually.
Some foals will not have seen any pelleted feed or ration before weaning and they might not like it or like it too much and choke on their first meal.
4- Why did you choose that stallion for that particular mare? What were your goals?
Here is a chance to get an idea of what criteria the breeders have used in selecting both parents. What were the goals in breeding this foal? Is the answer to that question coherent: does it all fit together? If they breed for performance are the sire and dam performance horses? If so what are their strengths and weaknesses in that area? If they breed for temperament what indication do they have that either parent has the attribute they are looking to reproduce. If they are breeding for show stock what are the show record of the animals etc..
There is no wrong or right answer here but you should ask and get a feel of the philosophy behind the breeder’s approach, or it could raise some red flags.
Finally, ask yourself if the breeders’ goals align with yours. While not a deal killer it is one more piece of information to tuck away in your decision matrix.
5- What deworming protocol do you use?
Foals are particularly susceptible to parasites. Because of their size mostly. If the foal was never dewormed and you give it a full dose upon arrival you might be dealing with a substantial vet bill. It is better to know. Some farms are dealing with a heavy parasite load and deworm more regularly than others. Some don’t trust dewormers and others are not handling their foals enough to halter them-let alone deworm them. Again ask the question and be aware of the situation. Generally, young foals are dewormed with fenbendazole until they are 4 or 5 months old. After that, they can receive Ivermectin and adult horse dewormer. The best is to talk to pass on the information the breeder gave you to your vet to discuss the next steps. Personally, I would be very wary of a foal that was never dewormed.
6-What vaccines did the foal receive?
Generally, mares are vaccinated about 30 days prior to delivery to ensure that the antibodies they make against the vaccine are passed on to the colostrum. If the foal gets a good passive immune transfer then those antibodies will be in its system for 4 to 5 months and they will fade with time. If the foal had a failure of passive immune transfer for whatever reason then they will have none of those antibodies and should be vaccinated earlier.
Each region faces its own set of pathogens and the immunizations therefore vary. Tetanus is pretty ubiquitous and so are the two types of encephalitis (EEE and WEE) commonly combined with rhino. The others such as rabies, Potomac, and West Nile will be added on top of those four.
Naive foals should get vaccinated and given a booster about 30 days later. Then they can be vaccinated yearly with the rest of the herd.
To avoid over-vaccinating make sure you ask the breeder what vaccines the foal has received and when.
7- How is the foal registered and what does it mean?
Purebred foals are registered and there is a lot of different registries available for part-bred as well as warmbloods. You should know what kind of papers the foal will be sold with. If the registration is your responsibility you will need to know this and will probably need some signed documents from the breeder in order to get this accomplished. If you are buying a purebred animal, things are pretty straightforward as you will likely register with the breed association in your country but if you are buying a warmblood or a sport horse things can get more complicated. Make sure to ask the breeder about what the registration means. Will the horse need to be inspected? Will it be branded or microchipped? Will it be registered with the equestrian federation of your country? Will it have full papers or part-bred papers? Who will be responsible for registering the foal and who will be responsible for transferring the registration to your name.
8- What are its siblings like (if any)?
Ask if your prospective foal has any siblings- more than likely they will be half-siblings (meaning they will share the same dam or the same sire). Foals by the same dam are considered “true” siblings because stallions can have so many offspring it is generally more important to look at animals that share the same mother or the same dam. If they have “full” siblings that mean they share the same dam and same sire.
If the foal is the firstborn of the mare ask if there is any information about the mare’s siblings. Dam lines can often be the more telling influence.
9-What is the foal’s temperament like-ask for example.
Generally when asked what is foal’s temperament like you might get a vague “Oh it’s lovely, easy to handle, very sweet”. The reality is the vast majority of foals are that way.
I am not sure how useful that answer is. Ask for specific.
What is its energy level? What about its confidence is it bold or shy? How curious is it? Does it get into everything or do new things make him wary? How forgiving is it? Does one bad experience set him back a bit or does it take it in stride and bounces back? How sensitive is it to touch, sound, and sight? I think you see what I am getting at this point: try to get a complete picture because all foals are sweet and if handled well they are easy to handle.
10- Do you have any past clients as references?
I am always amazed that although I always offer references to potential buyers they rarely take me on it. Personally, I ask for references when selling my foals and I do follow up. So here is another one I wish people would ask more often. Most people are comfortable with emails but of course check with them first- most satisfied clients are happy to serve as references.
I put this one last because this might be your chance to confirm the information you were just given with a past client.
Questions to ask could be: Were the foal’s registration processed as promised? Was the foal in good condition when it arrived home? Was the breeder easy to deal with? Do you think the foal was honestly represented? Did you get regular updates if the foal could not come home immediately?
Again there is no right or wrong answer- that was not really my point here but I think asking these questions might raise red flags or on the other hand help you feel better about buying your future partner from that particular breeder. A foal is a big investment both financially and emotionally I think it best to be well informed.
I hope this helps. Let me know!