Shopping for working horses is similar to purchasing a new vehicle. When it comes to mechanized horsepower, you’re likely looking for a vehicle that fulfills a specific need. Towing capacity, safety and fuel economy may be factors you consider. For some, brand loyalty to one manufacturer also ranks as priority.
Similarly, purchasing a new workhorse means you’ll be looking for a horse that fits your needs in the fields or in the woods. Maybe you have a preference for one breed or another, but conformation, temperament and potentially training should be at the top of your list.
In Norwich, Vermont, Carl Russell and his wife, Lisa McCrory, use draft horses to plow fields, skid logs, move firewood, spread manure and make hay. In 1986, Russell was inspired to start his own forestry and logging business as a way to meet his personal environmental objectives.
“I wanted to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and didn’t want a lot of debt,” he said. “I became enamored with the idea of using draft horses, so I bought a horse and started skidding logs.”
When Russell set out to buy his first working horse 30 years ago, he thought the first horse he saw was perfect. His mentor told him to go look at another horse. When Russell wanted to buy that horse, too, his teacher suggested he go look at another and another.
“Buying a horse isn’t like buying a car. A horse doesn’t come with a list of features on the window,” he said. “Start looking for a horse two years before you’re actually ready to buy to avoid buying on impulse.”
In the three decades since then, he has developed a set of criteria that has helped him select draft horses that are the perfect fit for his business. He encourages inexperienced individuals to seek the advice of more experienced handlers.
“You have to develop your eye for selecting a good horse and that comes with experience,” he said. “When you’re first starting out, take someone along with you that has that ability.”
Here he shares some tips and discusses attributes he looks for when shopping for a new working horse.
The general size, conformation and health of the horse is more important than its breeding. Although he has owned more Belgians than any other draft breed, he says that is more coincidence than intention.
“I look for a horse that is between 16.2 and 17.2 or 17.3 hands,” he said. “That size means they are stout enough to move loads, but aren’t too long-legged when it comes to harnessing.”
In addition to considering height, he looks for horses that have a deep chest, solid shoulder and straight hocks. “I want a horse with power and functionality for working in varied terrain in the woods,” he said.
A horse with a sturdy build will be better able to handle pulling a load and can better handle the weight of the collar.
Approachability and trainability are as important to Russell as build.
“When I look at a horse, I watch for responsiveness and approachability,” he said. “I want to see the current owner work the horse so I can see the relationship the two have so that I can see how the horse responds to the owner’s expectations.”
That means that he always asks sellers to harness and work the horse. “If a seller won’t do this for me, I won’t buy the horse,” he said.
He’s not necessarily looking for how well trained the horse is for the job he has in mind; instead he’s watching to see how the horse responds to the handler. In one instance, he found a draft horse for sale by a teenaged owner. Although she didn’t use the horse for farm or logging work, she was happy to demonstrate the ground work and round pen training she had taught the horse to obey.
“I’m a firm believer that you don’t buy the horse you want; you make the horse you want. Watching the horse respond to its current owner gives me an idea how trainable the horse will be,” he said.
For some horsemen and women, the horse’s looks are as important as its conformation and trainability. Russell reminisces about a previous search that included seeing 23 different horses. “I had several criteria including the horse’s age and that it was a bay,” he said. “I looked until I found the right one.”
He even passed on a bay mare that was offered to him for free. He turned down the offer because he didn’t like the fact that she had a docked tail. A few years went by and the mare ended up at his farm anyway.
“She worked very well for me, but her bobbed tail always kind of bothered me,” he said.
The next time you’re in the market for a new working horse, take the time to determine what criteria are most important in the horse you’re seeking and don’t be afraid to take the time to find one that meets those needs.
“It’s a natural tendency to like the first horse that you see,” Russell said. “Be patient and take the time to find one that is truly the right fit.”
Russell says not to be deterred by listings that state “serious inquiries only.”
“Those sellers are often looking for a buyer that is the right fit for the horse they are selling rather than selling the horse to just anybody,” he said. “It’s OK to reach out and ask questions.”
If you’re shopping for your very first draft or are still relatively inexperienced, don’t hesitate to ask a more seasoned hand for advice. Veterinarians can also be a helpful resource and can evaluate a horse’s overall health through a prepurchase exam.
“It takes time to develop your eye and sometimes it’s as much intuition as it is measurable standards,” he said.
Budget is likely a key factor in purchasing your next working horse. The good news is that with patience, time, research and advice from experienced buyers, you can find a work horse that is the perfect fit for your farm or forestry business.
Over the past 30 years, Russell has owned eight horses and estimates he has spent $5,400 to purchase all of them Some of the horses he has owned have been free.
“Nothing is truly free. A free horse likely means it will need training, which I prefer to do on my own anyways,” he said. “As long as the horse meets the other criteria (good health, solid build and trainability), it’s possible to find good horses on a budget.”