Lemonade or Lemons?

Or, How I Bought a 9 Year Old Quarter Horse/Draft Cross and Ended Up With a 6 Year Old Mustang

Last Fall was a bit tough. I made the decision to retire early in 2021, a major change that carries its own stress. On the horse front things were far less positive. Roxie was still struggling with soundness, and the outlook was bleak. We’d enjoyed some time riding Coffee in the early summer, then wildfires made the air unbearable. By the time that had cleared, Coffee pulled his lower suspensory on his right front, doing fancy Quarter Horse power moves in footing that was not made for it. Facing the prospect of time to ride but only one rideable horse between us, frustration started to become desperation. So, I started shopping.

My goal was simple – I needed to get riding fit to be ready to back Noble, which sharing Coffee would not do for me; and I wanted something calm and seasoned so we could finally hit the trails. No other requirements of breed, age, talent, discipline, etc. – just a good solid citizen. Even such a simple requirement can be difficult to find, as real solid citizens are often appreciated. When they do come up for sale they can be expensive. I remember how hard it was to find Coffee, and even then they had hoped he wouldn’t actually sell. So, when I found a ranch horse who checked all the boxes at a reasonable price, I pounced.

A Quarter Horse/Draft cross, 15.3 hands high, 9 years old, seasoned ranch horse. I have worked with many ranch horses over the years, and they are generally the most “been there, done that” sorts. The rub was that he was a six hour drive away, and I couldn’t afford to take the time to make the trip. There was a long video showing him in numerous situations – near traffic, flags waving around him, ponying another horse, even dragging a calf. He looked sound, solid, and calm. So, I arranged a vet check and moved forward. He not only passed the vet check with flying colors, but the report was that this was an easy going calm horse. All signs pointed to a winner!

I arranged shipment to a friend’s barn, where he could get exercised through the winter, and awaited our new herd member with excitement. The first sign of ‘trouble’ was hearing the incessant banging in the trailer as it came up the long drive. Surely that must be another horse in the trailer. Every ranch horse I’d known rode in a trailer like a champ. When my mom asked the driver if that was our horse thumping, “Yes, ma’am!” was the answer. Well, that was disappointing, but maybe it was just the long drive that had him tired. When a high-headed, snorting horse came off the trailer, my heart fell. What stepped off of the trailer did not live up to expectations!

The horse whose rope I was handed seemed so very small! Not only was he not 15.3, but he did not look anywhere near as substantial as in the photos and video. I would surely look big on this little fellow. This was certainly not a Quarter Horse/Draft cross! His attitude also made me question how much ranch experience he’d actually had. He struck me much more as an unseasoned, little traveled, horse than the veteran ranch horses I’d known. It turns out that all of my doubts were well founded.

When this is what you bought …
… and this is what is delivered, it can be disappointing

Surprise #1

The first surprise was when we started working with him. My friend and I both encountered his anxiety in the round pen. This part was no surprise, as too many people use the round pen to run horses around until they get tired or give up. So, I set about getting him to engage and listen, rather than run on auto-pilot. But the real surprise was the first time someone got on, and he tried hard to buck them off! This confirmed my suspicion that he was not actually a seasoned ranch horse, and possibly raised the question as to why he was for sale. The first person to ride him also discovered that he knew basically nothing. You could pilot him around, but steering, moving off of leg, and even subtle stops just didn’t exist. So, I’d purchased a new project for myself!

Surprise #2

We were standing in the barn aisle, discussing the new horse’s traits, when I made a confession. I’d been puzzling over just what kind of horse he was, and I kept coming to one conclusion – every time I looked at him all I thought of was “Mustang”. As soon as I said that, my mother and friend both said they’d been thinking the same thing. So, I set about looking into heritage DNA tests for horses.

If you have tried any DNA testing, you’ll know that it is at best a rough estimate. We have used the tests for dogs three times. In every case we knew all or part of their heritage – and in none of them did the actual breed(s) we knew were involved show up on the list. Whether person, dog, or horse, there has been so much cross-over through the millenia that DNA differences are minimal at best. However, when you are faced with an open question of heritage, it provides some place to start from. The trick is in interpreting the results, rather than taking them simply at face value.

In looking for a test, I ran across this interesting item from Equus magazine. If you are at all considering doing a DNA test, I encourage you to read it – particularly the third response to the reader’s question. It provides the explanation for why a test might come back with unexpected results, and how you can interpret them. It helped me when it came time to make sense of the DNA results for the new horse.

After looking around, I settled on the test offered by Texas A&M. The price is reasonable, the process is easy, and the results came quickly. They provide three ranked breeds that are the closest matches to your horse.

The results? He came out predominantly Venezuelan Criollo. This being a rare breed in the U.S., it seems very unlikely this is his actual breeding. Anyone who had one would advertise and price accordingly. However, a little research into the breed revealed that it is a direct line back to the horses brought by the Spanish Conquistadors. Since the original Mustangs in the U.S. shared this heritage, the results seem to confirm our suspicion.

The DNA results reflect predominantly Spanish blood, with the other two breeds indicating some likely influence from early colonial breeds – all of which tracks to Mustang as the most likely conclusion

I have been asked how he could be a Mustang without a freeze brand. With a little digging on the internet I found that there are about 30,000 Mustangs running on Native American land in the Pacific Northwest. Several of the tribes capture some of these horses, break them, and sell them for riding horses as part of their tribe’s income. It makes sense that ranchers would be likely customers for these horses.

Surprise #3

I began to see signs that he might have some issues with his teeth. The last time I bought a ten year old who hadn’t had any attention to his teeth, there were some large hooks at the back working their way into the opposing gums. So, I worried we might have similar issues with the new horse. Upon examination, the vet found sharp points, but no other significant issues. However, she threw out a very surprising fact – “He’s younger than you think,” she said with certainty. It turns out that he hasn’t lost his cups, the first pair of which disappear at six. Her estimate was that he’s between six and seven.

I’m not convinced he’s that much younger – but she got a better look under sedation than I can get on my own. Until I learn otherwise, we’ll take her word for it.

The vet determined that his teeth looked more like a six year old than a ten year old

Caveat Emptor!

I related my story about this purchase to a non-horsey friend. “Don’t you want to get your money back?” was her first question. I had to explain that the horse industry is generally a caveat emptor situation – let the buyer beware! I have only myself to blame for not getting what I expected. I would never recommend anyone buy a horse sight unseen – but desperation makes for bad decision making. As a result, I do not have the solid citizen, ready to ride trail horse I was hoping for. Scars also indicate that his short life with humans has not been an easy one – my mom calls him our most expensive rescue yet. His initial chilly attitude toward the humans around him also reflected this experience.

I’m not going to lie – I was disappointed at not having a larger, more experienced horse ready to hit the trails. But as he warms up to us, and his personality begins to shine, I am becoming attached. Although very green, there is a Zen calm about him. Although highly vigilant at all times, he is not spooky. He has lovely gaits, and a talent for jumping – which, given his apparently younger age I have plenty of time to develop.

So, I saddled myself with a bushel of lemons – but retirement has given me plenty of time to turn it into lemonade. We finally have him home, and each passing day sees more of his personality shine through. It becomes harder to regret my decision each time he whinnies a greeting or keeps his eyes pinned on me as I work around the barn. Truth is, I’ve always loved helping horses who’ve had a rough time with people learn to trust again and let their personality shine through. Signs are already positive for a bright future together, quite possibly exceeding all expectations.

Oh, and we named him Chase, for the gambling term – the money you put down in order to try to regain what you have lost. Only time will tell if the gamble pays off!

It is hard not to fall for that face.

Categories: Personal Stories

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7 replies

  1. Ah yes. The mythical “horse bought sight unseen”.

    A friend also bought a driving horse by video. I have to say after seeing the video I seriously consider they must’ve substituted a ringer.

    The 4yo horse that arrived cannot even stand quietly when a cart approaches, has not a clue about ground driving and barely walks on a halter.

    But he’s very sweet, moves well and his new owner already loves him.

    Sometimes instead of getting what we want, we get what we need. Or what needs us.

    Congratulations on your new family addition. I look forward to updates.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. He is a pretty horse. You seem to be on the right path with him. As for DNA testing, I did the same test a few years ago for my horse. The results were puzzling too. 1) Argentinian Criollo, 2) Hanoverian, 3) Missouri Fox-Trotter. I was told he was a grade quarter horse when I bought him. Although a bit small, 14.3, quarter horse made sense because he is built like a cutter and muscular. A few years later, I heard through the grapevine, there were papers his last owner didn’t want to pay “extra” for. That never made sense to me because he was bought to be a “show” pony for her kids. He was three and it didn’t work out so he sat in a field until I bought him at 6. Papers would be interesting but since we mostly hack out and do a few local versatilities, they are not needed. He also has a split ear which my vet said was done deliberately as a brand mark. I have heard there are some ranches in Mexico who still do this. He’s 18 now, and it doesn’t matter- best horse I have ever owned….

    Liked by 2 people

    • To be honest, my experience with the DNA with dogs put me off. But I think it can help to know breed origins to make links. Sounds like your horse had a very interesting hidden origin story! I would bet it’s more likely that his heritage was Mustang. Hannoverian shows up frequently in them, based upon what I’ve seen – but it’s likely a link from colonial-era horses who later mixed with the Mustangs, as would the MFT. You are absolutely right that in the end it doesn’t matter – but I’m always curious the tales they could tell us, if they could!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Lovely story. For me the lessons to be learned from this story is: no matter how a seasoned horse person you are, at times you get overwhelmed by your own feelings and emotions, your dreams and your own agenda. Then you forget all your own knowledge and experience – and you just buy that horse sight unseen! We are all just humans. Good luck!

    Liked by 2 people

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