Monday, December 31, 2012

Caveat Emptor, and this story breaks my heart

Okay, so there is a horse professional of international repute that I have always admired. For years. Love love love this person. And then, I read on about a 1990 lawsuit brought against this person. Here is the story as told in court documents, in a nutshell.

  • Horse is sick. A young Oldenberg horse living in the South is diagnosed with heart condition at around age eight. Horse is treated at a university hospital, but likelihood of recurrence is uncertain at best.
  • Horse is  put up for sale. The horse is shipped to this New England professional  for resale, with a stipulation that if the horse has a heart recurrence during the time it is in training it will be euthanized.
  • Buyers try the horse. Buyers (later to become plaintiffs) try the horse and are told the horse is not fit because she is recovering from a virus.  When buyers inquire about a shaved patch that they recognize as indicative of an EKG the professional tells them that the EKG was a routine diagnostic for the virus. 
  • Buyers buy the horse. The buyers place an offer of 25K, which is accepted pending a vet exam.
  • Prepurchase exam. At the prepurchase exam, the vet notes swelling in the horse's belly and legs. The professional  shares the hospital report concerning the heart condition with the vet. The professional  assures the vet is assured that the buyers are aware of the heart condition and are "okay with it." 
  • Vet (mis)communicates. Vet rmakes only a passing reference to the report when she communicates with the buyers. The buyers are never informed about the heart condition.
  • Sale goes through. The horse is purchased. 
  • Horse is sick. The heart condition recurs at the horse's first competition. Horse is retired to pasture.
  • Buyers become plaintiffs.
Caveat Emptor, and then some
Professional  is sued for 25K. I did not read the outcome of the trial, but what seems to be at issue is the role of the veterinarian. Because the veterinarian is the agent of the buyer, and the agent was informed of the condition (and read the hospital report), the seller is not culpable. 

My .02
This whole situation makes me a little ill. The horse is viewed as a commodity, or worse -- shipped around, passed off, shipped around. No one asks "what happens to the horse when the new owners are unpleasantly surprised?" These are not horse people, are they?

Aside from that,  there are some takeaway messages for folks buying horses.
  • Don't accept vague answers about the horse's condition and past. Request details. Press on.  Get documentation.
  • Don't buy a work-age horse that has not been in work and does not have a strong history (or competition record if you are competing). Horses standing in the pasture are there for a reason.
  • TALK to the vet. Be at the vetting.
  • Be wary of a horse that is for sale far, far away from the location of the last owner. I know a few people who "shippped a horse out west" to be sold because the animal had problems that were too well known in the immediate area, or because it would be harder for the buyer to go back to the owner in the event of problems.


  1. I know this approach is not practical for everyone--but the last four horses I bought (all with excellent results) were horses I had known for several years before I bought them. In my opinion this is the ONLY way to be sure of what you are getting. Even if agents, vets, trainers..etc are being honest (which isn't always the case), too often they don't know a horse's history. But if you've known a horse for a few years (and know the owner well enough to know about ups and downs and meds...etc) you can pretty much know what you are buying. The sad story in your post is just all too common and your warnings/advice at the end are very apt.

  2. Disregarding everything else... who the hell buys a horse with swelling in the legs and belly for $25k???

  3. I would say the owners are most at fault for not paying more attention to the vet. $25K is a big price and they should have questioned everything and researched more. If the horse is now a lawn mower, does he still belong to the purchaser or to someone else?
    If I had that horse, I'd put him down before passing him along again. As long as he is comfortable, my home would be his last home. (Yeah, I've got lots of grass to mow.)

  4. Wish we didn't have to be constantly reminded of "Caveat Emptor" in regards to every purchase, but it seems they are the "words of the day."

    You are right. It is a sad story.

  5. Ugh, this sort of thing makes me dislike my peers.

    But I would like to point out one thing about work-age horses that aren't super-fit or competing: there are a lot of mares of work age just starting their under-saddle careers becasue their their previous careers as broodmares are no longer viable.

  6. Sadly, when money is to be made, the scruples of even the most scrupulous go right out the window.

    1) Horse is for sale for many dollars, trainers get together, jack up price of horse to many MORE dollars so they can split a fatter commission, the client being none the wiser.

    2) Horse is too much for client; trainer KNOWS this but still advises client to buy the horse knowing that the horse will be the trainer's to ride and show, thereby making trainer look good and get his/her name "out there" for further business.

    3) Client is advised by trainer, owner, even the client's own horse vet to ignore pre-purchase report done by well regarded vet. Knew a gal who bought a "warmblood" (in name only) despite the fact that the horse failed the flexion test. The vet doing the pre-purchase was highly recommended by everyone she talked to. He lived in the area (about 50 miles from where the gal lived). She "loved" the horse and was crying because the horse failed the exam. Her own vet who was a "bute 'em and use 'em" guy with whom her husband played golf. HE said flexion tests "don't mean anything" and to go ahead and buy the horse. Price was $8K and no papers. Horse was over 16hh and THAT "made him a warmblood."

    She bought the horse; the third or fourth time she ended up in the hospital after he threw her, she decided to try to return the horse to the seller and get her money back--her lawyer daughter drew up a fancy contract filled with "party of the first part" language. The original seller said he didn't have the money, he was dying of cancer, he lost his house, his dog died, he had a hangnail ... she ended up sending the horse back to him, no refund.

    As I said, scruples go out the window even if you know and trust the people you're dealing with. Sickens me, too, and makes me sad when people would risk their reputation on something that's wrong.

  7. I absolutely hate that horses are treated as commodities like this, and find it very difficult to have any respect for anyone who acts like this. The horse might be perfectly fine as a companion or pleasure ride horse (although not at that price tag).

    I agree with your suggestions for potential purchasers. I would also say, treat the horse as you would want to be treated if you were vulnerable and had no say in your circumstances - stick with them, don't treat them like 4-legged motorbikes, be very careful who you rehome them with and don't lie about stuff.

  8. Hmm, TBDancer # 2 happened to me. My riding instructor/trainer recommended I buy 3 year old filly X, 'cause her owner (and the instructor/trainer friend) was going through some financial difficulty and by the time I got back to the states in 18 months (I was being sent overseas for my job) the filly would be well mannered enough for me to ride. I was indeed sent back to the USA but in a different section, 500 miles away. Riding instructor/trainer balks when I talk about shipping the mare to my new digs. "You can't ride that horse, you will never be able to control her! I had you buy her for me to show!" (saddlebred 3 gaited)

    Um, excuse me but I asked for you to find me a good prospect for me to ride/drive. I know horses can change, I did after all pony club up to "A" levels. But shouldn't you have kept me in the loop about what was happening? I did ask. I was paying $1,000.00 a month for you to train her. This is a professional with a good reputation. In the 4 years I worked with her I never saw any signs of horse neglect or abuse. Most of her clients have been with her for 6 years or more. The only thing I can figure out is she fell in love with the horse. That's ok, but then buy the horse from me; at my asking price. She can't be simultaneously worth $30,000.00 (the price the instructor had me insure her for) and worth $5,000.00 (the price she wants to pay for her).

    I'd doing with this mare what we use to do with OTTB's in the 60's and 70's, pulled her shoes and make her fat, dumb and happy. I'll see if I can retrain her to do combined driving this summer. She does drive: fine harness.

  9. Very good advice. I bought a pony that had been sent out of his home territory and it was a terrible and expensive mistake. I also didn't agree to a drug test, which would have saved me a lot of grief. Buyer beware!

  10. Well.... all too familiar. I know some of your readers think the buyer is at fault (sure, don't ignore obvious swelling), but there is a duty to disclose material facts (though different courts define "material' differently; commonly it is something the buyer is unable to discover for himself). To throw in a bone for the buyer, I would argue that the veterinarian was not the buyer's agent but merely a hired contractor without agency duties, and as you stated in the facts "When buyers inquire about the shaved patch..." that is when the seller committed fraud. All the more reason why I wish we had equine specific courts, or at least equine mediators! :) Thanks for sharing the case!

  11. I bought a lovely pony from someone who bought it for her kids who were unable to handle him at all. He was young and if he detected an inexperienced rider, he just ran for the far corner and stopped suddenly, when the person fell off, he'd run back. The owner said he'd been a s show pony, but she didn't know since her kids couldn't ride him. For $400.00 I wasn't worried. He had great conformation and showed me a nice personality,( except with people who couldn't ride of course).
    Dang if he wasn't a fine pony when I got him home. If he hadn't been a show pony, he'd been beautifully trained anyway.
    The other important lesson: don't buy a horse if you cannot ride it competently. You aren't going to "grow into it" soon enough to make it a useful mount.
    And don't sell a horse to a buyer who cannot ride the horse competently either. That's the other side of selling horses and why they get sold and resold too often.

  12. Responding to:"when buyers inquire about the shaved patch...the sellers response was fraud." I am not a lawyer and do not play one on tv - however - I have painful, costly, personal experience with this type of fraud. As a non-lawyer person many (myself previously included) may be under the impression that the definition of the word fraud is static. It is not. Legally, definitions depend entirely on the law where an incident occurred. In this case, it appears the sellers/agents answered the question asked. In some places it is not the seller/agents responsibility to reveal what they know. It is often incumbent on the buyer to press for further, specific detail, i.e., did the any of the tests reveal any problems/conditions you, your agents, etc. have not disclosed? Are you or your agents aware of any conditions/illnesses, etc. you have not disclosed? Even then, asking/discussing can be considered heresay in a court case. Signed documentation, "I as the seller/agent verify, in conjunction with Dr. Vet Person, full-disclosure to the best of our knowledge/ability according to law and LMNOP Test Results hereby do certify Black Beauty's good health and freedom from pre-existing conditions such to impede performance of xyz function." Had the buyers done so in this case, the seller/agent more than likely would've been COMPLETELY BONED as the EKG revealed a heart flaw the seller/agent willfully did not disclose. Willfully being another key word. According to some law, not disclosing something isn't the same as out and out lying about it, especially if you're not asked. Commonly known as a lie of omission. Caveat emptor indeed.


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