When my wife Bonnie first brought up the idea of two fruit trees for the back yard, I was in. It seemed like a good Memorial Day weekend project. The two cherry trees we picked out were 7 footers with their roots encased in big plastic containers full of potting soil. The struggle began in trying to get both into the back of our vehicle. Back home we picked a spot for the first tree. The label on the trees said the hole needed to be about 2 feet deep. Luckily, we had just had a good amount of rain, and I easily removed the grass and two inches of top soil to form a circle 3 feet in diameter. The first 14 inches was relatively easy going. Then I hit the rock. Hoping that it wasn’t too big, I whacked away with a pick axe, but it extended way beyond the edges of my hole. I was a half hour into the project and had to admit that the tree was not going in that hole without a good big back hoe to tackle that boulder. I sighed, shoveled the dirt back in and tamped the grass back down.
It was a warm day. I was hot and feeling cranky, knowing that the next two holes I dug might well turn up more surprises. Our old Maine farm has plenty of stone walls, made of thousands of rocks that all came out of this dirt. Then I remembered my pinch bar. It’s a 5 foot long solid iron rod. It has a pointed end and weighs a solid 12 pounds. It’s heavy enough that when you hold the point a few feet over the ground and drive it straight down, it sinks in pretty far. We picked a new site, and I probed with that bar until I knew I was safe. There would be an occasional clank as I hit a rock, but probing an area several inches away it would slide in without that clank of iron hitting stone. I knew that any rocks that I was going to find would be removable. Using the bar I was able to locate a good spot for both trees and they were soon part of our landscape.
Using that pinch bar as a probe made me think about ways that horse owners often come home from horse shopping with a different horse than the one they were looking for because they weren’t probing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into this situation. Here is an especially crazy example. I was called out to look at a horse that a Dad wanted to buy his daughter. Melissa was 14, and wanted an event horse. If you aren’t familiar with the sport, eventers have to be pretty tough and all around athletic. I was surprised to hear that the mare that Melissa had picked out was on a farm that I knew had mostly Saddlebreds. Sure enough, when I arrived at the farm the farm owner brought out a very attractive and good size gelding with all of the style and high stepping action that gives the breed the reputation of being the peacocks of the horse world. Perhaps a few Saddlebreds have been successful at eventing, but for sure this would be rare. It would just be an inappropriate animal for the dressage, cross country and jumping required for the sport.
Before I even pulled out my stethoscope I tried to talk to Dad. He wasn’t hearing it. “But this is the horse my daughter is interested in. She loves him, and look, they’ve already bonded.” I tried to explain that while the horse was quite handsome, and really did have an engaging personality, the chances were that he would never be an eventer. I used myself as an example of someone who at 160 pounds would not make it as a center on a football team. Dad insisted that I go ahead and examine the youngster. I never tried so hard to find something wrong with a horse. However, after an hour and 15 minutes I had to admit that this animal was easy to like and very sound. I filled out all the paper work, and before I left I had Dad sign a statement that I wrote on the invoice. It stated that the animal, while sound and quite fit would be a very long shot as a horse that would be comfortable eventing. That was probably 15 years ago, and I’ve always wondered what ever happened to Melissa and her purchase. I hope she changed her mind about a career choice for him.
It is very easy to get caught up when a horse lays his head on your shoulder. It’s called love. So, this is where my iron probe comes in. Start probing for those things that would not make this horse fit for what you want to do. If you are interested in a particular equine sport, get informed about what type of horse does that best, in a natural way. Continue your probing by finding someone who excels in the sport. Learn from them what you should look for in a horse for the planned activity. Have them look at and try the horse before you get emotionally attached. Get on the internet and find out what kind of horses do your sport well. Commit to finding what ideal conformation would be. Your last probe is to have a pre purchase exam done by a vet who knows what would be expected of a horse in your area of interest. If it seems like the horse you have been checking out isn’t the right fit, you’ve found a big stone in that hole, and its time to dig around for a new one.
When I was digging those holes to put trees in, I wasn’t falling in love with a particular hole. That pinch bar is unemotional. But it’s great for finding rocks. When you are seriously looking for a horse for a particular sport, know the attributes and start the probing process. Many a horse is standing around in the paddock all day that was an inappropriate purchase for what his owner had plans for. Until you find the horse that fits the bill, try not to fall in love. You and your horse will both be happier.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM