In one immobilizing instant, the only thought in Kristy Weistroffer’s mind when she screamed was the safety of her 3-year-old child.
Just minutes earlier, Weistroffer sat with her daughter Reagan on the deck outside their country home in Winchester, Kentucky as the young girl eagerly awaited the chance to ride her new pony. Weistroffer bought it the day before from a stockyard in a neighboring county.
About 400 feet away in the barn, Reagan’s father readied the pony for Reagan’s first ride.
As Reagan’s father brought the pony into the field behind their house, Weistroffer noticed the pony seemed a little fidgety, but she chalked it up to the pony being in new surroundings. Reagan’s ran to her father, and her father helped her pet the pony to get acquainted before setting her in the saddle.
The trio began to walk, with Reagan’s father holding the pony with a lead rope attached to the bridle. He had no trouble leading the pony in a circle in the pasture. However, after a few minutes passed, the pony became noticeably frantic. Weistroffer was nervous, but Reagan’s father was able to calm the pony and keep walking.
Several more minutes passed.
Suddenly, the pony stopped in its tracks, lowered its head and started to buck. Reagan’s father again attempted to quiet it, but to no avail. In that moment, as the pony rounded its back and kicked its legs, Weistroffer realized her child was in danger.
The pony jerked the lead rope from Reagan’s father’s grasp. Weistroffer screamed but was helplessly far away on the deck. She watched as her husband dragged their daughter from the pony by her waist as the pony took off in a full gallop.
The pony ran out of the field and up the country road. A chase ensued as Reagan’s father and the neighbors, who saw the fiasco, ran in its wake. The group finally cornered the exhausted pony in another neighbor’s fenced garden and manhandled it back to the barn.
Weistroffer realized something was wrong with this pony and that it wasn’t the tranquil, beginner rider-safe horse like she was led to believe when she bought it.
“It’s time for this pony to go,” Weistroffer said to her husband.
The veterinarian Weistroffer took the pony to the next day said that the change in temperament didn’t make sense and that the pony was most likely drugged at the time of sale to make it act quiet and harmless.
This case is not an isolated incident. Sellers can misrepresent horses in a variety of ways, including lying about their bad habits and drugging them to cover up behavioral and health issues. Misrepresenting horses during sales can be detrimental for both horses and their riders. People have spent thousands of dollars on veterinarians after learning their horses had health issues that were covered up by sellers. Riders have sustained injuries from falling off horses that were marketed as safe for beginners but turned out to be inexperienced.
Equine Legal Solutions, an equine law firm based near Portland, conducted a 2012 survey to “gather information about internal factors that might be contributing the horse industry’s economic decline,” according to its website. Two thirds of respondents claimed to have purchased a horse they believe was misrepresented.
The top characteristics in horses that were misrepresented by sellers were temperament, soundness, training, suitability for the respondent’s intended use, and suitability for the respondent’s riding ability and experience. Almost one third of respondents said they believe the seller drugged the horse before the test ride and 25 percent believed sellers worked the horse heavily before the test ride.
The horse industry is worth $23.4 billion to Kentucky, according to a survey by the National Agricultural Statistics service, conducted in 2012. About 242,000 horses live in Kentucky. More horses are used for trail riding and pleasure riding, about 80,000, than anything else. According to the Department of Agriculture, equine-related sales make up $1.1 billion in Kentucky.
There are several telltale signs that a horse has been drugged. They may lower their heads more than they usually would. Their ears may be droopy and unresponsive, even when there is a lot of noise. They may have a dropped heart rate, extra salivation at the mouth, and a glazed-over look in their eyes. They will not be as alert as usual and can be clumsy. However, some horses naturally have lower heart rates or have bad footing, so there are other ways to tell as well.
Rea Swan, founder of the Rocky Mountain Horse Association and a former Rocky Mountain judge, recommends lifting up a horse’s tail. If it doesn’t resist, there is a possibility it may have been drugged. When looking at a male horse, she said a noticeable sign of drugging is a hanging penis. Usually a sign of relaxation, this can also be a symptom of drugs.
“Pinch their skin,” Swan said, usually on the neck. If the skin takes a while to fold back to normal, the skin is dehydrated. Horses that are drugged do not properly eat or drink and can become dehydrated.
Maddie Clarke remembers the day she saved exactly $1,000. It was an early afternoon in March, and she was almost finished with the third grade; she’d been saving every penny she made for five years. It was $1,000 because that’s how much a horse cost, her younger self reckoned, from her daily scouring of the sales section of The Tennessean.
Clarke earned chunks of money from birthdays, Christmas and some pocket change occasionally by doing chores for her grandmother. Her family didn’t think she would be able to save it so fast. Clarke counted her earnings every day and stowed it in a safe under her bed. The day she got to $1,000, she presented it to her mother and told her she was ready to buy her first horse.
Clarke had been riding lesson ponies for four years at a farm called Chigger Ridge near Nashville. Her parents were new to horses, but they did as much research about buying horses and caring for them before starting the search. They didn’t have a barn, so Clarke planned to board her horse at a friend’s neighbor’s house.
Clarke tried out four horses at different barns before she finally fell in love with a 6-year-old chestnut and white Quarter Horse, owned by a trainer at Chigger Ridge.
The first thing Clarke remembers about Millie was that her head was lowered, almost to the ground, when she walked up to her stall. But she wasn’t eating anything like most horses would, just standing calmly. “She looked sad, and a little tired. Her eyes were almost closed,” Clarke said.
When she test-rode Millie, she had to kick as hard as she could just to get her to walk, and she was never able to move into a faster gait. Clarke’s parents decided the calmness Millie exuded was worth the $1,200 for a beginner rider, and they supplemented Clarke the extra $200.
In the first few days they had Millie, Clarke and her parents noticed the horse getting slowly, but increasingly energetic and agitated in her stall. When they tried to lead her out for walks, they had little control over the aggressive horse.
Looking back now, Clarke said she would’ve probably recognized something was wrong, but at the time, being 9 years old, she didn’t pick up on the subtle, but indicative signs. “I loved her so much I cried,” she said, laughing at the memory and her naivety.
In the next three weeks, every time Clarke rode Millie, she bucked until Clarke fell off or dismounted. Her gait was so fast, Clarke said she barely had to squeeze her legs for her horse to take off into a trot or into the faster gait of a canter.
Clarke’s parents let this go on for several weeks until they called the previous owner.
“[The trainer from the farm] just said it was our problem, and we already had her and there was nothing she could do,” Clarke said. She later found out that the previous owners had sold her to the trainer because she was too much for them to handle.
“If you could see the day that I test rode her compared to the day that I rode her a week after I brought her home, it was a completely different horse,” Clarke said.
It’s “buyer beware,” equine veterinarian Travis McVey said. He said there are many ways horses can be misrepresented, and it’s mostly up to the customer to make sure the purchase doesn’t go awry.
Customers who unknowingly buy a drugged horse can pursue legal action if they think they are victims, but McVey thinks they will most likely lose, unless they have some sort of sale contract. It’s up to the buyers to ask for a blood test, conducted by a veterinarian, to test for drugs in the horse’s system. They can also request full prepurchase exams.
Prepurchase exams generally include a basic health evaluation including health history, temperature, pulse respiration, general condition and confirmation; a lameness assessment, including flexion tests, soft tissue palpation, and movement evaluation; and ancillary diagnostics, including X rays, ultrasound, MRIs, and bloodwork.
However, blood tests and prepurchase exams can be expensive, around $2,000. Many buyers don’t think it’s worth it to spend that much money, especially when they’re considering a relatively inexpensive horse.
McVey does prepurchase exams for clients sometimes, but he’s never had a test come back positive for drugs. However, he has heard stories.
Usually, he said his clients only request blood tests and prepurchase exams when they’re thinking of buying an expensive horse, so it is not commonplace for customers to do a prepurchase exam every time a horse is sold.
For as long as Jane Collins could remember, she wanted a buckskin colored horse, a tan coat with a black mane, tail and legs. She and her husband had been looking for four to five years but never found one that made the cut.
Then one day in 2010, Collin’s older sister, Dee Mullins, called with a prospect at a horse sale in Richmond, Kentucky. It was a Rocky Mountain, a breed that originated in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, and the buckskin color Collins wanted.
According to her sister, the young mare had a “lovely gait” and the owner was only asking $400 since she wasn’t registered. Collins sent her husband, Steve, to look at the horse because she couldn’t make it to the sale.
Steve and Dee watched several people ride the mare, including the 80-something owner, who needed two men’s assistance mounting and dismounting, proving how docile the horse was. Dee rode her as well and declared she was the perfect fit for Collins’ preferences.
Collins trusted her husband and sister’s opinion and allowed them to go through with the purchase. When the trailer pulled into her farm that evening with her new horse, Collins fell in love.
Later, Collins found a free morning to try her horse out for the first time. She asked her husband to go to the barn with her “just in case.” When trying a new horse, she wants someone to be with her for her own safety.
The horse was easy-going while Collins groomed her and tacked her up, but the moment Collins swung her leg across the its back, that all changed.
The horse dropped her head and started to wildly buck. Collins stayed composed at first, but realizing she had no control, attempted to dismount carefully.
She leaned forward and slid her arms around the horse’s neck and dropped to the ground. She landed on her feet, but the mare’s chest crashed into Collins hard, on the right side of her body.
Collins fell to the ground and hit her head on the dirt. According to her husband, the impact knocked her out for almost half a minute. After a visit to the doctor, she was diagnosed with a broken ankle and a mild concussion.
Later, Collins named the horse Kat, because she’s “quick as a cat.”
Jane Collins said that her husband and sister are proof that even with years of experience with horses, it’s still possible to get duped.
In a case in the Maidstone Crown Court in the U.K. in 2016, two women were found guilty of conning parents of young children into buying drug and sick ex-racehorses by claiming the horses were docile and kid-friendly. Those horses caused at least 17 individuals injuries. One woman stayed in the hospital for two months with life threatening injuries. Others suffered broken ribs, and one was left unconscious in a ditch.
The two women worked with their own veterinarian to fake vet exams which include checking horses for drugs. The horses were described as bombproof, but according to one story in the Kent Online, when the sedatives wore off, the “true nature and temperament of the horses were revealed. A number of the horses were lame.”
Doug Carpenter is a custom horse buyer, a person who helps clients buy horses based on their preferences and needs. He “prides himself on honesty and integrity” his website brags, and he made a name for himself in the industry 40 years ago as an American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) World Show champion and later as a Western Pleasure horse trainer.
When looking for a horse, Carpenter stressed the importance of going through a reputable seller. He says buyers should do research on whoever is representing the horse.
Using their own veterinarian was a conflict of interest in the U.K. case, and that’s why Carpenter recommends veterinarians in the area to his clients, but never asks them to use his own for vet exams.
He recommends that other buyers use their own veterinarians for prepurchase exams or at least one they know and trust, as long as the vet does not works for the seller’s farm.
Buyers should also look at the sellers’ Facebook pages and reviews. Most people don’t ask sellers for references, Carpenter said, but they should. This ensures that potential customers can hear testimony from other buyers about their experience with the seller.
Carpenter is used to taking calculated risks when buying horses, and even goes against the vet’s advice to buy a horse sometimes, even after an x-ray. However, with as much experience as he has, he isn’t immune to being taken advantage of, which he says has happened a couple times, and so he knows to do his homework before closing a sale and recommends that others do the same.
He said some people want a certain color horse, and when they find one, they let their emotions get in the way of being practical. “Don’t get caught up in the emotion of the whole thing, buying a horse,” Carpenter said. “Really listen, and ask questions.”
Carpenter said people can be savage when misrepresenting horses, especially when buying off the internet, which he says is the most dangerous place to buy a horse because most of the time, buyers don’t know the seller or their reputation. Carpenter said he calls it the “Wild West.”
A tip he gives buyers is to make sure to stop by the horse’s farm on short notice at least once to be able to look at the horse without the seller having time to potentially drug it. Carpenter said he sometimes does this two or three times for the same horse.
Carpenter encourages buyers to come to sales with a list of questions prepared to ask about the horses. He said people even ask the same question several times in order to make sure the seller’s answer does not change. If buyers think they see red flags when talking to sellers about their horses, they should pay attention to their instincts.
An experienced buyer, Jan Culp, 61, usually goes through her trusted horse trader when buying horses.
A horse trader is someone who negotiates in buying and selling horses, usually for clients.
A lot of people associate traders with being shady dealers who are the perpetrators in drugging horses to sell, but Culp is confident in hers.
She sat in a green plaid chair in a cozy room inside her covered barn at her farm while she recounted the time several years ago when she made the mistake of buying a horse without the help of her trader.
All of Culp’s children grew up riding, and they each had their own ponies. To pay for their horses, the family started a business called Party Ponies, in which they gave children pony rides at birthday parties. Of her three sons, the youngest, Cory, was already a good rider at 10, and he expressed a greater interest in horses than his brothers, so he wanted a bigger horse.
So Culp took her son to an auction in Smith’s Grove to find him a Rocky Mountain, her favorite breed. The pair fell in love with a 10-year-old black and white paint pony.
Culp and Cory both rode him at auction, and Culp thought he would be a good fit for her son.
She paid $1,100 for the pony and brought it back to her Bowling Green farm. When Cory started riding his new pony, Culp realized it wasn’t acting like the horse she bought. The pony was usually calm, but it had some dangerous traits. “It would be fine most of the time, and then just freak out,” she said with a hint of a northern accent left over from her Michigan roots.
Culp only kept the pony for a few weeks until one day, when the pony took off down the driveway in a full gallop with a helmetless Cory astride. “I watched his head miss a tree by this much,” she said, holding her fingers inches apart. She isn’t sure because diagnosing is too expensive, but she suspects the pony had seizures because the symptoms fit the pattern of another horse she saw that had seizures.
The next day, she decided to start looking for helmets for her children.
Horses are tranquilized for a variety of reasons. Veterinarians tranquilize their clients’ horses to float their teeth and on occasion, for shoeing and clipping. Even then, it is not always necessary. Drugging horses for purposes outside of normal circumstances isn’t only dangerous to riders, but it can have detrimental consequences to the horses’ health and stability.
Collins remembers a particular instance from a Madison County Fair Horse Show one summer years ago. The Western show ring was built in the area where the fair held tractor pulls each year. Each end of the show ring sported metal posts and panels to construct the ring and separate it from the tractor pull section.
It was common knowledge that one young rider’s parents would tranquilize her horse before they went into the ring for shows. “They always tranquilized that child’s horse. Always,” Collins said. “They didn’t even give that horse a chance. We all—the 4-H leaders, everybody—complained to the parents and nobody would do anything.”
Now, horse shows are somewhat more regulated, but at the time, judges couldn’t ask for blood tests at shows to prove drugging practices.
The young rider entered a class that day, and Collins recalled watching in horror from the rail as the unsteady, drugged horse fell and impaled itself on one of the metal posts.
The mare was tranquilized enough that she didn’t thrash or flail, and the rider landed safely. “People risk so many things, and I don’t remember if the horse lived, but of course that kid never showed it again,” Collins said.
Similarly to people, horses react to different drugs in different ways. Reactions from analgesics and sedatives can include lethargy, incoordination, increase in blood pressure, sweating, salivation, and muscle tremors, according to EquiMed.
Cortisone injections may mask pain and lameness which may further aggravate injuries. Using anti-inflammatory drugs may mask signs of infection, cause susceptibility to bacterial or viral infections, delay healing of wounds, and result in potential for laminitis.
Jane Collins still has Kat, named for her quick and perky personality, at her Richmond farm, but she won’t ever try to ride her again, she said.
Likewise, Clarke still owns Millie. In the years since, Millie has never calmed down, but Clarke has learned how to better handle her thanks to the help of a new trainer. Now, Clarke doesn’t ride her, but thinks of her of more as a pet.
Jan Culp, however, sold the black and white paint pony at an $800 loss. She informed the new owners of the pony’s problems, but was unwilling to put her own children at risk on such a dangerous horse.
Kristy Weistroffer’s brother sold Reagan’s pony, expressing the stipulation to the next owners that the pony was not for beginner riders.
Though Reagan vaguely remembers the incident and “I didn’t want anything to do with that pony after that,” she wasn’t scared away from horses completely. The second time was the charm, because Reagan’s mother bought her a Rocky Mountain horse that she kept for years, but with a whole different approach.
She bought the new horse from a woman where her brother trained horses. He trained, shoed, and helped raise the horse, so Weistroffer knew its full background. This time, Weistroffer wouldn’t be fooled.