This article discusses where to get a horse for free, as well as where to get horses inexpensively. The main topics are:
Horse Protection Associations
There are a number of public (and private) rescue associations, both general and those specializing in horses, which adopt horses. However, they have limited resources in terms of space (stalls and pasture), money (for bedding, food, vet, etc.) and staff time (for mucking out and general care). Consequently, they are usually happy to pass the horses on to a good home for free (or next to it) as this saves them the costs of caring for the horse.
Although the horse may be provided for free, depending on the association, there may be administrative or other fees they request. Since the associations are often dependent on private donations, which are often in short supply, it is not unusual for them to try and cover some of their direct costs in this way.
Before taking on a rescue horse, one should try to find out as much of its history as possible, as well as the result of any veterinary examinations the horse had. Also ask the reason for the horse being rescued as this may indicate potential problems. Typical reasons are:
As one can see from the above, horses up for adoption from rescue associations may be in perfect health, or may need special treatment to finish recovering from physical or behavioral issues, or may have permanent problems. Depending on your requirements, certain issues may not be a problem. For example, if you have one horse and need a second purely for companionship, the fact that the adoption horse is old or unsuitable for riding is not an issue. Alternatively, if you intend to ride the horse regularly, the requirements are very different. One should identify any problems or potential problems by discussing the horse's condition and history with the association. One should also perform a health check to identify any possible problems that the association may be unaware of.
Provided that you are willing to commit to the long term care of the horse, adopting a horse from an association is not only a cheap way to get a horse, but also is a good deed as it frees up the association's resources to enable them to rescue and take care of other horses.
The quality of horses at auction varies greatly. Some of the horses are being auctioned because they are unusable due to age or illness. However, good quality horses (young, healthy, well trained) are sometimes auctioned, often for less than their market price. Especially during times of economic recession, good quality horses will be sold for a fraction of their value, simply because their owners can no longer afford them (e.g. due to job losses). At some times, a good trained horse that would normally cost $3000 may sell for only $600. Although this is not quite free, it is pretty close.
Many of the horses at auction are purchased by the meat industry, even the young and healthy ones. Consequently, purchasing such horses at auction is not only a way to get a horse cheap, but also may save a noble creature from an unfortunate end.
However, there are a few problems with buying at auction. The first is that many of the horses are probably unfit, either due to physical or behavioral problems. Although there may be a few good horses mixed in (e.g. due to owners needing to sell quick due to financial issues), one needs to be able to evaluate the horses on offer to determine if a horse is healthy, trained and well behaved. Within the environment of an auction, this is much more difficult than elsewhere (e.g. it is likely that one will not be able to ride it). In addition, one is buying the horse largely 'as-is', without guarantees or assurances, which further adds to the risk. Consequently, unless you are very knowledgeable about horses and skilled at evaluating them (or can bring such a person with you), buying at auction is a risky affair. However, it you want to try, you may want to read buying horses at auction.
Breeders occasionally offer a horse for free or very inexpensively. One needs to approach such offers with caution, since a breeder is no more likely to give a horse away for free than a car dealer is likely to give you a car for free, unless there is something seriously wrong with it. Even if the horse looks perfectly fine, there may be some hidden physical problems (e.g. grass allergy, tendency to colic) which could result in large veterinary expenses or other problems at a later date. They may also be behavioral issues such as cribbing or aggression. For such reasons, the breeder may not be able to sell the horse (due to legal risk or concern for his reputation) so is willing to give it away simply to avoid the costs of caring for it.
On occasion, there are cases when a perfectly good horse is available. For example, a breeder which is focused as a particular quality (e.g. certain coat colors or top competition horses) will get a certain percentage of horses which simply don't meet his criteria, perhaps because it is the wrong color or is unable to race fast enough. As soon as they determine that the horse does not have the quality that they are looking for, they will want to get rid of the horse as quickly as possible. Consequently, one may be able to buy the horse for less than the market value, but do not expect to get such a horse for free unless there is a fundamental problem with it.
The cost of caring for a horse is substantial in terms of both money (bedding, food, farrier, vet costs, saddle and tack, etc.) and time (mucking out, training, general care). Therefore, even if someone gives you a horse for free, you will still need to spend a considerable amount on the horse each month to cover its basic needs. If your horse has physical problems (e.g. a tendency to colic), you may suddenly have additional costs running into the thousands of dollars (e.g. colic surgery) or face the loss of a horse once you have fallen in love with it. Likewise, if there are hidden physical or behavioral issues, you may be unable to use the horse but still end up paying for its care.
For these reasons, one needs to be as careful about getting a 'free' horse as one you pay the full price for. In fact, if the horse is free or selling for less than the normal price, one needs to be even more careful until one determines why it is not being sold for the normal price. In some cases there may be an acceptable reason but far too often there are hidden problems. Should you discover these after taking the horse, you can be in a very difficult position as it is seldom just a matter of giving the horse back, particularly if the problems are found some months later when the family has fallen in love with it. When the vet is standing in front of you saying the horse has colic and will die unless you pay $5000 for emergency surgery and your daughter is crying buckets behind you, the 'free' horse may suddenly become very expensive indeed.
Of course, one can never be 100% certain that a horse is perfect, no matter how much one pays. Sometimes a very expensive horse turns out to have major problems, while a 'free' horse (especially those from a professional horse rescue association) may turn out to be the horse of your dreams (I know a number of cases where this has happened). However, one does tend to get what one pays for, and the reality is that a 'free' horse is generally a higher-risk option than one which goes at a normal market price.
Perhaps the most reliable place to buy a horse is from a reputable breeder. Although some people will sell you a poor quality horse, a breeder with a good reputation will want to protect that reputation by only selling quality horses. In addition, when buying from a registered breeder, one has a certain amount of legal protection should there be a problem. Furthermore, a good breeder will provide a written money-back guarantee that will cover any major problems existing pre-sale. You will also have the time and facilities to do a careful health check to make sure the horse is physically and mentally sound, and to ride the horse and spend time with it to make sure that there is a good fit between the two of you (horses are like clothes, even good quality ones don't fit everyone).