I would often hear that comment while I was teaching students what to look for when purchasing a horse. I will tell you as I have told my students; when you first approach a horse which you are interested in buying, pay extra attention to its head. That examination will influence you as to whether you want to own the animal or not. Remember, when you are examining the horse, and especially its head, always have the light coming over your shoulder and shining on the subject. Never examine an animal, or a part of it, when you are looking into the light.
My old friend, Pete Bonthuis, who bought and sold more drafters than I will ever know, told me he would always examine the head first to decide if he wished to own the horse and then he would inspect the rest of the animal. However, after checking the head and deciding from this exam that he did not want to buy the animal he would still proceed to examine the horse. Pete said that you owed this to the owner and you should be courteous enough to show an interest in his horse.
So what are we looking for when we examine the head of the horse?
Let’s start with the ears. They should be as long as possible, well-shaped, far apart and set out on the corner of the head. When you first approach the horse and it looks at you, the ears should be active and show that the animal is curious about your presence. They should not lie flat on the skull. When the ears lie flat on the head it is a sign that the animal does not like you at the moment. If, in a few moments, the ears return to a normal upright position one can assume that the horse has accepted your presence.
Beware of the horse that has small pin ears that are set close in on the head and can twirl around and touch at the tips. These ears will indicate that the horse has a mean temperament and is not to be trusted, ever!
When examining the head of the horse always make some noise and watch closely to see if the animal can hear it. This is important as it is said that 3% of all horses have hearing impairment. How could one train or use a deaf draft animal? Many old-time horse buyers, including old Pete, would always whistle a tune when first examining an animal. They would closely watch the ears and the horse's reaction to the noise.
The forehead of the horse is the next part to come under scrutiny. It should be flat, or just slightly rounded, when viewed from the side. Never buy a horse that has a forehead which is rounded out or bulged out. These animals, in horsemen's terms, are called “knotheads” and knotheads they are. You cannot train them or trust them. I have seen them perform very well for a time and then, without warning, they will throw a complete fit and become dangerous to themselves and anyone around them.
The next part of the head which we want to check out very thoroughly is the eyes.
If the eye exhibits a condition which is not normal to it, the animal is considered to be unsound. A small white spot on the cornea is sufficient to cause the horse to be unsound.
The eye should be large and bright and well set out on the head. They should show intelligence and warmth. They should be clear and free of any signs of cloudiness and not opaque in appearance. A penlight should be used to detect the presence of a cataract in the eye. These are not uncommon in the horse and will impair their vision, the same as they do in people.
The eyes should be free of pus or any other discharge. The presence of these materials would indicate a possible infection of the organs of sight.
Be very wary of the horse with “pig eyes.” A pig eye is a small eye resembling that of a pig. A horse with pig eyes is an undesirable animal as it is generally “bossy,” mean and not to be trusted. A pig-eyed mare darn-near killed me a couple of years ago.
Many of the old-time horse buyers always hummed or whistled a tune and had a cigar or pipe in their mouth, even though they didn’t smoke, when about to check a horse. The hum or whistle was used to check the hearing of the animal and the pipe or cigar was used to check the eye. These old boys were very clever. They would get right up to the head of the horse and I can still see them striking the wooden match on the suspender button on the front of their overalls and then using it to light their pipe or cigar. They would be right up by the horse’s eye and the match would be reflected in the eye. The buyer would see three lights; the lighted match and two reflections of the match flame in the healthy eye. One would be shallow and the other much deeper in the eye.
Since the pen light was not available in those days, the match worked well and, of course, it took more than one match to light his smoke. No one was the “wiser” in knowing what the prospective buyer was doing. They assumed he was lighting his pipe when, in reality, he was examining the eye. My dad always said, “Never hire a man who smokes a pipe. He will spend half a day loading it and another half trying to light it.”
The horse spends most of his time gazing with his eyes. It can see all around itself except directly behind. The horse will also look or stare at a distant object which has attracted its attention. When the animal’s curiosity has been satisfied, it will slip back into the gazing mode, especially if it is at rest.
A horse will stare at you and keep its eyes riveted on you on just two occasions. One is when it intends to do you great bodily harm and the other time is when the animal is about to die and you are near its head.
The prudent buyer will watch closely the activities of the ears and eyes to aid in determining the disposition of the animal.
Now, let’s drop down to the face of the horse. This is the area below the eyes and going down to the nostrils. This same area is often called the nose. Technically the nose is that part of the horse’s face which surrounds and contains the nostrils.
If one stands directly in front of the horse you can see the face is flat from the eyes to the nostrils and drops off on either side and becomes the upper mandibles. There is an indentation on either side which will vary with the individual horse. If one indentation is longer and more deeply depressed than its mate on the other side, this condition is called a “spleen.” This so called “spleen” has absolutely nothing in common with the spleen found in the horse’s belly.
A horse with this “facial spleen” will have a much more difficult time getting its air, when under work or stress, as the nasal passageway has collapsed on the side of the spleen. The nasal passageway is much narrower on the side of the spleen than the passageway on the opposite side of the face or nose, thus impeding the flow of air.
When viewed from the side, the face can be a straight line from below the eyes to the nostrils; or indented as seen in the Arab and Barb breeds; or bowed upward, which is called a “Roman nose.” The “Roman nose” can be very slight or very severe. I remember quite well hearing an old horse buyer say, “I would have bought him but he could eat oats out of a jug!” He was referring to a horse with a very severe Roman nose.
Most horsemen who really worked their stock preferred horses with a Roman nose. These animals were purportedly more tough and able to do more work in a day than their counterparts with a straight face or nose.
Many old-time horsemen would say, “Give me a horse with a Roman nose, he will outwork the rest of ‘em everyday.”
The nostrils are located in the true nose, just below the face and just above the upper lip. When viewed from the front they should be relaxed and of equal size.
They should not be enlarged and dilated as this is a warning that the horse is afraid of something at this point in time. The something might be you!
There should be no evidence of pus or pus-like fluid coming from the nostrils. If these fluids are present in one or more of the nostrils, it would possibly indicate the presence of an infection of the upper respiratory tract, an infected tooth or a host of other possible infections of the area.
If the nostrils are partly dilated and the animal is breathing rapidly, one could suspect the animal has the “heaves” or pneumonia. If the animal is breathing rapidly, be on your guard as things are not normal with the respiratory system.
After checking out the nostrils one should shift attention to the corners of the mouth, at the junction of the upper and lower lip. It only takes a second or two to feel the area.
If the tissue is quite soft and there has been no laceration at the corner, everything is fine. However, if one can feel scar tissue in the area and see that the corners have been cut back and down, about ½ to ¾ inch, you are looking at a horse the old-time horse buyer called a “pipe-smoker.” This horse is hard to hold and will run. Previous owners have used severe bits on it to hold it and have damaged the corners of the mouth. One can also peek into the mouth of these
animals and often see where the tongue has been cut by the use of severe bits.
The examination of the head is not complete without checking the teeth for evidence of them being “overshot” or “undershot.” When these conditions occur, they are unsoundnesses and are probably inherited.
Among horsemen, the “overshot” condition is called a “parrot mouth” and the undershot job is known as a “monkey mouth.”
The examiner can also tell the age of the horse by checking certain features on its teeth. It is very easy to age the horse, by its teeth, up to six years. I would say after six years of age it requires much more skill to determine the correct age of the animal.
One last important point should be noted. View the bottom jaw from the side and observe its forward tip. It should be slightly “shorter” than the upper jaw. If the teeth are normal and the lower jar is “longer” than the upper jaw, when the mouth is closed, you have a horse who is tough, hard to teach and will give you a lot of trouble. Stay away from a horse with a long lower jaw!
Now we are done examining the head. You can now understand why the old-time buyer paid a lot of attention to the animal's head. As old Pete told me, “I made up my mind if I wanted to buy it or not by first checking out the head.”
The examination revealed much about the animal’s disposition, its ability to work, its ability to stay healthy and strong, its physical condition and its ability to learn and get along with its owner and master. Best of all, it only takes a couple of minutes to do the job.
No one knows why a Roman nose, a long lower jaw, a pig eye or a short ear reveals a horse’s disposition. But they do and when they are present the keen observer will have an insight into the character of the animal!
Of course there are disbelievers, but let me throw this out to you: Many years ago a song about an old famous bucking horse was made popular by such artists as Roy "Lonesome Charley" Faulkner and, later, Marti Robbins. It is my understanding that its lyrics came from a poem written by Curley Fletcher, a horseman who knew his stock. The song was played and sung in countless bars and opera houses in its day and is still a favorite old-time cowboy song. It’s title–The Strawberry Roan.
Here is the part describing the horse that no one ever rode.
“Down in the horse corral standing alone
is an old caballo, a strawberry roan.
His legs are all spavined,
He’s got pigeon toes,
Little pig eyes,
And a big roman nose.
Little pin ears
that touch at the tips
and a big 44 brand
Is on his left hip
Ewe-necked and old
with a long lower jaw,
I could see with one eye
he’s a regular outlaw.
How’s that for a head examination? He had covered it all and it sure told the cowboy what to expect when he climbed aboard!