How to Buy an Amateur Horse:

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A High Plains Dressage Presentation by Jessica Greenstein and Joseph Newcomb.

By Sally O’Dwyer

Our sport can be frustrating due to the expense. Remember that as out of reach it may feel at times, the essence of dressage is about training–which can be performed on any horse of varying quality. Is it wonderful to ride a horse that is bred for dressage, has natural ability, and offers the movement? Yes, but remember your long game. If you love the sport, try to be smart and invest in your training.” Joseph Newcomb

High Plains Dressage, a member chapter of Rocky Mountain Dressage Society, recently hosted a zoom educational event presented by Jessica Greenstein and Joseph Newcomb, of Exclusive Dressage Imports (EDI) to discuss what to consider when buying a horse. EDI specializes in the import and training of elite quality dressage horses.  Joe and Jess have gained considerable expertise in buying and importing horses, which includes evaluating, finding good temperaments, and going through vet checks.  They shared some great insights.

Finding Your Dream Horse in the US.

Joseph explained that the difficulty in finding your heart horse is that in the US, the dressage community is small and spread out across the country.  You can waste a lot of your budget and valuable time crisscrossing America.  Once you get to your destination to try a horse, you may not like it, or its not rideable, or it fails the vet check.  So, you are out of luck and back on the plane to see the next horse that looked perfect in the Dream Horse video.

Buyers might want to go to dressage hubs—such as Wellington or Southern California.  Buyer beware because in these locales, you will probably have to work with brokers or agents, and this inflates prices.

High Plains Dressage members had questions about buying horses, and Jess and Joe offered expert advice. Here are some highlights of the great tips they provided.

  • Price depends on what the buyer is looking for. And each buyer is looking for something different. Things that effect price are trainability, quality, rideability, potential, vet check, age, training level, stallion/gelding/mare, and whether the horse is already in the US. If your goals are to buy a high-performance horse, and you do not have a big budget—you may have to buy a younger horse, or you could also find a smaller horse (under 15.3) for a good price.
  • You Get What You Pay for.  In general, the horses tend to be valued appropriately and good horses are scarce.  If you see a video of a horse that seems inexpensive, there is likely something amiss. Be cautious because rarely do you find a good deal. 
  • Rideability Trumps Other Factors.  Fire breathing dragons are not needed. There is a myth that hot horses are good for the professional, but even a professional seeks a good temperament that is easy to ride. 
  • Good Horses are Hard to Find.  When a good horse comes on the market—wherever it is, it will sell quickly.  If a horse is sitting on the market for 6 months or more then be cautious. 
  • About Vet Checks.  Vets tend to be extremely conservative in their evaluation because they are subject to lawsuits if they pass a horse that later presents a health issue. They are in a precarious situation, assume risk when they “pass” a horse. It is rare for a horse to pass a vet check without a single issue.  Buyers should focus on the clinical soundness of the horse at the time of the exam.  While it is recommended that you have x rays of the back and legs of the horse, be aware that the more you look for the more you will find, they can be misread and are open to interpretation.  For example, an x ray may show navicular changes that never cause the horse to take a lame step in its entire life. And unfortunately, buyers may miss a great horse because they are looking for a “clean” horse. Sometimes, you might be able to pay less for a horse that does not have fabulous x rays but is clinically sound and even under saddle. Remember that some of the horses that go on to the Olympics have less than stellar x-rays.
  • Best Bloodlines for Amateurs. Dutch warmbloods often are bred for movement over rideability, and some lines are known to be difficult, and it might not be worth it to struggle. Some of the F lines might be good for amateurs. Jess also recommends focusing on the dam’s breeding.  German breeders tend to breed the older, more reliable lines because they know what they are getting.  It is good to know the breeding lines but having too restrictive an outlook is a mistake so keep an open mind.  In each bloodline, there are exceptions. Evaluate the horse in front of you.
  • Avoid Getting Over Horsed. Both Jess and Joe said this is easy to if do you are looking for the wrong things.  If you prioritize movement over temperament—you could get in trouble.
  • Patience Could Pay Off.  You do not have to buy what you need right now.  If you buy a young horse with a good temperament and you are working with a good trainer you may be able to develop a horse more quickly into something that you can ride–as opposed to an older horse that still spooks etc. If you do a good job evaluating the character, some young horses are fine for amateurs.  You will need to invest time and work with a trainer so you can develop and learn on the horse.
  • Schoolmasters.  Having an older trained horse that knows it stuff can be helpful because they can teach you.  However, older horses sometimes have buttons you cannot undo. For example, they have may have been trained a certain way do changes and you may be unable modify this.   If you get a younger horse, you can make it your own. 
  • Confirmation Considerations. If you watch a Grand Prix class, you will see all kinds of confirmations. A horse that is well put together will have a better inclination to do dressage. But that said, there are horses lacking terrific confirmation that go to the Olympics. 

Jess and Joe’s Thoughts on Trying a Horse

Safety is #1 

A person standing next to a horse

Description automatically generated with medium confidenceTrying horses is dangerous.  Never get on a horse first.  Be sure that the seller rides the horse first.  Often the seller will groom and braid the horse for you and might feel a little obligated to get on the horse—but DON’T feel pressured to ride if you don’t feel comfortable with what you are seeing.

Give your full attention to the horse because you have limited time during your visit. Watch it come out of the stall and when it is in the cross ties.  Is it reactive to the saddle?  Does it pin its ears when its cinched up?  If you see signs that the horse is reactive or tight—watch out.  Use your feel and ask a lot of questions.  Sellers want to sell their horses, but if you ask a lot of questions you can find out a lot. Beware if a seller starts saying things like, “don’t move like this”, “don’t touch him there”, “be very quiet when you get on”.   Know your comfort level and trust your gut. When you are with the horse, does it feel like you horse?

Good Luck to You! 

The essence of dressage is available to everyone.  Focus on what you can control, invest in your education and work with what you have.  Research the market in Colorado.  Know your goals and your budget and try horses!

Finally, luck plays a factor. And good luck to you!  Happy horse shopping.