How to buy the perfect Dressage horse

My first “real” Dressage horse was an Anglo Arabian mare named Tsarina. She was 8 years old when my parents bought her for me. I competed with Tsarina until she was 13 years old. She took me through juniors and young riders and even taught me how to ride some of the Grand Prix. When she turned 13, my trainer explained to me and my parents that we had a decision to make. Tsarina was at the age where we needed to decide if we would keep her forever, or sell her and use the money from the sale to put towards my next horse. As a 17 year old girl, this was not a fun decision to make. I would have loved to keep Tsarina forever. She gave me so much and I felt that I owed it to her. But I also knew that I wanted to keep progressing as a rider and a trainer. In order to do that, I needed to have a nice young horse to bring along myself. I decided to sell Tsarina. As heartbroken as I was, she ended up finding the best home I could have possibly imagined. To this day, she still has the same owner and is now peacefully retired in Tennessee.

After I sold Tsarina, I told myself that every horse that we purchased would be a “sale horse”. Meaning I would keep it for a certain amount of time, train and show it, and then sell it. Having this mindset from the beginning has made it a little bit easier to let go. I still get attached to almost every single horse, but I also know where every single horse I have sold lives. I love to keep up with their new owners to check in and see how they are doing. I enjoy the process of looking for a “diamond in the rough” and turning it into something beautiful and rideable for every type of rider. Then finding the perfect home for it. Here are a few things that I look for. Whether you are looking specifically for a “sale horse” like me, or looking for your next lifetime partner, these are a few things to keep in mind while trying out horses.

  1. Watch it in the barn

I find it extremely important to have a well behaved horse in the barn. I won’t buy horses with severe bad habits in the barn such as cribbing, weaving etc. If it were a horse that I was going to keep forever, and the quality was great under saddle, I would consider it. But buying a sales horse, you have to think of every little thing that a person would use to negotiate the price. If you have a horse that has to be sedated for the farrier or clipping, that will end up causing the price to go down. If I’m seriously interested in a horse I like to try it twice. Generally when I am showing horses to clients, I have the horse in polo wraps and the saddle on in the cross ties when they arrive. Usually when people are looking at horses, they have a tight schedule. I like to save them a little bit of time there. Then if they come back for a second ride, I will pull the horse out of the stall when they arrive and tack them up in front of the perspective buyer. This is how I request to see horses when I am looking for myself. Watch the horse while he has his feet picked out, saddle put on, wraps put on etc. You’ll learn a lot about the horse right away. Is he super fidgety, does he have a sour look the whole time, is he eagerly waiting to go work? Watch for everything.

2. Watch the owner or trainer warm the horse up

Most people will ride the horse for you before you will get on yourself. Most likely you have seen sale videos at this point but you can make any horse look good in a video. It’s important to take note on how the owner\trainer warms the horse up. Unless I’m looking at a 3 or 4 year old, I don’t want to have to see a horse lunged before it’s ridden. Again, if I’m looking for a sales horse, I need it to be extremely rideable and I don’t want to have to lunge it before I show it to clients. I don’t expect the warm up to be perfect, the owner/trainer is hopefully just trying to make the horse feel nice and show it off a little. I like to see a short warm up and then quickly do a few movements of whatever level it is advertised. Again, I don’t expect everything to be picture perfect from the beginning, but I certainly don’t want to see anything close to bucking, rearing, taking off etc. This obviously would be a deal breaker. I would also not be interested if I see a very irregular or lateral walk, or bad quality canter. I can always make a trot more “fancy”, but it’s almost impossible to change the natural walk and canter. If I like what I see from the warm up, I like to hop on after about 15 minutes. I don’t want it to be too tired when I get on, just so I can still feel everything for myself.

3. Test the horse

If you get to the point of test riding the horse, ride it! This is your chance to try everything. Test all the movements. Put some pressure on and see how the horse takes it. Obviously, remaining very respectful to the horse. Don’t ask for anything that will severely upset the horse (or the owner) such as trying a brand new movement that the horse has never done. But you do have to test the buttons and see what he is capable of for the future. As simple as it sounds, the biggest thing I think about while test riding is simply, “is this fun?”. People fall in love and buy horses because they are fun to ride. If the horse has an extremely bouncy trot, you’ve just shrunk your potential buyers to probably less than half. If it is very heavy in the bridle, again you’re limiting your future buyers.

4. The trifecta: looks, conformation and clean vetting

Going back to the fact that people buy horses that are fun to ride, people also buy horses because they are beautiful. I am not one to judge a horse by its coat, but if you walk in the barn and a horse immediately catches your eye, odds are good that it will quickly catch someone else’s eye when you go to sell. I usually don’t buy grays, you’d be shocked at how many people won’t even look at a gray. If it’s gorgeous, black beauty, jet black- big bonus. Beautiful bays also always sell easily. Put some white socks and a beautiful blaze and you just upped the price a couple thousand. A thick tail is also a bonus. Be careful with chestnut mares. I won’t completely dismiss them as sales horses, but a lot of people won’t buy a chestnut mare. I typically like to stick with geldings in general. People are slightly more intimidated by stallions and mares, even if they are well behaved. As far as conformation, I just look for big turn offs. Horses that are built downhill will be hard to sell, U shaped necks are very hard to sell. Very long backs can be difficult. You definitely want very clean, well put together legs. Which brings me to the vetting. If you have decided to go on and do a pre purchase exam, you want it to be as clean as possible. You rarely have a horse that’s perfect, but you can’t have any huge problems. Again, when you go to sell, people will be able to negotiate the price if there are problems. Try to look for extremely clean legs, clear eyes and breathing, and good blood work.

While finding a new horse can be a daunting task, if you stick to a few rules and know what to look for, hopefully you’ll come out with a winner. If anything, go look for a beautiful horse that is extremely fun to ride!

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