How to buy a dressage horse: A shopping guide for first time buyers

ArticleHow to - General Equine AdviceTuesday 31 March 2009

Are you considering buying your first  dressage horse?  Have you already scanned through the For Sale pages of Horsemart  and found one or two eye catching ads that you want to investigate?  Stop right now and read this article!

If you are a first time buyer, congratulations on making the decision to find your dream horse!
From a price point,  it is the right time to buy as there are many more horses for sale in this economic downturn than there are buyers for them.  So you should  have a good selection to choose from at reasonable prices. 
First and foremost, determine your budget and be realistic about what your money can buy.  Secondly, be prepared to invest some research and travel time to find your perfect match. Think of it as  internet dating without the awkward lunches! Assuming that you are entering or re-entering the wonderful world of dressage as a  novice rider it is important to make a check list of what to look for and what to stay away from. Its wonderful to fall in love with the “horse of your dreams” just make sure it is the right horse for you. Yes, it is like finding a life partner but remember that   you will be the only  income earner in this relationship! 
The horse for you should  be  safe and uncomplicated.  Your confidence will need to be established and your knowledge of basic dressage will need  clarification so a tried and true soldier of the riding club, non-affiliated or affiliated circuit is the best option for you.  You want to enjoy your time with your new best friend perhaps taking some lessons, competing at local or affiliated shows  with the option for  a quiet hack down the lanes.  So red flag to sharp, young, just backed or just off the track horses! 
Your checklist should be as follows:
I suggest 7 – 16 yrs old.  If you buy a youngster (3-6) you will have a much steeper learning curve because you will have to teach your horse as well as yourself.  Youngsters can be very unpredictable and even if he seems quiet and biddable when you try him at the vendor's  yard what you get when you get home can be completely different. This is because as a young horse grows  it becomes stronger  and braver and it will likely test you on a regular basis with spooks, or bucks or other expressions of horsey teenage behaviour!. This can knock your confidence a great deal especially if you come off a few time. What's more, whatever mischief you might get at home you will get in techni-colour at a show.  So I strongly recommend buying a horse that is a bit older and experienced that will help you to learn and enjoy during your first years as an owner.
You want a horse on which you will feel comfortable. Try to find something suitable to your size  remembering  the bigger and longer the horse, the harder  it is to bend and collect no matter how beautiful and impressive it  may be!  Alternatively if the horse is too small for you, your leg will be hanging below the flank and will not be as effective when giving leg aids.  Next is to consider the correct confirmation of a dressage horse .  The neck must  not be too short, nor the body too long, nor the croup too high. The hind leg should be active and the shoulders should be loose.  It is a good sign if the neck is muscled along the on top but if the horse looks hollow and muscled below the neck  that  indicates contact issues.   It always helps to bring and friend or trainer to cast another eye over your prospect.
Ideally the horse you choose should move evenly and be relaxed through the back so it is not too difficult to sit to the trot.  Expressive paces with big movement are great to watch but may hinder your ability to sit quietly so finding the harmony and softness in the contact will be difficult.  If  you move up the competition and training levels you may  find yourself in the Medium Section where  you will be required  to sit to the trot through the whole test.
Three good paces is what everyone wants when looking for  their perfect dressage horse but  you may  find your dream horse will not  possess all three.   I have travelled about Europe looking at countless horses with my  agent and top German breeder, Udo Harlemaart  and his basic rule of thumb is... a good walk and a good canter are more important than a flashy trot.  The feel and look of the horse's paces should be rhythmic, relaxed and even.  Check that the walk has a correct 4 time beat and is swinging and loose with a good overtrack.  The canter should not be croup high or too hurried nor should you see tension in  the back.  As for the trot, look again for relaxation in the back and neck and an active hind leg which is not to stiff or straight. 
This, in my opinion, is a very important element of the  horse you buy and one that many people ignore, at their peril!   Your ideal horse should be good natured,gentle  and wanting to please,  bright eyed with ears pricked and tail relaxed.  When you put your leg on to ask for a trot or canter, he should willingly go forward. If  the tale  swishes during transitions,  or the ears flatten  it is likely he is not happy in his job and possibly hurting somewhere in his body.  A horse that wants to work for you will take you as far as he can physically go; a horse that is lazy and unwilling will be much more resistant and likely let you down at those key moments in front of a trainer or judge. 
Level of Training 
If you follow my advise and buy a more mature horse  it should be trained to Novice Level at the minimum.  That means he or she should be able to do all the transitions easily, bend on a 20 and15 meter circle on both reins in trot and canter, halt and rein back and stay forward and balanced throughout your trial. If the horse  can show a few steps of medium trot that is a bonus but I would not walk away if there was no medium trot  if it ticks many of the other boxes. The medium trot can be trained later. 
If your dream horse has ticked at least 70% of the boxes you set out beforehand and you feel he or she is the horse for you,  call your vet and arrange a vetting.  If the horse is a long distance from you, get your vet to refer  a vet  practice in the area..  If you are hesitating about getting a vet to save on costs  you may end up paying much more later for undetected problem. Vets bring clinical clarity to what is an emotional  decision and they can find problems you would not spot without their help. A three stage vetting   (no x-rays) will at least cover the basic soundness of the horse as the vet does a flexion test, checks the heart, breathing, feet, eyes, etc. 
So there you have my top shopping tips for buying your first horse.  If you are clear about what you want and cautiously optimistic at finding it,  there should be a perfect dressage horse for you. 
Here are a few more extra tips that might help you...
  • Evaluate your own skills and look for stallions that can match them. Each horse will have a certain amount of experience in dressage, and it is important that you do not get one that cannot face the challenges you can. Schoolmasters compete in high levels of sport, but these are more expensive; younger horses will not have had as much experience and will need more training. 
  • Find out on Horsemart where all your local dressage stallions can be bought and make a few appointments. Owners can range from individuals selling one stallion, or those who run barns with a much wider choice. Remember to consider all these options so you get a better choice.
  • Ask the owners to ride the dressage stallions you view. This shows you how the horse will look in action. Do not be afraid to ask some movements from the stallion either. 
  • Then, ride the stallions yourself. Make sure you really get a feel for each horse and judge how they behave. Consider how willing they are, their response and their suppleness. 
  • Ask the owners for a list of the dressage stallions’ accomplishments. They should give you information about the shows the stallions have been in, as well as their scores. Although this performance is not the sole reason for you to buy, it is a major contributing factor.
  • Once you have narrowed down your stallion options, arrange for a vet to screen the horses for parasites, navicular changes and hock maladies. These are all very common in dressage stallions. 
  • When you think you have found the right stallion, make an offer. The amount you present should reflect the current market for similar horses. The horse market fluctuates greatly, so owners should be flexible with their original for-sale price advertised.

Have your say!
Why not offer some of your own advice to first time buyers in the comments section below? If you have bought a dressage horse before then share your wisdom with others and help them make the perfect purchase. 


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