5 Strategies for Successful Horse Buying

Choosing the right dressage horse is a tough job for anyone, so here are five practical steps that will help.

By Steven Wolgemuth   Reprinted with permission from Dressage Today ©2001.  (September 2001 Issue)  

Good horse shoppers are good observers, ruthlessly practical and positive people. As a professional dressage rider, trainer and dealer for the past 20 years, I’ve assisted and observed many horse buyers, and often I’ve followed their progress after a purchase. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from my own good and bad decisions and those of my peers and clients.

Since picking the wrong horse can be costly, all of us need to make the best decisions we can. So here are some principles and procedures I’ve learned and come to believe in that you can use for selecting the right dressage horse.  

1. Get a General Impression

When you show up to look at a horse for sale, your first goal should be to get a general impression rather than becoming preoccupied with certain details. Since it can take a lifetime to develop an eye for a good horse, and since there’s no such thing as a perfect horse or rider, the amateur buyer needs to decide which details are going to really matter and avoid becoming just a faultfinder. 

Many novice buyers start with a magnifying-glass approach. They’re bending down and looking to see if the horse moves absolutely straight; they’re feeling the legs; and they’re checking out the exact height of the horse. As a serious competitor, I’ve seen imperfect horses in FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) competitions and on our U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) Long List. [Wolgemuth competed successfully at Grand Prix and was on the USET Long List in the early 1990s]. I have also seen buyers travel around Europe categorically dismissing any horse that has a scar or blemish, isn’t exactly the right height, has a bad shoeing job, toes out, isn’t higher at the withers than the croup, doesn’t put its ears forward in the cross ties, etc.  Now fast forward to the third day of shopping and the tenth horse a buyer has looked at. Chances are they’ll be standing back and taking in the general impression and overall picture first.

Many of the horse’s most important aspects can be seen from a distance, and experienced buyers know this. There’s a time for closer inspection, but it’s at the end of the ride or at the beginning of your second visit.  When you do see a fault in a horse, ask yourself, “Is this going to have a serious impact on my goals with this horse?” If the answer is “no,” you probably should forget about it. While there are serious conformation and behavioral faults that shouldn’t be overlooked, a buyer needs to look at the horse as a whole and have realistic tolerances.

Assuming you know the horse’s age, training and brief history, your first step is to get a general idea about the horse from a distance. When possible, I like to stand outside the arena first (a judge’s perspective) and then inside the arena (an instructor’s perspective). By standing back 20 meters and watching the horse perform, you’ll be able to see the big picture. Also, it’s not a good practice for a buyer to put a video camera between herself and the horse right from the start. It keeps the buyer from standing back and making general observations about the horse. You can’t really see the horse through a video lens. Have a friend video while you watch on your second visit.  I normally don’t video a horse when it’s warming up. First of all, it puts a subtle pressure on the rider to push the horse right into his work, and this isn’t fair to the seller or his horse.  As a general rule, watch the horse for a few minutes (for a young horse or even 10 minutes for a more advanced horse) before you turn on the camera. If there’s a specific reason you need to video the ride from the start (mounting, warm-up, etc.), do that when you come back a second time.  

2. Observe the Presentation  

When you first arrive at the farm of the seller, typically you will see the horse on the cross ties. If the seller is already mounted when you arrive, you might have a reason for concern. Before you buy a horse, you should always have the opportunity to see it being mounted and warmed up. This is very important since some horses have serious behavior issues while being mounted. 

You might also observe problem behavior and/or soundness issues in the first five minutes under saddle. If the rider is already mounted when you arrive and you like the horse, make another appointment, and insist that the horse be on the cross ties or in its stall when you arrive.  Strongly take into account the context of how and where a horse is presented to you. A wise horse buyer isn’t fooled by a good or bad presentation. For example, many amateurs want to buy a horse that has been presented to them by a very good rider. When they try the horse, he feels great—light, forward and responsive. Months later, they are very disappointed with the horse because it does not feel the same or is poorly behaved. That’s the problem with buying horses from professionals: They haven’t been “amateur tested.”  On the other hand, many buyers don’t end up choosing a horse presented by an amateur because the horse doesn’t feel as “magical” when they try it. Often it isn’t turned out as well, the facility isn’t as impressive and the buyer’s mood is tainted.

 In my experience, I have had better long-term results buying horses that weren’t great when we first saw them, but greatly improved as I rode them during the first try out. If I go back the next day and the horse continues to improve, I feel even more confident. In this same way of thinking, try to buy a horse that is already performing the job you intend to do with it. One example is a small horse that I found for a client. It was for a 14-year-old girl who wanted to get out of Training Level. Her current mount wasn’t going to get her there. I found a wonderful little Dutch gelding that had already taken two young girls to national success in Holland. The girls couldn’t be there for the appointment but the father showed up. He wasn’t much of a rider, but he surely was a great sport when he rode this horse for us in his backyard. (The world needs more dads like this!) I knew it had to be a sure bet, and time has proven me right. This is a fantastic little horse.

  To stay in budget, some buyers prefer to buy a younger prospect. Keep in mind that you have a better chance if you buy a horse with proven bloodlines. The parents and grandparents should have siblings that are doing the job you intend to do. Look particularly hard at the dam’s lineage.

3. Always Keep an Open Mind

Some buyers have a fixed idea about shopping for a particular look or type. Usually it’s plenty of presence—a horse that makes their jaw drop when he comes into the arena. I’ve seen plenty of these buyers come down the road, and they usually don’t buy the right horse. They’re looking for “bluff,” not substantiated quality. 

Any horse that is groomed, oiled and frightened enough will look fancy. This may have little to do with the important qualities that make a great dressage horse. So keep an open mind about what your next horse might look like.  I once had a horse that was the most beautiful type you can imagine. When he was the highest scoring horse at the Palm Beach Derby (73 percent at Third Level), I thought I really had something. During a lesson, U.S. Olympian Robert Dover told me that this wasn’t an international horse, and Robert turned out to be right. The horse had a lazy hind leg in the trot, and his canter was too big. I learned the lesson that technique in gaits is very important. This is especially true if you are trying to evaluate potential. Flamboyant gaits in a young horse don’t guarantee the horse’s future success nearly as much as people suppose.  There is no such thing as a winning type. Even at the Olympics, the top 20 horses represented many different types. 

Why is it then that buyers become so type specific in their searches? Granted, certain trainers get along with certain kinds of horses (heavy, light, hot or lazy), but I think buyers can get sidetracked in search of “the look” that they perceive to be right. While there are definitely wrong types for dressage, there is no right type.  For instance, it is popular for buyers to ask if the horse is uphill. Frankly, I don’t care how a horse is built; I care how it works. What’s important to me is that the horse easily moves uphill. The principle to keep in mind here is that you need to keep an open mind about the shape and size of the horse. Pay more attention to how he does his job. Emphasize the horse’s correctness of rhythm and positive use of its body in all three gaits.  

Technique is especially important in the walk and canter. With big walks, the rhythm is usually volatile. A horse that has a huge overstride often has the tendency to become lateral. A horse that easily becomes tense in its back will be more difficult to collect in a pure walk rhythm. Contrary to what many believe, some walks can improve. By keeping the horse’s back relaxed, some rhythm problems go away. Some horses develop more range in their free walk. I’ve seen this particularly in horses between 3 and 5 years of age. Keep in mind, however, that this improvement may require the skill of an experienced and tactful rider.

Big canters are needed only for medium and extended canter, but are often very hard to train, especially if the horse wants to move high in the loins. I like a canter with a natural uphill technique. When you’re shopping, see if the horse is comfortable cantering with small strides as well as extended ones. Also be sure that the horse canters with a clean, three beats and that it spends time in the air, even during collection. I once trained a stallion who scored a 9 on his canter at his inspection in Europe. He had an extremely difficult canter to collect, although his extended canter easily earned an 8 or 9. The lesson I learned is that flamboyant canters are not necessarily good canters to train. 

In watching the horse trot, be careful not to be too infatuated with big movement that is created out of tension. Many novice buyers are overly impressed with a trot that is passage-like under saddle. When turned loose, many horses will trot around and look great. This may not have anything to do with a trainable trot. A big trot with lots of “hover” may be impressive but may not have other equally important qualities. Remember that the dressage horse must also be able to trot a small circle comfortably, perform seamless transitions between collection and extension and half pass gracefully sideways.

When evaluating a trot, I first look for a general balance that nature has given the horse. I want to see a horse that has an upward and forward acceleration—an impulsion in which the hind legs push the front end of the horse forward and upward. I like to see a horse’s extension ability as well as its collection ability.

I often hear buyers express that they want to buy a horse that has had good training. I think that’s fine, but more important, over time, is a horse that can perform naturally. That’s what will become significant to the new owner, and the early training will become less important.  

4. Look for a Compatible Horse with a Good Work Ethic

The most important quality in a dressage horse is also the hardest to recognize early on. It’s the inner quality of heart that a great horse must have. It’s the part of a horse that makes you love riding: a good work ethic.

If you have a horse that tries hard enough for you, he is more likely to overcome other shortcomings. When you try a horse, look for clues about his attitude. When possible, ride indoors as well as outside. Put the horse through his movements. Pay attention to how he reacts when he has to work hard. Does he appear sour or inspired? Good horses will just keep trying for you. That’s what you want to find.

 Many amateurs mistake affectionate horses for horses that like to please. I’ve seen too many that like to have human contact but don’t like to work. Don’t be fooled. Understand that choosing horses is like getting married in some respects. You really don’t know what you have until you’ve lived with it for a while. What may be a fantastic horse for one rider may be another rider’s frustration. The principle to remember is that compatibility is crucial. Your job as a horse buyer is to find your match.

I’ve seen this again and again when various riders try a horse in my barn. Sometimes a pair really clicks. It’s nearly magical and usually unpredictable. However, I’ve observed other buyers that select horses as if they’re buying a picture to hang on their wall. They want to buy the most impressive horse they can afford, never mind that it’s not right for them.

A dressage horse is a dance partner. You have to evaluate how you and the horse work as a pair when you try him. Volker Brommann—a respected German Reitlehrer now teaching and training in the United States—once told me that he advises his students to buy a horse that they want to keep riding when they try it. I think this is wise. 

5. Plan the Transition to Your New Horse

In most cases, buyers purchase horses as part of an improvement strategy for themselves. This means that they’re buying a more talented or trained horse than they’re used to. They tend to fantasize about how wonderful and perfect their experience will be with their new horse and imagine that new and wonderful experiences await them.I frequently hear buyers say, “I just want to ride on my own for a while and get used to him.” What they often fail to realize is that, with the potential for success often comes the potential to get into trouble. It’s important to remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The most important thing for you to do is make a realistic strategy for transitioning yourself onto your new horse.  So I try to tactfully encourage my clients to take off their rose-colored glasses and make a plan for success.  I recommend that, for the first month, they immediately dedicate themselves to an intensely supervised program, including lessons and perhaps some professional riding for the horse. After that, plan as needed and as advised by a professional. Even if money is a prohibiting factor, make every effort to get as much help as possible right away. You can skimp a bit later after you’re on the right track. 


Steven Wolgemuth has been involved in dressage for 20 years. A USDF bronze, silver and gold medallist, he emerged as one of the top Grand Prix riders in the early 1990s, riding the Hanoverian stallion Graf Goetz. He was long listed by the USET in 1992. In recent years, he has leveraged his experience as a clinician, competitor and trainer into helping buyers find and purchase horses. He maintains a “buyer’s guide” Web site for dressage horse buyers at www.graemont.com. Wolgemuth, his wife, Lori—also an accomplished FEI rider—and their three sons, David, Michael and Benjamin, live at Graemont Farm in Manheim, Pennsylvania.

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