The ABC's of Buying a Dressage Horse...

At Graemont Farm we understand that buying a dressage horse can sometimes be a confusing and frustrating experience.  Having been in business for 15 years we also recognize that without professional help, frequently buyers make the wrong purchase.  Judging from calls we regularly receive, buyers are often frustrated about their search.  It is our hope that this site helps you in your buying experience.  

Please recognize that is is for information purposes only and will not apply to all situations.  We recommend that you consult a competent and experienced professional to assist you in your purchase decision.  

Identify your goals or objectives

Step #1 Developing a successful buying attitude

This sounds like it would be easy but you might be surprised.  Typically when asked what people are looking for they will describe things like the age, sex, level of training, and temperament of the desired horse.  While some of these factors are legitimate, our observation is that successful buyers have a different focus.  It is more important to identify what you want to do with the horse, than what you want the horse's statistics to be.   Try to identify what your goals are for this next horse.  You will be well served by identifying this right from the beginning and then building on that.

Try to be completely honest with yourself.  If what you really want is a 1500 pound teddy bear that eats carrots (and riding is just the excuse to spend half a day at the barn) admit that to yourself.  If you are basically a timid rider that is buying a horse for your trainer, or if you want to ride 3rd level and get your USDF bronze medal in 6 months (and nothing short of that will please you), put that on the table.  Buyers that have these primary issues out front are much less frustrated when they go out shopping.  

Beside knowing what you really want out of owning your next horse, you need to make it your ambition to find that "right partner" for you.  Many riders set out to find the best horse in their price range and don't consider the compatibility issue.  Successful buyers take the attitude that they are searching for the best horse for them, not just the best horse they can get for the money.  Assuming that you buy a horse suited to meet your goals, the three most important issues that will determine your happiness are compatibility, compatibility, and compatibility.  Like a good friendship or marriage, a natural chemistry has to be there.

Buying a compatible partner is both limiting and freeing.  For example, some buyers might say they need a small horse because they are only 5' 4" and weigh 120 lbs.  They won't try a 17 hand horse.  In reality, the 17 hand horse might be tall through the legs, refined and a light/ handy ride.  On the other hand, the 16 hand horse might be a cement truck to move around and be very long and wide.

  The right attitude involves keeping an open mind while staying focused on what is going to work for you.

Step #2  Determining what you will have to spend

It is amazing how many dressage horse shoppers believe that the entire world is wrong about what they are selling horses for, and they are right about how much they should have to spend.  Unless you want to waste a lot of time, it is important that you become educated as to what you can reasonably expect to buy inside of your budget, or what your budget needs to be for your goals.

Since this is often difficult for buyers to determine, Graemont Farm has developed a virtual appraiser to determine how much you should have to pay for your next horse.  Click here to see what types of horses we typically find for our buyers.

Step #3  Using a successful buying strategy

Video cameras have completely changed the way buyers shop for dressage horses.  Popular today is the buyer who goes all out on a video gathering campaign.  After seeing many, many videos, the buyer then buys a plane ticket or drives the distant to try out the horse that wins "the video contest."  These trips are usually futile.

While videos can be a very valid selling tool, don't be overwhelmed by the results of video shopping.  Here's why:  

1.  Videos tend to make poor quality look better, and great quality look less great.  Videos usually don't accurately portray quality.  What's more, big horses can look small, small horses can look big.  

2.  Videos don't help you with the most important question.  Is there chemistry with me and this horse?"

3.  Videos can be edited to make things look a lot different than they really are.  After 10 attempts at a flying change, the one change that is good gets put on the video.

Videos can be used to evaluate some things:

1.  A horse's technique of his gaits can be evaluated by a qualified professional from a video.

2.  The silhouette of a horse's conformation can be evaluated. 

3.  Some aspects of a horse's training can be evaluated.

Based on our many conversations with buyers each week, there are a lot of frustrated shoppers out there playing the classified ad/ video game and not getting anywhere!  Also, many good horses have been rejected based on a video that failed to show the horse's qualities to the buyer.

At Graemont Farm, we are more than willing to send videos to serious qualified buyers.  We understand that the United States is a big country and that a buyer will not usually be willing to travel to see a horse based on a 40 word classified ad.

On the other hand when we have our students/ clients shopping for horses, we don't usually play the video "run around" in quite the same way.  Instead, we try to use another buying strategy for our "family" of buyers.  We prefer to shop through a trusted network of professionals by:

1.  Contacting our network of reliable professionals and breeders.  

2.  Determining where we will be most likely to be able to see several horses that might be interesting and suitable.  Sometimes this involves checking out videos.  (For overseas shopping, that is much less likely.)

3.  Riding horses for sale and finding the right one.  (And this is where you should have a video camera!)

Your trainer is the first person to involve in accessing a "trusted network" of horse people with horses for sale.  If you trainer doesn't do that sort of thing, you might be well served to find a professional that you can trust to help you.  Your trainer might have some suggestions.  Many people have trusted Graemont Farm with their dressage horse search and been very satisfied.  Much of our business comes from referrals and return customers.

Since many dressage professionals are so busy with competitions, clinics, training and lesson schedules, they often are too busy to find horses for clients.  Some trainers haven't developed a network of sellers, while others simply don't like to be involved in sales.

At Graemont we frequently come along side riders and trainers in these situations and work to find solutions tailored to the clients needs and the trainers level of involvement.  Contact us to discuss what we can do for you.

Step #4  Trying out horses

There aren't enough adjectives to describe the experiences you may run into when horse shopping.  It can be fun, infuriating, hilarious, confusing, exciting or embarrassing.  Generally horse people are a rare breed, and when selling their horses, you see the best and the worst sides of them!

First of all, be on time.  Twenty minutes late is acceptable but it is always best to call when you're within an hour or a half hour from arrival.  Whenever possible, it is best to see the horse when they are first mounted rather than the horse after it has already been warmed up.

The most important thing to remember when looking at horses it to look at them from a distance first.  Evaluate the big picture.  There is a lot you can learn from standing back (and squinting) when you evaluate a prospect.  These are some of the most important questions to answer:

1.  Is there a proportionate amount of horse in front of the rider as behind the rider?

2.  Does the horse move in a harmonious way, or is your eye drawn to a particular part?

3.  Does the hind end of the horse push the front end of the horse upward, level or downward?  Does he do it with an active hind leg movement or one that stays on the ground a bit longer?

4.  How much of this horse's way of going is being influenced by the rider?  (good or bad) And, what other circumstances could be affecting the impression.  (footing, your mood, horse that you looked at last)

If you are an experienced trainer, you can probably pick up some clues about the horse's physical condition by watching the first 2 minutes of the ride.  It also may be interesting to observe the horse when mounted to see if it is cold backed.


1.  Don't pretend that you are interested in a horse if you know you definitely are not.  Politely tell the seller that it is not what you are looking for.

2.  Don't ask to ride a horse you aren't interested in.  This is a misrepresentation of your intentions to the seller.  It is rude.

3.  Don't explain what it is that you don't like about a horse to an owner.  You don't need to say anything.  Simply say that it's not what you're looking for.  If you are traveling with an agent you can discuss everything in great detail after you leave.  In the worst and most awkward of situations, you can escape by saying, "He has a nice <whatever>.  I'll keep him in mind in case I run across someone who is looking for a horse like this.

4.  Don't ride the horse forever when trying it.  You need to get on and find out what you need to find out.  If you like what you ride, come back the next day and try it again if possible.  Riding for more than 30 minutes is normally not necessary.  An experienced buyer can tell in 5 to 10 minutes of riding.

5.  Don't video the entire time someone else is showing you the horse.  At least 50 % of the time you should have your eyes glued to the horse.  If possible have someone else video things for you.

6. Don't pick apart all the little faults of the horse.  Separate what is a big deal and what isn't with regard to details and faults.  Focus more on what any given detail might be contributing to the big picture.  If it doesn't affect the big picture, then forget it.  Keep in mind what you want to do with the horse and try to be practical. 


1.  Observe the horse from all angles in walk, trot and canter.  See if your eye is drawn to any asymmetry or irregularity.

2.  Assume that every behavioral problem the horse demonstrates will continue.  Don't be a hero and believe you can fix a problem.  There are lots of horses in the world.  Let the horse with a problem for the next buyer and move on.  Pride makes for bad buying decisions. Even in the best case scenario where you buy a difficult horse that you fix, you will probably have to keep that horse for the rest of your life.

3.  Ask about the horse's showing history.  If the horse has "been there, done that, got the ribbon," that tells you a lot already.  If the horse has good scores as well, there is a better probability that the horse trailers,  goes by the dressage judge, is sound, and and and.

4.  Ask to see the horse's papers if you are interested.  It is not uncommon that the horse turns out to be a year older or younger that the owner thinks it is.

5.  If you are interested in the horse check out its legs and back without tack after the ride.  Make any mental notes about bumps, swellings around joints, scars, etc.  These are areas that you may wish to investigate more closely in a pre-purchase exam.

Whenever possible, try a horse twice.  Two days in a row is best.  Depending on the circumstances, you may wish to be the rider to warm up the horse the second day.  Most sellers will become irritated if you want to ride the horse more than three times.  If you come third time, you better bring your wallet.

If you are searching for the perfect horse, you're going to be busy for a while; maybe forever.  Try to remain practical and positive.  Keep in mind that it takes a lifetime to truly recognize quality in a horse.  Professionals who buy horses all the time are still learning.  A novice can be come a fault finder after reading one book.

Step #5  Negotiating and closing the deal

If you've done some comparative shopping and you've come upon the right horse for you - it's time to "close the deal."  Don't assume that the horse is just going to remain on the market.  When you find the right horse it is not the time to become philosophical and say "if it's meant to be it will just work out."  You must determine if its meant to be using the resources available to you and then have the courage to move forward with your convictions.  Here is some advice that might keep you from disappointment:  

1.  If you are interested in a horse, ask if there is other sales activity on the horse at that time.  If so, consider putting a down payment on the horse.

2.  If you find a horse that you really like but you want to do a little bit more shopping, ask the seller if they would give you an exclusive option to buy for a few days.  In other words, they would promise that no one else could buy the horse until an agreed date.  (Doesn't hurt to ask!)

3.  Contrary to the advice you hear over the back yard fence, don't assume that every price is negotiable.  Some are, some are not.  Usually a seller will negotiate at least a little bit.  Sometimes negotiating can include more than the price.  For instance, the seller may consider throwing in a month of training and board in the sales price.  If it is a private seller, they might consider including some blankets or a bridle that fits the horse.

4.  The saying that "it doesn't hurt to ask" is not always true in these negotiations.  Private sellers are sometimes offended by low offers.  You don't want to poison the well with an insulting offer.

5.  Negotiations are best handled through experienced mediators.  This is another reason that working through professionals can be helpful.  

At Graemont Farm we try to make this aspect of buying as turn-key as possible for our clients.  We understand that our clients want to know that they got a good deal.  It is a well established fact in the business world that negotiations are usually best handled through third parties.  We try hard to get our clients the right horse for the best price the seller is willing to provide.

Step #6  Navigating pre-purchase veterinary exams

Choosing a veterinarian can be an important issue.  Buyers sometimes have concerns about the veterinarian's integrity and competence.  Buying domestically can be tricky because of a lack of standardization in a pre-purchase veterinary exam in the United States.  Again, using an experienced professional that you can trust to advise you in these situations can make all the difference.

The unique litigious environment of the US has trained veterinarians to be very careful to protect themselves from legal recourse.  Sadly, this has created a situation where American veterinarians are slow to advise and quick to detail every problem or abnormality.  This is exasperating to sellers and confusing to buyers.  Buyers are also left "holding the bag" in deciding which pre-purchase tests to have performed and which to decline.  What is a standard pre-purchase veterinary exam for one veterinarian may be quite different from another's exam.  Again, this is where a knowledgeable professional can help you wade through these difficult decisions.

Buying the wrong horse is an expensive mistake.  You can't afford to let this happen to you.  Wise buyers use professionals to make buying opportunities possible and to provide important counsel on important issues throughout the sale process.

If you would like some help with any part of your next dressage horse purchase please contact us or email to sales@graemont.com.  We can be reached at 717 664 4988.

Be honest with yourself

You're choosing a partner

Stay focused but open- minded

Be informed so you can be realistic about price




Videos are poor at showing a horse's quality

At Graemont we use a different strategy for our clients/ students

Shopping through a trusted network is usually more successful

Evaluate a horse from a distance first

Look for uphill push from an active hind leg.




Don't go into detail when saying you're not interested in a horse.

Take behavioral  problems seriously

Try a horse twice whenever possible

When you find the right horse close the deal before you loose it


Don't always assume that the price is negotiable.  It may or may not be.

Take standard xrays along with additional views of any problem areas

Graemont Farm can help you navigate the buying process





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