Pick a Winner

This page is designed to empower buyers with information that may enhance their skills in choosing a dressage horse.  It must be understood that this information may not be applicable in all situations.  A purchase decision should be made using the consultation of professionals. 

Everyone believes that they know a good horse when they see it; however, a wise man knows how little he knows. 

     Even some of the best horsemen today have trouble predicting which will end up being a great horse.  Even so, the word "potential" is the word most boldly used by sellers with little experience to draw from.  What makes one horse able to accomplish great things, while others seem to stall at a particular level?  What clues can a buyer have regarding a horse's potential?  At Graemont Farm we've collected ideas from our lifetime exposures and experiences in the industry.  Here's what we believe very good dressage horses have in common:

A great dressage horse has a good "work ethic". 

When trying out a horse, if it wants to stop, shut down, quits trying when it's a little bit tired, you should probably walk away.  A bit of a temper can be a good thing but not if it's expressed by stopping.  You should never think that you can change a horse's basic work ethic.  When you try a horse, don't try to make excuses for an unwilling attitude.  Believe what you see.  Some of the world's best horses have been tough or even stubborn, but quitters usually don't become great horses.

A good dressage horse is "handy".

Not too many years ago it was popular to buy big movers.  Big movement is very over-rated, however.  Many impressive movers do not have what it takes to be trained in dressage.  There is more to a trained horse than extended trot and passage.  A good dressage horse can conveniently change from one gait to another.  It can comfortably trot and canter sideways.  It can start and stop effortlessly.  At the end of the ride, the horse should be more tired than the rider.

A horse's technique is very important in its gaits.

Some things you can change a lot, but some things will change very little.  If  you have a horse that has a good basic technique in its gaits, you increase your chances of being able to maintain ride-ability (in a trained horse) and/or advancing the horse's training.  You want to see a trot that leaves the ground quickly with an uphill thrust.  Don't be fooled by a trot that has brilliance with a hind leg that stays on the ground a long time.  The hind leg must demonstrate a certain quickness and a dependable articulation of the hocks.

The canter is the most difficult to evaluate.

If there is anything that has been a shock over the years to us, it has been how many bad "dressage" canters are considered "good" or even "very good" by "experts."  So how can you know a good canter when you see it?  First of all, it is often difficult to evaluate a horse's canter when it is running free.  You often see a very different use of the horse's back as the tail is often held higher and the back tighter.  It is always best to see a horse's canter under saddle or at least on a lounge with the horse on the bit from use of side reins.

Look for a canter that is comfortable when it is small.  If the horse slows down in its hind legs when the stride is shortened, you may have cause for concern.  On the other hand, make sure the horse is able to open its stride and "ripple" through the back as it extends.  A horse with a "long" hind leg sometimes has a great extended canter but has trouble staying straight, uphill and active in collected canter.  Beware of a horse with a clumsy or slow hind leg in the canter.

With walks, bigger isn't better.

Contrary to popular comment, the walk can change and be changed.  Depending what the problem is, you may have cause to be concerned, however.  If the walk is big (a big over-step), be concerned that it will remain pure.  A big walk can be dangerous, that is, it can easily become pace-like.  A short walk will sometimes improve as the horse loosens up or as the horse develops greater range in its trot and canter.  A horse that makes errors in rhythm because of tension in the back can sometimes be helped, but only by trainers with particular sensitivity and experience.  Generally, you should be content to buy a horse with a good technique in the walk and an average to above average over-stride.  A walk with a huge stride frequently has a bad technique.

Conformation of the poll is very important.

If the horse is difficult through the poll, you will never be happy riding it.  If the poll is conformed so that the chin angle wants to remain too far open, you find it difficult to keep the horse "through" without having to make very big aids.  As the relative elevation of the poll is higher, this becomes more of an issue.  When this type of horse does come on the bit or flexes laterally, it usually uses the third and forth neck vertebrae.  The danger to horse buyers is to like a horse because it reaches down easily.  Be sure to try pushing the horse up to a level of the poll acceptable for a show as part of the evaluation.  A horse that is too soft at the poll can be a problem, especially if it doesn't want to naturally push forward to the bit from behind.  If the horse has some advanced training (3rd level and higher), you might be wise to try the horse in a double bridle to make sure this isn't an issue.

Great dressage horses have "heart".

The inner qualities of a great horse are only really proven when the horse reaches its greatness.  Many horses have been deemed "most likely to succeed" even at third level, and then never moved into FEI.  Many horses just don't have the desire to work that it takes to come out every day and perform, especially when the work gets hard at upper levels.

This is where knowledge of certain bloodlines, particularly on the mother's line, can help to "stack the odds" in your favor that your purchase will end up being a great horse.  Working with experienced professionals like Graemont can expose you to helpful resources about bloodlines.


Making an incorrect purchase is an expensive, time consuming and emotionally draining experience.  You simply can't afford to get stuck with a horse that won't meet your needs.  You greatly increase your chances of finding a suitable horse as you involve experienced professionals to make new purchase opportunities available, and provide valuable counsel on important issues.  Graemont, Inc. is postured to provide a premier and unique service to you if you are a serious buyer.    Contact us today and find out what we can do for you. sales@graemont.com or  (717) 664-4988

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