Occasionally clients call me to evaluate a horse that they are thinking of buying. They want to know if the horse has any pain or trauma issues that haven’t surfaced in their trial rides, and they want to check if the horse seems like a good match from my perspective. Doing this allows them a sneak peak at what they’re really getting into with an animal. They can better understand if that horse has the mental propensity to succeed with them. I’m happy to do this of course, and it’s a smart move on their part. You never know what you might find, and the horse often has additional insight (or a completely different version of events!) than the owner might. However, my perspective on buying horses has changed significantly over the years. I don’t think it’s wrong to buy a horse or anything like that, but instead of relying on traditional criteria to make the choice, I take a very different approach.
Here’s the best and truest advice I can offer for buying a horse: ask the horse what s/he wants to do, and choose one whose answer matches your own.
Mind blowing, isn’t it, to ask the horse what s/he wants in life? Most of us pick our horses based on our desires. We consider the horse’s aptitude, performance, personality, way of going, and evaluate how those mesh with our style and desires. We take extraordinary measures to ensure that the horse is suitable from a veterinary and training perspective to meet our goals. We have already decided that the horse is merely a tool to meet our ends well before we purchase an equine partner, because it’s imbedded in the purchase process itself so deeply that we don’t give it a second thought! The concept of letting the horse decide his or her career never crosses our mind unless behavioral issues dictate a different job – which we will decide on his/her behalf.
Let’s be clear: I’m not at all saying that we as people shouldn’t aim for our equestrian goals, or that all horses should get to decide only to eat in a pasture all day and not do any work. Instead, I’m suggesting you find a horse who thinks and feels like you do about your chosen sport. Most horses enjoy working with people as long as it’s not painful for them to do so, so this isn’t as difficult as it might seem. If you’re a trainer aiming for FEI levels, find a horse who wants to work at your sport and is a match for your competitive spirit. If you’re an amateur who wants to enjoy the partnership but doesn’t care too much about shows, find a horse who wants to cultivate a relationship with you. If you’re somewhere in the middle, find a horse who enjoys her athleticism but is eager to work together.
The discipline and attitude matters, too. Some horses find jumping terrifying, while others are bored silly without liftoff. Some horses are naturally brave and forthright, while others are anxious and lack self-confidence. Some horses want nothing more than to be doted on, while others keep things very business-like. Find a horse who wants what you want, and your interests will always be aligned.
Many relationship challenges stem from a mismatch in desires. I have to confess, it’s usually the human who wants to use the horse for something the horse isn’t keen on doing. We get seduced by the horse’s physical capabilities or attitude, and we covet that potential so much that we override the horse’s comfort level and preferences. We try to make a horse into a jumper even though he can’t take the pressure, or we push a brilliant mover into a dressage career despite her active mind that gets frustrated with repetition. We man-handle our wimpy horse around a cross country course because he is capable of, if not enthusiastic about, doing the job. All this ever leads to is disappointment and frustration on both sides.
I see a lot of nice, quality youngsters or green horses sacrificed in this process. There is something so appealing about the rawness of the horse’s capabilities that we almost can’t contain our enthusiasm for what they “could” do, and it leads us to make very ego-based decisions. The OTTB craze right now speaks so completely to this, because many are purchased sight-unseen or without being ridden. When you only have imagination and physical talent to evaluate a horse, you miss the entire rest of his character. Most OTTBs meet most people’s goals if you’re only going on conformation and soundness! But that’s as silly as saying most people would make suitable marriage partners for each other because they have the right body parts. People are more complicated than that, and so are horses.
A friend of mine was looking at a few prospects to become her next eventer, and she found one she really liked. When I connected with the horse, this sweet mare wanted nothing more than to work with children. The idea of jumping was scary for her, and she had no competitive spirit to speak of. However, the thought of helping a child learn to ride and develop made her happier than she could imagine, even if it meant all she did was plod around in the ring. This is not the horse for a competitive rider in any way, shape, or form, even though she was built fairly well.
I had the reverse experience in my youth, when I purchased an extremely fancy horse who had been identified in a talent search. He was everything that other mare was not: focused, driven, competitive, with something to prove. He was a great match for my ambition in many ways, but working with him sucked some of the joy out of my experience because it was felt like a race to the top instead of a partnership. We had the same end-goal, but very different styles on how to get there. I ended up selling him after a few years because our relationship just wasn’t what I was looking for. At the time I felt like a failure, but in retrospect it was the best move I could have made. I put my ego aside and respected his needs for a different lifestyle.
Sadly, it’s that ego piece that usually keeps us locked into equine (and human…) relationships that don’t work. We can’t bear to let go of the potential we can’t harness, nor can we give up our ambition and let the horse dictate the path. Though we might bear some of the consequences of these ego-driven relationships, like broken bones or empty wallets, it is usually the horse who suffers most. It never feels good to be a square peg continually pounded into a round hole, and much of the sourness and shutting-down that sporthorses come to possess happens in this process. Eventually, most of these horses usually give in and suffer the mental and physical effects of a career that doesn’t suit them, or they are discarded when they reach a breaking point.
Fortunately, we can change this depressing cycle! Ask the horse what he or she wants to do and be and have in life, and choose one whose desires match your own. Even if you don’t get the inside scoop through an animal communicator, you can figure out the horse’s personality and desires through open-minded training. Withhold your personal agenda and let the horse tell you what works and what doesn’t. That doesn’t mean you should never encounter resistance, or use this advice as a reason to read into every disobedience as a “sign” that the horse will never make it in your chosen sport. Rather, if it feels like an uphill battle, it probably is. Instead of trying to force the horse to like and enjoy what you do, let her find someone who shares her passion – or see if you like what she does. If you’re facing a fundamental difference in personality or needs, there is no shame in moving on. In fact, you’re practicing excellent horsemanship. Many of the greatest riders in history have swapped or traded the ride on horses that didn’t suit them, personally, and have had fantastic results doing so.
From my perspective, it seems easier to skip the guesswork and go straight to the horse’s mouth, but we should all do what feels right for our own level of awareness and comfort. Regardless of how you ask this question, your horse and your future success will benefit from the asking. That doesn’t mean that a good match today will be a good match 6 years from now, or that you won’t have difficulties of a different sort arise in the relationship. However, you’ll serve your personal agenda far better by choosing a horse who supports it, rather than trying to shave the corners off an unwilling horse so that he’ll fit into your mold. Sometimes our equine partners fall into our laps and are just what we need (even if we don’t know it at the time!), but when we get to choose them, this is the best way to set everyone up for success. After all, the age-old saying holds true for horses as well as humans: love what you’ll do, and you’ll never work another day. How would your riding life change if your horse brought that attitude to the ring?