A little over 10 years ago I found myself having to give up a ride on a very good horse. We had great success with this particular horse in international competition, yet the owner had decided to let the ride go to another rider. This was not the first time in my career that this had happened. I’ve had the privilege to ride for many owners, and at the end of the day I was never in full control of the horses. My wife Mallory and I decided in that moment that we needed to be the owners of some of our own grand prix horses.
That is, of course, easier said than done. However, that particular situation with that horse began what would take over a decade to accomplish—to produce and own most of our current grand prix horses. As an owner you must understand that this is also a process and not one with any guarantee.
The process of developing a grand prix horse begins with the selection of a horse. There are always certain qualities that I look for in a young horse: scope, technique, balance, mindset and carefulness.
Carefulness is of the utmost importance. I choose carefulness as the most important quality because a young horse can overcome some of the other qualities if they are truly careful. A truly careful horse, no matter the level it jumps, will always be useful for someone.
A lot of buyers let the deciding factor be the vetting. The pre-purchase exam should let an owner know how a horse should be cared for rather than be a major deciding factor in whether to buy the horse. If I like a horse, I’m trying to find a reason to buy it, rather than not to buy it. The one thing a vetting does not decipher is the heart. Tome the most important part of the horse is the heart, and that is the part you cannot see.
My best horses have all been bought between the ages of 4 and 6. Two of my current top horses were bought as 4-year-olds. One of my current horses was bought as a 5-year-old. I do have a current horse that was purchased as a very inexperienced 7-year-old, and he would be an exception to my rule. I also have three horses ready to step into the grand prix ring this year, and they were bought between 4 and 6. Younger than that is a very long wait. Older than that is usually very expensive.
Vale and Obi Wan, who he began showing as an inexperienced 7-year-old in the 1.10-meter jumpers in 2020, have been on a winning streak this year, most recently winning the $100,000 Alliant Private Client Grand Prix. Video courtesy of HITS Ocala:
I’m not saying you can’t buy a good 3-year-old or find a good deal on a 7-year-old; it’s just where I’ve had the most success. By selecting a horse in this age group, you can already find out a few important things that I look for. Does it have good conformation, a balanced canter, a natural change? How does the horse study the jump, and what reaction does it give you when it makes a mistake? Is it quiet and amiable enough to have a second job if it doesn’t work out for me?
I also haven’t had great success with buying very young horses. There is more risk involved there. It’s very hard to know how they will develop when they are foals. This goes back to my statement of no guarantee. All you have to go off of is breeding, and while breeding is exactly the way you need to start, it doesn’t guarantee anything. None of the weanlings or yearlings I’ve bought out of Europe have become top horses. They all had breeding that I preferred.
I’ve also bred over 20 horses at home in the past 15 years. This has really just been a hobby. But the mares I had were very good show mares in their day. A point must be made: These mares were quality enough to breed and were bred to decent stallions that I chose myself. That being said, most people in America breed due to sentimental reasons, and unfortunately your amateur jumper’s offspring might not be as talented as she was. Only one of our homebreds, who is currently 7, has presented as good enough to keep for myself for international competition. All of my other homebreds have become good, solid horses in the show ring, with one even competing at equi- tation finals, but I’m sure that I have only broken even on them, after the expense of their care and the value of time put into producing them.
I believe we all wear hats in this business. For me, it works best to let the breeders do their job. Let them spend their own time and money producing them. It goes back to my original point of buying older. If you start at 4, you’ve saved four years of paying for that horse growing up. You also have quite a bit more of an idea of what you’re starting out with talent-wise.
A Numbers Game
The second most important part of this equation is to get rid of the phrase “investment horse.” You would not go to your financial advisor and ask for a single investment stock. That would be a ludicrous idea. Why would you put all your risk into one stock or animal?
I understand that this is expensive, but part of the reason I’ve had the opportunity to develop so many horses to the upper level of this sport is because I’ve bought several at a time. You have to keep buying multiple horses in your budget category if possible. Horses, like the stock market, are a bit of a numbers game. When buying younger horses, it’s important to add several new sources of talent with horses that display the qualities you are looking for each year. Rather than put all your money into one horse, it’s better to have that portfolio I mentioned before.
You must be willing to part with certain ones if they don’t end up being good enough for the top sport. For every top horse I’ve developed, I’ve bought and sold seven oth- ers that have gone on to be very good junior or amateur horses. That goes back to the selection mindset of: Will it have a second job if it doesn’t work out for me? By the time a horse is 7 or 8, you usually know its limitations. If your horse is too hot to be a hunter or not scopey enough to be a grand prix horse, then you must have the mindset to find it a new owner or job. It’s not fair to the horse to expect it to do more or less just because you hoped it could. If this is the case, then move on. Even if you sell it at a bit of a loss, it’s better for you and the horse. For one, the horse will get the job it deserves. As the owner you can put your time and money into another prospect. It’s an old saying that the cheapest part of being a horse owner is buying the horse, and that saying still holds true. It costs just as much to feed a child/adult jumper as it does to feed a grand prix horse.
I don’t believe you have to overshow the young horse, either, to know what you have. While it costs a fortune to show horses here in the United States, it is getting better. Shows are getting more savvy about young horse entry fees. I tend to choose places where they offer low-cost entry fees or even free entries like at HITS or World Equestrian Center. If you don’t have those opportunities close by, schooling shows and schooling at different venues will suffice.
I rarely take my 4-year-olds to shows. Instead I take them cross-country schooling or to another local venue. They usually do two shows in December before their 5-year-old year. All a 4-year-old needs is to see different places and be handled so they are ready for the 5-year-old divisions. As 5- and 6-year-olds, I show them at local shows in Ocala, Florida, and maybe go on the road once or twice to see a different venue. As 7-year-olds they join the regular show schedule and do a few road trips and new venues, so they are ready to handle those pressures, and the more talented ones as 8-year-olds are ready to step into the national standard classes.
We used to attend Young Jumper Finals each year, but for the last few years, after the YJC stopped hosting them, they’ve been held through the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association in Michigan, which is a very far ship from Ocala. As an owner and/or rider it was always a big deal to me to win a Young Horse Final. It’s a great way to showcase young talent and have something special to look forward to. However, the horse doesn’t know if he’s at a Young Horse Final or not; only the owner and rider do.
We cannot discredit the talent that does or does not end up there. I’ve had several horses win at Young Jumper Finals. Many of those winners did not end up to be superstars for international competition. Two of my current horses did win a Young Horse Final, however one of my best horses in the barn never went to a final. This was in part due to missing out on COVID years and the change of location as mentioned before. He’s still just as good of a horse, if not better, even though he never went to a Young Horse Final. Shows with quality courses and showing conditions are of the most value for the young horse. If we can go back to hosting finals in several different locations that make it easier for more of the country to get to, even better.
Looking back on the last 10 years, I’ve learned a lot: mostly to be patient, accept being wrong about a prospect, and realizing that developing a young horse is such a process. My current top horses have been a part of our family for years now, and it all started a decade ago. Let that sink in. A decade. A decade of other horses that also were not quite talented enough for the very top tier of the sport, but we still found them homes that were good for them. I owe just as much to those horses as well.
Top grand prix rider Aaron Vale runs his Thinkslikeahorse training facility in Williston, Florida, with quality jumpers, hunters and equitation horses. Many of his students compete on young rider and Prix de States teams, qualify for the top equitation finals, and become successful grand prix riders.
Vale has won more than 275 grand prix classes and represented the U.S. team on European Tours and in Nations Cups, as well as placed in the World Cup Finals. He’s won countless USHJA International and National Hunter Derbies and twice won the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix (New York).
As a junior rider, he was reserve champion at the ASPCA Maclay, USEF Medal and USET Talent Search. He was named Best Child Rider at Washington International (District of Columbia) and the Pennsylvania National.
He lives with his wife, Mallory, and daughter, Kinser.
This article appeared in the March 13 & 20, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.