The Etiquette Of Horse Shopping: Fair And Balanced Trials

Aug 16, 2011 - 8:43 AM

In the first installment of our Etiquette Of Horse Shopping series, we examined the intricacies of setting up and preparing for the first trial ride. After you’ve selected a suitable prospect and set the trial date, it’s time to plan ahead for the trial appointment itself.

Canadian Olympic eventer Kelli Temple has sold horses to some of the sport’s top riders, but the motivation behind her business is refreshingly down to earth: at the heart of each sale, Temple puts her penchant for matchmaking to the test.

“Nothing has made me happier than watching Jennie Brannigan and Cambalda, and having him be [2010 United States Eventing Association] Horse of the Year, or Nina Ligon and Chai Thai winning everything,” said Temple, based in Round Hill, Va. “I really enjoy selling horses, but mostly I enjoy matching people with horses. I love seeing them go on and do well.”

Temple, who’s sold many young talents to Brannigan, Ligon and riders across the country, stresses that even the most successful partnerships begin with a trial ride. No matter your level of expertise, focus can play a huge role in a trial’s outcome.

“Keep focused on the fact that you’re there to try the horse,” said Temple. “You may not learn how to ride the horse that day; developing a partnership is a process, so you can’t expect to have a perfect partnership from the beginning. You just have to know that you would like to have that horse day in and day out, that you like riding it, and that it’ll have the ability to do what you want it to do.”

Three Perspectives

Going into the appointment with an open mind is key, but incorporating a few outside perspectives can help bolster informed decision-making. A good friend or trainer who’s acquainted with your riding style should be the first perspective you seek to secure.

“You need to have someone with you who’s on your side, who knows you and knows what you’re looking for and can give you an unbiased opinion when you ride the horse,” said Temple.

Experience allows a trainer to gauge potential partnerships in a variety of ways, from actually getting on and riding the horse to watching your trial and setting appropriate exercises. In between, trainers can also take adept videos of your session, a tactic that Temple finds particularly helpful.

“After a ride [buyers] will often say, ‘I wonder what his jumping form was like? I wonder how he moves? I wonder if I look too big on him?’ All these things can be alleviated very quickly with a video,” Temple said.

Videos form a valuable second perspective, allowing you to visualize the trial for yourself and satisfy your own questions about movement, size, rhythm and appearance. At home, videos serve as a refresher of your initial impressions, reminding you what you liked and didn’t like, and can also provide the opportunity for you to gather additional opinions. 

But a third perspective should be taken into account before you come to a decision, because your trial not only determines whether the horse is suitable for you, but also for any members of your family involved in horse care.

Courtney Cooper of C Square Farm, Nottingham, Pa., says it’s perfectly acceptable—even preferable—to bring family members along to the appointment.

“If there are younger children who will be handling the horse, it’s helpful to have them around to make sure that the horse will be appropriate,” she suggests.

If you’ll be relying on your family to groom for you at shows or help out around the barn, there’s no point in buying a horse they can’t handle. Taking family members to the trial will help ensure a suitable match for all involved.

Realistic Expectations

In addition to securing outside perspectives, it’s important to focus some attention on keeping your own perspective realistic.

According to two-time Chronicle Hunter Horseman of the Year Don Stewart, who places 120-150 horses per year through sales and leases, buyers often arrive with extravagant goals for the horses they’ve come to see.

“Everyone wants to win the Olympics or [Pessoa/USEF] Medal Finals or [USEF] Pony Finals or be champion at Washington [International Horse Show (D.C.)], but you get what you pay for,” said Stewart. “Sometimes you can get a horse to compete at that level cheaply because of the difficulty or age of the horse, but usually you’ve got to sacrifice some of your prerequisites if you don’t want to spend $400,000.”

In addition to price and your competitive aspirations, Temple suggests it’s important to keep the horse’s age, experience and athleticism in mind.           

“Buyers have to be receptive to the horse’s training level, and the seller has to be clear about what they’re comfortable with the horse doing,” said Temple, noting that she sets clear standards for the difficulty of the exercises she’ll allow during a trial ride.

“If a particular exercise is contingent on the sale, and I feel uncomfortable with it, then it’s not going to be a good sale anyway,” she added.

But keeping your expectations realistic doesn’t mean you’ll compromise the scope of a trial, and as long as the horse’s background is kept in mind, you should expect to test the full range of a horse’s education.

“I’ll usually have a variety of exercises set up in my arena—a combination, a 4-6 stride line, a narrow jump, a liverpool—things I can show that the horse has seen,” said Temple. “I also have a cross-country course for all levels, so I can show that even my 4-year-olds will walk through water, and I have other jumps like corners and arrowheads for horses that have done a bit more.”

If your trial ride is going particularly well—perhaps even a little too well—it’s also important to keep your expectations in check by questioning whether the horse’s price makes logical sense with his potential.

“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” said Stewart, recommending that buyers protect themselves with a thorough pre-purchase exam and drug screening to reveal any potential limitations.

Cooper, who serves as both a buyer’s and seller’s agent, agrees you should insist on full disclosure.

“Unfortunately people don’t always reveal or remember everything, so ask for all vet records,” she said. “Get performance records. Be your own advocate and do your own due diligence.”

Honesty Appreciated

Once you’ve tried the horse and begun to form an opinion, sellers appreciate a prompt and honest evaluation—even if you’ve decided that this isn’t the horse for you.

“One of the pitfalls that I find is that the trainer arrives and ends up giving the buyer a lesson on a horse that they’re really not interested in buying,” said Temple. “To me, that’s just a waste of everyone’s time. If, for any reason, they feel it’s not the right horse, they should not be afraid to say that.

“Even if I don’t agree as the seller, I realize that the buyer is the one who’s going to end up with my horse, and I want the buyer to be happy,” she continued. “You want the buyer to have a suitable horse so that when you go to an event and you see that person on your horse, you can feel proud of that match.”

If, on the other hand, you want to devote some extra time to contemplating your decision, Temple suggests keeping the seller informed of your intentions.

“You don’t have to decide right away. You may need to go home and talk to your parents or trainer or husband or whoever, but you still need to tell the seller what’s going on,” she said. “I really appreciate someone calling me within 24 hours and just saying, ‘Thanks so much for showing me the horse, I decided to keep looking,’ or ‘I’m mulling it over and I plan to have a decision on this date.’

“Coming to look at the horse and then disappearing is really one of the hardest things for a seller,” she added. “It’s best to touch base to let them know whether you’re interested or not, so that they know whether to wait around for that phone call or move on to someone else.”

If the trial didn’t pan out, don’t despair—there are plenty of other prospects, and waiting for the right one—though sometimes frustrating—will often be the best decision in the long run. But if you liked what you saw, there are several options to consider as you move forward in the purchasing process.

Check back Wednesday, Aug. 24, for Part 3 of The Etiquette Of Horse Shopping series!


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