Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2024

Putting Age, Size And Soundness In Perspective

The other day I was talking with an experienced professional about a Grand Prix horse that’s for sale. When I mentioned that the horse will turn 12 in 2007, the knee-jerk reaction was: “Oh, then he will drop in price, because 12 is the magic number.”

Says who?


The other day I was talking with an experienced professional about a Grand Prix horse that’s for sale. When I mentioned that the horse will turn 12 in 2007, the knee-jerk reaction was: “Oh, then he will drop in price, because 12 is the magic number.”

Says who?

Well, the insurance companies for one. They tend to make the premiums steeper after age 12. Perhaps that’s why our minds make a mental slash at this age, although, especially in our game, that’s completely absurd. In real life, 12 is indeed the magic age, but in a totally positive way.

As we all know, there are dressage horses who have been able to produce all of the movements in Grand Prix at age 7 or 8, but they’re a product of unusual talent and mental as well as physical strength. And they’re ridden by experienced and competent riders who have been the route many times before.

A handful of them go on to glory on the international scene, but many simply disappear as quickly as they appeared and are never heard from again. To me, the exceptions prove the rule that “good things take time,” and more often than not a horse that reaches his first public performance in Grand Prix some time between ages 10 and 12 will bloom in his mid-teens and stay sound and going close to his 20s. Sometimes they continue into their 30s as schoolmasters and revered teachers.

Following the proper and fair progress of training, and figuring in the hiccups on the way, it takes, or ought to take, at least four years to teach even a very talented horse the whole Grand Prix program. That means he’ll appear in his first year green Grand Prix test at the earliest at age 9.

Usually, the test at that point will show green mistakes and a lack of strength and stamina for all the requirements. To achieve the look of ease and casualness we look for in the finished horse, you can count on two years of polishing.

The horse will now be at least 10 years old, and normally he’s closer to 12. Here he is, the finished product who has just arrived at the pinnacle of the sport, and now he is worth less?

At least for dressage horses, there’s something wrong with that thinking, and we need to stop buying into the insurance companies’ view of horses’ ages and look at the truth in the sport.


Check out the ages of the horses competing in the Olympics and the World Equestrian Games, for a start. Then look at the ages of the winners. Not too many under 10 there! The ones who make  history and remain in our memory from past championships are the horses who kept coming back into their teens and only improved with age.

Although most of us are aware of the downside of the younger horses, we become captivated by the dream, which often remains just a dream with many disappointments on the way. We forgo the horse that offers the whole Grand Prix package for the hopeful younger horse that very possibly never arrives at the destination.

Of our team riders in the last WEG, Steffen Peters was the most successful on the oldest of our horses, and Kennedy was far from a spring chicken when Jane Forbes Clark purchased him for Robert Dover.

At the last World Cup Dressage Final, three horses over 16—Briar, Floriano and Idocus—were in the top six placings, and many past Olympic medal horses were closer to 20 than 15 when they earned their greatest honors.

Smart people see the whole picture and don’t fall into the age trap, which, especially for dressage horses, is relative to the level of the performance and the overall health of the individual animal.

When it comes to purchasing a teenage horse, even the pre-purchase exam is less of a torture. Instead of guessing how the horse will stand up to the workload of the job description, you get to examine his show record, and you can find out if he’s had long absences from the show scene for reasons of health. If the horse has performed consistently for at least a decade, chances are he’ll continue on track until his last breath.

Whatever shows up on X-rays, he’s either unaware of or has learned to live with, and you can expect no surprises, only some maintenance down the road. No crystal ball is necessary; what you see is really what you get!

The size of a horse is another topic that’s been misunderstood, but here there’s been some major improvement over the years.

There was a time, in the 1970s and ’80s especially, when no horse could be tall enough. Every call about horses for sale would start with: “How big is he?”


You would believe this country was populated by giants, since the demand for horses more than 17 hands was impossible to satisfy. Then the prospective customer would show up, all 5′ of her or him, and “the look” was not a thing of beauty.

The fact that there was no harmony in the picture of horse and rider never seemed to matter, and often the complete lack of communication between man and beast, due to the incompatible weight and strength of the horse, made no impression. It had to be big!

Since I had to train some of these oversize models, and at 5’8″ had some problems communicating with all that volume, I could never understand this fad.

As I mentioned, the tendency to favor oversize horses has luckily diminished over the years, but there’s still not a great call for the smaller, better horse. The truly athletic, 16-hand or smaller animal, can easily carry most people up to 5’6″ and some even taller, if they’re reasonably slim.

There are a number of advantages to the smaller horse. First and foremost, they’re usually easier to motivate with lesser aids, which makes riding less work and more fun. Secondly, the mobility and easy “fit” in the dressage arena gives you an advantage in riding the test. There’s a larger margin for error and more time to prepare your next movement.

Particularly in riding freestyles, I much prefer being on a smaller model horse. If you make a mistake, you can quickly get back on track. My best freestyle horses were Amazonas, who won the freestyle at Dressage At Devon (Pa.) and Genius, who won several World Cup qualifiers. Amazonas was barely 16.1 hands, and Genius stood a proud 15.2. Because his movement was so expansive, he was always thought of as a bigger horse, and boy was he handy in the arena! Some of my larger horses were just a bit too “filling” in the ring and since they were not as easy to maneuver, their mistakes were big and obvious.

Another real advantage to moderate-sized horses is the soundness issue. I’ve found, along with many other people, that the bigger the horse, the more fragile he tends to be. The modern sport horse we strive to produce today stands tall and leggy and often measures more than 17 hands. All that height without a solid foundation takes a beating while we make a ballet dancer out of an animal that was designed to do nothing but graze and leisurely wander about.

I’m familiar with the patching and pampering that goes on in every barn at the big international events, and it’s not because these horses are ill, but because their job description is not really “natural,” and the taller they are, the more they appear to be at risk. Ponies, as you know, hold up a lot better to the demands of being trained and ridden, and they usually live forever.

When the size of the rider and the size of the horse are in harmony, the horse is the right size. Remember that a lot of good things come in small packages!

Anne Gribbons




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