Saturday, May. 27, 2023

The Search For Phenomenal

Last year, an amazing client presented me with an opportunity—to find a young horse for me to develop, and to share in the expenses of the journey. It's the first time anyone's offered me a shot like this, and after I finished blubbering like a moron, the search was on.



Last year, an amazing client presented me with an opportunity—to find a young horse for me to develop, and to share in the expenses of the journey. It’s the first time anyone’s offered me a shot like this, and after I finished blubbering like a moron, the search was on.

It’s been a long time since I searched for a horse for myself. Johnny was the first one I saw looking for the horse that would be him, back in 2013. Danny found me. The search for the horse that would be Fender, in 2010, was fairly awful, with lots of frustrations along the way, but in this search, I had a tool that I didn’t have, or at least didn’t have as fully developed, back then: Facebook. I figured I could use the Facebook Hive Mind to ferret out our dream baby horse.

So I posted an “ISO” (that’s In Search Of, for the uninitiated) ad on two of the biggest dressage horse for sale groups on Facebook, and the responses poured in. It’s worth noting that a tremendous number of the responses were wildly rude, telling me what a jerk I was for a) not liking a particular bloodline (which is like yelling at someone for not liking brussels sprouts, or the color orange), b) not explaining, in detail, why I wanted a short-coupled horse, c) wanting to shop in the United States (really?!), and d) clearly being one of those “biddies” who wanted to show up in her Beamer and find a fantastic, fire-breathing horse that I couldn’t ride. The tremendous rudeness of people on the internet is staggering.

Now that I’ve gotten that nonsense off my chest, I want to share my observations about the horses that I did actually get videos like I asked, and why I think I’m going to end up going to Europe to find my next horse.

First, most American breeders aren’t breeding horses for me. I want to be clear: I am not offended by this. I completely understand and respect this. Horse breeding for most people, those who aren’t independently wealthy and treating it as a dalliance, is a business, and businesses either make a profit or they fail. Duh.

So it makes perfect sense to target ones’ breeding program for the biggest target consumer group in the horse business: adult amateurs. And most adult amateurs aren’t looking for the level of athlete (and synchronous level of teenage bad behavior) that trainers like me are looking for.

Some adult amateurs want to putter at home, some want to be the First Level Local Show Champion of Champions, and some want to play in the big leagues, plus the ample plenty in between. But in general, most adult amateurs have a much lower tolerance for the flighty temperaments and big, powerful gaits that most international horses have. I know very, very few adult amateurs who would have put up with the nonsense doofus young horse stages that resulted in Ravel, in Salinero, in any of the great horses of our time and of times before us.

And that is A-OK. Frankly, the pool of professionals who can deal with that level of athlete is pretty shallow, and certainly very few of those in it have any actual money to spend on their horses.

So breeders, not being idiots, target the market that ensures them the greatest chance at a profit: safe, sane, normal-to-good movers that, in the right hands, could be national-quality FEI horses at best.

And let me again be clear: we need these horses. We need TONS of them. And I (and other trainers of horses) love riding them, and making them, and selling them for scads of money as finished horses for amateurs or juniors. 


But that’s not what I’m looking for to have a shot at doing Big International Things. So to find this in the United States requires an awfully thorough search, and a very, very small pool of candidates, compared to Europe.

The second thing I came to appreciate during my search is that the United States is massive. I found interesting horses in California (both north and south), Arizona, Idaho and Oregon. To see them all would have cost me thousands of dollars in travel, and countless hours. Then, assuming I like one, I have to figure out how to get it to the East Coast; not such a daunting task from Southern California, but it would be a terribly long journey by van, or a pretty expensive flight; and there are just no vans running regularly from any of those other far flung places.

Compare that to a trip to Europe. One flight, maybe $1,000 round trip, to Frankfurt or to Amsterdam, and I could see 30 horses fitting my criteria within a few hours’ driving. Yes, I’d have to fly it home, but the cost and distance would be the same as flying them from California, and if I pick a gelding, it’s only about 48 hours in quarantine. Yes, the Euro is better than the dollar, but not by much. 

I’ve been told that the concentration of warmblood foals born in Germany and Holland alone is about ten times the number of warmblood foals born in the entirety of the United States. There’s more to see, in tiny countries, and it just takes so, so much less time to do so. Time is money too. 

Speaking of money, the third thing I learned in this little adventure: the prices on American-bred horses are absolutely not better than those in Europe, and often are absurdly high. If we throw out the crazy auction nonsense, the $700,000 3-year-olds or whatever that make German headlines, I’ve found the prices to be pretty comparable—even better—in Europe. Yes, again, the cost of importing and blah blah blah, but I got more than one video of pretty uninspiring $50, $60, even north of $100k baby horses in America that couldn’t hold a candle to the handful of videos I did watch from Facebook strangers in Belgium, in Denmark, in the Netherlands, for horses advertised at a fraction of the price.

Now a video is just a video, and dastardly sellers on both sides of the Atlantic are perfectly capable of using slow-mo, clever editing and some behind-the-scenes prep work to make a video tell whatever story they want. But I remain unconvinced that American-bred horses are priced on a lower scale than European ones, even taking the cost of import into account.

Mostly, and lastly, I learned that we have to take a long, hard look at what we think an international-caliber horse looks like. I get it, I do. I get stars in my eyes about some young thing’s international potential as much as the next guy. But I can’t tell you how much time I wasted watching videos of horses—even ones priced completely fairly—that did not bend their hocks. That did not carry themselves uphill. That labored and lumbered. And that aren’t remotely, in any way, close to good enough.

I got plenty of videos, and had plenty of conversations, from breeders big and small who were very realistic about their horses’ potential. One breeder I’m well acquainted with, who runs a BIG program here on the East Coast, didn’t have anything for me, and was totally cool when I said that what she did have wasn’t for me. She didn’t take it personally (or at least didn’t make me feel like she did!). It made me want to do business with her, if not on this horse, then on another one.

I also interacted with breeders who acted like I’d punched their sister when I said the horse wasn’t for me. I think we all could get a better grip on the difference between “not good” and “not what I’m looking for.” Those two are not the same thing.

That said, I did see plenty that just straight up wasn’t good. I saw horses that Europeans would use to teach up-down lessons on, that would never EVER be considered a prospect for anything. I saw a lot of crappy riding. I saw a lot of people who love their precious darling babies so much that they’re coddling them into disaster, setting their 4-year-olds up for a world of hurt when someone tries to put a leg on, gets dumped, and sends them to a cowboy to try and fix it. 


And here’s something: I did not see one video of a horse I thought was overfaced. I didn’t see any rollkur, or whipping. I can take or leave the Young Horse program, but I certainly didn’t see anything on video that I would have considered overdeveloped.

I absolutely saw things that were underdeveloped. And there’s a window in the development of future riding horses, whether it’s for lower levels at local shows or the Olympic Games, where they learn coping skills, to take a rider’s hand and leg. If they don’t learn it by 4 or 5, or if they’re imprinted in that open, fluffy, no-pressure way of going, it’s much harder and MUCH messier to install those skills later on down the road.

At the end of the day, I saw a whole lot of mediocrity, and a lot of that mediocrity was expensive. It was terribly depressing. I am so grateful to everyone who took the time to send me stuff I did like, and the people who showed me lovely horses that I went to actually go see, all of which I liked and was represented fairly, and only one of which was The One, and that’s OK. 

Here’s what I want. I want more realistic analysis of what people have in their barns. It is so, So, SO completely OK that not every horse is going to go to Grand Prix, and that not every Grand Prix horse is going to go to CDIs, and that not every CDI Grand Prix horse is going to the Olympics. Thank goodness for the normal movers, for the laid-back temperaments, for the “6” gaits. But I don’t want anyone to waste their time thinking they’ve got something they don’t.

I want a better way of communicating about those horses. I want breeders and young horse trainers to reach out to the trainers who bring them up the levels when they’ve got something good and special, and I want the reverse, for folks like me to have a place they can go when we’re looking for a young horse, that will reach the folks who have them.

I want everyone with young horses—whether they’re the next Valegro or the next Intro Champion of the Local Show—to put their leg on and ride forward and close the hand and set them up for a life of success, not failure.

I want the Pajama People of Facebook to get a grip and stop being so nasty, but I also want World Peace and to be able to eat all the pizza I want and still wear white breeches, and I think any and all of these things will happen when angels dance on pinheads, so I’m not holding my breath.

And I want to have a wonderful career with the one that we found: Hurricane, a 4-year-old Dutch gelding by Don Tango B, bred in Holland but imported by my new friends Vanessa and Albert Gesierich, who will be heading home to Virginia as soon as this snow gets under control!
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