This past summer, I spent a week in Europe—specifically, the Netherlands and Germany—shopping with an agent for a horse. In four and a half days we visited 20 barns, and I rode 28 horses. I was able to find the perfect horse for me with very little hassle and within my budget.
In the ensuing three articles, I’m going to relate my (very successful) experience, starting with my pre-trip preparation, the actual day-to-day schedule of the trip, and how I brought my new equine partner home. I hope my story will help other amateurs who are thinking about taking the plunge to buy a horse overseas.
I was an eventer for the past 20 years, but after two successful knee surgeries, I decided that perhaps it was time I retire to mostly dressage with my wonderful Irish Sport Horse. That’s when I started really taking dressage seriously: I read books, watched videos, took a lesson once—often twice—a week, and I started going to shows, first local, then rated.
My Irish horse was an uncomfortable ride, especially at the sitting trot, as we moved into second level tests. He really wanted to please, even though I don’t think he ever understood why we did so many circles with no jumps. My goal was to get our USDF bronze medal together, and we got scores up to second level (barely). At 63, with retirement from my career as a university professor on the horizon, I decided I finally had time for two horses. I’d been saving for about 15 years for a “retirement horse,” so I was excited to search for one that was purpose-bred for dressage. I was confident that I’d have my pick of fancy horses given my long-term savings. Then I started looking.
I really wanted to buy a horse in the United States. I hoped to find a schoolmaster, but even the older ones with maintenance were at the very top of my budget (and went quickly). I followed various Facebook groups, scoured multiple horse sale sites, and put feelers out among friends, but everything was either out of my price range or was a $400-600 plane ticket away. I went to see a few of the horses, but none were a good fit. I took a trainer, which meant buying an extra plane ticket and paying a day rate, too. I found that the only thing I could afford was what I already had: an average-moving horse who was schooling third level. Because I live in the middle of the country, the cost of domestic travel to see these horses was already eating into my savings.
I had a long conversation with a good friend (another eventer turned successful dressage rider) who found her amazing partner in Europe as a 3-year-old. Five years later, they are showing fourth level and schooling Prix St. Georges, and they are quite competitive. She encouraged me to do what she did: hire a European agent to help me find my next partner. She put me in touch with Norbert Gieling of Gieling Dressage Horses. I was excited because her experience had been so positive (well, except for the cold February weather and lost luggage … more on that in a bit), so I contacted Norbert and started a conversation.
What I Want … What I Really (Really) Want
We all have stars in our eyes when we think about what we want for our riding, but getting there takes time, determination and hard work. Who hasn’t watched Olympic riders and marveled at how fluidly and effortlessly they seem to ride, their horses supple athletes who appear to defy natural laws like gravity? I knew I was starting out at the lower levels, but I hoped I might find a partner with whom I could earn my bronze medal, and possibly my silver medal—one who would help me to become a better, more in-tune and in-the-moment rider. I’d had quite a few horses in my time, from former cow horses to OTTBs to warmbloods. I learned that, as a senior rider, life is too short to spend time on a horse that wasn’t the right fit, no matter how fancy it was.
I began my list of criteria for horse shopping, and I had several conversations with Norbert about what kind of creature would mesh best with me and my goals.
First and foremost, I wanted to be safe. Being over 60 with two new knees, I knew I was a bit more breakable than I might have been before, and while nothing is sure in the equestrian world, I wanted to hedge my bets—so on the top of my list was SAFE.
While I still value talent in both people and horses, as I grow older what I really appreciate is kindness. I wanted my new partner to be kind, with a good mind and a forgiving nature. My favorite horse of all time, my soulmate who taught me the most about eventing, dressage, and myself, was a traditionally bred Irish Sport Horse named My Shamrock Paddy. While I’ve learned things from all of my horses, “Paddy” was a purposeful teacher. He was kind and forgiving. My current ISH is as well, so that was No. 2 on my list: KIND/GOOD MIND.
While working towards my bronze medal on my current ISH (appropriately named Paddy 2.0), I realized that dressage, when done right, is a lot more physical than I’d given it credit for as an eventer. Sitting the trot well takes tone and control, and I was committed to getting better at it. Unfortunately, Paddy 2.0 was a bit of a jackhammer to sit. Even my trainer complained about his rough trot. I’d ridden other horses who weren’t as difficult to sit, so I knew they were out there, and I decided to include that on my list: SMOOTH GAITS.
While showing second level, Paddy 2.0 and I were schooling third, which meant I was living in flying lead change hell. Funny how I could get a lilting lead change over a jump or a pole, but take it away and we both were clueless. I got clean changes about 30% of the time, and it never seemed to get any better. I’d ridden a friend’s horse who could “do” changes, and I was able to get them on a trained horse (though I wasn’t so good at multiples—that took counting, a skill I’m still working on), but my horse and I were having trouble putting it together. As a result, I asked that the horses I see had at least a GREEN CHANGE.
Once I had my list of what I was looking for (and some preferences, which included both geldings and mares, ages from 5-12, 16 to 17.2 hands high, and no grays—just too hard to keep clean), we started nailing down the travel.
Trip Planning: Find My A-Team
When shopping for a horse, it’s important that someone who knows you—who really knows you—comes along for moral support, reality checks, and for more practical purposes I’ll discuss below. I knew I wanted my friend to accompany me—she’d been through this process before, after all, and we’d often served as each other’s cheering section in both eventing and dressage. When I had my doubts (Who am I to be going to Europe to find a horse? Am I good enough to do this? What if I make a bad decision? etc.), my friend was rational, comforting and constantly helped me to see beyond my doubts.
Next, I wanted someone with experience—someone with an eye for good horses, good movement and potential problems—who could ride the horses before I got on to serve as a sort of “translator” between the horse and me. (Sidenote: the riders in most of these barns are fabulous, and make it look easy, even when it’s not, so having someone like this along proved to be invaluable.) My trainer couldn’t leave her barn for an entire week, so I asked my friend’s trainer to come. She knew me, because I’d worked with her at several shows, and I really liked her—and, more importantly, I respected her knowledge and skill, and she was aware of my background and what I was looking for.
Finally, I needed an agent. As I said above, my friend had great success with Norbert Gieling and his son, Jannik. Norbert helps amateurs and professionals alike find horses in Europe (mostly in the Netherlands and Germany). He’s what I’d call a matchmaker: He makes sure that every client sees horses that suit their personality, goals and budget. Norbert lives part of the time in the Netherlands, and part of the time in the U.S. He keeps tabs on horses at shows, sales barns and at breeding facilities, and if need be, he’ll hop on to make sure a horse is what it’s described as. He has a vast set of connections to barns, trainers and breeders, and he’s an excellent horseman with a great eye for quality horses. He has been riding since age 6—and he was in Pony Club with Steffen Peters, who he still calls a close friend. I spoke with Norbert multiple times before my trip, and I felt confident he knew and would help me to find what I wanted.
Pre-Trip Preparation: Educating Myself
While my friend and I talked about the trip for over a year, it was only after I had both knees replaced successfully that I thought I could really do it. Just as I prepared for knee replacement by strengthening my quads and doing the post-operative exercises before surgery, which helped my recovery go smoothly and a bit quicker than normal, I wanted to prepare myself physically for this trip.
I read everything I could; I spoke to people who had bought horses overseas, and started working out to make sure I was in the best shape possible. I hit the gym twice a week, went to a mat Pilates class twice a week, and did yoga once a week. I also rode my horse every day. But my team and I agreed that I would need more than just riding one horse, so we arranged an “educating my a**” tour.
It began with me trying several horses in the U.S. that I was interested in (and had one been a good fit and within my budget, I would have called off the European trip). These horses were all really nice but not quite what I wanted.
About a month before our trip, I spent four days with my friend, riding her horse (both in a lesson and just riding), as well as riding her trainer’s Intermediaire 1, Prix St. Georges and Grand Prix horses. I took notes about what I liked and didn’t like about each horse. It turns out I actually enjoyed riding a horse with suspension—something some amateurs struggle with. What I had trouble with was connection: Riding only my horse, I was used to a particular feel, one that was a bit lighter than what these horses were used to, and it was hard for me to achieve a good, steady, elastic contact. Riding her horses helped me get to the place where I could start to learn.
Finally, at my own barn, I rode as many of my friends’ horses as I could. With each horse, I thought about my seat, my connection, and what I liked/didn’t like about the feel.
In the next segment, I’m going to talk about how we made sure our last-minute trip details were in place to keep us comfortable during our flight, and how we were able to meet the grueling challenge of trying four to seven horses a day (and still keep them all straight).
Rebecca Rickly is a retired professor of rhetoric and technical communication at Texas Tech University who now lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. While she’s ridden since age 9, she only had her first lesson at age 45, when she finally decided she would follow her dreams and “do” eventing while living in Lubbock, Texas, there were no eventing coaches in the area. She’s now enjoying her new discipline of dressage with the 5-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare she found in Europe, as well as popping over the occasional jump on her faithful Irish Sport Horse Paddy 2.0, who, along with his predecessor, taught her how to learn.