A week or so ago I wrote a little bloglet for my own website theorizing one of the reasons why there seem to be so few schoolmasters available for purchase right now. It sparked a conversation in the comments section on Facebook that was quite remarkable: in addition to being entirely civil (shocking!), it also led to some really interesting conversations about schoolmasters in general, and the adventures in purchasing them.
There are some common statements people make about purchasing schoolmasters. I thought I’d respond to some of them, with my thoughts.
“People just want ribbons, and they don’t want to work for it.”
The notion that just buying a trained horse is a smooth journey into the award ceremony is pretty naive. Horses aren’t computer programs: it’s not as simple as entering the right code and, voila, Grand Prix. I’ve helped many, many people buy educated horses over the years, and learning from a horse who knew more than them was the primary motivation for 100% of those buyers. And this is part of a larger conversation, but I rankle a bit at the notion that learning by bringing your own horse up the levels is more worthy than learning from a horse who knows the work. Riding the level and training the level are different, both very important skills.
“People only want to buy in Europe or Wellington, where the prices are higher. If people were willing to shop other places, they’d find cheaper prices.”
There’s a great deal of truth to this. But it’s not nefarious; it’s about convenience. We live in a really big country, and the expense of schlepping all over it to see one horse here and one horse there is substantial. And because European travel in a COVID-y world is tricky, and because it’s winter and many of the country’s top trainers are in Wellington anyway, shopping there is a reasonable plan, both for buyers and sellers.
And there’s truth to the pricing bit, too. It costs money to get down to Wellington for all those who aren’t full-time Floridians. It costs money to keep horses here beyond what it costs many other parts of the country. Those expenses certainly factor into the prices of horses, where the sellers also are capitalizing on the convenience factor of potential buyers weighing those slightly higher prices against the value of buying one plane ticket and getting to see many, many horses in one place. And certainly prices are higher at the beginning of season than the end, though the market is so wildly hot right now I’m not sure what will be left at the end of the season this year.
“They are SO EXPENSIVE!”
Yep, it’s true. You can expect one heck of a price tag on a beautifully trained horse with an excellent soundness history. And this probably also merits a longer blog, but I’m going to give you the Reader’s Digest version:
Even if you buy a horse as a foal—paying between $7500 and $15,000, and I understand there are outliers, and that not only warmbloods make it to FEI and all that, cut me some slack here—then you have to keep it alive and uninjured until it’s old enough to start at age 3 or 4. It has to go to a few shows, just to show you it can. It needs shoes and shots and tack; it needs feed and hay and dewormer.
And even if you keep your horses at home, grow your own hay, keep it barefoot and get lucky as hell in that it never colics or limps, the people who bring elite horses along have, generally, either done it before, or are doing it while getting exceptional coaching from people who have done it before. That experience costs, whether it costs money in the form of getting the lessons and coaching, or it costs time, in being an employee of someone with that experience.
Sometimes you get a steal of a deal, for sure. They are out there. And on the flip side, there’s a heck of a lot of difference between a horse who has squeaked around a Prix St. Georges test underneath someone with either the skill or brutality to get the job done, and one who is doing the level with tact and correctness and softness that would give a developing rider an amazing feel—yet some people price them the same. Just because a price tag is on a horse doesn’t mean that’s what the final amount will be. But sometimes you do, in fact, get what you pay for.
The journey into upper level riding is not one size fits all. A magnificently trained schoolmaster, beautifully developed and maintained, is certainly one—very expensive—option. But it’s not the only way.
I know riders with all the resources in the world who’ve struggled to get there, and I know riders who’ve made FEI horses themselves, largely at home, from non-traditional breeds or paths. I know riders who’ve been in the right place at the right time to capitalize on someone else’s changing circumstances, or caught a great bit of luck on a lease. It can be done. You work with the best coach you can, you work really hard, and you set yourself up for success such that when that luck comes around, you’re ready for it.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own string of young horses with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.