When you make the decision to crack open your piggy bank, pack your toothbrush between your nicest breeches and freshly shined riding boots, and begin to wonder if your favorite saddle qualifies as hand luggage, then you’re ready. It’s time to spread your wings and go horse shopping in Europe.
Europe, home to more than 6 million horses [PDF]! Definitely the place to launch the quest for your future partner, superstar and/or family member!
Who among us hasn’t dreamt of scouting future equine partner-in-crimes in that mecca of steeds 6 million strong — where Hickstead, Valegro, La Biosthetique-Sam FBW, and many more were born, bred, and raised to the pinnacle of horse sport? But where to start? Who to trust? What to know? So many questions and no predetermined path that leads to success.
As an under-30 Canadian show jumper who is now a professional rider in Europe and trader of show jumping horses, I’ve seen and conquered both sides of the medal. There are many things I wished I’d known before I went horse shopping in Europe for the first time, so I’ll let you in on a few tips and tricks for finding “the one” across the pond.
1. Choose Between Investment and Enjoyment
A highly-respected international rider once said to me: “When you buy a horse, assume that it will lose value every time you sit on it.”
As a hopeful young professional vying for a place in sport and market, this sobering notion grew on me more than I would have ever wanted it to. Magic and reality don’t always mix. Let’s face it: if you’re buying a horse with the idea of reselling it for profit, you’ll need a big bucket of luck to see the dots line up. Even the pros and dealers who are on top of the game take a bath every now and then.
So before you gleefully part with your life savings, do your best to stick to your established budget, and — most of all — make sure you’ll be at peace with your choice even if you never see those painfully stashed pennies again. I know, it takes some steam out of the romance of searching for your soulmate, but if you can refrain from falling head over heels for the first dazzling contender, you’ll avoid unnecessary drama.
2. Find your fit
Have you found yourself asking, “What was I really looking for, again?” If you’re in the process of purchasing a horse in Europe — or locally, for that matter — you probably know what type of horse you need fairly well, or at least your trainer does. The biggest mistake I see prospective buyers make is wander from their original plan and buy a horse that’s not the right fit for them.
A scopey, flashy, picture-perfect, fantastic jumper has great qualities for sure, and they can easily trigger love at first sight. Be aware and stay focused on the task at hand.
3. Practice Introspection
Before you make your move, ask yourself this single, highly revealing question: “Is this potential horse more akin to my first high school fling or to someone I could marry for all the right reasons one day?” Admittedly, this probably amounts to an oversimplification of the selection process, but it can help avoid many an unpleasant surprise!
4. Write It All Down
A simple yet extremely useful exercise — before you even begin to try horses — is to clarify exactly what you are looking for by putting it down in writing. Start with the basics: age and height range (if important) gender, budget, etc.
Then dive into a deeper analysis: “Who am I exactly, as a rider?” “What type of horse makes me happy and confident? A fast, careful winner? Or am I ready for a horse that’s more careful and may not accept my mistakes?” “If I’m still working at building my confidence and finding my way to the higher fences, do I need a horse that’s too calm and quiet — even a little “dull” — or one that pushes me to ‘go for it?’”
5. Remember: Patience Pays Off!
Thankfully, the pool of overseas horses is so large that you should never feel pressured to compromise on your dreams. Time is your best ally: if one horse doesn’t work out, believe me, there will be many other prospects.
6. Place Your Bet on the Vest, and Stick to It
You are now sitting in front of your laptop, all excited and ready to plan your trip. You may be chatting with friends who’ve been through this great adventure before, calling your trainer who has tons of contacts overseas, or Googling the best European breeders.
Whatever path you choose, the question you need to ask yourself first is: “Who is going to work the hardest and guide me through this process to help find the best horse for me?”
Big show barns, commercial barns, breeders, and horse brokers are your main options. You may pick one or many locations, one or many trusted persons, but the more you scatter your energies, the more sellers will lose interest in you. The reason is simple enough — when sellers sense that you are visiting many places and seeing many horses, they figure that their chances of selling you a horse is minimal and they’re probably wasting their time with you.
Focus on finding the one person that understands you as a rider and has a good sense of what you are looking for. (It might even be a sensible move to send them videos of you in action.) Committing to one broker through the entire process remains a smart choice. Going down the path with a horse broker has many pros, including:
- They already know the good, the bad, and the ugly places
- Can act as impartial judges in the final selection
- Can help negotiate the price in your favor
- Will probably help you find a vet with no conflict of interests
- Guide you through the post-purchase process.
7. Follow the 3 Rules
Once you’ve landed safe and sound on European soil, your adventure begins. But it’s time to put your enthusiastic goggles aside and jump into your business suit.
When trying a horse, there are three simple rules to stick to:
Rule 1. Don’t feel shy or uncomfortable — speak up!
For example, you’re presented with the first horse and your heart tells you right off the bat this won’t be “the one” for X reasons. Don’t bother trying him! This will show the seller that you know what you want and that you’re not there to waste anybody’s time.
Rule 2. Don’t fall for a video
- An insanely good rider who can make any horse look fantastic
- A great number of takes before the perfect shot
- Unfortunately, bad practices that can make a horse jump better (temporarily, of course)
Rule 3. Be organized, rigorous and open-minded, and trust your experts
8. Have Fun!
You should never feel pressured into choosing a horse. Go for the one that will make you happy in the long run. In a way, you’re purchasing your best friend, so you’ll want him or her to be with you for the long haul.
The whole voyage may not be as romantic as you anticipated: you’ll probably be jet-lagged, spending a ton of time on the road, making stressful decisions, and dealing with people you’ve never met before. But remember to seize the day, capture the beauty of Europe’s heritage, and — first and foremost — have a good time!