Equine Speed Dating: Putting Your Potential Partner to the Test With David Marcus

As riders move up the levels or become more invested in the dressage industry, one of the most popular questions my husband, Nicholas Fyffe, and I are asked to address is how to find their next riding partner. When we travel to try a horse either for our business, Marcus Fyffe Dressage, or for our students, there is a certain methodology that we stick to so we can best determine if the horse is what we are looking for.

If you are unsure about your ability to objectively go on a “speed date” with a horse who you are looking to start a partnership with, take your trainer or another experienced professional along with you for guidance. Don’t rush the process and ask questions to both the seller and the horse when you ride him so you can make a decision that is right for both of you.
Regardless of what level you are seeking, there are certain qualities that are desirable. For example, their expression and work ethic. Those are not the only traits we give attention to, but they are crucial in finding the perfect partner to help reach your goals.

In order to not run into difficulties in the process of horse shopping due to unclear parameters or expectations, follow these characteristics and the exercises we conduct on our “speed date” with a potential horse to help identify any deal-makers or deal-breakers.

On the ground:

1. When first looking at the horse in the stable, make note of the eyes and overall expression. Does the horse have a soft eye? Does the horse look worried? Does the horse have a confident or nervous look about it?

2. Scan for general conformation points. Is the horse well built? Are his legs and hooves all pointing the same direction? Overall health is an important factor to consider as well. Keep an eye out for any issues that are out of the ordinary on the horse’s body such as splints. I’m looking for the horse’s natural balance and how it’s built in its conformation. However, I take all of that with a grain of salt because I try to keep an open mind and not make judgements too early.

3. This is also a good time to ask if the horse has any vices, minor or major. It can include things like cribbing, weaving or wind-sucking. Everyone has different qualities they can get along with, but the goal is to have all the information up front. Before I get on a horse I also ask the owner or trainer if there’s anything I should know about the horse undersaddle for my safety.

Analyze the warm-up:

1. Look for the horse’s natural balance and movement. Watch carefully as the horse is warmed up before you get on, and determine if it has clear, rhythmic gaits. It may seem simple, but it is of the utmost importance as it is the foundation for any training to be done in the future.

2. Ask whoever is showing the horse to demonstrate skills the horse is advertised to know. Note the techniques the rider uses with the horse.

3. Keep an open mind as you watch the horse warm-up. Even if it does not appear to be a stellar mover in the first five minutes, the quality may change quite a bit as the horse gets moving. Not all horses start out their sessions wonderfully, but you should take their age and level of training into account.

Give them a try:

  1. When you first mount up, take the time to notice how the horse’s gaits feel. Test each of them by seeing how easy it is to modify the rhythm. The clarity and regularity is extremely important. Feel in each gait the quality of the movement. I keep in mind that I’m a new rider for the horse as well, so my expectation has to be that not only am I learning this horse, but this horse is learning me a bit also.

2. It is important to video your test ride so you can refer back to it in your decision process. It also allows you to get opinions from your trainer if they cannot be there. It’s important to have another set of experienced eyes.

3. If you feel safe enough, try taking your jacket off, handing someone on the ground your crop, or something similar while mounted with someone on the ground holding the reins. How the horse reacts is an indicator of their confidence in you as a rider and themselves.

4. Start with the walk. It is very important to analyze the size, clarity and regularity of the walk. I look for how easy the walk is to corrupt and if the horse maintains a fluid four-beat rhythm. Does it become smaller? Does it take a long step and a short step behind? Does it over-track when you do extended walk or not?

5. Ride a figure eight in the trot, alternating between the correct posting diagonal to the wrong one. Make note of how the horse reacts to changes in your body and position as you ride.

6. Developing the trot: Can I make any change to this trot? The trot is the gait that we can develop the most. If they come out with a horse that’s trotting like a million bucks, then I see how rideable it is within that trot. If I see a horse that doesn’t have the biggest gaits, I want to feel how much I can change this trot in a couple of minutes. If I can make even a slight change in a couple of minutes, then in years I can make a big change. The adjustment is key in the trot. Even if the trot is not the best or most exuberant, remember that this gait can be improved upon the easiest.

7. In the canter, I look for how much natural rhythm the horse has as well as how much natural jump and uphill tendency the horse has. I’m always thinking about how it feels and if it’s something I can ride and adjust.

8.When riding the horse, notice how it reacts when you add some positive pressure by asking more of it for a few strides. Does it get fussy when you ask it to collect or throw a tantrum when you pirouette more than a few strides? This is a good indicator of the horse’s level of strength, fitness and work ethic.

9. How compatible do you and the horse feel together? Choosing an equine partner should be personal to you on some level, even in high-level competition. Would you like to go to the barn and ride this horse every day? Even if we are buying a horse for international competition, I still want to love that horse every day. Do you believe in this horse? For me, that’s incredibly important. Sometimes this can be the deciding factor that pushes you to start a relationship together.

10. Weigh the pros and cons. We have to weigh all of the different qualities we judged in the horse. There will be qualities that are less than ideal or deal-breakers for you. There’s always a place you have to compromise and we try to get as complete a picture as we can in the short amount of time we have so we can decide what is acceptable to us and what isn’t. It’s individual for every person.

Following your test ride, review the video footage and discuss these questions with your trainer. Time is of the essence when you are searching for your next horse and in our next column, we will discuss our steps regarding Internet research, vetting and the import/export process to finalize your exciting purchase!

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