Why Selecting a Dressage Horse is Like Picking a Spouse?

Okay, I am not the first one to suggest this analogy, but I am reminded of it when I discuss it with my college roommate who is not a horsey person. She is drafting a book called, “I Would Rather Die and Be Eaten By My Cats Than Go On a Date With You.” Like so many of us searching for our dream horse, she was looking for the “perfect man.” Well, she did finally find the perfect match for her, although no one is truly perfect.

We all know that a spouse doesn’t have to be exactly like you – sometimes “opposites attract.” So, your horse doesn’t have to learn the same way or relate the same way you do, right? Your horse should be suitable and comfortable for you. Don’t be persuaded by an ambitious horse trader to buy a horse which is simply too much horse. If you are a talented, young rider with nerves of steel, hands with feel and a seat that’s real – you might be suited to a hot, talented steed. However, the vast majority of us have our physical limitations and will never ride in the Olympics. Whew! The pressure is off.

Just remember that in dressage, a “10” on a dressage movement means “Excellent” not perfect, as once widely believed. So it is with finding a Perfect 10 dressage partner.

You are a smart cookie, right? You have written out your list of “non-negotiables.” It could be something like: 1) Gelding 2) Confirmed Prix St. Georges 3) Less than 17 hands 4) Comfortable to sit 5) Gaits must be at least a “7.” Now that you have a rough idea of what you want, now you have to “interview” the candidates.

Jennifer Benoit
Jennifer Benoit

When you are looking for a horse, just like when you are researching a potential mate, listen to what is highlighted as strengths but also listen for what “isn’t said.” Eager horse dealers can lie about the horse’s age (I forgot – I will have to find the papers), its height (every horse wasn’t bred to be 16.2 hands but, magically, that’s what everything is in the ads!) and, most notably, the horse’s temperament. The last one is the real bugger because it is a safety issue. I have had a “bombproof” horse take off at a full gallop bucking and swerving while trying to rub me off on fences and the side of a barn, jumping a manure pit and sliding sideways into a parked horse trailer. The horse seller acted surprised, “Oh, he’s never done that before!” How many times have you heard that?

When I was dating, I would do background checks on the Internet before meeting someone new for coffee–and always in a public place. The results of these checks would make a great book. There were shoplifters, illegal aliens and my personal favorite – married men! So, how do you check on your horse partner. There is no legal record of how naughty he was as a 5-year-old at a show in Europe but with a few quick tricks, you can determine a lot about a horse.

I always video everything from the very beginning even if it isn’t one of my top choices because you never know if that footage could come in handy. Maybe a horse would be suitable for someone else you know or may meet. Maybe it will make good evidence if, heaven forbid, something goes wrong. Look at the gaits of the horse. If there is a faulty gait or the tongue is out and you plan to show, don’t try the horse.

Jennifer Benoit

When you arrive at a barn to trial a horse, look for any signs that the horse has been drugged or exercised to make him tired or more pliable before you arrived. I literally look for syringes and vials in the tops of trash cans or any signs of sweat on the horse or his tack. Observe how the horse regards his handlers. Does he seem fearful? Is he distracted or pinning his ears? Always ask, “Is there anything I should know about this horse?” before you put your foot in the stirrup. Again, I learned that a horse didn’t like the whip on his left haunch because he climbed up the wall of the indoor arena and got a front foot stuck between the inner wall and the outer wall when I changed whip hands. The trainer could have warned me but he didn’t. If you plan to show in championships, see if the horse is different with and without the whip. A friend of mine “accidentally” drops the whip halfway through her ride to see if the horse loses impulsion.

In the end, no potential partner, whether they are two-legged or four-legged is perfect, but be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses as well as those of your partner. The whole point of dressage is harmony and, thankfully, there are many agreeable mounts out there who would make excellent partners for the right person. Just like human partners, sometimes you find the perfect match who doesn’t quite fit the image of what you set out to find. Tall, dark and handsome sounds great for men and for horses but some of us are destined to be with medium sized partners with an occasional vice. Be open minded in both cases and you just might be surprised.

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