Our columnist explains how he goes about the process of picking out the next international show jumping champion.
Selecting a young horse as a prospective international jumper is a topic that I never tire of talking about, learning about or doing.
I think it’s necessary to predicate this column by saying everything I’m going to say doesn’t matter, as there are always exceptions. Additionally, I don’t presume to think that I’m always correct. Picking out young horses is high risk at best, and people don’t hire me to choose their horses because I don’t make mistakes; they choose me to pick out horses hoping I make fewer mistakes than some others. The fear of making mistakes will certainly preclude one from finding a diamond in the rough.
The whole process should be fun. If it’s not fun, one may put undue pressure on a horse trying to force it to be something that it’s not. Never forget horses don’t know how much we paid for them. If we overpay, it’s our fault, not theirs. If they aren’t what we dreamed of, the dream is our fault, not theirs. If we don’t look at each horse through the eyes of maximizing their potential and expecting nothing more, that’s our fault, not theirs.
Buying horses must be looked at as an exciting adventure into unknown depths of despair and unimaginable heights of elation. The pride of developing a young horse to its maximum potential will be far more meaningful to the true horseman than any monetary gains.
Attitude And Appearance
Now down to the nitty-gritty: the details of horse selection. When my wife Beezie and I are looking for young prospects, probably the most important characteristic that we try to measure is aptitude: a horse’s ability to be trained, his ability to learn, his ability to respond to the rider and his temperament while doing so.
Accepting training and learning are two different things. Some horses will acquiesce to training rather quickly but not retain that training, so while being tractable, they have no retention. Horses that aren’t good learners have been my second most disappointing forays into young horse development. The only risk bigger than a non-learning horse is a lame one.
During the trial it’s very important not to overface a horse but to mildly challenge its rideability, scope, carefulness, character and soundness in a limited enough manner that a realistic assessment can be made as to how much improvement the horse makes over the normal two-day trial.
Day 1 consists of 15-20 minutes of flatwork and a moderate amount of jumping. In the flatwork, we will examine soundness through multiple changes of direction and multiple circles in each direction of varying diameters at the walk, trot and canter. If possible, it’s also valuable to ride the horse and see it move on varied surfaces (grass, all weather and a hard surface). While it’s ultimately the veterinarian’s responsibility to determine the soundness of the horse, you can add valuable insight and make his job more complete by being objective about the horse’s soundness through the trial.
Particular attention should be paid to the horse’s movement around the barn when he’s cold and after he’s warmed up. The jumping on the first day consists mostly of a cursory evaluation of his raw jumping ability and the rider developing a relationship with the horse. This should be done over fences that are well within the horse’s ability for the level of training he’s had. I’ve seen far too often uncomfortable riders overfacing themselves and the horse on the first day. Give yourself and the horse a chance. It’s so important to have a constructive first day because it allows you to get a clear view of the horse; it allows you to sleep on it and not filter through a bunch of garbage on the second day. You don’t need to test everything out the first day; you need to get impressions.
After you’ve reflected on the impressions of the first day, the horses will show themselves very clearly when you add to the test on the second day. Day 2 consists of flatwork again and more rigorous jumping. It also consists of testing the impressions that you got from the first day. Day 2 is designed to test the questions of the prior day.
When I first meet a horse, I’m very interested in trying to notice as much as I can about his conformation, the shape and consistency of his hooves, the look in his eye and the general appearance. What’s its body type, heavy or light? Does it have spur marks? Are there any blemishes on the legs, or for that matter, anywhere on its body? Before even seeing a horse in action, I like to see him in the barn and attempt to develop a relationship with him. If a horse has severe defects in its conformation or feet, we may consider not even trying the horse, that’s how important I feel conformation is.
This isn’t a column on conformation; there are a multitude of books that describe this subject beautifully.
A few of my preferences are that I like a Thoroughbred type horse with good feet. Pay careful attention to whether the horse wings, paddles or toes in or out. I don’t mind sickle hocks, and I look in particular for horses that are wide in the hips. The length of the back is something that I withhold much judgment on until I’ve seen the horse move and jump. The neck should be light and well shaped. The head, ears and eyes are also very important to me. I’m not big on cute horses; I much prefer a workmanlike attitude and expression. Again, the eyes are very important to me; they should be kind. I’m not big on horses with squinty or small eyes. The ears should move freely, and again, I don’t like overly cute. I would prefer when the ears are set slightly to the side, not too close together. The horse should have a mouth that’s able to readily accept the bit and while not being a dentist, you should look inside the mouth and make sure the bite looks fairly normal.