Dear Jessica, I am not sure that even you will be able to help me with this question, because an answer may not even exist. Here is my situation: I am forty-two years old and planning to purchase my first horse. I have had almost thirty years of riding experience and have been taught by many excellent teachers including two who were trained by the Spanish Riding School. Over the years I have leased six horses and had opportunities to ride and school dozens of good horses. I don't intend to brag here, but I wanted you to understand that I am a good rider and have a deep appreciation of good riding and horsemanship such as that practiced and taught by the SRS. Until a few months ago, I did not think that I would ever have a horse of my own because my husband was very much against my owning a horse, he felt that a lease was enough of a commitment and that I spent too much time at the barn as it is. Fortunately he left me for a young lady who appears to have no interests other than him, and I have spent these last months "putting my life back together". Now that it is "together" again, and I am happy, I want a horse of my own. This is my background, and thank you for reading this far.
Now, on to my current situation. I have been looking high and low for a horse, and have been having very little luck. The ones I find are invariably suffering from some sort of lameness that the owner either finds acceptable (!) or hasn't noticed (!!). In the past five months, I have looked at (that is, made arrangements to visit, and at least seen and handled in person, if not actually ridden) eleven different horses. Not one of them has been sound. In five cases, I paid to have a veterinarian perform a pre-purchase check for me, bearing in mind that my interest is in dressage and that I would want a horse to begin sound and be capable of remaining sound through Third Level work, but not necessarily in competition. I am willing to consider almost any breed, colors and markings, gender and age (although I don't want to bring up a very young horse), and experience level, because even if a horse has barely been backed, I feel confident that I can train it. But I am not willing to compromise on soundness, and this is proving to be an insurmountable obstacle.
With one of the horses that I had checked by a veterinarian, the horse's owner understood the difference between "sound to walk about the pasture" and "sound to be trained and ridden in dressage", and was not angry when I turned down the horse after the veterinarian's examination. But with the other four horses, the story was quite different. Their owners, to a man (or, more accurately, to a woman) were angry and incomprehending, accused the vet and myself of being impossible to please, and said, more or less, "I ride this horse all the time and he is fine, there is nothing wrong with him." One woman even showed me a report written by a veterinarian when she had purchased the horse SIX YEARS AGO, and wanted me to take that information as current and authoritative, although the veterinarian I hired had a sporthorse and dressage background himself, and knew better.
I imagine that you probably know where this is leading - I watched these individuals ride their own horses, and was shocked by their clumsiness and cruelty. They "couldn't ride one side of a horse" as the saying goes, and even when their horses were visibly "off", lame or bridle-lame or both, they apparently could not perceive any of the signs of lameness, and kept insisting that I was imagining the awkward steps, the head-bobbing, and the other obvious signs that something was wrong. Some of the horses could move straight and balanced briefly, provided that they were allowed to go their own way on a loose rein, but became obviously uncomfortable and uneven as soon as the rider took up any contact or made any attempt to shorten their frames.
I know what I am looking for, although I am no longer so optimistic about finding it. What I do not know is what I can say to people who look me in the eye and tell me that their horses are sound for riding and can do anything I would ever want them to do. These people obviously know nothing about dressage, or about riding. I need some way to make it clear that their horses cannot possibly do what I will want my horse to do, but how can I say this without sounding like a complete b*tch? I obviously cannot say "Your horse may be able to hobble around with you on his back, but how dare you tell me that he is perfectly sound for riding when it's obvious that he is NOT?"
Horse-dealers have a poor reputation for honesty, but I am now working with two horse-dealers, and I find them to be much more honest than the individuals who have horses for sale.
Here's what you need to remember: the results of any veterinary examination belong to the person who schedules and pays for the examination. When you're horse-hunting, that person is YOU. You are under no obligation to share the examination results, the findings, or the veterinarian's interpretations with anyone at all, including the owners of the horse. (I've been known to share the results on occasion, if I believe that providing the horse's owners with more up-to-date information about their horse's condition might perhaps help persuade them to stop asking the horse to do things that are causing it pain and damage.)
But the bottom line is that the exam and findings are between YOU and the VET, full stop. You don't need to provide a full explanation of everything that told you a certain horse would not work out for you - all you have to say is "I'm so sorry, s/he isn't going to be suitable for my needs". That's it - that's all. That statement doesn't say or imply anything bad about the horse, it just makes it clear that this is not the horse for YOU. After all, you might have told the vet that you wanted the horse to ride, drive, ski, ice skate, and have twenty foals in twenty years. That, too, is between you and the veterinarian.
The "When is riding not riding?" question is much trickier, and has no good answer. You can't lift someone's level of knowledge, experience, and understanding to a much higher level in an instant, and you certainly can't do it by contradicting their claims, no matter how ridiculous the claims may be, about their horses. When a horse-owner tells you that her horse is sound even though it is limping, or that she "rides it all the time and it does everything she wants", she may very well be telling what she believes to be the truth. Most ignorant horse-owners have no idea how ignorant they are, and most bad riders and non-riders have no idea what is really involved in RIDING, as opposed to climbing onto a horse's back and staying there until they feel inspired to climb off again. When the horse's owner has riding skills that consist of "kick to go, kick harder to go faster, pull the right rein to turn right, pull the left rein to turn left, pull both reins hard to stop", and can't imagine that there could be anything more to "riding", how do you expect her to understand what you mean when you talk about dressage, soundness for dressage, or suitablity to do Third Level (in or out of competition)? The two of you have completely different backgrounds and completely different experiences, and consequently you have completely different standards. Her idea of a good riding horse is one that puts up with whatever tack is flung onto its back and whatever person climbs into the saddle; your idea is... entirely different.
You're right, when someone says "Of course my horse is sound and can be ridden and we ride it all the time and it does whatever we want and it will do the same for you", it can be terribly frustrating, especially if you've just traveled all day to see the horse, arranged and paid for the veterinary exam, and will now be going home with an empty trailer behind you and only a lost day and a handful of bills for fuel and services rendered. But no matter how frustrated you feel, you really can't respond by saying "NO, WRONG, YOU DON'T KNOW THAT, YOU CAN'T POSSIBLY KNOW THAT, YOU OBVIOUSLY DON'T KNOW HORSES AND WHAT YOU DO ISN'T RIDING!" It may be true, but you still can't say it.
This applies across the board, by the way - it's not just a problem with dressage horses and potential dressage horses, or even with riding horses. For many people, any calm, accepting, kind horse is a "riding horse" whether it has been trained as such or not; the same horse, if more sensitive and reactive and less cooperative, might be advertised as a horse with "competition potential". Similarly, many an advertised "broodmare" is actually nothing more than a mare that might or might not someday be bred, and that may or may not even be "breeding sound". For many people, a mare that is too damaged or broken-down to be ridden is automatically classified and advertised as a "broodmare" - just as some people think "If you can put a saddle on it and sit on it and kick it, and it doesn't buck, it's a riding horse", others think "If it's an equine with a uterus, it's a broodmare."
I think that you may be looking in the wrong places. Talking to horse dealers is a step in the right direction, but I would advise you to identify some good, experienced, reputable dressage instructors, since it's dressage that interests you. Ask if you can (a) sign up for a lesson so that the instructor can evaluate you, and then (b) pay for another hour of the instructor's time so that the two of you can discuss your horse search. If a good dressage instructor can get an accurate idea of who you are, how you ride, and how you think, as well as what sort of horse you are looking for, what sort of horse you would choose, what sort of horse you would accept, etc., s/he will be in a good position to help you find something suitable. At the least, you'll know that the two of you speak the same language, so you won't be wasting time looking at horses that are unbroken or badly broken, lame or badly-conformed, or unsuitable in any other way. A little up-front investment in expert advice never hurts, especially since a dressage instructor with a good reputation is very likely to be one of the first people contacted by riders who have a dressage horse or a legitimate dressage prospect for sale.
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