We’ve all seen the ads. “Gorgeous mover, upper level prospect, great professional prospect,” etc. People will just about say anything to promote a sales horse into a good home and get a nice price for it. In a way, it’s hopeful that the horse may, eventually, end up with a top level professional who can take it to the Olympics. Great idea! Then put down that he’s an upper level prospect!
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Just the very numbers alone will tell anyone who takes a look that the chances of a horse actually making it to the upper levels are very, very slim. As in almost none. There are only a few hundred horses in the WORLD who are actively competing at the four-star level in eventing. A few thousand, perhaps, at the FEI levels below that.
In the U.S. and North America, there are maybe a thousand “upper level” as in Advanced, or even Intermediate level horses currently competing. That means, out of many hundreds of prospects, we’ve got to understand that very few make it even as far as Preliminary horse trial competition.
So what makes an upper level prospect stand out to an upper level rider? Usually it’s TALENT. As in jumping talent. Jumping very well. Jumping like an oily machine, with great (not good) form, a stick-out ability to pop a jump, not touch the rails, and land in balance.
A horse that hangs any leg, that flattens, that drag their heads down to look at the landing — a horse that misjudges or worse acts lazy about jumping — a horse that has to make an effort over a 3-foot fence, that twists, flattens, hangs a knee, drags hocks, doesn’t fold, rushes, or that shows a flat bascule isn’t great. They are green.
Jumping style can be improved, and horses certainly can get better, but most professionals are looking for horses with natural ability and an athletic, easy jump, because there are so many things a horse must learn, and do, in order to get to the upper levels, that taking a long, long time to develop a less-than-perfect jump isn’t high on the list. Lots of good jumpers exist in eventing. Lots of good jumpers also end up in the hunter and jumper rings, too, and some just never really get the cross country thing and don’t like it.
Next, the horse has to be a spectacular mover. Not a good mover, a spectacular mover. If you don’t know what that is, or what it looks like, study the Young Dressage Horse test videos, study the Young Event Horse competition videos, watch the really impressive German young horse tests and Le Lion competition.
Good movers always track up, they automatically push from behind, they show a tendency to be uphill, and they cover ground easily. Great movers do all that and more. They spring through the joints upward, they show an ease of movement and softness in the back and frame, and have the conformation to support all of that.
A young horse that is not tracking up on a 20-meter circle, who shows a 10-foot natural canter stride, who mixes his rhythm or appears uneven isn’t going to be something a pro would consider an upper-level prospect because, again, there’s a lot of work there — years of dressage — to achieve a moderately scored trot or improve a marginal canter.
And even then you’re always going to get the 6 and 7 on gaits. No pro wants to see that number on a dressage test. They want the 8 and 9 on gaits, so unless you’re a dressage master with time on your hands , chill on the “spectacular mover” description. The more I watch horses go, the more I learn what is really and truly a good mover as opposed to an average mover.
Most horses, let’s be fair, are pretty much average, despite the attempt of many sellers to describe them as above average or better than normal in some way. The way things go, chances are a good horse will be purchased by a knowledgeable horseman pretty quickly in their life as soon as they show some talent at a rideable age.
Indeed, it is all the upper-level rider is looking for — good horses young and talented. They travel the world, pay thousands of dollars, and build businesses around obtaining just this sort of horse.
It is true that there is always a wonderful Cinderella story about an average horse making it someplace, but these again are very rare — and usually it’s a horse that a dedicated rider invested some time in and cultivated the hidden talent. Not all pros have the time or the talent to develop hidden abilities, so it’s always easier for them to buy one already “discovered.”
Learning the difference between good and great takes time. Watching hundreds of horses go, watching hundreds of dressage tests and jumping rounds, watch videos, watch horses in the field, watch trainers warm up and compete young horses. Attend Young Horse competitions in all three disciplines, go online and see the scores and see how you placed them vs. how the judges placed them.
Check yourself. Attend judging clinics. Watch and listen when your vet examines a horse for soundness. Be a sponge about movement and jumping style. This is the way you get to educate your eye for a great horses vs. a good horse vs. an average sport horse.
Because horses are individuals, each and every one has a quality that makes them special — but not every horse has what it takes to be “upper level.” Some are great just where they are, average Joes, loved by their owners and happy in their work. That kind of horse is great in its own way, but just not quite an Olympic three-day event sort of way. Happy hunting!