The Growing Trend of Expensive Young Rider Horses

Ema Klugman and Bendigo, the Saddlebred/Thoroughbred gelding who took her to her first 5*. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Talent is broadly distributed in the horse industry, but opportunities are not. In a previous article, I wrote about the barriers to accessing equestrian sport and the corresponding lack of diversity in the industry – and one such barrier is the increasing cost of horses, particularly for younger riders who are trying to get a foothold in the sport.

While it is still possible to find the diamond-in-the-rough types — those horses with big hearts that are inexpensive because they do not look like much initially, but become superstars — more often, parents are having to make large investments in horses for their children. If they can’t, the upper levels of the sport are seemingly unattainable.

Buying safe, quality mounts with proper training has gotten harder, and much pricier, in recent years. Whether someone is looking to compete at the Novice and Training levels, or move up to contesting the young rider international classes, competitive horses have come to be worth much more than they used to be.

On one hand, this trend is good for professionals. Professionals can produce young horses and make money on them if they are well-trained, good quality animals that are capable of campaigning with kids who are starting out in the sport, or even looking to compete in higher divisions such as the young rider championships. Higher prices mean that professionals who find these horses can expect to do well out of them, which in turn makes their businesses more successful and allows them to pursue their own opportunities. Higher prices can also trickle down to breeders, who can price their quality youngstock higher because the professionals buying them can expect to price those horses even higher when they become six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds.

On the other hand, it’s hard enough to get into this sport in the first place, and access to the higher levels of the sport should not require such a big checkbook. It should be possible to train an inexpensive, non-warmblood horse to get to the young rider level in dressage, show jumping, and eventing. I did it on a Saddlebred/Thoroughbred who took me to my first five-star.

But this is not the norm, and it happens so infrequently that the perception of that kind of situation being possible is that it’s just dumb luck.

Who are we missing out on if the cost of competing at a high level as a young rider is so astronomical? Is the next Kent Farrington able to imagine himself getting to the young rider championships, or is he just completely priced out of the market?

Young riders in dressage used to be able to compete at the North American Young Rider Championships on self-made horses; now the quality of horses is so high that they need to start with a six-figure horse to make the team. In eventing, it is not uncommon for the young rider teams to be made up of former five-star horses.

While it is fabulous for these young competitors to learn from the wisdom of experienced horses, the kid with the Saddlebred cross or the Thoroughbred/Appaloosa who will never move like a warmblood, but is qualified at the level, probably won’t make the team. So although it’s good that the quality of riding and horses has gone up, it also means that the whole thing is that much more elitist.

The perception is that you need to start with a huge amount of money to even get in the door. The trend of families with resources buying their junior riders a six-figure, experienced horse to get to the upper levels seems not just common but the standard. These riders are talented, but how much talent are we overlooking because their families don’t have a blank check to buy a horse to take them to young riders?

As the saying goes, “good horses make good riders.” A good horse is a good horse, no matter its breeding or its price tag. It’s possible to find them in unexpected places, and it’s also useful for riders to go through the trials and tribulations of training an animal that is perhaps not the easiest or has had all of the formal training that a more expensive horse has had.

At the same time, it is good for the industry that the caliber of horses, breeding, and competition has improved. Quality jumping horses make the sport safer. But it is bad for accessibility when the perception — and the reality — is that so many promising riders are priced out of the market.