Buying or Selling a Sport Horse Prospect
The process of determining if your American Saddlebred is saleable in the booming Sport Horse market may at first seem incredibly confusing. What are the Sport Horse disciplines ? How do I determine if my young horse will appeal to this market ? How do I speak the language to explain what I am looking for, whether I am a buyer, or a seller ? Since American Saddlebred Show Horse prospects are not ordinarily presented in the manner that Sport Horse prospects of warmblood derivation are, it can be very confusing- but don’t give up. This is an EXPLODING market place for your young horses- the United States Dressage Federation alone reported growth of over 104% from 1990-2000. It is of tremendous importance that we offer our horses as an incredible resource for those folks looking for a fabulous athlete and partner- in or out of the competitive arena.
First, the pure Sport Horse divisions are those that are also, at their highest levels, Olympic sports. They include Eventing (Baby Novice through Advanced), Dressage (Introductory through Grand Prix), Show Jumping (through Grand Prix), Reining, Competitive Driving, and Endurance. In addition to these, there are other diverse occupations for the talents of the American Saddlebred. They are also sought after for pleasure driving, fox hunting, trail riding, ranch work, police horses, and a host of other pursuits. Remember that not everyone wants a horse that will be competitive at the highest levels; most are seeking a great partner and friend.
You are looking for an INDIVIDUAL ! Not everyone can work with every horse. Buyers have to LIKE the horse and be able to handle that horse. While the majority of show horse people ride with the direct supervision of their trainer most of the time, most Sport Horse enthusiasts do not. Sport horse buyers need to buy what they like, and can live with.
AVOID ABSOLUTES !: if someone tells you that all animals of a particular bloodline must be avoided, or, in the alternative, are the only ones to look at, run! There are good- and not so good- individuals of many different types and lines. Even a conformational drawback may be less important than a really terrific attitude (but see #3 below). Keep an open mind. (remember #1). Prejudices of all kinds have made for keeping the Saddlebred a secret in the Sport Horse arena for too long.
CONSIDER CONFORMATION: A "double hinge" in the form of an "S" may be great for a walk-trot horse, but it is a challenge for Sport Horse work. The ideal Sport Horse prospect is what most Saddlebred folks call "forward headed". This is not to say that a really low neck set is preferred; on the contrary, the horse should be built "uphill", meaning that their withers are set higher that their hindquarter. LOOK at the engine (the hindquarters), the transmission (loin coupling) and the steering (front end). Does this horse have the kind of hip, hock, and stifle angles to facilitate the power to do this work ? Can he push from behind, or does he trail his hocks like a rooster ? Does he have a strong back, and good loin coupling ? Is he broad across the loin and hip ? Breadth in this area, and the chest confers power. Front legs coming out of the same hole are not desirable for any discipline ! Having said all of this, remember that lots of oddly shaped horses have achieved fame in a variety of fields, and can be great teachers. Refer to #1 above.
CHECK THE FEET AND LEGS: crooked legs are a tough way to start. Clubbed or boxy feet can alter a horses movement, or cause soundness problems. If you look at a sport horse prospect that is also being readied for show, or if you are offering a show prospect for sale as a sport horse prospect also, the horse may have some length of foot, and/or pads. Movement, hoof angles, and irregularities may tend to be exaggerated. If you do not know how to see through the changes in gait that are seen at this stage, and understand how this will translate for your work, find someone who does. As an example, a horse with a more upright foot may show a bit of dish to the toe, which will all but disappear when shod shorter for sport horse work. If you have real concerns, have your Veterinarian make the call. A great blacksmith and proper maintenance may get you through, but it is never wise to start building anything with a questionable foundation.
SOUNDNESS: nobody needs to start with a lame horse. Look for a sound prospect. Anyone who would show you a lame one doesn’t care about the horse, or you.
Buy the best mover you can get along with and afford- factoring in all of the other concerns that have been mentioned- a horse with brilliant movement and ability is going t be able to take you a long way. You can improve an average mover- but it is a long, hard road. Movement is critical in all competitive disciplines. Learn to love talent.
Remember-athletes are born….. families which have a history of producing World Champions are most likely to provide you with a good thinking, athletically inclined Sporthorse prospect as they are the next Five Gaited Worlds’Grand Champion. Remember: most knowledgable breeders will tell you the mare is responsible for as much as 70% of your future champion. Look for a good producing distaff side to the pedigree. A bit of research is definitely worth your time. The Saddlebred gene pool is as much, or more, phenotypically prepotent than any other breed out there. In other words, you can learn enough from a set of papers to give you more than an inkling of what your prospect may grow up to be…..but GREAT athletes are made: in the wrong hands, even a horse with phenomenal potential for whatever job you are looking to do can be reduced to average- or worse. No matter what horse you purchase, you will need good, compassionate coaching and training. Start with a plan !
Pretty is for flowers: there is an old adage "looking ain’t doing" that the American Saddlebred can routinely disprove. Then there is also "handsome is as handsome does". A sport horses’ job is to DO not LOOK. But don’t buy a horse that won’t at least grow on you. (due to his "inner beauty" and other redeeming values !)
CONSIDER THE PROSPECTS’ AGE AND TRAINING: there are wonderful prospects that come from unlikely settings- if you have a horse that has had a show horse career, there is no reason to believe that they will not be able to be useful in a Sport Horse field. However, for competition, you will be competing against horses from breeds which do not share the training background of a show horse. As an example, wire snaffles and martingales of any kind are not acceptable in Dressage competition. Be sure to consider how your horse will react to work in different equipment. Once again, begin with a plan, and include time patience in liberal doses. It is amazing how truly adaptable these horses really are.
and most important ATTITUDE !: a horse can have everything you believe you want, and simply not work out for you. American Saddlebred aficionados have terms to describe these characteristics that other breeds and disciplines do not. We say a horse "thinks right" or "wears their ears right". These phrases cover succinctly the entire spectrum of how a horse should be for training. A “game” horse may be too much for backyard pleasure horse, but when you are doing fifteen single tempi changes in the Grand Prix dressage test, or running an advanced cross country course- game is a good thing to have. For those who know and love the breed, the appearance of the show horse that is in the ring, full of snort and blow, is what is loved and sought after in the best show horses. For the uninitiated on the rail- those horses might be crazy ! Bridging the gap between these worlds will build opportunities for both sides.
Alright, now lets look at movement. For Dressage, Eventing, and Competitive Driving, the movement of the horse is very important. Your horse may jump like a stag and run like a deer, but a flamboyant mover with a correct dressage test, who has the same requisites, will beat you every time. For Show Jumping, it is still Dressage to the ground pole, or base of the fence. However, movement is not judged. When you are buying or selling your Sporthorse prospect, you may not be thinking of competition. But on either end of the deal- learn to recognize the mechanics that make the difference.
Acceptable: a clean, four beat walk without "paceyness". The horses hind feet should land in the tracks of the front feet.
Even better: all of the above plus an "overtrack": the horses hind feet tracks exceed those of the front feet, and the horse opens in his shoulder and lands with a softly suspended stride. Hard to find- but Saddlebreds with great walks are out there, and they are worth it. As a horse learns to relax his back, this gait will gain quality, but the walk is the least improvable gait.
Acceptable: the horse moves forward in a free shouldered trot, head stretching forward (not up) from the base of the neck. The horse tends to swing from the shoulder, not snatch his knees up.
Even better: the horse shows the above, plus he is elastic in his back, and has suspension. The metronome in your head counts more slowly for a “longer” stride- the horse shows greater "hang time".
Acceptable: three beats, not a “lateral” pacey movement- the horse is driving from behind, flexing his loin, shows lightness in the forehand- he isn’t driving onto his front feet.
Even better: the horse shows "jump" in his canter- he is VERY light in front and almost appears to bound along, while being very balanced. He is able to pick his back up, not hollow or flatten out, in this gait.
Ideally, the Sporthorse buyer is looking for a horse that has been started under saddle, or at least in lines, but has not had his tail cut. Although in many cases, when left out of a set for an extended period of time, a horses tail will lay down again, a tail which has been set for a long while, or a poorly cut tail will be an obvious red flag in the competitive world. Once again, prejudices being what they are, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do". No other breed, participating in Sporthorse disciplines competitively, cuts tails.
Where do you go to find your prospect? You’d be surprised by how receptive the top trainers have become. John T. and Nancy Trent Jones, owners of Rosemont Manor Farm, have a reputation for breeding, training and representing the finest in quality American Saddlebred Show Horses. Nancy comments, " as Saddlebred breeders we realize that not all of our young horses will meet the requirements for the traditional show ring. Many of these horses do, however, have characteristics of athleticism, trainability, and conformation that suit them perfectly for the Sporthorse divisions. The Sporthorse market broadens our resources base, and as large breeders it affords the horses we raise a future in another discipline." Nancy continues, "most importantly to me, these divisions offer a ‘safe alternative’ to the sad possibility of abuse and slaughter many Saddlebreds face if they cannot find appropriate jobs."
In the pictures, we show four very different individuals. The traits that they share include being very correct in their legs and feet, with excellent backs and loin couplings. They have broad chests and deep heart-girths, along with excellent angles in their hindquarters. What makes them different brings into play their bloodlines, as well as Mother Nature.
The chestnut gelding is a 16.3 hand four year old by Captive Spirit, out of a Coal Train mare. He is a full brother to a five gaited World Champion. He shows the size and quantity of bone associated with warmbloods, and combines the refinement we hope for with Saddlebreds.
The pinto stallion is a 15.3 hand seven year old by a Supreme Sultan son, who was out of a Mr. Magic Man mare. He is out of a mare by Supremacy’s Spirit. This horse shows the "pretty" and the quality of neck set we associate with Sultan. He is a flamboyant mover, and balanced athlete.
This black mare is a 17 hand six year old by Captive Spirit, out of a World Champion producing Sultan’s Great Day daughter. She represents a new paradigm: a Saddlebred with the movement and size of the best warmbloods. This mare was nine months pregnant in this picture.
This six year old mare is by New York State, out of a Callaway’s Blue Norther mare. She is 16 hands, and a very refined and elegant dressage mare. She shows the topline and musculature related to correct dressage work.
Melanie Sloyer, an owner of Saddlebreds and warmbloods, and the Chairman of the Breed Show at Dressage at Devon, the largest breeding show of its kind in the world offers the following comments, "These individuals, although of very different types, all have the correct movement, attitude, and conformation to become successful upper level dressage horses. The mare, in particular, is of a quality to hold her own against the best warmbloods in this country."
The American Saddlebred is a ready, willing and able partner for any discipline. Sporthorse disciplines, Foxhunting, Polo, and ranch work are not beneath their vaunted status as the "Peacock of the Show Ring". Take another look at that colt that just unfurled his legs this Spring- perhaps he really wants to grow up to dance across a dressage arena, or dig into a crosscountry course. He isn’t a stepchild; he is part of the new paradigm: an American Saddlebred who is recognized for excellence in EVERY division and discipline.
If you need further information, have comments, questions, or a story to tell, please feel free to contact me at www.americansaddlebredsporthorse.com or 610.458.8652- I’d love to hear from you. Many thanks to those of you who I’ve heard from already; your words of encouragement are tremendously appreciated !