ruthlessly exclude & willingly compromise

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I want in my next horse. Much more time than I’ve spent without a horse… Definitely didn’t spend way too much time thinking about this loooooong before Murray was ever plotting his retirement. (Don’t worry, I don’t actually think that retirement was a nefarious plot by my horse…. most days.)

not really the nefarious plot type

While I’m not in a financial position to be too exclusive in my search, I do have time on my side. I don’t need a new horse now, or in six months, or even in a year (realistically). I’ll likely keep having fun with this pony for a while. If I do truly outgrow him, there are a few other options at the barn. My trainer commented the other day that I’m a better rider than she thought, which was nice to hear. Turns out, when you’re not riding a lame Murray, you can actually, you know, ride. (Also, when you get in shape. That helps too.)

So with a fair bit of thinking, I’ve made a list of a few very important things, a few negotiable things, and no tangible automatic disqualifiers (but, obviously, there will be some).

Here’s what I’m absolutely not negotiable on in my next horse.

Great brains – This is literally the most important thing on my list. I don’t need the next #babygenius or Einstein horse. But I do need something that is easier to work with than Murray was. I don’t mind if they’re a little goofy or have some personality, but I need those things to not come at the expensive of their ability to learn and work with me. This quality is nebulous and hard to define, but I get the feeling it’s a bit like pornography. You know it when you see it.

not these brains

A yes-man (or mare) – I want my next horse to really be a partner. I want to feel like I’m working with them and we’re working together, instead of constantly convincing them that maybe just trying things my way is a better way to do them. Perhaps this is a subheading of “great brains”, but it is really important to me. (I’m also not denying my role in training Murray to think the way he does. But he never came from a place of working with humans to problem solve — he spent half his time on the track trying to escape or lie down on the hot walker — so it was definitely an uphill battle.) My future yes-man is going to get a solid foundation in groundwork to reinforce this.

Good feet – One of two conformation requirements. I’m not starting with fucked up feet again.

A strong back – Particularly their lower back/lumbar/loin area. Dressage is great. Dressage makes horses stronger. But there’s no reason for me to start off in the hole here. I have a pet theory that this is key to long-term soundness for horses.

Going under saddle – I’m not starting anything from the ground up. I guess I’m negotiable on a horse who was previously going, but has sat in a field for some time. Regardless, I need to be able to slap a saddle on that baby, get on him, and walk and trot within a couple of days of getting him home. (Even if I don’t actually intend to do that — I want the option to be there.)

i’ve had some really cool rides with this guy lately

I feel like that’s a pretty reasonable list. It’s enough to knock a lot of individuals out of contention pretty easily (thus narrowing the field that I end up staring at online), but not so narrow that I’m searching for a needle in a haystack.

I also have a list of things that are somewhat negotiable — some more than others.

Breed – I love thoroughbreds, and ottbs are what is going to be most common in my price range, but I’m not too fussy here. It’s more about the individual than the generalized breed stereotype.

Image may contain: 1 person, horse, sky and outdoor
are you my new pony?

Talent – Realistically, I’m not going to be going any higher than Novice any time soon, especially not on a horse fresh off the track. Maybe Training, if I suddenly get a lot better at riding and training horses. If, in five years, I find myself ready to go Prelim and my partner can’t make the jump, then I’m more than willing to start looking again. I plan to be Very Wealthy by then, so owning 2+ horses should be NO PROB.

Oh right. The point of this being: this horse doesn’t have to be wildly talented. We just need average horse talented, and a great brain.

Age: 4-12 – I’m not negotiable on the low end of this list, but I am negotiable on the upper end. I’d like five or more years of happy partnership before I need to start thinking about slowing down. I know that horses can absolutely compete successfully into their twenties, but I feel like once you pass 16 or 17, every year is a bigger gamble. (Maybe it’s just that every year one owns a horse is a big gamble?)

Color – Let’s not judge a book by its color, but let’s also try very hard not to get any grays, palominos, or paints, mkay? I’m not opposed to color philosophically. A dappled gray is stunning. I’m just not into extensive cleaning or melanomas. Is it a deal breaker? No. Am I looking to increase the amount of work I need to do to look presentable at every show? Absolutely not. Is this somewhat petty and ridiculous? Certainly, but it’s my horse shopping list and I get to want what I want. Also, I’m definitely not about the higher price tag that comes with color or “chrome”. Plain bay is just fine with me, thanks. (It was kinda hard not putting this in the dealbreaker column.)

you are SO beautiful but you are not my new pony

Soundness – It seems silly to say that this is negotiable, but there’s some method to this madness. If I’m looking at a prime-aged, going horse, I expect there to be some maintenance involved in keeping him sound. That’s fine with me, I just need to know about it up front. Obviously, this is really dependent on age and the type of maintenance we are talking about. But it’s not going to be an automatic disqualifier, necessarily.

And then there are the things that are really negotiable — like size, jump training, show experience, pedigree, and whether newhorse is a mare or gelding. Some of my criteria tip the scales in one direction or the other (so much more likely that I end up with a gelding), but none of these things are going to rule a horse out in general. I think.

Rereading this list, it doesn’t really sound all that ruthless. But, to ensure I don’t do anything stupid, I’ve employed a hand slapper who gets veto power. Also, TrJ is crazy judgmental so that will definitely help.

What’s on your must have / negotiable / dealbreaker list when you’re horse shopping (either in reality, or mentally)? I know it’s highly individualized and personal, but I’m interested to see what you guys include on your lists, so I can think about putting it on mine.

28 thoughts on “ruthlessly exclude & willingly compromise”

  1. THE BEST HAND SLAPPER! This is a good list. I’m so glad to see good feet included. The longer I own a horse that truly, seriously doesn’t need shoes, the more I never want to go back to owning one that does. Even if it means I get to hear my farrier jokingly complain about needing a new set of tools every time he trims him. Small feet, bad feet, upright feet, shelly feet, they all come back to haunt you in the end. Also I will take my $35/6 weeks farrier bill over the $200 bill the shod horses in my barn get, thankyouverymuch.

    Also that whole “strong back is the key to soundness” thing is a central JLC “thing”. That’s not saying I endorse his understanding of it, explanation of it, or teaching around it, but I do fundamentally agree with him on that one point.

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  2. I sorta wish I had been a little more ruthless when I was shopping. Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy Doofus these days and I was coming from a very Murray-esque mare so my definition at the time of “easier going” was a bit skewed, but I do wish he was a bit more amenable to the working thing.

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  3. That good brain thing is so so so so big. That was the number one on my own list, everything else was a far second to that. I did have more considerations around height, mostly because my heels clack together under anything less than a sturdily-built 16.2, and I knew I wanted to jump a certain height. But thank god I found a plain bay, because I REALLY did not want a gray.

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  4. Oh… I always buy brain. I actually spent A LOT of time as a young teenage trying horses for a lesson/sales program. Like… I rode horses that just got off a trailer from Mexico and jumped them over barrels… oh to be young again. Without a doubt, I learned to NEVER buy anything that got flustered easily and no one cares if it’s talented if it WANTS to hurt you.

    In test rides, I always start out really easy going on a horse. Let’s just hack around on a loose rein… as this is something I want my horse to be able to do. Sorry… not interested in riding the horse that has to be held together 100% of the time to keep its marbles. Then, I will put the horse together to the level I think the horse is trained to. (For May, when I first tried her, this was W/T hunter under saddle frame… seriously.)

    Then, (and this is something I learned after buying my first horse and it not being a good fit) I ask for SOMETHING they probably don’t know how to do. If I put my leg on, do you try to move away from it? Or do you throw your head up, throw the breaks on, and threaten to rear? Do you bolt through my aids and then get tense?

    I really don’t need to tell you this, but horses that can’t take ANY pressure are very hard to train.

    After that – Soundness & Feet. A horse with a great temperament can always find an old lady that wants him/her for super low level dressage and trail riding. May gets maintenance to keep her sound because her conformation is not good. May’s brain means someone will always be willing to pay for that maintenance.

    For the record… last time I went shopping I wanted a bay gelding. I got the world’s neatest palomino mare.

    Hope you blog about it! I think the journey is really interesting (but always a lot less fun than it should be).

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  5. A good brain, good feet, and not grey were my list so I fully support yours! But I’m obsessed with grooming so ending up with a grey alongside the other two things wasn’t the worst thing in the world, at least not until he turns white and ugly.


  6. Brain, 100% most important. A calm, thinking horse makes up for so much of any lacking ‘talent’ I think. Especially since I’m a very low-level eventer! I don’t blame you at all for avoiding gray/paint/palomino. I seem to keep ending up leasing or riding paints that LOVE to lay in their own filth and get as dirty as possible. That said, I’ve gotten quite good at making them bright white again and it doesn’t even take that long anymore. The secret? Half a bottle of whitening shampoo applied directly to the white parts and nerves of steel, because I leave it on long enough that I start worrying that I’m going to dye him purple. (I only did that once, and it was just a small spot on his knee. Once he dried, you couldn’t even really tell.) However, given the choice, I’d go plain brown/bay/black with no white at all.

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  7. No palominos? No palominos! Levi feels very betrayed right now. Would you believe me if I told you I don’t actually like palomino as a color? No one ever believes me but it’s true.
    More seriously, consider checking out the NNCC Mustang program. David and I aren’t the only ones eventing Mustangs out of that program. I know a woman who has a Mustang from Eugene’s auction that has done Novice and also won USDF All Breeds for Mustangs with him as well. The horses are well started and NOT trained using learned helplessness. And they’re probably less than an OTTB (the real good movers can go for a lot though).


    1. Levi is my one exception!!!! 😀

      I’ve actually watched a lot of Elisa Wallace’s training videos on Mustangs recently, and I’m definitely considering them. I think what freaks me out the most is the auction-style sale of them, but there are other options (I think?).


      1. You can get a TIP trained horse and then you can pick the one you want out of the lots and a trainer trains it, but they’re only halter broke. I’m intimidated by the idea of picking one out of the lots, but lots of people do it. You can also adopt one from the internet auctions and find a trainer to take them on. Keep in mind the height listings are all lies. I really like the NNCC program because you get to see how the horse reacts to work. Are they forward or plodding? Are they nervous, but trying hard anyway or do they have a look in their eyes like they hate this crap and they would like to ditch their stupid rider? The whole auction thing was totally intimidating the first time, but I’ve been through it 3 times now (once myself and once helping David and once helping a barn friend) and it’s not so bad. If you’re truly interested in getting one, my barn friend goes to the auctions regularly now and has a vacation house nearby.


  8. good luck!!! i hope you find your next partner in the truest sense of the word ❤

    one piece of advice my 4* trainer gave me when i was looking (not that i heeded the advice but it was good anyway so i'm passing it along) was to call up all the local Big Name pros in my area and ask them what they had for sale or for free lease. his idea was that many might have working students that had their former campaigners but were looking to step up to the next level. and he genuinely believed there would be horses to be had that weren't prohibitively expensive. i did not personally experiment with this idea so i can't confirm if that's true or not, but it's an idea!


    1. That’s fantastic advice! I actually have accumulated a small network of contacts in my area (and beyond) from working the horse trials. I am definitely going to seek their help in horse shopping, and tug on their heartstrings to help me a bit. 😉


  9. I agree with Brain being at the top of the list! ANd they can have a brain and still have some spunk. It’s just where they opt to exhibit that spunk, lol.
    I’m now on my second grey, but like you, color doesn’t really matter to me. I like chrome, but also agree it needs to be low on the priority list. So many other important things to worry about!


  10. Brains over everything else, 100%. But if I had a hot tip on scoring a nice, well-mannered, sound OTTB on a budget it would be to buy in the winter. There are deals to be had!!! I would never take a risk on a horse who hadn’t either 1. just come of the track or 2. had a recent work history of some sort… knowing that the horse can sustain a level of soundness in work is really important (you probably already know all this). I’m excited to see where your search takes you and I hope you continue to blog about the process!

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  11. Well my last two horses taught me to shut my gob about what color I do or don’t want. Maybe next time I’ll get what I thought I wanted because a bay mare and appy pony would never have been top pick. Trainer is ruthless for me, and has a way better eye for what I need, because I wouldn’t have seen the diamond hiding in my current pony who couldn’t steer, barely took leg pressure and was a little jumpy when you got near his flanks. But in short order we realized he is smart, and overall a pleaser, he doesn’t want to be in trouble, he wants to figure stuff out. His jump is adorable, and when he does get scared, he would rather brave it than get in trouble or exert himself too hard, which is perfect for me. So, brain, attitude, started, height (this time I was set on pony).


  12. Great list that finds the perfect middle ground in your search for your next equine partner! Can’t wait to see who the lucky pony gets to be ❤


  13. Things that I’d like that you didnt mention:

    As a slightly shorter person, I prefer a horse (or pony) under 16 hands.
    I also want a forward horse, NO kick rides
    Not spooky would be nice


  14. Things that I’d like that you didnt mention:

    As a slightly shorter person, I prefer a horse (or pony) under 16 hands.
    I also want a forward horse, NO kick rides
    Not spooky would be nice


    1. You know, I definitely don’t want a kick ride like Murray, but I do a bit better with a horse who isn’t too forward. I need to be able to think faster than they move, maybe? I am definitely open to shorter horses, especially because of the shorter price tag attached!


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