in search of aufrecht

About a year ago I mentioned to my mother in law that I was looking for a new horse. I had actually been looking for a while, and had already gone to see a few horses, but hadn’t been able to commit to anything yet. She immediately suggested we go and look for my next horse in Germany (she is German). I declined — I didn’t have that much to spend on the horse, let alone the import fees, I wasn’t looking for anything super fancy, and I was pretty sure I could find what I needed here. MIL disagreed. If what I wanted was a safe, sane, fun horse to show on, I could find a really nice one in Germany. And as for cost, she would help me out.

Super casual manor house surrounded by 17th century buildings that comprise a village square now converted into a national team member’s training facility and pony club. Just Europe things, you know.

The offer floored me. I love my in laws, and we have a great relationship. But I never expected an offer of financial support in the low-five-figures for my hobby. After a few weeks of talking it out, I decided to go for it (duh, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this). The worst possible thing that could happen is that I wouldn’t find a horse in my budget, and I’d be in the exact same position — horseless and searching. So in January, we booked our flights for late February and started to make plans.

Since we all lived through the last two years, you know what happened next. After postponing the trip twice, each time by about a month, we said fuck it and pushed all the way back to September. That turned out to be a great choice. I was so busy this spring and summer that I didn’t go to the barn once between late May and early August. I was very glad not to have a new horse distracting me from work during the summer. But it also gave us time to get our broker situation sorted out. Since MIL is a dressage rider, her contacts were only somewhat helpful on the event horse front. Through a lucky turn of fate, MIL’s (distant) cousin has very good friend who absolutely loves eventing, and this family friend turned out to be just the human we needed for Projekt Hony.

A foal would fit under the plane in my luggage, right? Incidentally, this is the same farm that bred Butts Avondale and Butts Avedon.

Now, to talk about money for a minute. I want to write about this amazing experience honestly, but I’m not really ready to just lay out exactly how much it cost for the whole world to see. I’m not wealthy, but this clearly isn’t something you just do without having some serious money behind you. (Though “serious money” probably means different things to different people.) At the same time, a lot of the experience was not because of the money I had to spend; we just got lucky with the people we knew and by having an amazing broker.

I’m going to describe the known costs as well as what I was looking for in a horse, and if you have some familiarity with travel and the horse market right now you’ll have an idea of the numbers. This is not something I could have done on my own, nor is it something I ever would have predicted myself doing if you’d asked me two years ago. It is an incredible privilege to have the family support I do to make this happen, and to be honest it is not something I am sure I will ever be able to afford again.

We set some pretty clear guidelines for my horse search, but outside of the non-negotiable things there was a lot of flexibility. My “ideal horse” was 7-11 years old and smaller than 16.1 hands, but they had to have show experience at 1.0m – 1.10m (training/prelim height), and be super sane and sound. They didn’t need to be a total packer, they didn’t need to have fancy gaits, and I didn’t mind a bit of a weirdo, but they did need to have enough knowledge to make up for my lack thereof as I work toward showing at training level.

Funnily enough, the cost of importing a horse hasn’t really changed much in the last 10 years (from what I’ve heard and read) — it’s still between $7,000 and $10,000 USD depending on things like ground transport distance, quarantine, and waiting time. And thorough pre-purchase exams are expensive everywhere — my broker told me that a very thorough exam with 45 radiographs cost about 3000 euros.

My broker’s adorable GSP – Yola

We flew in to Hamburg on Sunday the 19th, and met up with family friend, Karsten, and our broker, Gunda, that evening for dinner. We had an amazing time talking about horses, eventing, dressage, politics, horses, team selection, the Olympics, team coaches… it turns out, horse people are the same everywhere. We just want to talk about horses!!

They had sent us some video ahead of time, but only of a few horses. I asked why, and both Gunda and Karsten said that sometimes horses don’t come across accurately in video. They have found that buyers may skip horses that are worth trying or get attached to horses that aren’t quite right based solely on the video. They want the buyer to sit on a lot of horses and get an idea of what they do and don’t like from each of those rides, which then shapes what horses they see on subsequent days.

GSP at your service — here to clean up any cheese spaetzle or pork tenderloin you might drop. Apparently in German restaurants dogs are more acceptable table companions than children, a cultural choice I don’t hate.

Gunda gave me a very rough run down of what our horse visits would look like. She suggested that we have the trainer ride each horse first (though she gave me the option to get on it before the trainer did) on the flat and jump a bit, then I could ride the horse. If I liked it, we could go out to try it on cross country — either right then, if there was a close gel├źndeplatz (cross country field), or on a later day if I wanted. The plan was to try LOTS of horses on Tuesday — “It will be a long day,” they warned me — and then adjust the horses we would try on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday based on what I did and didn’t like of the horses on Tuesday. On Saturday, we would do second auditions of the horses I liked best and then make a decision on which one, if any, to send for a prepurchase exam.

I asked how many horses I would see on Tuesday, Karsten listed a few of the appointments — “The pony, then the Haya horse, the Irish, three with Dorothea….” I was like SIX? SIX HORSES IN ONE DAY? Gunda just shook her head and rolled her eyes at him (they were totally like an old married couple), “Karsten doesn’t even know all of the appointments, you are forgetting them.”

The Steinkraus breeding farm — where I met the above foals

It was eleven. I would meet eleven horses on Tuesday. A fact I would not discover until halfway through Tuesday.

Before I met up with the Projekt Hony team, I was legitimately worried about the trip. Mostly I was worried that I didn’t have a hope of being able to ride these powerful, athletic, forward horses. But I was also worried that I wouldn’t enjoy riding them, or I would only be able to afford something very young and somewhat under-trained, or maybe that I wouldn’t get a chance to look at very many horses and it would be a waste of time. MIL was amazing though; she told me that it was fine if we didn’t pick a horse in Germany and I didn’t have to buy anything I didn’t love or wasn’t comfortable with.

Hamburg graffiti on trend for the week.

I was also worried because I hadn’t participated in any planning of the trip. After MIL and I settled on what I wanted and what the budget was, I had just left things in her capable hands. My plan was just to show up in Germany on the 19th and do what I was told. It turns out, MIL wasn’t in on the plans much more than I was. Gunda and Karsten arranged everything, from finding the horses to setting up the appointments to driving us around.

I was ALSO worried (wow, apparently I had more worries than I realized) about the potential of getting ripped off. We’ve all heard the stories of people getting sold inappropriate horses, domestically or abroad. We’ve also all heard that Europeans don’t just let their nicest horses go internationally — they send us their criminal and rapist horses. We’ve heard that European trainers/horse sellers see Americans and add tens of thousands of euros to the purchase price, a quick meal ticket and easy solution for a horse they might not be able to sell in-country.

I met several indoor arenas to die for. This one has an automated watering system that runs along the track in the center of the building.

I asked Gunda and Karsten about this on Tuesday. (I felt pretty comfortable with them, because Karsten was a family friend, and after you spend ten hours in a car with people, you get pretty comfy.) They both openly admitted that it happens all the time. Dishonest people exist in the industry, and some are willing to sell inappropriate horses to anyone — German or American or Korean or Australian. It is what it is. Now that I’m 95% of the way through this process, I can wholeheartedly vouch for working with a broker you trust.

Monday we had free. Gunda had a hunting clinic with her GSP and Karsten had to work, so we took the day to sleep in a bit and explore Hamburg. Monday night we met up with MIL’s cousin for dinner and more talk about horses. The girls in their family are also horsey, so they asked about Murray and I tried to explain the…. Murrayness to them. MIL had a great idea to just show them the picture of Murray rolling on cross country.

You know. This picture.

The stereotype of Germans being straight-laced rule followers isn’t entirely wrong. Our family was somewhat horrified that Murray would do that to me, and I’m not sure they entirely believed me when I said it was hilarious and my saddle was fine. Once they got past the poorly behaved horse, MIL’s cousin proposed a toast — “zu einem aufrechten pferd” — to an upright horse. (MIL thought this was hilarious. Because it was.)

And so the search for Aufrecht began.