Selecting the Novice Event Horse

March 2008 
Gina Miles Offers Tips to Help You Find the
Perfect Match.

With over eighty percent of riders who consider themselves eventers competing at the beginner novice, novice and training levels, the quality of mount that they are sitting on is paramount to their safety and success. As in any discipline, riding the right horse for the job goes a long way towards enhancing a rider’s experience. However, the qualities that make a horse a good choice for riders competing at the lower levels of eventing are not necessarily the same as for those competing at the upper levels. 

ImageWe spoke with top eventing rider Gina Miles to get her perspective on the ideal qualities of a novice event horse. Miles brings years of experience to the sport, including a Pony Club “A” rating and USEA Instructors Certification Program credentials. Miles and her mount McKinlaigh were individual bronze and team gold medalists at the 2007 Pan Am Games and also completed Badminton. She is currently bringing along a string of young horses and aiming McKinlaigh for the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Temperament is Key “For me, it is all about the temperament,” says Miles. “Temperament is number one.” Miles says that a novice event horse being ridden by an amateur must be safe and reliable. Horses must have a disposition that does not allow the normal challenges of life to get in the way. “If you can’t get to the barn for a week because of work or family, the horse still needs to be safe,” says Miles. Novice event horses do not need to be fabulously talented, super scopey, or flashy movers. Miles says she prefers to look for an older horse for her novice clients.

“With all of today’s pharmaceuticals and treatments, it is not uncommon to see horses competing at novice and training levels well into their twenties,” says Miles. “…treatments can really help these veterans to keep going. Some amateurs like younger horses because they can keep them for longer, but I don’t recommend this in most cases.”

Miles says the ideal mount for most amateurs is a teenaged horse that has proven himself to be safe, reliable, and experienced. “With the proper care, this horse can be competing for ten more years,” says Miles.

Miles also suggests that amateurs looking for a novice horse consider breeds that aren’t traditionally thought of as eventers‚ but have a great temperament. “Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Paints all generally have great temperaments, as do draft crosses, but are certainly not thought of as classic event horses. Some are really great movers and cute jumpers,” says Miles.

Again, the emphasis should be on selecting a horse that has the ability to get the job done, without necessarily being the fanciest or flashiest horse at the competition. “The horse needs just enough scope,” says Miles. “They need enough to do the job, but not so much that they are hard to ride or jumping their rider out of the tack.”

Look for a Resume

The ideal novice event horse is one with experience, but Miles admits that it can be hard sometimes to find the right combination of temperament and cross-country mileage. Therefore, she often has to look for horses that have training, but not necessarily event miles, for her clients.

“My first choice generally will be an older [eventing] campaigner who maybe needs to slow down a little but is still sound, maybe one who can’t handle preliminary anymore,” says Miles. “However, if there are none available, my next choice is to find a hunter/jumper who is brave and safe.”

Miles says that although not all hunter/jumpers are able to make the switch to life as an eventer, those who are bold jumpers often are willing to handle going through water, up and down banks, and over small ditches, which are all that is demanded up to the Training Level in eventing.

“Even at Training Level, we do not demand so much bravery from the horse that a bold hunter/jumper can’t make it as an event horse,” says Miles. “Jumpers in particular seem to make a natural cross over.”

Miles’ next choice is a horse with foxhunting experience. “These horses often make good eventers too because they are happy out in the open and good on their feet,” says Miles.

As a last resort, Miles will look to horses that have a dressage background but no jumping experience, but only under certain conditions. “Sometimes you can take a dressage horse and introduce them to jumping because their canter is so good, and they have been trained to move in balance and with self-carriage,” says Miles. “But in this situation, an amateur must be getting regular help with a trainer. It can work out if they have enough help and the horse has a good temperament.”

What about the horse with the most impressive resume of all the former advanced level eventers? Miles says that many times, these horses can be an ideal match for a novice rider but that it varies from horse to horse.

“Some former upper level horses will just lope around a novice course on a loose rein, while others are still quite hot,” says Miles. “Some are quiet until you ask them to add speed or gallop. With these, you ask to bump up the speed and they will have flashbacks. It really depends on the horse.”

Rule Outs

There are certainly some reasons why a horse is not appropriate for a novice level event rider, but Miles says that for the most part a horse’s conformation is not one of them.

“I can live with a horse that is a bit downhill or has other issues if the temperament is good,” says Miles.

Old injuries and some of the other evidence of a life of use are also not automatic rule-outs. “Feet and hocks are really easily managed and respond well to treatment in many cases,” says Miles. “It wouldn’t bother me if a horse needed some help in these areas or showed some wear and tear.”

Miles also is not concerned about a horse who has had a previous soft tissue injury (like a bow or suspensory) if it was sustained at a higher level than where the horse is currently competing.

However, there are a few issues that should be cause for concern when selecting a novice horse. “Ringbone and stifle issues both make me a little nervous, as they are not as readily treated,” says Miles. “I think you also have to be careful with sore backs. While not a lameness, a sore back is something that can be aggravated by a rider with a developing or unstable seat.”

Again, Miles emphasizes that for a novice horse, you can accept a lot in the way of previous issues if the horse is forgiving and kind.

Finding Your Ideal Horse

The horse hunting process is a time-consuming experience, and finding the ideal novice event horse is no exception. An amateur rider will get the most out of their time if they use the wisdom of a professional trainer. If you do not currently work with someone, many professionals will be happy to help you search. Miles cautions that if you approach a trainer for whom you are not a regular client, you should expect to pay a fee for the service, and that it is best to address this up front.

Miles recommends networking, word of mouth, and websites to help you in your search. In addition, you should plan to spend some time watching at competitions.

“Sometimes you might see a horse you like at a competition, and you can ask the owner if the horse is for sale,” says Miles. Even if the horse isn’t for sale at that time, sometimes you can stay in touch in case the situation changes. Miles says that this can be a great method of finding the perfect horse for you.

For any horse that you are considering who is currently in competition, it can be worthwhile to spend some time to watch the horse’s behavior at the show and in warm-up. “Any horse can be quiet and well-behaved in their home environment,” says Miles. “But going to watch the horse in the warm-up or on the way to the start box can give you a feel for what that horse is really like.”

Watching your potential mount with an amateur on board versus a professional will likely yield different information about the horse’s personality. For example, if an amateur is riding the horse, you should forgive the horse some mistakes. In some ways, seeing how the horse handles the misjudgments or errors of an amateur rider can give you a good feel for how that horse is likely to behave in the future.

“It is a real bonus if you see that the horse is able to handle being put to a fence wrong or not balanced appropriately,” says Miles. “Maybe when a professional is on board, the whole ride is more polished. But a horse that is forgiving of a mistake is a good find.”

While a professional may be able to compensate for a horse’s weaknesses and present a fairly smooth picture, Miles thinks that horses ridden by professionals are worthy of consideration. “I consider it money in the bank [when a horse has professional training],” says Miles. “I know that that horse has had good, positive training and that he has had many positive experiences to bring forward into his future career.”

Final Thoughts

When searching for your perfect novice event horse, it is important to keep your ultimate goals in mind and in a reasonable perspective. Miles emphasizes again that the flashiest mover or fanciest jumper isn’t necessarily an appropriate match for the amateur rider looking to compete at the lower levels.

And what about that dream of bringing along a horse yourself? In general, Miles cautions against this approach for any but the most serious of amateurs working with a trainer.

“I think people want to go this route—buy something young and put the training in—when they get nervous about the purchase price [of a finished horse],” says Miles. “But when you look at the cost of purchase versus the cost of training, which can run $1,500 to $2,000 per month at times, you are looking at adding $25,000 a year. It just costs so much to put miles on a horse.”

Miles emphasizes that experienced event horses that seem expensive in reality aren’t in the long run. “It is never cheaper to buy a less experienced horse and add the training,” says Miles.

So when you are ready to take the plunge, be prepared to keep an open mind, bring your trainer and take your time to find an experienced, safe mount.

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