Of all the skills a horse trainer must possess, the ability to play matchmaker between horse and rider is one of the most important, most challenging, and most rewarding. Part magic, part science, part luck, the perfect match is an elusive thing.
When horse shopping, you always start with the big basics: price range, type and experience of horse, style match with rider (quiet ones for the timid, forward ones for the quiet, etc.). But that’s just the starting point. From there it becomes an almost forensic psychology experiment, as you try to read the souls of man and beast and predict all the places they might intersect.
Let’s be clear about one thing: There is no such thing as the perfect horse. Every person who has ever bought a horse has given up on some aspect that their “perfect” horse possesses—size, color, age, soundness, training, something. But a deficit can be overcome if the rest of the puzzle fits together.
The first question is: “What does the rider really need?” Not what they want, not what would be ideal, but what is it that they absolutely have to have? (Similarly, what can they absolutely not have?) For some, it’s a level of talent that matches their ambitions; for some it’s a horse that will behave exactly the same in all circumstances; and for others, it’s a horse that can teach them a given discipline.
When you have the basic ingredients—that short list of musts—then you can start evaluating prospects. We like to get on the horse first, not just to make sure it’s safe, but also so we can evaluate the horse’s personality and behavior. We know our riders well enough that we can usually figure out if we have a candidate pretty quickly, but sometimes we do get surprised.
Because I’m a trainer, my ride is often more demanding than what the horse is used to. So we’ve had the experience of horses that didn’t go particularly well for me, but responded positively to a less experienced riders giving them less demanding ride. Some horses are natural-born teachers, happy to show an inexperienced rider the ropes, but they get irritated by someone trying to tell them how to do their job. We usually love these types, because if the horse is good to its rider, his opinion is of us doesn’t really mater.
But one trick here is that you have to figure out if the horse really is a teacher or is he’s just a lazy sod who doesn’t want to work at all. We’ve tried this kind too—many times.
For new or timid riders, it’s often useful to buy as much experience as you can afford. But a true amateur temperament is born and not made, and for some riders a good-natured, willing young horse can be as good or better a match than a more experienced horse, provided the new owner can afford to give the horse the training that he’ll need.
The truth is that, a lot of times, it’s nothing so logical as a list you check off. I’ve always thought that that to properly evaluate a horse you’re thinking of buying, you have to go and see him, you have to interact with him and ride him. (That’s why I see ads and videos as just a starting point, an introduction.)
And I’m usually most persuaded by the feeling I get in the first few minutes: Do I feel athleticism? Do I feel comfortable and in balance with him? Do I feel him trying to understand and work with me? Do I feel magic?
Sometimes you have to just go with a gut feeling that Horse A will fit with Rider B, even though on paper they shouldn’t be a match. Hopefully, the rider feels the connection that you see right away too. Usually, they do, but sometimes you have to go on faith that the match is right and convince the rider to give the horse a chance. This is especially true of riders who have an image of a certain type in their head, and your selection doesn’t fit their image.
Just being able to figure out a horse is only one half of the equation. You must also be able to delve in to the psyche of the rider. Someone who loves to groom and snuggle their horse is gong to be disappointed by a thin-skinned individual who hates being brushed or a stand-offish sort who’d like who’d really to be left alone unless you’re riding him, thank you very much. A timid person on the ground will not fit with a pushy pony type, no matter how well the riding portion fits. And a rider who loves a horse with a bit of spice and some quirks will be terminally bored with a solid citizen, no matter how “perfect” the horse is under saddle.
Playing matchmaker is a tricky business; one that Heather is a genius at doing. (Maybe that’s why she picked me?) But when you get it right, it’s a great feeling, for all.