When choosing your next dressage partner, there are several factors to consider. Whether the horse is a weanling or already under saddle, it is important to look at his movement, conformation, and temperament.
Both the walk and the canter are far more important than the trot. As Charlotte Dujardin says, “the trot can be manufactured under saddle.” In fact, a young horse with an overly elastic and suspended trot is prone to injuries and may burnout early in his career. It is better to look for a solid walk and canter, as it is more difficult to improve those gaits. The canter should be three beats, well-balanced, and ground covering. It also needs to be uphill with a period of suspension, and his back should swing freely. The walk should have a clean, clear rhythm and a slight overtrack.
Although less important, a buyer should still consider the trot when looking at a horse. The trot needs to be uphill with a good rhythm, and the strides must be elastic.
As far as conformation, there are several points to consider:
The Neck and Head
The neck should come out of the shoulders uphill with most of the muscle on the topline, rather than the underside so the movement of the shoulders isn’t inhibited. The poll should be parallel to the ground, making it easy for the horse to bend and seek the connection. He should have a well-defined, open throatlatch, which will make flexion at the poll and jaw much easier.
Shoulders and Front Legs
When looking at a horse’s shoulders, it is the slope and angle that need to be considered. The shoulder slope is a line with one end at the highest point of the withers, and the other at the point of the shoulder. Add a horizontal line across the top of the withers and measure the angle between the two lines. A buyer should be looking for a shoulder slope angle of about 45 degrees.
The shoulder angle is measured by adding a second line (in addition to the shoulder slope line) from the point of the shoulder to the point of the elbow. A good shoulder angle is about 90 degrees or slightly greater, with a long humerus. This will allow for the freedom of movement in the front legs that is needed for extensions and passage. If the angle is smaller than 90 degrees, the horse will most likely have a short, choppy stride.
A long, well-muscled forearm with short cannon bones will allow the horse to reach in his stride and assists in the moment of suspension. Large, strong joints can help to absorb shock, and possibly prevent injuries. The pasterns should have some slope and be of medium length to provide support for the joints above.
The back of a dressage horse must be medium-sized and strong. A horse with a long back will have a hard time performing collected movements, while a horse with a short back will have trouble with extensions. It is important that the horse have well-defined withers that slope into his back so that the rider doesn’t sit too far forward. Horses tend to be on the forehand already, and the if the rider is sitting too close to the withers it will be even more difficult for the horse to lift his front end. Lastly, a short, strong loin and a well-developed croup will help the horse swing through his back.
Loin and loin coupling may be the most important factor to consider when purchasing a dressage horse. The lumbosacral joint lies between the front of the sacrum (croup) and the last lumbar vertebrae of the spine and is where the pelvis attaches. The best position of the lumbosacral joint is in front of the point of the hip because the pelvis will naturally be longer. A long pelvis provides a large area for the propulsive muscles to attach to it. Most likely, a longer pelvis will also have a moderate slope (this is not true in every case), which will allow the pelvis to tilt and lower the haunches. This means the hind legs can come forward under the horse’s body more easily for collected work, particularly piaffe, passage, and canter pirouettes.
Pelvic length can be measured by drawing an imaginary line from the top of the point of the hip to the point of the buttock. A buyer can also measure the angle of the pelvis relative to the x-axis when the horse is standing square by using the pelvic length. 20 degrees is a good pelvic angle for a dressage horse.
The hind legs should have well-angled hip bones and large, forward-sloping femurs to support the underlying structures of the legs and allow the horse to better carry himself. The hocks should be clean and dry, and all four legs should look straight and even from behind.
In addition to good movement and conformation, temperament it is arguably the most important point to consider when purchasing a dressage horse.
Carl Hester always looks to see whether a connection exists between the horse and his potential rider. When a rider has a solid connection with his horse, that bond will make training and competing easier. This connection is extremely important to the success of the pair, whether competing at schooling shows, or on the world stage.
A competitive dressage prospect must have a good brain and good work ethic. No matter how much talent he has, a horse that isn’t interested in working will not make it very far. He also must be willing to perform and hopefully enjoy (or at least tolerate) the energy of a large crowd. “A horse with a good brain can overcome many physical weaknesses, given that he has the proper training,” states Lendon Gray.
The takeaways: Temperament first, conformation and movement second! Happy horse hunting!