Buying a Dressage Horse
by Kathryn King Johnson, M.Ed.

The essential qualities of buying a dressage horse range from cost to conformation. This article addresses the physical characteristics to look for in a dressage horse. Itís really rare to find all these attributes in a single horse, but the closer you can get to the ideal, the fewer limitations you will have in training. You donít have to spend a lot of money to find a good horse; in fact, there might already be one standing in your back yard. But, a horse bred or built for dressage will usually have an easier time at the higher levels.

An uphill build is an asset to a dressage horse. This means his withers should be higher than his croup. It also helps if his neck is long and graceful, is set fairly high into the withers and his throatlatch is clean. The shoulder of a dressage horse should match the angle of his pastern with the ideal around 45 degrees. A long sloping shoulder gives the horse more reach, with more room to perform extensions. A bulky, short shoulder can be hard to move out of the way in collected movements such as shoulder-in. An ideal back would be neither too long nor too short. For the best balance, the correct proportions for the horse should be 1/3 forehand, 1/3 back and 1/3 hindquarters.

The hindquarters are the most important part, because they provide the dressage horseís push. They are his motor. The front legs are not as important as they would be in a jumper who lands with all his weight on one foot. The hindquarters in the dressage horse will actually rock the weight off his front feet, so mild front leg problems are not quite as important as they would be in a jumper, but conformation problems in the hind legs can be more important. You should be able to drop a plumb line from the point of rump to the back of the hock and down the cannon bone. Hocks should be big and stifles round.

The horseís way of moving is influenced by both his conformation and his training. Donít be seduced by a spectacular trot. The trot is the easiest gait to build. Instead look at the walk, which should be 4 beat and have a natural over step. If the horse has a good walk, he tends to have a good canter. When looking at a dressage prospect, look for a balanced canter. The horse should pick up both leads fluidly without crossfiring, even without much training.

The breed of the dressage prospect is not as important as his type: hot blood, warmblood or coldblood. All types are suitable for dressage, but should most importantly suit your personality. You might prefer a horse you have to push a little bit to a horse who is always on the go, or vice versa. Size is not important, since anything from Shetland to Shire can show dressage. A big barreled smaller horse can look just as proportionate with a large rider as a tall, narrow horse.

Most importantly, the dressage horse should have a kind disposition. He will be learning many difficult movements and often will be teaching his rider at the same time. His eye should be large and round and curious. He does not have to be beautiful, but he should have confidence and pride in himself. This pride canít be taught, but it can be learned. What this means is that itís very difficult to change a horseís character but as skills and confidence grow, good qualities tend to surface. The more he learns to move well and in balance, the goals of dressage, the more proud he becomes of the way he moves. A great dressage horse will have an indefinable presence, a faraway look in his eye, the look of eagles.