Using Video to Evaluate and Purchase Dressage Horses for Sale

Shopping by Video By Steven Wolgemuth

Published by  Dressage Today Magazine (August 2002) and reprinted by permission.

Video technology has changed horse shopping irreversibly. Using today’s information resources, you can find 20 dressage horses for sale around the world after one hour of research. Within a week or two, you can have many tapes to evaluate. Post an advertisement to sell your horse, and nearly every caller will request a video before considering a test ride. Clearly, asking for a video has become the norm for many buyers in today’s market.

 

This technology may lead you to the dressage horse of your dreams, but, if not used wisely, it could keep you from ever sitting on his back. This is because many buyers forget the main purpose of watching sales videotapes: They help you to decide which horse-buying trips you should take. Video previews are not for deciding which horse to buy. Your next dressage horse has to be compatible with your temperament, personality, unique riding style, courageousness and body type. This is far too personal and important to be deduced from a two-dimensional technology, which usually does not convey a horse’s unique attributes.

Very often a buyer ends up loving and buying a horse only after, and especially because, they’ve ridden him. To see a horse on video prior to this often keeps the buyer from even going for the test ride. The video camera tends to distort the general impression of the horse, his dimensional conformation, his size and even his rideability. In addition, an amateur has probably made the tape under less-than-ideal circumstances.

All things considered, it’s no wonder that there are multitudes of discouraged “shop-by-video” horse customers. But if you understand the limitations of this medium, you can learn to use it to your advantage. There are really only a few factors that an experienced eye can evaluate reasonably well when watching a videotape, and that’s where you want to focus. In my opinion, the two most important uses for videos are to observe a horse’s conformational silhouette and the technique of his movement. In addition, you want to keep rideability and compatibility in mind when watching a tape and be realistic with your expectations of what you are going to glean from the viewing.

 Study Conformation

When you begin to look at a sales video, try to make some general observations. Does the general look of the horse have harmony, or is your eye drawn to one part? Is there the right proportion of horse in front of the rider and behind the rider? In addition, try to get an idea about the horse’s body size and height suitability for you. When I send a video, I frequently provide information about how tall the demonstration rider is. Without a point of reference like this, it is difficult to tell. When you ask a seller to send a tape, ask for this information to be included.

There also can be some hidden influences that you need to take into account. Like people, some horses are truly photogenic and others simply are not. I’ve noticed that dark horses that have attractive toplines appear to have an advantage in front of a camera. A horse’s mane can make a nice neck look too heavy for the rest of the horse if it’s too thick and not braided. Conversely, if the hair color on top of the neck is dark, like it is on some bays, and if the mane is braided, the horse’s neck may appear underdeveloped when, in reality, it is not.

I recently reviewed a video of a beautiful, refined, light bay gelding with long legs and light, lovely, sweeping gaits. He was being ridden in white polo wraps on a sunny day in perfect footing in a beautiful outdoor arena. Moments later, the tape switched to a dark brown, chubby, short-legged, average-moving horse. To my surprise, it turned out to be the same horse. The second part of the tape was filmed under poor lighting in deeper, wet footing and the horse had no leg wraps.  The difference was incredible. I was again reminded how the camera can radically distort reality.  

 Evaluate Movement

I also use videotapes to check that the horse’s gaits are pure. Is the walk pure or does it become lateral? Does the trot have two beats? You might want to pause or slow your VCR during the extended trot to see that the diagonal cannon bones are parallel and the diagonal pairs are landing relatively in sync.

I also try hard to look objectively at the horse’s overall balance. Do his hind legs lift his front end off the ground through the trot and canter? Be careful not to be fooled because a horse has an extravagant “flick” with his front legs or lift to his knees. I like to see the shoulder come up. In the canter, you can evaluate whether or not the horse’s natural inclination is to come up in the shoulder. His balance should look natural and easy for the rider. You want to see three clean beats in the canter and time spent in the air between strides. This will be a nicer horse to ride and train.

Be careful to factor in the presentation, however. I recently looked at a fancy, 5-year-old Dutch gelding. I liked his type, but he appeared to be too downhill in the canter. The rider was holding the horse’s neck very short, particularly in the “down” beat of the canter. I rode the horse, allowing him to open himself a bit more in the front, and in two minutes he was moving uphill. Reviewing this on video showed two radically different canters on the same horse. Give the horse the benefit of the doubt.

It also is not uncommon to see horses presented “deep” and behind the vertical on videos. When you see this, you need to keep two factors in mind:

1. The horse’s temperament may be worse than it appears. Some horses are very spooky, nervous and difficult, but when they’re kept staring at the ground, they behave themselves.

2. The horse’s natural balance may be better than it appears. The horse may be being ridden deep because it is the rider’s style. Since only a very skilled rider can make a horse deep in the neck and engaged behind at the same time, you normally will see a deeply ridden horse moving high behind. Don’t be too quick to judge the horse—and don’t bother trying to change the rider!

As with conformation, hidden influences can have a big impact on how a horse appears to move on a video. Try to look for them and rationalize accordingly. If the horse is ridden in an arena of puddles, he may look like a fantastic mover. In reality, he may be very average. Also, deep footing is a very common factor that greatly helps or hinders a horse’s movement, and this needs to be factored into your impression.

In addition, white tends to make things bigger and more eye catching on video than in real life. A horse with white socks or white bandages may look like a more expressive mover than a plain-colored horse without leg wraps. Similarly, they may accentuate a deviation in movement like paddling. White froth from the mouth may give the false impression of a tongue problem where none exists. A video that is not zoomed in close enough to the horse will definitely make the horse look much less exciting. Also, a video angle looking downward on the horse will normally make even fantastic horses look quite average.

Consider Rideability & Compatibility

Don’t be too quick to form an opinion about the rideability of a horse by seeing it ridden on a video. I had to ride for a sales video on a cool morning, and the horse was fresh. This pretty gelding was 100 pounds in my hands, but I had to keep up appearances because the camera was running. When I watched the video later, the horse and I looked great and there was no visible struggle at all.

That night, I began thinking about how the feeling doesn’t always match the look. That’s why I never would buy a riding horse off a video without riding it. I know of people who have bought horses in this way and nearly always they are surprised and disappointed. Before I purchase a horse, either I have to ride it or have an independent and trusted advisor sit on it for me. I do make exceptions to this, however, when purchasing young and unbroken horses. Since young horse purchases are more speculative anyway, I believe I can evaluate enough about the horse to buy it off a video, particularly if I’m familiar with the bloodlines and a veterinarian has checked him out.

You also need to take compatibility into account. Try to look through the presentation of the horse and fantasize as to how he would be for you. Don’t get focused on how the rider is performing. I recently took a dressage judge to Europe to shop for horses. While watching the first horse, I told her, “Stop judging the horse and rider and start evaluating this as a horse for you.” She laughed and said, “I think you read my mind.” When you’re looking at a video, you need to think about how you would feel if you were riding the horse yourself.

And remember that you’re buying a partner, not a picture. A dressage horse isn’t something for the buyer to look at; he’s something the buyer has to get along with—so other will want to watch.

 Be Realistic

The most dangerous trap in watching a video is that you become convinced that this captured moment in time is an honest representation of how the horse is every day. A friend told me a story of buyers visiting his farm who were comparing his horse with one they had on video. According to my friend, the other horse was much better than his was, but on the video, the horse made a mistake on a flying change. The buyers replayed the mistake and each time they liked the horse less. In reviewing the mistake again and again, the buyers had formed a negative opinion about the horse when, in reality, the mistake was an isolated incident. A videotape can make a good or bad moment more real than it truly is. The buyers probably made the wrong choice that day because they failed to keep this principle in mind. A horse’s unfortunate mistake, wrong step or brilliant moment is not a trusted normality, even if a video captured it.

Be careful not to judge a horse too harshly when trying to evaluate his overall quality. Videos can be the enemy of great horses and a friend to poor-quality horses. They can make great horses look just a bit better than average and bad horses look just a bit worse than average. If you don’t know what I mean, stand near a great international horse in a warm-up arena sometime. It will give you goose bumps. See the same horse on a video independent of that “up-close-and-personal” experience, and you won’t be overwhelmed. Videos filter out a vital dimension of a horse’s presence.

The most important factor to keep in mind when reviewing a videotape is that it is only a preview. It is not a substitute for seeing and riding the horse. Your main purpose in watching a video is to decide whether or not you want to make a trip to try the horse.

A Videotape, Please?

Convincing a person who is selling his horse to send you a video may not be as easy as you first imagined. If you’ve tried, you’ve probably encountered resistance, refusals or a more subtle “perpetual procrastination.”

Keep in mind that you’re asking for no small favor when you request a video. It is very hard to capture any worthwhile footage of a horse, and if the horse doesn’t look his best on a tape you receive, you probably won’t go to see him. Many excellent and perfectly suitable horses are not bought because the buyer saw a bad video and never scheduled a test ride. Many sellers are keenly aware of this and are tired of sending out tapes to no avail.

It takes me about five hours, usually over an average three-day period, to get some satisfactory footage of a horse and to edit a nice sales video. Even then, I’m usually not satisfied a few weeks later as the horse improves, and I feel the need to remake the video.

That’s why you have to convince any seller that you are worth their time. First establish that the horse is likely to be a good candidate for you. Ask a lot of questions and perhaps have your instructor or trusted advisor call as well. Second, make it clear that you are a serious shopper and will make a trip to see the horse reasonably soon if he looks interesting on the video. Buyers who tell me what they plan to do with my video and when they will call me back with feedback are more likely to get my best service. Ask the seller if he wants you to send the tape back. For the sake of the industry, keep your promise. If you require an overnight or second-day delivery, you might consider offering to pay for the shipping to your address.

 Steven Wolgemuth has been involved in dressage for 20 years. A U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist, he emerged as a successful Grand Prix rider in the early 1990s riding the Hanoverian stallion Graf Goetz. He was long-listed by the U.S. Equestrian Team in 1992 and 1993.

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