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Finding your Dream Horse

by: USDF Gold Medalist Susan Cooper and Jeff Johnson ©2010

Sue Cooper on KineadaWe know it's possible, even if we have spent weeks, months, or years looking for our very own Dream Horse. We all know people in our barns, dressage clubs, or that we've seen at shows who own great horses, so they do exist, right? Why, is it so hard to locate and buy our very own Dream Horse?


For starters, it's helpful to remember that our  requirements often change over time and are highly individualized. A horse in my youth was a Dream Horse at the time but he would not suit me now. As a twenty-something, broke, working student aspiring to turn my passion into a living, any ride that I lived through and learned from was a good ride. Now that I hold all three USDF medals and am approaching midlife my needs are not the same.


You may have longed for an FEI horse to compete Grand Prix at one time and realize now that's the last thing you're interested in; or you may know that you're happiest working independently trying to figure it out on your own, and seek out professional help on an as needed basis. Or you could be looking for a school master that you can learn from through someone else’s training efforts.


The point is Dressage Horses aren't a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. So your mission is first to understand what you're looking for and decide which elements in your wish list are most critical for you; then make and execute a plan to go out and find that horse. The worst way to find any horse is to shop without a solid written PLAN.

First things
first, develop a plan and put it in writing.

We have all heard the value of planning in life decisions. At Impulsion Unlimited Dressage Horse Sales and Representation, we believe the reason 90% of serious horse buyers don’t own their Dream Horse after 90 days or make the wrong decision is that they have no “defined” plan.

Jeff and I routinely see better planning done in preparation for a horse show than buying the horse! Show us someone who has been looking for months and striking out and we will show you a flawed planning process.


Buying your Dream Horse is an emotional decision. Emotions are your friend and at the same time an enemy that cannot always be trusted. In Horse buying, emotions must be managed to lead to the best decision. Emotional Management begins with self reflection followed by written planning to maintain focus while screening then trying horses.

What are your goals?

Your Dream Horse could be one that takes you from here to retirement, or one that gives you a burst of learning and accomplishment and prepares you for the next level in your riding pursuit. Some dressage horse seekers are burnt-out on the frenetic pace and demands of the competitive dressage and want to retreat to a quieter, slower pace. Some just want to have fun and do a few local shows. Others would be bored to tears if they weren't competing in Florida CDI’s or Devon bound. What are your goals and time frames?

Know your level of riding ability!

This one is critical to finding your right match and saving you money and frustration while keeping you safe when trying horses later in the process. Are you a timid or nervous rider when a horse spooks? Can you handle an occasional buck? Do you have a rock solid position and are you in great shape or do you need a confidence builder. Sitting on an 18 year old schoolmaster in lessons to learn movements is not the same as training a 3rd level very fit sensitive seven year old. Run this by your trainer and get honest feedback as  any tendency to overstate abilities can get you into trouble later on and possibly hurt.


Do you seek a Dressage Horse that will let you create your masterwork together? Or are you looking for a partner that will allow you to learn all it can teach you? Is your fondest wish a horse that will partner with you to win year end awards? Or is it about enjoying the ride and time together every day?

More questions to answer when you are deciding that serve as a reality check: What can I offer my new horse? Who'll train and coach? Is this a do it myself project, a full training situation or a combination of both? What will the timeframe be for accomplishment? What is the budget?

williamston NC Sue Cooper on Beaumont

What kinds of horses do I prefer to work with? Some of us love to work with sensitive, huge moving horses that can explode and be channeled into a jaw dropping performance, while others need a friendly, supportive horse that couldn't care less about our worst mistake.

Creating your plan

As you begin to write your plan, it's helpful to think about your new dressage partner in two separate categories:

In your first category, you'll list the "must have" criteria you will use to pre-evaluate horses: Size, Sex, Temperament, Age, Level of Training, Issues your Can and Can’t Live with. Think really hard about these needs, because these criterion, determine what you will need to SPEND and will allow you to stay focused when you start shopping.

Next, summarize your hard criteria into a written statement and refer to it daily for a week or longer to test and refine your must haves until you are certain and committed that it is truly what you want. Now is time for second thoughts, NOT when you are actually shopping.

Be as specific as you can. For instance, "I want a gelding that is competing at second level or higher, has gaits I can sit, will tolerate my ...losing my balance, tendencies to hang on a rein, that is not over 17H or under 15.2H.

He cannot have the following vices (list). He clips, crossties, stands for mounting. He is not cold backed and will pass a vet check, with clean x-rays. He is 5-7 years old and so on".

A well thought out scope of “deal killers”, makes it easier to identify potential horses and avoids wasting your, a professional’s, or the seller’s time, effort, or your money on the wrong match.

These screening criteria must be carefully considered in advance and should be non-negotiable.

Budget is a major consideration for most buyers and it has to be realistic relative to the hard criteria. So, remember as you are deciding, must have criteria directly influence price and availability. When you begin shopping do not assume that prices are negotiable and shop within your budget.

Soft Criteria

Next, before you start traveling to meet possible matches, let's revisit our process and identify some 'soft' attributes of your Dream Horse. After all, it's these soft elements that make great partners.

Our belief and founding premise is that we are matchmakers not a "sales barn" and we know the soft criteria are really where the magic lies. Unfortunately these traits will NEVER reveal themselves on You-Tube video.

On this list, you want to dig into what makes your ideal partner appealing , and could items like: Color, Breed, personality, the way he nuzzles back when you scratch his withers or follows you around in the pasture helping you look for his missing shoe. These items are your soft criteria that should not be overlooked because they are a big part of your ‘relationship’. What looks like a Dream Horse on arrival could quickly turn into a nightmare if you and your new partner don’t click.

Final Review

Once you have a picture in mind and a written plan of what you're after, begin your research and retest your budget again for reality.

A good professional is your best asset for a reality check provided that they assist in enough buying and selling of horses to know the market or know someone who does and respects that the horse is to be your Dressage Horse not their Dressage Horse unless that is part of the plan of course.

Your trainer or someone else who knows you well may also be helpful as you complete your final review of your plan.

Once you are satisfied that the criteria are right, create a checklist to use for screening and write out questions to ask that will get you specific answers from sellers. Some sellers are very forthcoming others are not and you need to know. This is a VERY important step to saving you time and money in your search efforts.

Faster Results but Not an Easy Road

Planning, research, and follow-up are keys for success, and you now have a huge advantage over less proactive horse seekers. If you follow the advice in this article, you will be using a process proven to get results that saves time and money.

  • You will know what you want and you can spell out clearly what your Dream Horse is and is not so that your trainer or another professional can locate or get the word out to others about your needs.
  • You will be able to have directed conversations with sellers that will get you answers and avoid unnecessary trips and saving you time and money.

Having defined goals, a written plan and asking great questions shows everyone that you are for real about finding your Dream Horse. People will work harder to help you.

Most horse-seekers who complain that sellers or professionals are not interested, don’t return phone calls, emails etc.  are the same people who blast out 20 emails a day to whichever sellers have posted horses on the biggest internet sites asking “how much is so and so and can you send me a video”?

Even while using this process, it could still take you 1 to 3 months bring home your Dream Horse. It might require a trip with several stops across the country or even the world. You will invest hours on self reflection upfront, research, and more hours of follow-up to locate and test ride prospective matches. If that sounds too daunting, you could take the next horse that comes down the pike. But don't you deserve at least one Dream Horse in your life?

About the Authors:

Susan Cooper and Jeff Johnson combined have over 45 years experience specializing in Dressage Horse Sales.  They own and operate Impulsion Unlimited dressage horse sales and representation which is one of the top dressage horse sales facilities on the East Coast. They are located in Virginia and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Category: Price Range $10,000 or Less

Impulsion Unlimited Testimonials

Jeff & Sue,

I just wanted to tell you how happy I am with Rastell - he is such a perfect match for me!  Even my riding coach is blown away with his training, movement, and most of all, his temperment.  Thank you both for taking so much time to talk with me and rolling out the red carpet when I visited your farm.   Everything from the very first phone call to the delivery of the horse was handled with Nordstrom quality customer service and I couldn't be more pleased. 


Kim Simons