BY SARAH SMIT
Usually the only worry I have when we take clients on one of our horse-buying trips to Holland is if they’ll get lost on a night out in Amsterdam! Sometimes, however, I feel more like a therapist than like an agent selling Warmbloods whether here in the U.S. or abroad.
Most of you have bought a horse at one point and I guess we all agree that it should be a very exciting and fun experience…and for most of us it is. For some people, though, it isn’t. For them, it is nerve wracking and agonizing and leaves them either in a worse relationship with their trainer or with lower self esteem. Over the years, I have seen several cases where the buyer would have had a lot more fun in her horse shopping experience if she had prepared herself differently.
Let me tell you about Molly. About a year ago, Molly called us. She was going to shop with her trainer in Germany for a super talented and experienced FEI schoolmaster and asked us if we could show her horses in Holland as well. We collected all her information and made the appointments but soon found out that her trainer had his own agenda. Not only did he make her pay for the trip for his whole family, but he refused to help her with the horses she found on her own. (On one occasion he even refused to get out of the car.) In the end, he pressured her to buy a green six year old that required years of professional training to get to the level she wanted to be with her horse. Needless to say she was totally disillusioned with horse shopping – and with her trainer!
Luckily, we usually see trainers who know exactly what their client needs and who have their client’s best interest as their first priority. To avoid any conflict with your trainer on a horse shopping trip, why not set up a couple of meetings in which you discuss exactly what your dreams and expectations are and what you think your trainer’s role should be? The two of you should be “on the same page” whether you buy a horse to ride and have fun with or for your trainer to train and show. This is also a good time to discuss a commission with your trainer. If you are not comfortable talking to your trainer about these things, maybe you are not ready yet to enjoy a horse shopping experience.
As a European, I strongly agree with the need for a trainer’s help and advice in finding the most suitable horse. Sometimes the trainer’s most important role is to keep you realistic about the compatibility between high hopes and real life. I do find it hard to accept, however, that often there is a large commission involved without any visible service to the client. (Sometimes it is not more than saying “yes, I like the horse in this video.”) I know that here in the United States everything equine related is extremely expensive, from vets to shows to shavings; not only for horse owners but also for trainers. But shouldn’t trainers focus on training people so that they become happier and better riders? In Molly’s somewhat extreme case, the trainer not only made a lot of money by having his client buy a horse from his own friend (with extra money in commission on the seller’s end) but he also got her a horse that needed a significant amount of his training. The result was a very unhappy client!
This trainer-client relationship has become one of my pet peeves over the years, especially since I moved to the U.S. four years ago. It is very different from what I am accustomed to in Europe. I must say that it affects the amateur dressage (or hunter) lady more than the average (amateur) show jumper. Some people seem so dependent on their trainer it is as if they forgot to think and do things for themselves! I sometimes get the feeling that this makes the rider even more insecure and that they have a harder time mastering basic horsemanship skills as a result. It also makes the whole riding experience extra expensive: a huge coaching fee for shows, for example; not being able to board somewhere without taking two lessons a week from the resident trainer (plus one “pro ride”); and, of course, getting ten percent for merely looking at two videos in the buying process.
Please don’t misunderstand: I think there are scores of marvelous trainers out there who work hard, keep their client’s best interests in mind and who really deserve that commission for all the work that they have done. They truly participate in the search, shopping and the decision making process investing their time and knowledge.
When we see one of these perfect joint trainer-client buying efforts they make us so happy! A good example is a trainer named Nancy who knows her students so well that she went to Europe and hand picked the best schoolmaster for her student at a time when the student herself was not able to travel. Or Johanna, who knew exactly what her client’s goals were. She helped her choose a horse that met the client’s needs perfectly knowing that Johanna would not have chosen that horse for herself.
I love to see a great team effort between a trainer and her client on a trip. The trainer helps the client to stay focused and relaxed. And, by doing all the test rides, she makes sure that her client does not become exhausted having to ride seven horses in one day, when she is used to only a few hours per week!
Let’s get back to our original story. The second aspect of the Molly case was revealed when Molly got on the first horse. She had given us her exact requirements: she wanted a big and strong mover plus a forward and sensitive horse to be competitive in the FEI show ring. Unfortunately, Molly could not sit the trot very well yet or handle any sensitivity in these quality dressage horses. She was a training level rider at most who would have been (or should have been) super happy with a smooth and safe schoolmaster!
So there was not only a mismatch between her goals and her trainer’s goals but also between her dreams and reality. To avoid major disappointment in something that should be one of the most fun and exciting things in your horse-related life, it is very important that you (and your trainer) think and discuss your dreams, goals, current riding ability and needs through and through!
As an agent, I of course have to do my homework as well. Besides gathering answers to about a hundred questions, I really like to talk to the trainer and see a recent video of the client riding. I found out that by being my blunt Dutch self I can help avoid some of the problems mentioned above and make the shopping experience a fun and exciting one. We really try to have the client’s best interest in mind but sometimes it is hard to find out who is leading in the buying process: the client herself or her trainer? It actually doesn’t really matter as long as it is a team effort with out any conflicts in interest!
I also enjoy organizing a trip for the ambitious amateur on a shoestring budget – finding that one perfect horse out there that they never dreamed of owning. Sometimes we find ourselves extra lucky and pleasantly surprised when we meet someone who knows what she wants and at the same time has been so modest about her own riding skills that we can only stare. On one of our last trips a client named Karen made every single horse she rode look like a star – she doesn’t give her own riding enough credit. It was an absolute pleasure to watch her ride.
For those of you who are insecure about riding independently and also anxious and confused about horse shopping because you are totally dependent on your trainer, or perhaps you struggle with matching your goals with reality: give yourself a break. Riding should be fun and relaxing and horse shopping should be the ultimate experience. Before you shop, you can begin by giving yourself the best preparation: sit down and do some self reflection, (financial) goal setting, plus identify multiple reality checks and of course have that open discussion with your trainer!
Originally Published in Warmbloods Today July/August 2009
About Sarah Smit: She is the owner of European Horse Trade based in Weston, Massachusetts. European Horse Trade helps clients find the right equine match. The company regularly organizes horse shopping trips to Holland.