ISO Unicorn: How to Make Horse Shopping More Realistic

Photo courtesy of Lee Hughes


Many of us toss around the word “unicorn” when we discuss our equine partners, and we all believe we have at least one currently residing in our barn. If we don’t have a unicorn, we want one! That’s why you frequently see ISO ads seeking that very beast. But whatever a unicorn is to you, let me break down the reality of seeking one in the horse buying process.

Unicorns are mythical creatures for a reason: they are perfect. But my version of perfect isn’t going to be the same as yours, and really, there is no such thing as perfection. The type of horse that I prefer to ride and have the most success with may not work out as well for another rider. I refer to my grand prix—who I consider perfect in every way—as my unicorn dragon, but he definitely wouldn’t tick most boxes in an ISO ad. He was the opposite of what I was looking to buy, but I knew the first time I sat on him that he was going to be my perfect partner. 

Having an open mind is essential, or you may just miss out on your own perfect partner. Here is a typical ISO ad that I see daily: 

ISO UNICORN: Must be 16 hand imported warmblood gelding (NO mares or OTTB), grey, safe, good mover/jumper, auto changes, no spook, buck, rear. Must have good show record at 3’6”. Under 10 years old. Must pass extensive PPE. Budget 15k MAX. Located in FL. 

Photo courtesy of Lee Hughes

It’s ludicrous to allow a client to believe that this exact horse exists, and that you can find it for them. My program has a steady sales business. I help to buy, sell, or lease 20-30 horses yearly. I work with all budgets and all levels of riders in the hunter/jumper discipline and have a clear understanding of the market. If a client came to me with this wish list, I would ask them what they were willing to compromise on. I know that you cannot be this specific or you will miss out on some great horses.

Before you start horse shopping, you should know what is important to you and what you can compromise on with your next partner. Some of these elements should be the budget, age, height, and the job the horse is intended for. You should have ranges for things such as age and height. Those should not be specific, nor should color or breed. Preferences are fine, but never exclude a horse based on breed, gender, or even location. 

Photo courtesy of Lee Hughes

You should also know what your strengths and weaknesses are as a rider in order to find a horse that suits you. You must have a clear idea of what sort of things are your deal breakers in buying a horse. These typically include issues that may arise with the vetting, required maintenance, or even the level of training the horse will need in a program. These are all things you should discuss with your trainer and be on the same page about. 

Horses have differing temperaments, strengths, and weaknesses. They have not all been brought along with the same level of training and care. Horses come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and athletic ability. Your trainer is there to help in the horse buying process, so rely on them for guidance. Remember, trainers want to work with good horses, and find suitable partners that you will be successful with. So even if the horse doesn’t 100% match your unicorn wishlist, it may be just what you are looking for in the end.

Photo courtesy of Lee Hughes

Your trainer can also guide you through the vetting process. Abnormalities can show up in a vetting and you need to know which ones concern you. In my experience, there is no such thing as a perfect vetting. I use the vetting to get a baseline of soundness, general health, and physical suitability for its intended job. Some horses pass the vetting with flying colors only to have a history of lameness throughout their careers. Then there are horses that have terrible X-rays that have never taken a lame step. Maybe that’s the unicorn? The horse that you can see has a consistent solid show record a decade long with numerous riders, and has a clean vet record. I personally take more stock in that information and peace of mind from that than I do from anything else.

One of the things most clients cannot compromise on is their budget, and that’s okay. There are horses on the market at every price point. A buyer has to understand that there are general guidelines that affect a horse’s value. Age, athletic ability, show record, movement, breeding, temperament, and soundness are all key components that make up the quality of the horse and therefore the asking price. So if you don’t have a large budget, you will most likely have to compromise on some of your wishes. 

Photo courtesy of Lee Hughes

I also want to point out that I certainly do not think that $15,000 dollars is a small amount of money. It is absurd what horse prices have soared to, but that’s for another discussion. I am just as happy to find someone a horse for free (yes, they do exist but boy do you have to be in the right place at the right time) as I am to find them a six figure partner. The goal should be to find the client the best horse for the best price. Trainers have a vast network of reliable professionals to work with and always have their eyes and ears open for great horses.

The most important element to any equine partnership is the chemistry between horse and rider. We all have certain preferred characteristics in a horse. You can have your wishlist on paper, but it is essential for you to try any suitable horse and see how well you get along. You may try a horse that only ticks one box, but you end up getting along really well and love how they ride. 

To me, that is the unicorn. Not the imaginary horse we have created in our mind and put down on paper, but the horse that you get on and from the moment you sit in the saddle, you know you speak the same language. The horse that trusts you and listens to you and makes you feel safe and secure and allows you to dream big, that’s the one. Buy that one.

Lee Hughes is a professional who owns and operates Promenade Farm in Athens, GA. Her clients compete successfully throughout the East coast in the hunters, jumpers, and equitation. Lee herself competes in the Grand Prix and has multiple hunter derby wins. She takes great pride in developing young horses that are very junior/amateur friendly. Promenade Farm operates a customized sales program.