BY LAUREN MAULDIN
I’ve been a little hesitant to tell this story. After all, I’ve been writing for years about my deep love of OTTBs, what it’s like to come up in this sport from a backyard barn, and how hard it is to budget time, money, and life when you’re a single, working adult amateur. And really, all of those things are still true. What is also true is that after I write this post, I’m going to drive out to the barn and ride my Oldenburg that I imported a few months ago—a horse that brings light to my heart just thinking about him.
Here’s how it happened.
This summer, I decided that I was done struggling with my beautiful but green OTTB. After two years, the best choice for both of us was to sell him to a local teenager who thinks he’s the greatest creature in the world and laughs at the things that used to frustrate me. In the tailwind of that decision, I decided to invest more upfront in the purchase price for the next horse than I had ever even considered previously. After all, I’m not getting any younger. I work really hard to do this sport, and what’s that saying… you can’t take it (money) with ya? I’ve seen first-hand how short life can be. Riding is my passion. I decided I was worth it.
My trainer and I took what I thought was a sizeable budget to the American hunter market, looking for a decent-sized 2’6″ horse with a show record, an easy change, an agreeable nature, and hopefully the potential to one day do 3′. That sounds like a great horse, right? Turns out, everyone and their brother agreed. There are seemingly countless trainers right now looking for the exact same thing. Even as little as two years ago my budget could have probably bought that, but in the summer of 2021 with horse shows back in full swing and the wealth disparity in our country larger than ever, I couldn’t afford what I really needed. My options were to go younger and green (been there, done that) or older with compromises.
I’m okay with compromises and tried to vet one lovely horse that unfortunately was unlikely to hold up physically due to years of hard miles. While many people exclude Thoroughbreds of any sort from their horse search, my trainer and I love them. I flew out to try an OTTB and had a friend sit on another for me out west, but neither ended up being the right fit. When we did come across a holy grail—a suitable horse in my budget—it would be spoken for in literally 24 hours. There were multiple scenarios where I waited on the other end of the line to buy plane tickets to fly out to try a horse the same day it was advertised only to be told, “Sorry. There’s a vetting tomorrow.”
Look, I get it. It’s a seller’s market right now. Whether you’re talking horses or cars or lumber, the price is determined by what people will pay. Right now, people will pay for a 2’6″ – 3′ amateur horse. That’s a big advantage and help to a lot of folks right now—just not me.
It began to seem like if I was going to be able to buy the right horse on my budget, I’d have to make a quick decision off a video. Because as much as I love to travel, hopping on a plane to Utah one day and Kentucky the next isn’t exactly feasible. Confronted with the fact that I might have to commit many years worth of savings to the purchase of a horse without even being able to touch it first, I started to think about importing. While I can’t 100% explain the logic in my brain to you, it was easier for me to stomach buying a horse off video that I had no option of going to see (with Covid travel restrictions and budgets, a Europe shopping trip was not feasible to me at the time) versus one a few states away that I technically could have visited but had a near-impossible time doing so.
The advice I got on importing was not consistent. I was told it was foolish to buy an American horse with how many great ones there were in Europe. I was told to be wary of European horses because their definition of amateur-friendly is different than ours. I was told my budget wouldn’t get me anything decent over there. I was told my budget would buy me better quality overseas than here… you get the idea. Each of these statements came from a knowledgeable equestrian who’s been in the industry for a long time.
On my own, I did a little recon. Who had people like me bought from overseas? Who proved to be honest (and more importantly—who wasn’t)? Talking to a lot of amateurs and pros alike, my trainer and I came up with a shortlist of European sellers. I told trainer that I’d be comfortable importing under 3 conditions:
- It had to come from one of the “approved” sellers on this list.
- She had to be extremely excited about the horse.
- As far as we could tell, it had to have some resale value if I didn’t love it.
And with that, the videos started coming in. Like here, there were a few young and green options. I’m sure there were options that I never even saw because they didn’t pass trainer’s high standards. Like I had been warned, Europeans have caught on to the American hunter market. They are not giving these horses away. During all this time spent unsuccessfully horse searching, I had been saving every penny possible. I’d added more to my original budget but it still wasn’t huge. To make sure I had enough to cover import (roughly $10,000 for me door to door for a gelding from NY to TX) and my trainer’s commission, the Euro mark we had to stay to was fairly low. Even so, the total projected cost of the horse would be less than what I had seen most suitable options selling for in the states.
When my trainer sent me video of the gray, I have to admit it wasn’t love at first sight. I am a grooming freak. I do not like grays. Grays are always dirty! But here’s another factor to my horse shopping experience that has nothing to do with importing or not—I was in the middle of a pretty major depressive episode for all of this process. My capacity for life during that time was getting through one day to the next without spending all my hours in bed. I knew I wanted a horse. I knew I needed a horse. I knew I was ready to get one after months of shopping. Beyond that, I was pretty empty of all feeling.
We looked into the gray, named Crusero, as much as possible from this side of the pond. The seller, European Sport Horse Imports, answered my trainer’s questions. I talked to amateurs who had bought from them previously. My trainer called the American rider who rode the horse overseas for a few weeks. We sent his existing Xrays to multiple vets, got some more, and I found myself on the phone with a Dutch vet telling me everything was, “Pretty okay.” About ten days later, almost in a stupor, I wired the purchase price and emailed my insurance agent to ask about international coverage.
Once I committed to the choice, I heard a lot of, “Are you freaking out? Are you scared? You’re way braver than me. I could never do that!”
This is where the depressive episode actually helped me. Because I was so depressed, I wasn’t really anxious. To be honest, I wasn’t feeling much of anything. I knew I spent a significant amount of money. I knew I bought a 16.3hh 9y/o Grey Oldenburg and he’d be getting on a plane in a week or so. The rest was kind of a cloudy mystery.
Those who aren’t familiar with the process (and I was definitely one of them), ask a lot about the logistics of getting Crusero, given the barn name Captain once he settled into our program, here. I learned along the way. The seller had an American bank account, which saved me several hundred in foreign exchange fees (greatly appreciated). Once I wired the purchase price, I set up insurance which works exactly the same as a normal major medical/mortality policy with the addition of 30-day international coverage which cost me about $75.
When I vetted him, the Dutch vet suggested I go ahead and pull blood for the pre-export tests which make sure any animals leaving the country don’t carry diseases. I hired Equijet to get him here, which was recommended by the seller. They synced up with the blood tests I already had done, got him to the airport in Europe, gave updates about his departure, and photos upon his arrival in the US. He sat in quarantine the minimum 3 days for a gelding (thank god, if they get delayed for whatever reason the expenses add up exponentially). During quarantine, I got updates with any concerns—a fat leg from a scrape during shipping. I had the option to get the vet to look at it, but they jogged him for us in the barn aisle and we decided to hold off. I paid one lump sum, the same as I was originally quoted, to Equijet for all of this—roughly $8,000.
Then once he was cleared from quarantine, they arranged for American shipping companies to get him to Texas. He went from New York to Kentucky, had a layover, and then took a slow trek into Austin. Since this was during a very hot September, I appreciated the layover and the many stops along the way. The shipping companies charged me directly. Door to door, he traveled for a little shy of a week.
Then, a few weeks after I paid a significant part of my life savings for the animal, I got to meet my Captain. He was bigger than I imagined he’d be, and exactly as chill as advertised. We gave him a week to adjust to the humidity and climate here with a slow introduction to turnout, lots of hand walking, and hours of hand grazing as I got to know him. Physically, the bugs and allergies really got to him at first. It’s gotten better over time, but he still needs to live in a fly mask to keep his eyes happy. It also took him a few weeks to realize it’s hot here, and he should really sweat more. But we didn’t push him during any of these transitions, and he adjusted safely at his own pace.
During the weeks spent waiting and working on logistics to get Cap here, I also worked on some logistics of my own. I got a psychiatrist, adjusted medication, and deep-dived into therapy. Which means by the time my “Belgian waffle” arrived, the cloud had started to lift. And I got to look at my new horse with all the excitement and love in my eyes that I hoped to have.
Now, I’ve been riding him a little over a month and couldn’t be more smitten with this creature. He is not perfect. Just like I would have in the states, I had to compromise. His X-rays aren’t pristine. His changes certainly aren’t auto, and I have to work for every stride to keep his body connected with that long back. But he’s perfect for me. He’s safe and agreeable. He’s made jumping fun again. Every now and then, he does a little something that feels reminiscent of my heart horse, Simon. When that happens, my heart explodes with joy.
If I were to give someone else advice about importing, I don’t think I’d take either side of the black and white advice that was given to me. I recognize what a huge privilege it is to be able to do this. Even “on a budget” the total cost of this horse was more than the annual salary in my first year out of college working full time. I can’t deny that even though what I spent is small to many equestrians, it’s impossible for far more.
Captain is special because he’s well-bred, kind, and athletic. Being imported doesn’t affect any of this. There are plenty of horses just as nice as him or better born in the states every day. But for me, this is the path that worked. I have no regrets, and I’d probably do it again.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
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