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How to Select a Suitable Dressage Horse

How to Select a Suitable Dressage Horse How to Dressage

Buying a horse is a really exciting time, especially if you are hoping to enter the world of competitive dressage. However, a dressage horse can be a very expensive purchase so it’s important to get it right.

What you pay for your horse will depend primarily on your budget, but also on where you want to get to with your dressage career and your own ability and experience.

Never make the mistake of thinking that you and your $30,000, beautifully bred 4-year-old import can learn the ropes together – this is a potential recipe for disaster!

Here are some expert tips and advice on how to choose a suitable dressage horse, so that you get it right first time.

Initial considerations

Firstly, you must honestly as yourself what you want from dressage. What level do you ride at, and what level do you think you may realistically achieve?

The answers to these questions will be very different, depending on whether you’re 15 years old, 25 years old or 55 years old!

All three age categories may want to be competitive, but perspectives will change and their horse is still required to answer the same questions.

The important issues to remember are:

  • ultimately you are the only person who has to want to ride your horse, so the opinions of others have only little importance
  • you must be able to ride the horse and feel at home in the saddle when trying one out. The rideability of the horse is absolutely critical

Other considerations

Personality, character, and temperament

Temperament is often used in the wrong context.  Many use the word to describe being with a horse from the ground, such as behavior in the stable. This should be secondary to the temperament when ridden!

The temperament from the saddle is critical because in all horse sports the pair of you must be able to get on!

Remember that the character or temperament changes as the intensity of the work increases.

Ideally, before the purchase of a (new) horse, you must be able to accurately gauge the reactions when the horse is asked to work and engage the hind legs and carry himself. Even if this level of riding is out of reach at the time of purchase, you will be aspiring to this, and you must know that the horse knows how to work properly without any resistance or negative feeling.


Big horses look impressive and powerful, but they must be coordinated for you to be able to bring them on to the aids.

They often need stronger, more precise aids and take longer to build their own strength to develop a good way of going and self-carriage.

A slight, petite rider is much better off on a smaller horse. The overall impression will be much nicer to look at.

Ultimately, this is a sport of a harmonious partnership and a horse that is in balance, and it’s the rider’s job to bring the horse into balance.


It is very important for dressage that the horse has 3 correct paces: four-beat walk, two beat trot in diagonal pairs, and a three beat canter.

The fine detail of ‘quality’ is the result of a good aiding system.

For the less experienced rider, the paces should not be too expressive, and neither should the horse be outstanding in just one.

Competition form

Buying a horse with some test experience is a good idea, but not essential.

Check that the rider who is parting with the horse gives quality aids and sits correctly and straight in the saddle.


If you decide you like the horse from the saddle and it fits your expectations in type, you must look at the conformation.

The feet are of particular importance as are the legs and joints. Flat soles generally cause problems and should be avoided. It is a good idea to buy a dressage horse that has a good shoulder and gives an uphill impression.

Horses with very long backs can find it very difficult to take the weight behind and are often difficult to ride together.

It’s also best to avoid animals that are naturally built ‘downhill’, as you will be fighting a losing battle right from the start with these types. A horse that naturally uses his quarters and moves uphill is the one to go for!

Although it’s important not to find too much fault, otherwise, you will never buy a horse at all!

A note about vetting

Prepare for ambivalence from the vet.

They may not ‘fail’ the horse, but they rarely get excited about a horse either, so you should be prepared to make your own judgment.

Many people have had years of good riding and companionship from a horse that has had a poor report from the vet.

Don’t be a ‘tyre kicker’!

Finally, do be sincere when riding somebody else’s horse in a trial situation.

If the horse is not for you, do find something good and polite to say, and come away discretely after a short but appropriate amount of time.

Horses cost emotion from both sides and you never know what is happening behind the scenes!

In conclusion

When looking for a dressage horse, be realistic about your own ability.

Look for a horse with good conformation and a pleasing, rideable attitude. The fewer problems you have to address from the beginning, the more quickly you will progress in your training and the more fun you will both have.

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  1. Great article! I would love, also, an article going more into the part of “Big horses look impressive and powerful, but they must be coordinated for you to be able to bring them on to the aids.

    They often need stronger, more precise aids and take longer to build their own strength to develop a good way of going and self-carriage.”

    1. Thank you so much! And a great suggestion for a new article. I’ll see if we can get our team to put together an article on how to ride the larger horses that take a bit more effort and time to bring together.

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