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Buying a Dressage Foal--Part 1 Benefits versus Risks

With prices of young high-quality dressage horses increasing, many riders are looking at buying younger and younger in their quest for high quality horses. I've personally bought many foals and young horses over the years and currently have a small breeding program focused on producing top quality young dressage horses. In this short series I will share some ideas about how to think about buying foals for riders, starting with a risk-benefit analysis.

Primavera (Gaudi x Sezuan)

The Benefits

1) Quality foals are generally cheaper than quality young horses (3-4 year olds). Generally speaking It is possible to get a really nice, well bred dressage foal in North America in the 12-20k range. That same foal as a 3-4 year old, going nicely under saddle with clean xrays and a good mind will probably run you at least 40-50k or much more, depending on quality. If you watch the European foal auctions you'll often see a much wider variance in price, with many nice foals selling for 5-8k EUR and some really special ones selling for 70-100k EUR.

2) You can raise them the way you want. Many people much prefer being able to do their own groundwork and handling of their young horses (picking up their feet, leading, bathing, etc) and later on their own starting under saddle. If you buy a backed youngster much of this work has already been done, for better or for worse.

3) Vettings are cheap on foals. Because OCD doesn't generally show up until at least 6 months of age, xrays are pretty much pointless on most foals. Also flexion tests are largely unnecessary, and can actually be harmful to young developing joints. Most of the time the vet watches at the foal move, examines the eyes and heart and checks for any major deformities or limb deviations. Otherwise there's not much else to do with foals, hence the vetting is much cheaper than on an older horse.

The Risks

1) The foal ends up completely normal in movement (or otherwise not as talented as was hoped). While everyone dreams that their foal will go on to do the Olympic games in dressage, in reality most will grow up to be otherwise normal riding horses. That isn’t necessarily a big problem, unless of course your goal is to get an Olympic prospect. If you are a professional this isn't a huge problem because often you can sell them under saddle then reinvest in the next generation. It can be hard though, after having picked the perfect foal and waiting 3 years for him to be old enough to ride, to discover he didn't develop as well as you had hoped. I know it isn't realistic for most riders, but my best advice is to buy a couple foals, that way you don’t put all your hopes and dreams on one foal.

2) Foal tries to or succeeds in killing or permanently injuring itself. Baby horses are rather like little kids, oblivious to the dangers of the world and often running right into them. Generally they can be more accident-prone than older horses until they’re properly socialized into their adult environment. Most of the time scrapes and stitches aren’t a big deal, but young horses can get hurt in ways that make them unsound for life or unsuitable for a performance career. Also OCD can show up as the foal matures, so while the initial vetting on a foal is cheap, it certainly doesn't mean the foal won't end up with some OCD issues as it develops. My best advice here is to always insure the foal for purchase price and some major medical coverage.

3) Foal ends up a raging jerk and difficult to deal with under saddle. It’s always a possibility that even picking a foal from bloodlines known for ridability, your foal is going to grow up to be a very difficult riding horse. Some of these will only be tough as really young horses, and then mature out of it. Some will be like that for their entire lives. One of the biggest risks for riders when picking foals or unbacked horses is that you really don’t know how they’ll be under saddle until you sit on them. Personally I do a ton of research on the offspring of various sires and the temperament and ridability of their offspring before I breed a mare or purchase a foal, as I place a very high premium on ridability. My main interest has been in the Oldenburg, Hanoverian, and Dutch warmbloods (I don't have much experience with PREs or other breeds), so I have focused on learning as much as I can about the main dressage bloodlines in those registries. My best advice is to know yourself as a rider, what you like to ride, what you don't like to ride, and research the bloodlines. Talking to other riders or breeders can be a great way to get more information.

4) Foal ends up far too big (or too small). The other issue is that it is very difficult to predict mature height from foals or from the size of the parents. Many breeders, when asked how tall they think a foal will be, will make the mistake of averaging the height of the stallion and the mare, even though they all know that genetics doesn’t work like that! I’ve personally owned an 18 hand young horse whose sire and dam were both 16.2. One foal I bred out of a 17.3 hand mare and 16.2 hand stallion ended up maturing to 16.1. If mature height is really important to you it is much safer to buy a 3 or 4 year old, where you at least have an idea about mature height. That said, even then you don’t know for sure, as warmbloods (especially geldings) often grow until they’re 7 or 8!

Next up: does it make sense to buy a foal relative to a 3 or 4 year old prospect? What are the tradeoffs in terms of time and money? Stay tuned!

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