Buying a Dressage Foal--Part 6 Evaluating Movement

(Video is Sienna (Secret x Don Marco) at 7 months)

I think most people prioritize movement when they look at foals to purchase, if the big European foal auctions are any indicator. I never thought I'd see the day a foal would fetch close to six figures at auction, but I've seen it. The trick, though, since we're theoretically wanting to buy a talented adult horse, is how well can we evaluate foal movement and predict adult movement from it?

I've asked this question point-blank to several experienced breeders and foal buyers and the response is pretty much the same: "you see something in the foal, then hope it comes back when it's an adult". Or, put more bluntly by a Hanoverian breeder from Texas, "many people will tell you they know, but they don't, because no one does."

You'd think movement quality would be apparent at birth (or very young) and hold true to adulthood. That doesn't seem to be the case for several reasons: 1) really young foals (under a few weeks) often have exaggerated movement because of the inherent laxity in their connective tissue (necessary for them to easily pass through the birth canal) which hardens as they grow and thus inhibits some of the exaggerated looseness and suppleness you'll see in really young foals, 2) bone lengths and their proportions change so much as foals mature their movement quality changes as well, and 3) growing stages make it difficult to determine when their movement accurately reflects adult movement and when it doesn't.

As an example of 3) I generally tell people if the foal canters with good natural balance and adjustability when it's croup-high, it probably will have a good quality canter when it matures. However the converse isn't necessarily true, as I've seen plenty of mature horses with very good canters as adults who had couldn't canter at all when they were very young. Also of note the walk can be difficult to predict, because many foals with a very big, loose walk with often have a lateral walk, but as they mature that disappears.

When I'm evaluating foal movement I typically look for 2 main qualities: 1) superb natural balance, including balance on the hind legs and uphill posture, shown mostly in transitions and 2) elasticity or ability to easily adjust stride length and height without a corresponding change in tempo or fluctuation in body balance. Both of these qualities do change through growth spurts and developmental stages, which is why it is so hard to predict how a foal will develop. I once sat next to a stallion-prospect purchaser at a major European foal auction who told me he had bought 40 colts that year. And out of that, they expected to only get a couple who would be true stallion prospects as adults!

One of my biggest pet peeves when riders evaluate foal (and young horse) movement is the tendency to be deceived by the "wow" factor with leg-movers. I think everyone has fallen for it at some point, you see a young horse that moves its legs spectacular when free but shows very little elasticity through the back and topline (the Germans call them "leg-movers" as opposed to "back-movers"). I've seen such horses fetch huge price tags when unbacked but become a big disappointment later under saddle because they don't move their back under the rider, which tends to have a constricting effect on the gaits in addition to affecting how well the rider's aids go through the horse's body. Sometimes this can be overcome with time and development (most really young horses do this to some degree when first backed) but sometimes it is a permanent feature throughout the horse's riding career. Which is why 2) is such a priority to me; it is not enough to see the horse's knees up to its eyeballs when it trots, but how much ease and body suppleness does it display when it changes stride length? Better yet does it change stride length or height when moving free? Or does the horse have a mono-gait that while super steady and impressive in its natural rhythm, shows very little adjustability and suppleness? How easy will bending through the body be later on? These are all questions I ask myself when evaluating foal movement.

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