Sunday, August 16, 2009

Buying a baby (horse)? Tips on finding a good personality

Riley update: The first bandage change went well except that the scissors guaranteed to cut vet wrap and elastikon also cut the back of Riley's pastern. He also has a sore on one heel bulb -- there's a lot of moisture in that bandage, and it's softening the tissue. The vet advised covering it with some gauze to let it dry out.

This is part of the not really Riley series, chronicling Riley's life in a palatable way (hopefully)...

If real estate is location, location, location...
For most amateurs buying their future dressage horse, the mantra is (or should be) temperament, temperament, temperament. I'm not brave about handling naughty horses, and I knew that to raise a youngster I'd need one that was quiet and agreeable. How can you judge temperament in a youngster? Well, there is wisdom on the subject but I didn't know it before I bought Riley. I was lucky.

Riley at 3 weeks
Here is the video from my first visit, when Riley was just under 3 weeks old. It had rained for two straight days and the babies and moms had been stallbound. When we turned Riley and mom into the arena, I wondered if they would both just careen crazily. They didn't. Even without experience, some of Riley's behaviors made me feel instinctively he would have a good temperament. Here's the video...

Why did I buy Riley?
  • First and foremost, I love his mother. Absolutely ga-ga. I love her gaits, her body type, and her Rubenstein head/neck. Her temperament was maternal, kind, and quiet. This is critical because she's Riley's main role model for 5-6 months. A spooky, distrustful mom will make her baby spooky and distrustful. Aside from passing on genetic traits I admire, Rachael helped show Riley what a good character is.
  • Riley's expression. For a stallbound baby, less that three weeks old, Riley is calm, soft-eyed, and well, just sweet. He isn't frantic when he's turned loose, and he pauses frequently to observe his surroundings.
  • In the video, go to 4:33 minutes -- part of the action is cut off but you get the idea. Riley gravitated to humans. I'd seen a lot of babies at around this age, and not all of them liked or trusted humans. One had to be held forcibly in his stall, with mom, for me to touch him. Handling is certainly a factor, but like human babies, some come out of the womb more naturally reticent vs. friendly.
Be clear about what you want
When I talked to breeders, I emphasized size and temperament ("big and quiet"--big, because I'm tall). As far as gaits were concerned I wanted three good gaits and a horse that tracks up at the trot. Riley didn't have the fanciest dressage gaits of the babies I looked at, but there were a few things I liked about his movement -- namely his head carriage and the way he lifts himself like a string is pulling his head and shoulders up.

When to visit a baby
Breeders will tell you that in the first week of a foal's life, they may have an post-birth frenetic energy the is not a long term character trait. I don't see any reason to see a newborn or very young baby. You've probably heard the adage three weeks, three days, three years. Maybe experts can tell something at three weeks, but I think to the average person three months is the best time to baby-shop. If you are going for the big gaits, try to go before inspections, because the highly rated foals tend to go up in price based on inspection comments. Read some of the articles below for some good advice on baby evaluation. There are also tests of foal temperament that can abe adapted to test temperament/reactivity in an unobtrusive way.

Develop your eye for babies
If you're looking for a baby, my suggestion is to start going to inspections the season before. You can really develop your eye by seeing LOTS of babies. It'll help. And while U.S. horse people tend not to think about bloodlines, they are very important in buying a good temperament. Stallions like Jazz, Ferro, and Baloubet du Rouet are brilliant but hot hot hot. Donnerhall, Rubenstein, Brentano II are all known for producing rideable horses.


Foal tests determine future champions from Horsetalk NZ

Buying a weanling? Tips for getting a good one. Horse and Rider, Sept 2008, p.58.

FAQ on weanling evaluation from Equisearch

Forecasting foals for dressage
by Hilda Gurney, from Practical Horseman

What does your foal's temperament mean?
from Equisearch


  1. What a sweet video of baby Riley! It makes me want to get a baby...:) His mom reminds me a fair bit of my Hannoverian mare Salina, also black. I love how friendly he is at that young age.

  2. Stacey, thank you so much for sharing! You made a great choice in Riley. Also, you have given very sound advice for looking at babies! I am sorry that you have had this interruption--hopefully it will not last long. How old is Riley? I am sure you have mentioned it before, but I just found your blog a couple weeks ago. Thanks, Mary

  3. I never would have thought to give myself "experience" as a foal shopper, so thank you for the advice. I'm sure you’re right. I guess it's like doing anything else -- the more experience you have, the better you get. What about multiple visits to see the same foal under different conditions? I know that a horse's temperament is important to developing a good relationship. I think it would.


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