Buy the horse, not an illusion

Matty and Bridget
Matty and Bridget

Smart food shoppers know two rules: don’t shop when you’re hungry, and “buy the steak, not the sizzle”.

Smart equine shoppers, we learned the hard way, should follow analogous rules: don’t shop when you’re too ambitious, and buy the horse, not an illusion.

We’ve bought four horses in recent years, three for $15,000 each, one for $40,000. Which horse failed to perform? Which horse ran up massive vet bills? If you guessed the $40,000 horse, you’re right.

One of the “lesser” horses, Matinee Idol, a handsome bright bay gelding, well-known local citizen, and experienced training level packer, taught my daughter, Bridget, to event. Matty was 11 years old, Bridget was 12, and Matty took Bridget from novice to prelim in two years. In their second season together, they reached the top four at training level on both regional and national USEA leader boards.

Advancing to prelim mid-season, the team scored several top eight finishes, including a few top three rounds. But they had reached a limit, were eliminated at a one-star three-day-event, and stumbled badly going cross-country at a horse trial soon after. Matty suffered no injury, and Bridget escaped with a mild concussion. Matty would not advance beyond prelim, it was clear, and we had ambitions, so we found him a good home with a happy Pony Clubber.

Lacking the horse sense to know that we were moving well beyond our limit, we then set out alone to buy the partner that we hoped would take Bridget to intermediate and the Young Riders team.

We arrived on a crisp autumn morning at a “cathedral to the horse”,a sales and training barn owned by a distinguished Olympian. Shafts of sunlight filled the arena, and Bob Dylan played softly on the radio. The Olympian’s colleague, soon to become an Olympian herself, showed us British Raj, a solid dark bay gelding that she had for sale. A week later, we returned for a second look.

At 17.1 hands and 8 years old, Raj was impressive. He moved with elegance on the flat and took stadium fences and cross-country jumps with ease and grace, both with his owner on board and with Bridget on board under his owner’s tutelage. Raj’s competition record was very spotty, but we behaved like fools in love and reasoned it away. We were smart, and, after all, we were buying from Olympians!

Raj’s owner moved him to winter quarters, and we purchased and vetted him long distance and transported him home. The horse that had been gorgeous with his four-star owner either riding or guiding him, needless to say, looked much less fancy in the hands of even a capable local trainer. Raj also had back problems, it turned out, that made him injury prone. He retired repeatedly at horse trials and washed out at Young Riders camp. He also burned through money and three years in a teenager’s life – we absorbed the first loss, but the second, as the ad says, is “irreplaceable”.

That was all a few years ago. Raj is now enjoying the good life as a police horse, and Bridget is enjoying success training and competing a lovely young warmblood mare. She also says that she learned more working with Raj than she would have learned competing an easier and sounder horse.

We loved Matty, and we loved Raj as a horse, if not as a competition partner. Though less sanguine about the Olympians, we neither cast blame nor hold a grudge. Riding mistakes belong to the rider, and buying mistakes belong to the buyer. We made two of them – not recognizing our limitations, and buying sellers rather than a horse – and we learned a costly, but valuable, lesson.

Matty and Bridget
Matty and Bridget

Author: CAC


This article has been written by a contributor to

2 thoughts on “Buy the horse, not an illusion

  • February 26, 2012 at 7:02 am

    Great article. At least you learned from your experience and I love the way were were able to realign your goals and said you were able to learn from the horse even if not from a competitive partner. Your article reaffirms for me how we shouldn’t be led by our egos or those of others’ (I’ve made the same mistake) and how we find real gems in unlikely places. Sometimes they just need a little TLC and polishing.

  • April 7, 2012 at 7:39 am

    This article is great. I have also learned the fancy horses are not always the best horses. I have learned you can’t ride papers or is the horses mind and heart that makes him or her a true competitor and great riding partner. I have seen some real rough horses come out of pastures and with baths, time and training, they become awesome competitors.


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