Why I Went to Europe to Find a Horse Without a Trainer

Why I Went to Europe to Find a Horse Without a Trainer

This blog post is written by Jessica Abrahamse, and photos are also provided by her.

Let me start this story with a bit of background. I am a rider in my 40’s with over 30 years of experience in the jumper, hunter, equitation and dressage rings. I bought an amazing imported Dutch Warmblood mare with FEI experience up to 1.45m in Canada as a 14 year old. She was my heart horse, exceptional and talented. I had a great trainer at the time who helped me find her through a situation that in normal circumstances would not have been in my budget. After several successful years of showing in the jumper ring, I stepped her down to an easier job, and it was time to find my next competition horse. The problem? Because my mare was so exceptional, I had a hard time finding anything locally that met my standards that wasn’t excessively pricey (over six figures in Canadian dollars).

After several disappointing trials and failed vet checks (cha-ching!), I concluded that my best course of action was finding a young two or three-year-old with no proven show record, and hope that after several years of training, the horse would have the potential to get into the upper level jumper ring. This seemed like a risky proposition.

I started asking some knowledgeable horse people in my network about Europe and what you could find for a modest budget. I was surprised to learn that there were several well bred athletic jumpers for a fraction of the costs that I was looking at in North America. My first step was getting  very clear about what my deal breakers were, what type of horse I was looking for, age, height, ability, and the costs for importing including worse case scenarios. The summer I conducted my research, as I wasn’t riding with a trainer,  I instead had a few trusted friends help me review videos for their opinions.  Even though this was the fifth horse that I would be purchasing over my lifetime, I was new to the concept of doing it on my own. It was a little scary as an amateur who always had the guidance of a trainer previously for this type of big decision, however I also felt empowered, trusting my intuition and judgment. I was looking forward to having an experience where I could choose my horse based on the feeling and connection I had with them. 

My vet was supportive of my journey to find a horse and looked over dozens of X-rays for me. This was a key part of the process in figuring out which horses to try, and I learned quickly that North American standards differ from European standards of vetting. Several horses were eliminated right away. The other difficulty was that I would find horses that I liked, and they had good X-rays, but they sold before I could come over and try them. This happened a few times, and so the next time I found a horse I liked and the X-rays were good – I put a small deposit of $1000 euros to hold her until I came over to try her. This turned out to be an expensive lesson. When I went to try the horse in real life, she was smaller than advertised and I did not click with her at all. The owner would not refund my deposit.

Finally in September 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, I set up the appointments, booked my flight and started my adventure to find my new horse.. One noteworthy mention is how different it is to see a horse on video than trying the horse in real life. There were several horses that I was tempted to just buy and save myself the hassle of traveling overseas, but when I tried these horses in real life, some were dead off the leg, some were too sharp for me, some had a spook and a bolt, some horses bulged to one side. This is information that you cannot quantify without trying a horse in real life. It cannot be overstated that the European style of riding is different and most of the horses will not be used to the North American style right away, so it’s important to find a horse that can adapt.

I was nearing the end of my so far unsuccessful  trip and I was off to try the 11th horse. He was a last minute addition, as the private farm was not located close to anything else I had tried, but something about his ad pulled at my heartstrings - he had such a big kind eye . . I pulled up to the farm and met the owner of the horse, an 18-year-old boy who had trained the horse himself. The horse was a statuesque beautiful dark bay gelding with a star.  He was tall, 17.2h and a bit gangly. His owner got on first and I was instantly taken by how big his movement was and how even his canter gait was. He put him over some jumps, and it was clear that 1m was a piece of cake for him. The horse had competed to 1.20m and was schooling higher.

When I got on, I found him to be just the right amount of sensitivity and very nice to ride. I rode over a few jumps and was instantly smitten. He forgave my amateur chips and didn’t miss a beat. He was perfect. I finally found my horse! His name, fittingly, was Hope.

I went through the process of importing Hope, and he finally made it home to Canada. While it took him some time to settle and for him to find the right program, we have an amazing partnershipI have owned him now for two years and I can truly say that I am happy that we found each other.  I won’t say that I decided on buying my horse completely on my own, as I had my close friends and my vet weigh in with their opinions – but the ultimate decision was mine and I am happy with my decision.

Going on this trip independently taught me something invaluable, to believe in my ability as a rider, my judgment and horsemanship from the years that I have put into this sport, and to take a chance and believe in the connection with my horse when I felt it. It changed my mindset of what a trainer’s role is in the process of buying a horse with an amateur. I see a trainer as a conduit to finding a horse and assisting in filtering out unsuitable prospects, however the role is not to dictate or control the process rather provide their experience and knowledge to help the amateur rider make the best informed decision. Amateur riders should have the ability to provide their trainer with potential horses that they find interesting and request feedback from their trainers. Transparency about commissions and fees should be discussed up front, the focus should be on finding a quality horse for the rider and adding a good horse to their program. 

About the Author: Jessica Abrahamse is lifelong rider who loves competing in the jumper ring and dressage ring with her horse Hope. If her car doesn’t smell like a barn and there isn’t a random piece of hay in her hair something is wrong. Outside of horses, she is an avid traveler and likes to explore different cultures and urban and rural landscapes. An animal lover in general, she lives with a Shephard, a Boerbel and a husband who supports her horsey lifestyle. You can follow her on FB or Instagram @european_equestrian_experience.