Riding Tips

What to Know Before Buying Your First Dressage Horse

Dressage horse
Written by Aimee B.

Halt at X. Make a Plan!

Is there anything more exciting (also scary, complex, expensive, stressful, time-consuming) than shopping for a dressage horse. It’s tough not to lose yourself in visions of a perfect partnership resulting in one flawless performance after another.

Shopping for a dressage horse is exhilarating but requires diligence and expert-level knowledge. And after reading this post, you’ll have the knowledge to confidently tackle the shopping experience. Stay tuned for what to look for in a dressage partner, where to find your horse, and who to contact for help in your search.

Dressage Horse Shopping Checklist

All excitement aside, dressage horse shopping takes work! Your perfect partner isn’t going to simply fall out of the sky and into your lap. A successful search starts with a checklist.

Start by listing all the qualities you’re looking for in an ideal world.

Since this is a simple brainstorming session, go crazy! Love bay horses? Write it down. Are you looking for a bombproof schoolmaster? Put it on the list. Do you want a horse who’s exactly 15.3 hands? Note it.

Give yourself plenty of time to daydream at this stage.

Also consider the following when compiling your checklist:

  • What are your riding goals?
  • What level are you currently riding, and where would you like to be in the next year? How about in the next five years?
  • Do you dream about taking a starter horse through the levels yourself? Or would you rather have an experienced horse?
  • What’s your budget?
  • Are there certain breeds that you’re more drawn to than others?
  • Do you want a horse with versatility? One who’s familiar with the dressage arena as well as perfectly happy spending a day out on the trail?
  • Would you prefer a gelding or a mare?
  • How much time will you be able to devote to riding and/or training?
  • Do you love horses with spunk? Or does your own firecracker personality pair more favorably with a steady-Eddie-type?
  • Do you have the time and expertise to invest in a young horse? Or would you rather buy a “been there, done that” type?
  • Are you able to travel longer distances to widen your search radius? Or are you hoping to find a horse closer to home?

Once you’ve completed your checklist, it’s time to separate the “needs” from the “wants.” This step requires honesty and a bit of soul-searching.

As an example, you may drool over that spunky chestnut mare you saw in first place in Fourth Level last year. But deep down inside, you know that her antics would shake your confidence and make the sport feel tedious.

Or you may think that you’d love to train a horse all the way up through the levels yourself. But your dressage experiences have been limited, and you don’t have a dressage trainer within a reasonable drive.

At this stage of the search, honesty helps you understand what you’re looking for in a horse. It saves your wallet, and heart, from becoming attached to a horse that simply isn’t a fit for you.

Enlist an Equine Professional to Help

One of the best ways to find your perfect dressage partner is to enlist the help of various equine professionals.

Consider enlisting the help of the following:

  • Dressage trainer
  • Veterinarian
  • Breeder
  • Farrier

Dressage trainers are an incredible resource because they have a solid understanding of the sport, including horse and rider requirements. They are typically a great judge of horse temperament and rider level, ensuring a favorable fit.

A trainer may be able to see a potential partnership between you and a horse that you would never have otherwise considered.

Another benefit of enlisting the help of a dressage trainer is that of networking. They often have extensive knowledge of dressage horses in your area and beyond. The dressage world is not all that big, and they may have the inside scoop on available horses even before they hit the market.

Veterinarians are the second essential equine professional to contact when you’re on the search for a dressage horse. Similar to dressage trainers, they have inside knowledge about a vast number of horses.

And regardless of how much you’re willing to pay for the horse up-front, knowing about possible health issues and the cost of maintaining the horse is essential information.

Breeders are often a great resource if you’re in the market for a specific breed. They will be able to tell you the pros and cons of certain bloodlines, information that’s especially important when it comes to temperament and trainability.

Similar to veterinarians, farriers often have inside knowledge of many horses. Dressage is one of the most athletic equine sports out there, and soundness of the horse is of particular importance. Farriers may also know whether there is a horse that fits your wish list in your local market.

Should you expect to pay commission on a horse?

It depends upon whether you buy directly from an owner or whether you buy through a sales barn or enlist the help of a dealer.

Some trainers double as horse dealers, meaning they assist owners in selling their horses. Owners may choose this option rather than selling the horse themselves because it takes work to sell a horse.

Between taking photos, videos, and getting the horse to optimal training levels, it’s tough to also find time to have prospective owners over to try out the horse.

Finding a dressage horse takes time and effort. Hiring a dealer to sort through the possibilities is sometimes more efficient than doing it yourself. Prospective buyers can also enlist the help of a horse dealer because they have wide knowledge of available horses.

Be aware that horse sellers and buyers may be required to pay commission to the dealer. Laws around this practice vary by state.

Online Shopping Tips

Thanks to the magic of the internet, shopping for a dressage horse can be incredibly convenient and even fun! Between the pictures, videos, and descriptions, you could lose yourself for days in the online world of horse sales.

Keep the following in mind when searching online:

  • Pictures and videos can easily be edited. The only way to see whether the horse is a fit is to try it for yourself.
  • Ask questions such as why the horse is being sold and whether there have been any past behavioral issues. Pay careful attention to the owner’s responses.
  • Stick to horses in your price range. Dressage horses can be some of the most expensive horses out there, and it’s not fair to you or the seller to fall completely in love with a horse you simply can’t afford.
  • Do some research on the owner. Have they sold horses in the past? And were the buyers happy with their purchases? You may also be able to search the horse and owner’s show record to verify their claims.
  • You will need to stop the scroll and actually try out a few horses at some point.
  • There is no such thing as a perfect horse. They all have their quirks and issues. It’s just a matter of figuring out which ones you can live with and which ones are deal-breakers.
Warmblood horse

Photo Cred: Canva

Where are the best online places to shop for a dressage horse?

Online buying options are abundant if you’re in the market for lower-level dressage horses. But if you’re looking for something more experienced or with a specific show record, you may need to get a little unconventional in your methods.

Several years ago, shopping in Europe for a dressage horse was popular for riders of all levels. Amateur riders in Europe were plentiful and often took their horses to higher levels before selling their horses and starting all over again with a young horse. And thanks to the currency exchange rate, American riders could get more bang for their buck across the ocean.

But European dressage has taken a turn away from the amateur-friendly dressage mounts over the past several years.

The sport has intensified, leading to more high-level competition, making it less of an amateur sport. This means that the market for amateur horses in Europe has also diminished. Regardless, if you’re in the market for a Grand Prix horse, Europe may still be your best bet.

Websites such as www.eurodressage.com or Dressage Horses for sale, UK – Horse & Hound (horseandhound.co.uk) offer a range of horses across Europe. You could also consider hiring an agent such as Peter Tomlinson from www.findadressagehorse.com for the ultimate European horse buying experience.

American breeders have made significant strides in dressage horse breeding over the past several years. Breeder websites often have listings of available horses.

And websites such as www.equine.com and www.equinenow.com advertise thousands of horses for sale all over the United States. Although these websites are not specific to dressage, they offer a wide range of breeds and price ranges, making horse shopping more affordable.

What are some red flags in a dressage horse sale ad?

There are a few phrases you’ll want to be highly suspicious of when you see them in ads:

  • No vices
  • Bombproof
  • Some maintenance required
  • Price reduced for quick sale

All horses have quirks, so when you see a horse is “bombproof” and “kid-safe,” you should become suspicious immediately.

Dressage is an athletic sport and requires horses to be free from lameness or significant conformation issues. After a time, joints can break down under stress and cause pain or reduced function.

When considering a dressage horse, you’ll want to screen for arthritis through the pre-purchase exam.

Sometimes a horse needs injections or other maintenance treatments to stay sound and pain-free. But injections can add up, so make sure you include maintenance considerations in your costs.

Be especially wary of horses that seem too good to be true… because they usually are.

Test Ride

The test ride is where all your preparation comes to fruition. It is an absolute necessity!

A horse can look fabulous in a video, but until you ride him, you won’t honestly know whether you’ll be an excellent fit for each other.

Tips to keep in mind for the test ride:

  • Come prepared with a list of any questions that haven’t already been discussed.
  • Once the horse is ready, request the owner gets on first, followed by your trainer.
  • Ask your trainer to come along and sit on the horse before you. You may need to pay for their opinion, but most trainers are happy to weigh in.
  • It’s ideal to arrive early so you can see the owner catch and saddle the horse.
  • If all goes well up to this point, it’s time to try the horse out for yourself!
  • Remember that if you feel uncomfortable at any point, you do not have to get on the horse. It’s better to walk away, utterly safe, than to regret a decision to get on in the first place.
  • If you and your trainer agree that the horse is an excellent fit for you, discuss the next steps with the owner. It’s customary to put a down payment on a horse you’re interested in to solidify your interest and reserve the right for the first refusal.
  • You and the owner should sign a contract before any money exchanges hands. And purchase should be contingent on the horse passing a pre-purchase vet exam.
  • If you’re on the fence about the horse, ask if you can come back to try the horse again at a different time.

What things should you look for in a successful test ride?

The horse’s performance should reasonably match the level at which it was advertised. Look for whether their gaits were easy for you to sit and whether the horse seems to have a pleasant and willing attitude. If all goes well, you should feel eager to try the horse again—versus thankful for the opportunity to get off the horse.

You should also feel reasonably good about your interactions with the owner. Do they seem honest and straightforward about the horse? Or do you get the feeling they are trying to conceal something?

Although you may not feel an immediate emotional connection with the horse, you should feel mostly positive about the overall experience. And if not, it’s ok to keep looking or even come back to the horse after you’ve seen a few other potential mounts.

What are red flags during a test ride?

Arriving for a test ride to find the horse already tacked up, or even worse, sweaty, is a definite red flag. At that point, you have to assume that the horse has saddling issues such as kicking out while tightening the girth or has a ton of energy. Either way, you want to see all aspects of the horse before deciding.

It’s always best to have the owner get on the horse first. It allows you to see how the horse moves and gives you an idea of how the horse responds to a rider.

An owner refusing to ride the horse for you is a huge red flag. Seriously consider simply walking away at that point, instead of getting yourself into a potentially dangerous situation.

Consider walking away if the owner refuses to have a vet of your choosing do the pre-purchase exam. It’s difficult not to assume the owner is hiding a significant health issue.

And walk away immediately if you show up for the test ride and the owner informs you that the horse you were requesting to see was sold, but he has a range of other fine horses. Dishonesty in the owner is not worth your time or your money.

Vet Check

Enlisting your veterinarian’s help to conduct the pre-purchase exam rather than relying on the seller’s vet is a wise option. This can get tricky if you’re considering a horse thousands of miles from your home. In this scenario, hiring a vet unaffiliated with the seller may be your best option.

Elements of the pre-purchase exam will include:

  • The horse’s complete medical and surgical history
  • Vital signs before and after exercise
  • Examination to look for lameness
  • Bloodwork
  • X-rays

Other procedures as recommended by the vet and based upon the history of the horse. Your vet may recommend more or fewer of these elements depending upon the situation.

For example, if you’re looking at an FEI dressage prospect, expect x-rays and possibly an ultrasound. A significant investment of this scope warrants verifying the horse’s athletic health as much as possible before making a purchase decision.

When should you get a pre-purchase exam?

Always get the pre-purchase exam before writing the check for the horse!

There are so many horror stories about buyers not doing their due diligence and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a horse only to find out that the horse has a major flaw constraining their dressage performance.

Regardless of the price tag on the horse, it’s ALWAYS wise to opt for the pre-purchase exam before making your final decision.

Dressage rider

Photo Cred: Canva

So You Bought a Horse…What Next?

You did a couple of test rides, and they went exceptionally well. The horse passed the pre-purchase exam with flying colors, and you paid the agreed-upon sum of money.

Congratulations! You’re officially a dressage horse owner!

It’s time to load the horse up and drive him home, or ship him. Keep in mind the following in bringing a new horse home:

  • Depending upon your barn situation, your horse may be quarantined for a short time.
  • Introduce your horse to pasture mates slowly and supervise initial introductions as this can be a prime time for injury.
  • Allow your horse plenty of time to acclimate to his new environment.
  • Take time to build trust between yourself and your new horse. Don’t expect an overnight relationship.

Should you get equine insurance?

Equine insurance commonly covers mortality and certain medical/surgical costs. Many horse owners opt for insurance to cover expenses related to unexpected accidents or injuries as opposed to replacing the horse after a sudden loss.

If in doubt about whether equine insurance makes sense for your horse, contact an insurance agent. They can walk you through all the different plans and benefits information.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How much does a good dressage horse cost?

The price tag for a warmblood trained to the upper levels of the sport can start between $50,000 and $60,000. Prices can also drift upwards of $100,000.

Although warmbloods are a highly successful dressage breed, keep in mind that almost any horse can excel in the sport. If you’re not looking for a Grand Prix horse, your options are wide open.

For example, Friesians and Friesian crosses are rising in popularity in the dressage world, and their price tag is lower, around $15,000 to $20,000. And if you’re willing to buy young, you can pay much less. Remember that buying younger often means a more considerable investment in training as the horse ages.

The American Quarter Horse is another versatile breed that can excel in traditional and Western dressage. This breed may start between $5,000 and $10,000.

Q: What should I look for in a dressage horse?

Temperament is one of the most important features to look for in a dressage horse. The horse must enjoy learning and working!

Conformation is also essential because dressage will be difficult if the horse is not built a certain way. In general, you’re looking for a horse that is fairly proportional and built uphill.

Movement is conformation in action. You’ll want to assess the horse at all 3 gaits. Although many people think a dressage horse should have huge, floaty movement, sometimes these qualities make upper-level work more challenging for the horse.

Look for a 4-beat walk, some suspension with reach at the trot, and an engaged hind-end at the canter.

Although you may be looking for features above and beyond temperament, conformation, and movement, each of the qualities forms the foundation for a potential dressage horse.

Q: What is a good age for a dressage horse?

It depends. You can find horses of all ages in the lower levels of the sport. Taking a horse up the levels takes years because a horse must be mentally and physically mature to excel in the upper levels.

Dressage horse headshot

Photo Cred: Canva

Parting Thoughts

Shopping for a dressage horse can be exhilarating and exasperating. But with knowledge and help from a few close friends, it can result in a solid partnership for years to come. All the best to you in your search for your dressage partner!

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:


Horse-Shopping Strategies to Find Your Perfect Dressage Horse (dressagetoday.com)

How to Find Your Best Horse – 7 Strategies for Horse Buyers – NW Horse Source

How Does the Horse Sale Commission System Work? (practicalhorsemanmag.com)

3 Top Tips for Choosing a Dressage Horse (fei.org)

How Much Do Average Horses Cost? (Quarter, Race, & Arabians) (horseracingsense.com)

Do I Need Equine Insurance? (equusmagazine.com)

Horse Shopping Tips: How to Choose the Best Horse for You (horsesport.com)

The Dos and Don’ts of Buying and Selling Horses (horseillustrated.com)

5 Red Flags You Should Not Ignore When Horse Shopping (And How to Address Them) | HORSE NATION

Should I Shop For Dressage Horses in Europe? (dressagetoday.com)

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About the author


Aimee B.

Aimee grew up riding and showing in western pleasure and horsemanship through 4-H. She began riding dressage 7 years ago and is currently training her 3.5-year-old Friesian/Quarter Horse.