Picking Out a Young Jumper Prospect
By: Scott Lico
When picking out a young jumper prospect, it is important to have a clear idea of your overall expectations of the horse. You need to ask yourself, what you are looking for in the horse and what suits you best as a rider. Are you an advanced rider looking for something with incredible scope and showing potential to compete at the grand prix level one day? Are you an intermediate level rider and want something a little less high performance and perhaps easier to ride? Would you like to breed your horse one day and therefore want to own a stallion or mare? Do you have no intentions of breeding and get along better with geldings? Are you a tall rider and fit better on a horse of a larger build? Or are you of a smaller stature and need a smaller compact type? You should have a clear picture of what type of horse you are searching for. This will help prepare you for the selection process.
No horse has perfect conformation, but it is important that there are no faults that are likely to cause soundness problems in the future. The horse has to have good healthy feet, and not be too upright in the angles of the foot and pasterns. The legs should be tight and free from any swelling. The horse should have a kind eye and not a small, squinty eye — commonly known as pig-eyed. The shoulder blade should ideally be long and evenly sloped, and the hind quarters long and powerful. Should you have any questions or concerns, they can be discussed with your veterinarian prior to or during the pre-purchase exam.
Great jumpers come in all different shapes, sizes, and breeds.
When you have a good idea of what type of horse you desire, it’s time to start your search. I highly recommend the help from a trusted professional during this process.
When I’m looking for a young jumper, I’m looking for a horse that looks and moves like an athlete. It should move across the ground in a very light and elastic way. I prefer young horses to be a bit fresh and to have a sweet spook to them. If they are dull and bored with their job at a young age, they probably won’t have enough blood and interest once they are older, seasoned veterans. Ideally, the horse has automatic flying lead changes, though it’s not a deal breaker if they are not capable yet. When jumping, the horse should be very light and powerful off the ground. I like the expression “cat-like”. A good jumper should not want to hit the jumps, but be brave enough to try and jump them.
I actually like to see a young horse rub a fence when I try them, so I can see how it handles the jumps that follow. If the horse comes back around and hits the jump again and again, it is probably not going to be careful enough to be competitive. If the horse comes back around and hesitates or refuses, perhaps it’s too careful for all but an expert rider. What you want to see is the horse come back around and jump the fence boldly but give an extra effort that makes you say “Wow, that’s the one”.
As far as technique goes, every horse has their own style when jumping, and every rider has their own personal preference. I prefer a horse that is quite open behind. The hind end should follow through over a jump higher than the front end does. If the hind end is only as high as the front end when clearing a jump, or possibly lower, plan on having hind rails at some point. Never try a horse with special hind boots on to make the horse open up behind as this is false advertisement.
The front end should be square, tight, and quick. Again, the horse should be like a cat. Do not buy a horse that jumps low with its knees and over its shoulder, as this is a very dangerous technique and may cause a fall. I love a horse with a very round bascule, but there are a lot of amazing jumpers that actually jump inverted. Tremendous scope is always a plus, even if you only plan to jump 1.20m, as long as you can handle the horse’s power. Scope isn’t everything, but as they say, “No scope, no hope!”
It’s important to find out the asking price for a horse that interests you prior to a typical two day trial. When shopping for horses locally, it’s best if the owner is willing to let you take the horse on trial to your own facility for a few days. This allows you to get an idea for how the horse handles new environments. It also gives you and the horse more time to get to know each other even better before a potential purchase.
On the first day of the trial, insist on someone riding the horse before you do. This is very important for a few reasons. First, young fresh horses sometimes do dangerous things, and it’s best someone rides it first who knows the horse better than you do. Second, I find it easier to judge a new horse’s soundness from the ground. If I see any type of head bobbing or tripping, I may cancel sitting on the horse all together. Finally, it is much easier to judge the horse’s jumping technique from the ground. Depending on the horse’s age and experience, my preference is to see them jump a few oxers and a few verticals up to the maximum height the horse is comfortable with. I also like to see how the horse handles a few combinations and liverpools if possible. This first ride will usually tell you whether or not you are interested in sitting on the horse. If the horse looks to be your type, then it’s time to saddle up!
When trying a new horse, spend 10-15 minutes or so on the flat. Do some transitions to get a feel for how the horse responds to your legs and your hands. Make some different size circles to help evaluate their soundness. Try a couple flying changes and then move on to the jumping. Since this is a new horse, start small until you are comfortable jumping a little bigger. Keep it basic the first day. Don’t over-face the horse or yourself. You want to see and feel the horse at its best. You want to get to know the horse, the horse to get to know you, and get an overall impression. I like to use the second day of the trial to test any questions or concerns I may have had after the first day.
Once you feel you have found the right horse, it is highly recommended to run a pre-purchase exam. This exam will evaluate the horse’s current soundness, as well as help to pinpoint any potential soundness issues.
A final thought would be to not force yourself to like a horse. There are lots of horses out there and finding the right one usually takes a lot of time and effort. I’d also like to point out that picking out a young horse is high risk, but as the saying goes “the greater the risk, the greater the reward.” Good luck in your search!
Scott Lico is a USHJA Certified Trainer specializing in the development of young horses to the Grand Prix level. He has been a professional show jumping trainer for the past 12 years and currently runs his own stable, Scott Lico Stables. He was selected and participated in the prestigious George Morris Gladstone Program in May 2014, at the United States Equestrian Team headquarters. In addition to training with George Morris for the last 17 years, Scott has trained with many top horseman from around the world including Karen Healey, McLain Ward, Thierry Pomel, and Eddie Macken. Lico‘s students have had great success in the hunter, jumper, and equitation divisions.
Photographs by Kristin Lee, Digishots, and Brendan Carroll