Updated: Aug 7, 2021
Why should you shop overseas for a horse?
Simple: There are more horses to see, of higher average quality, in a smaller geographic area, for a lower price than there are here at home. This means that you can see a large representative group of nice horses that meet your stated criteria in your budget. In a few days of shopping, you can compare and contrast a significant number of suitable horses, then refine your priorities if you wish, then make an informed decision.
Yes, there are equally high-quality horses to buy in the USA, some of which were bred here, some of which have already been imported. BUT - there are fewer to choose from, and they are spread across our huge country. In most cases, it will take longer to find them, travel to them, try them, vet them, and get them shipped to you. It may also cost more money. Because they are fewer and farther between, it is also hard to see a representative group of what is available.
Let’s break this down further.
Why is it better in Ireland or Germany than it is in the USA?
1. There are many, many more horses in a much smaller area. We can see more than 20 horses in two days!
2. A more mature professional environment - horses in Ireland and Germany are for commodities for business and for agriculture, as well as for sport. As a result, there is a higher percentage of professional riders vs. amateurs there than here in the USA, and developing horses for profit is normal. This results in a competitive marketplace, and competition keeps prices lower.
Quality standards for breeders are also very high - breeders have hundreds of years of breeding tradition to learn from and live up to in Germany and Ireland.
The industry in Germany and Ireland is more blue-collar and agrarian in its heritage than in the USA, so there seem to be more pathways to education and careers there than here. It is not as important to start with wealth there. This also results in more marketplace competition and keeps prices lower.
3. In Germany, the industry is heavily regulated. Vet records are required to be transparent. If I use the farm's regular vet for a PPE, he or she is handed a federal form asking if the horse has ever had any illnesses or lamenesses. If this is not honestly filled out, and I get the horse home and discover an undisclosed problem, they have to refund my $$$ and take the horse back at their expense. The industry is regulated in favor of the buyer.
If they tell me a horse that I tried in an indoor ring in Germany is good about jumping into water, and I get it home and find out it is not, I can return it for a refund. The laws protect the buyer.
Ireland is not so much regulated in this way - like in the USA, the industry is relatively unregulated. This creates less drama for sellers but leaves us buyers open to the same kind of risks we face here at home. That's why it is important to travel and shop with agents we trust and to work out the financial arrangements with our agents in advance.
Who is this for?
This does, of course, assume you have a budget that puts you into the range that covers the cost of importing a horse - ballpark $9-12K for geldings, $12-15 for mares due to increased quarantine requirements.
People shopping for high-performance types are good candidates to look overseas - high-quality young horses are plentiful and easy to find for prices that make them economically competitive choices between the ages of 2 and 6.
Same for mature horses with good competition records.
Plus, it's fun! I love to travel, meet new people, make business connections, and learn about the sport and the industry in other countries. I love the whole experience of meeting horses and their breeders and riders - I love hearing about their breeding, their famous ancestors, and their siblings who have accomplished this or who are great at that. I really appreciate the culture of horse breeding and equestrianism in other countries.
On a more professional level, I also love looking at a horse, analyzing its conformation, pedigree, and competition record, then comparing those things to its rideability, its training, its character, and that special (or not so special) look in its eye.
And then there's the client - if the client is with me on the trip, I can coach them riding the horses, compare notes after we have both ridden them, and I can help them balance the strengths and weaknesses of each horse. I can help provide context for initial quality, level of training, and price in the current market. I can be supportive while the client's perspective and maybe their priorities change as they ride more and more great horses. And then the choice is theirs! It's always an educational and energizing experience for them and for me.
If the client sends me to try horses on their behalf and does not travel with me, I feel a HUGE responsibility to be as clear and communicative as I can be - I make lists of pros and cons for each horse to impose a high level of observantness on my part and to prevent myself from getting over-excited about one in particular! I do not have a good poker face, so I surely let people know which one I love the most, but I try very hard to give the buyers all the information.
We fly into Dublin or Hamburg. My trusty agent in each city will pick us up at the airport and will have planned a few days of shopping for us in advance. Normally we fly overnight and land in the early morning - I pop into the lady’s room and change into breeches and boots, then grab a coffee and meet my agent outside. My Irish and my German agents both prefer their coffee black. Neither drinks water. Just coffee. Remember this.
We may or may not get extensive videos of each horse before arrival - I know my agents well, and I trust them. We don't need to spend time looking at videos of horses that may be sold by the time we get there. There will be lots of good horses to see, and those horses will cover a range of types that all meet our requested description for a horse. We do not tell the sellers that the shoppers are American - American prices are sometimes higher!
We go straight from the airport to the first barn. In Germany, it will likely be one of two private barns close to the city or to the Holsteiner Verband, which is close and is on the route that we typically take out of town.
When I was in Dublin a couple of weeks ago, we looked at the first horse at a private barn near the city at 6:30 AM before the trainer drove her kids to school! Needless to say, I didn't ride my best, but I was shopping on behalf of a young teenager learning to event, so the horses took good care of me in my up-all-night, over-caffeinated state. If they hadn't been safe and cheerful, we would not have been trying them anyway!
The rest of the day will be the same - drive, ride, drive, ride, drive, ride. It's my version of heaven.
Lunch is a mixed bag - gas station food in Europe is MUCH better than in the USA. Homemade bread for little sandwiches, curry plates, sausagey things. The drinks are better, and there is more variety. Lots of different types of waters (who knew?), sparkling juices, kombucha with weird additives. Coffee. Very nice chocolate.
In Germany, there are also some great sit-down lunch spots - old inns, beer gardens, and once the restaurant at an indoor ski hill (the food wasn't special but the people watching was hilarious). When I was recently in Ireland, everything was still closed due to Covid, so sausage ruled the week, and I tried lots of different cookies. Highly satisfactory, if not great for my weight loss plan.
In Ireland, there is a great Air-BNB situation in a lovely historic home, and there are nice inns nearby. In Germany, we usually stay at my favorite hotel ever - it has four rooms upstairs over a local pub. It is comfortable, cheap, and the food is amazing. They lay out a huge breakfast spread every morning, even if I am the only one staying there, and they make great dinners (if I get home early enough to eat). It seems as though everyone in the town gets together to eat dinner there - it's fantastic.
Days Two and Three: Early morning starts. More horses. More driving.
I sense that both my agents try to save the best horses for day two or three - they give us time to get our sea legs, to hone our eye for quality, and often to overcome the sense of shock and awe that we are really there, really doing it! On every trip I have taken, I have also raised my expectations over the course of the trip. I recalibrate my eye to the level of quality, the excellence of training and riding, and the scope of the budget I have to work with.
By the end of days two and three, we will definitely have a shortlist of stand-out contenders! Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, where we will cover money, negotiating, commissions, shipping, and quarantine!