What Makes a Million-Dollar Dressage Horse, and Advice on Buying Your Dream Horse

Diaton sold for nearly a million dollars!

By Sally O’Dwyer

Dressage trainer Sue Martin recently presented her thoughts over Zoom on buying dressage horses for Boulder Valley Dressage members, a chapter of the Rocky Mountain Dressage Society of Colorado.

Just for fun, we began with the question, “What makes a million-dollar horse?” The topic is somewhat fantastical to most of us amateurs, but nonetheless fascinating.

Sue began by reviewing videos of two horses that sold a couple of months ago at the elite PSI European Auction held annually in Germany. The glamorous and glitzy auction offers international buyers “an exclusive selection of quality four-year-old dressage and jumping horses destined for the top echelons of the sport.”  The first horse, Diaton, a stallion, sold for USD $858,000. The second, Gremlin, a gelding, sold for USD $500,000.  Why did they sell for so much cash?  Sue used words that included “symmetry, rideability, excellent natural gaits, fluidity of movement, excellent conformation, straightness, good bending, modern build, and great bloodlines.”

Don’t have the cash?  Nevermind, because these horses are probably not good amateur prospects. They are large, powerful, and huge movers. They tend to be bold, extremely energetic, and sensitive, which Carl Hester says require “tactful and sympathetic riding.”

After reviewing the best of the best, Sue showed a video of a Prix St. Georges horse that sold recently in the US.  She explained that for most amateurs, this was the horse of choice.  Perhaps not as fancy, but willing, steady, older, tried, and trustworthy.  This horse had been to many shows scoring in the 70s and was a happy, easy-going fellow.

Sue gave some great advice about buying horses for amateurs:

 1. Make sure you know what you want to do with the horse.  Most buyers do not really know what they want, making the horse shopping experience nightmarish.  If you can’t narrow down your search, you will drown in a sea of thousands of videos and ads.  If you hope to earn a USDF Bronze Medal on your next horse, be clear about that with your trainer and the vet. Looking for an amateur’s dream—that is perhaps older and needs a little maintenance? Are you a timid soul looking for a gentle ride? Are you an intermediate rider looking for a horse with a flying change?  If you are searching for a horse trained to the FEI levels, know that the horses will be pricey.

 2. Be realistic about your ability and seek rideability.  Are you comfortable on the horse? Anxious to get off?  Fearful?  Don’t get over-horsed. Do not be tempted to buy a wild child (even though it’s really pretty) if this is not what you can handle. Buying a horse that is too much for you will set you way back in your training, probably scare you, and maybe put you in the hospital.

3. Buyer beware.  Unfortunately, some sellers will tell you anything you want to hear about the horse they have to sell you. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions and to ask for references.  If you like a horse in a video, have it vetted before flying somewhere to go see it. 

4.Bring a trainer or horse professional when looking at a horse. You need someone to represent you and to help you decide whether the horse is suitable for you. Trainers know the dressage market, can spot lameness that might go undetected by an amateur, and can assess whether the horse has been brought up the levels correctly and isn’t missing a critical piece of his/her education.

5. Buy a horse with good conformation. The better the conformation, the fewer chances you will be dealing with health problems down the road.

6.Never buy a horse after only one ride.  Multiple rides are needed to really assess suitability. If a seller resists offering you additional rides, that is a sign you should walk away.

7.Young horses may cost less, but they are probably best left to the professionals.

8.  Buy all the gaits. Sellers like to show a big flashy trot, but the walk and canter matter most.

9.  Consider your budget. You may fare better spending more of your hard-earned cash on training than on the cost of a horse. Training may take you further than a high-stepping horse.  Don’t look at a horse that is more than 20% over your budget. By the way, do not ever consider buying a horse as an investment!

How about a smaller horse???? (photo above) Rayme and Rhett

10.  Don’t buy for color. “A good horse in no bad color.” You might miss out on a great horse if you insist on a paint or a buckskin.

11.  Don’t rush into anything. It can take many months to find a horse that is just right for you.  To prevent you from leaping into a purchase simply because you are eager to ride, consider leasing while you search because your quest may be protracted.

12.  Get it in writing. Most horses are sold with a bill of sale that states that the horse is sold “as is” with a statement that the buyer has done all examinations of the horse including the vetting. Occasionally a seller will agree to offer a guarantee if the horse has a past injury. The seller may give an option to return the horse if the injury flares up again. Usually, these guarantees have a time limitation, perhaps one year or something like that.

Each state is different, but most have laws requiring sellers to disclose past soundness issues and behavioral problems. Many sellers do not do this. You can ask for past vet records. Make sure you ask for all records as some sellers will use multiple vets and only give some of the information. Keep in mind that some people call the vet for everything and some deal with things on their own. Just because the horse saw the vet frequently does not always mean there was a serious problem. If the seller does not want to release records—do not purchase the horse. Beware of contracts that completely exculpate the seller.

Just in case you don’t have a million dollars, Sue discussed ways to buy a horse for you at a MUCH MORE REASONABLE PRICE.

For those of us on a budget, you might wish to consider:

  • An older horse that perhaps requires a little maintenance.
  • A smaller horse.  If you are not a large person, a smaller horse might work for you. Perhaps even a pony.
  • A horse that perhaps is not doing so well in another discipline—like a horse that isn’t enjoying being a jumper.
  • Other breeds. Warmbloods tend to be expensive.  They are many different breeds that might work well for you.   Off-the-track Thoroughbreds, for example, are easy on the wallet and can do well in the dressage arena.

 The good news is that you do not have to buy a fancy prancer to be your dressage partner, nor do you have to pay a million dollars.  To find your dream horse, remember to get some clarity about what you want and get a professional to help you in your search.  There are numerous websites and Facebook pages filled with horses for sale. Happy Horse Shopping!

Sally O’Dwyer on Rayme and trainer Sue Martin.

Don’t leave home without one of these: A horse professional.

Sue Martin is a Grand Prix rider and trainer with more than 40 years of experience. Sue has trained 35+ horses to the FEI level and more than 15 to Grand Prix. She has qualified for the Festival of Champions 6 times and attended 3 times. She has won numerous regional and national awards.

About me. I am an amateur dressage rider, living in Boulder, Colorado.  I have horses and enjoy learning and competing in dressage.  I hope to encourage others to GO FOR IT!


  1. regarding #10, I think you mean pinto, not paint. Pinto is the color, paint has registry requirements in addition to the pinto coloring.

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