The $1 Grand Prix Horse

Ampara Visser and Quanto Costa, the horse she bought for $1 and trained to Grand Prix. Photo by Jennifer Ashley.

She rolled the dice on a talented dressage horse with serious behavioral issues—and it paid off beyond her wildest dreams

By Ampara Visser

Some life events are so significant that we remember exactly where we were when they happened. In my case, I’ll never forget the moment when I learned about the horse that would go on to change my dressage career forever.

It was spring 2017, and I was returning home from a dressage show when a former student messaged me about a horse that was being given away because of behavioral issues. His owner had suffered a few nerve-racking accidents, and the emotional toll had gotten to be too much. Would I be interested?

Of course I was. As a horse-crazy kid with limited financial means, I grew up showing an Arabian mare in open hunters and dressage. Another dressage horse was a rescue that had been abandoned by her previous owners. I’d developed a soft spot for the equine underdogs, and my most cherished competition moments have come from being able to show off the relationships I’ve built with my horses and how hard they try for me, even if we don’t win.

This particular prospect sounded a little worrisome, though. His nickname was Q, after a somewhat nefarious force in the Star Trek series. Q’s behavioral quirk was that he would leave when he didn’t like something—cross-ties, stalls, dressage arenas—with or without his owner’s approval. The final straw came when they were practicing trailer loading, and Q decided to leave the trailer. Problem was, the trailer was entirely closed up, and in the ensuing chaos the horse managed to get himself up and over and tangled in the chest bar. I find trailering to be somewhat stressful even in the best of circumstances, so I could see why Q’s owner had decided that enough was enough.

Still, Q looked pretty nice in his video. When I went to see him, I could tell by his expression and through his interactions with his owner that they had a challenging relationship. But Q’s owner loved him, and she kept telling me that Q was probably the most talented horse she would ever own. It takes an incredible amount of courage and good horsemanship to recognize when a match is not the best for either horse or rider, and I am still impressed that she was able to make that decision.

Q and I had some good test rides, so for the sum of $1 I decided to take him home. Only thing was, home for me is Virginia, and Q was in Georgia. There remained the slight complication of a 10-hour trailer ride for a horse that had recently lost it during his last trailering attempt. After many conversations with vets and shippers about what kind of rig and what kind of medical help to try for him, it was a huge relief when Q finally hopped off the trailer in Virginia, apparently calm and unscathed. Soon thereafter, I renamed him Quanto Costa—Italian for “How much does it cost?”—as a wink and a nod to my new horse’s bargain price tag.

In our first year together, we worked hard to get the trailering challenges under control. I didn’t have much interest in showing at the lower levels at that point, so I let a student compete Q. He would still leave the arena on occasion, but when he stayed put they got pretty decent scores, even though neither had much dressage-competition experience. Showing Q at First Level, I thought, might be fun, after all.

In one of our first tests together, Q got a 74% in absolute buckets of rain and was the second-highest score of the show. In the years that followed, he went on to earn high-score or reserve awards at nearly every show we entered, also picking up various year-end titles at levels from First through Intermediate II. Earning those kinds of scores had always seemed an unobtainable pipe dream for me, available only to riders with bazillion-dollar European imports, and I almost couldn’t believe my good luck.

We still had our challenges, however. During a lesson early in our partnership, my trainer noticed that Q’s haunches had lost muscle. Testing revealed that Q had EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis). Within a few days of starting treatment, we noticed a marked difference in Q’s muscular development and balance—which had the beneficial side effect of bolstering his confidence. Q is an incredibly smart and sensitive horse who gets upset when he doesn’t understand or can’t do something, so it must have made him pretty worried not to have full control over his body.

Even after the EPM treatment, Q would still have the occasional emotional outburst, which not infrequently ended up in a rear. At one clinic, the auditors beside us had to make a quick exit because there was no way I was able to stop my horse from otherwise ending up in their laps.

As Q and I got to know each other better, I realized how important it was to explain things to him to the best of my ability and to direct his emotions to his work. Q is one of those horses who always gives 110%. He never says no; he gets upset only when he doesn’t understand what is being asked of him. To this day, he lets me know how he feels about things; if I am unfocused during a ride, he gets more annoyed than any other horse I’ve met. But if I’m with him and giving him what he needs, he is all in. He is one of the few horses I’ve shown who I am absolutely certain will show up and help me out in every single movement.

Q in the FEI arena. Photo courtesy of Ampara Visser.

After Q placed second in his first Prix St Georges (“You were worried about the three-tempi changes, Mom? No problem, I’ll do them for an ‘8’”), Q’s previous owner sent an incredibly gracious message, saying she hoped Q and I would get all the way to Grand Prix. And in the summer of 2022, he did. 

Q wasn’t yet completely confirmed at the level, but my mom was in town and had been so incredibly supportive of us, and I wanted her to be able to see his debut. I also knew how lucky we were to be there and how fragile circumstances with horses can be, so we decided to go for it. My horse was incredible. Our tests weren’t perfect, but we still managed to get a couple of scores in the 60s. And contrary to every possible training recommendation, the first time we ever got a complete set of one-tempis was during a test. I was grinning so hard, I almost forgot the next movement.

I had previously competed a wonderful Grand Prix schoolmaster, but Q was the first horse I had built to the level myself, and I was in tears around his neck as we left the arena. It was another thing this horse-crazy kid had never thought possible; and the lifetime of work, support from others, and incredible luck that had to come together to make it happen is still almost unbelievable.

Today Q continues to polish his Grand Prix, and we’ve added jumping and trail riding to the mix. He is as smart, willing, and talented over fences as he is in the dressage arena, and we are having a blast. Previously nervous on trail rides, he’s recently come to understand those, too; and with every new thing we do together, our relationship grows. Q offers the almost magical connection to his people that I think we all dream about when we first start riding. Our sport still requires a lot of other resources, but Q is proof that a lot of heart, a lot of understanding, and a lot of love can go a long way.

Ampara Visser is a USDF gold medalist and a member of the Virginia Dressage Association, a USDF group-member organization (GMO). She operates the dressage training business A Training Vision in Haymarket, Virginia.

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