Many will look to buy a young horse and bring it up through the ranks. But how can you tell if that gangly young horse standing in a field will be the perfect match for you and your eventing ambitions?

Canadian eventer Leahona Rowland of Orangeville, ON, is currently residing in England, based with Irish eventer Niall Griffin and Polly Jackson. The pair also run a yard in Ireland, Monart, which hosts a popular elite sale focusing on quality event horses of every age and experience level. (Canadian connection: one notable sales graduate is Shandiss McDonald’s Rockfield Grant Juan, who placed 16th at the 2013 Rolex Kentucky CCI****.) Leahona recently sat down with Niall over a pint of Guinness to pick his brain on the subject of how to assess young eventing prospects.

Where is the best place to find young event horses, and who is doing the best job of producing them?

“Germany and Ireland. The two are always fighting for the top spot. I have had experience buying from both countries, and this may sound a little biased, but I prefer the Irish horse. Young horses that come from Ireland, although they may not be quite as ‘produced’ as the German horses, tend to have a better soundness record. It’s due to the fact they spend a large portion of their early years in large hilly fields and are given the time to mature in a natural way. Many of the horses you see today on the European eventing circuit and the American circuit have Irish breeding somewhere in their bloodline.”

What age range do you prefer?

“I think the ideal age range is from about a four- to a six-year-old. This is the age when you have the most influence on the horse’s personality. They are essentially a blank canvas at this stage. They are new enough to the world that through the right training you can teach them solid basics and confidence that will stay with them for the long term. It can be hard to retrain a horse when it has been taught something incorrectly. In my experience it’s best to get them when they are young and new to the world.”

How important is breeding?

“Ideally, I like to have some Thoroughbred in the breeding. It gives the horse the stamina and speed needed for the challenges of cross-country. It also makes them light enough in their conformation so they have a better chance of staying sound. Then combining the Thoroughbred with a sport horse gives the horse the power, movement and mindset needed to excel in the dressage and jumping.”

Describe the type of conformation you like to see.

I like an attractive head with big ears and eyes. In Ireland, we have a saying: “Big ears, big heart.” So far, it’s turned out to be less of a saying and more of a fact, in my experience. Next I move on to the neck and shoulder. You want to see a good length of neck. The neck should be nicely arched and set on properly as it comes out of the shoulder. The shoulder should have a good angle that is not too upright. This is vital for good movement.

“I look for a well-proportioned leg. The cannon bones and pasterns shouldn’t be too long, as this can lead to soundness problems in the future. When you look at the horse head-on, the legs should look straight and not toe-in or out. The foot should be the appropriate size for their body and not look too boxy or too flat. You want a short, strong back and a nice round hindquarter. This will give the horse the strength and power it needs to do the job. The stifle should not be too upright or too angled and should connect nicely into a strong, solid-looking hock joint.”

What if you don’t know what a good shoulder or nice stifle angle look like?

“Learning to recognize good conformation is like learning anything: you must practice. The best way is to study horses that have all sorts of different conformation types and train your eye to recognize both the good and the bad. It takes time and patience. Getting the help of a professional can also help to set your mind at ease.”

What do you look for regarding movement in-hand?

“I first like to see the horse trot away in a straight line in hand. I want to see straight movement with no swinging or paddling of the forelimbs. I look for the horse to be light and uphill in front. Chances are if they trot uphill, they will ride uphill. Some young horses still have some growing up to do in front, so they can look a little low at the wither in the early years. As they mature, their wither will come up and they will level out.”

What do you ask the horse to do under saddle?

“I have the rider run through the walk, trot, and canter. I look for a walk that is big and covers ground. Usually, if they have a big walk, they will have a big gallop. The trot needs to show elevation and a good amount of movement through the shoulder. The canter can be a deal-breaker for me. You can improve a trot, but it’s very hard to really improve a canter. You want the canter to show natural balance and some degree of adjustability.”

“If the horse hasn’t been broken yet, then I would ask to see it free jump just to assess the horse’s form and style over a fence. If the horse is being ridden over fences, I like to see a good solid technique that shows the horse being good in front and behind. I like to see the horse approach a fence unassisted by the rider. The horse should study the fence and make the right decision at takeoff, while keeping the forward movement to the jump.”

“I look for the same reaction when it comes to the horse jumping cross-country fences. You want to see them coming forward to the fences, rather then backing off at every jump. It’s very normal for young horses to be a little backed-off if they haven’t jumped a lot of cross-country. But you want the general impression to be that they are willing to do the job.”

Do you generally buy horses with some show experience, or do you prefer them completely green?

“I buy both. My job is to produce horses for people to buy, but ideally horses five and up would have some show experience. It’s nice if they have been somewhat accustomed to the atmosphere at an event. Then it’s just a matter of taking them to enough events and places that they become comfortable with the competition environment.”

How much would you expect to pay for a young event prospect?

“That can vary a great deal. The more raw or unbroken they are, the less you will pay. You may get a very nice three-year-old for $5,000-$15,000 (CAD) or you can pay anywhere up to $30,000 for a well-produced, talented five-year-old. It’s all about what you are looking for and what experience level you want.”

Any final advice?

“The bottom line is you can easily come up with a long list of the ideal breeding, size, age, and conformation that you want. The fact is you can walk down any stable aisle at Badminton or Rolex and see a list of flaws on almost every horse competing there. But the one thing most of them have in common is the heart and the mindset to make them great.”

“When you go looking for that perfect match for yourself, try to get a feeling for what sort of horse it is. Does he seem willing and happy to do the job when you ride him? Did you enjoy riding him? At the end of the day it’s not always the one that looks like it can do the job, but the one that shows it has the heart to do the job.”