Farm Ireland

Monday 20 November 2017

What top eventing riders are looking for in a new horse

University of Limerick/RDS study finds that temperament and price are the key criteria when buying a top quality sport horse

Catriona Murphy

Ever wondered what the top three-day event riders are looking for in a horse? What do they look for in a horse when buying youngsters to bring on? How much are they willing to pay for the right type of animal?

A new study carried out by University of Limerick researcher Soraya Morscher includes interviews with the top four-star event riders in the country -- and some results you may find surprising.

Soraya, who previously won an award for her study of foaling problems in thoroughbred mares, had three main objectives for her study, entitled 'An Analysis of Conformation and Performance Variables in Potential Three-Day Event Horses in Ireland'.

Sponsored by the RDS agriculture committee, the study's aims were to determine the type of horse suitable for eventing at the elite level, to evaluate conformation in young event horses and to evaluate selection methods for young event horses in Ireland and their suitability.

This week, we look at what the top riders are looking for in an event horse.

When interviewed, 24 four-star event riders were asked to rate price, temperament, conformation, pedigree and movement in order of importance as selection criteria of event horses.

Some 56.5pc of riders rated temperament as the most important criteria, 21.7pc rated price as the most vital, 13pc saw conformation as the best trait and 8.7pc said movement was the most important. Surprisingly, none of the competitors rated pedigree as the most essential.

When asked about the age profile of the horses they bought for the sport, the majority -- 29.2pc -- bought horses as four year olds, while 20.8pc bought them as three year olds. Some 16.7pc of riders bought horses at five years old, while the same proportion bought horses of six years or older. None of the riders said they would buy horses as yearlings or two year olds, while 12.5pc of riders said they would buy horses at any age.

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Given the continued success of the Irish Sport Horse Studbook in keeping its spot as the leading studbook for eventing in the world for the past 15 years, it is not surprising that 56.5pc of riders thought the Irish Sport Horse crossed with a thoroughbred was the most suitable breed for eventing.


Another 17.4pc of competitors believed the thoroughbred was the most suitable, followed by Irish Sport Horse (13pc), while 8.7pc thought breeds other than the ones mentioned were the most suitable. A total of 4.3pc indicated German-bred horses as the best. None of the competitors selected Selle Francais or KWPN (Dutch Warmblood) as best eventers.

Now for some interesting reading for breeders of event horses: how much would riders be willing to pay for a three-year-old horse with potential for elite eventing?

A total of 8.7pc of competitors said they would pay less than €2,500, 26.1pc said they would pay less than €5,000 and 30.4pc said they would be willing to shell out less than €10,000. A further 21.7pc would pay €10,000-15,000. Just 4.3pc would pay up to €20,000, while 8.7pc would pay more than €20,000 for a three-year-old.

Soraya also asked the riders open questions about what type of conformation fault they would consider a hindrance in the sport of eventing.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of abnormalities listed related to the limbs and, out of all competitors, 54.2pc stated that they consider abnormalities in foot and hoof conformation as a hindrance.

More than half of the competitors considered flat or bad feet to be a particular problem.

Bad pastern conformation was considered a problem by just over 40pc of competitors.


In particular, long and sloping pasterns or short and upright pastern conformation were considered to be a hindrance to the sport. This agrees with a 2003 study by AP Bathe that showed long sloping pasterns were a hindrance in eventing. Another study showed that due to the large selection of horses with some degree of thoroughbred breeding for eventing, long sloping pasterns may be more commonly observed than in other populations.

Both studies linked them to an increased risk of breakdown in thoroughbred horses.

Slightly over a third of competitors considered generally bad leg conformation -- such as crooked legs, most likely referring to bench-kneed, knock-kneed or bow-legged conformation -- and bad knee conformation -- as viewed laterally especially back-at-the-knee and tied in knee conformation -- as a hindrance in the sport. This is not surprising as several studies have shown that those horses are more likely to suffer lameness, chip fractures, splints and ligament injuries due to the uneven loading of the distal limb, making it unlikely for horses with these abnormalities to last in top-level eventing.

Apart from leg abnormalities, a relatively high proportion (25pc) of competitors considered abnormal back conformation a hindrance. The riders emphasised that long backs were considered unsuitable.


According to Soraya, previous studies have identified long back conformation as faulty due to increased muscular and ligament strain and some difficulties with collection, even though long back conformation is recognised as an advantage for sports such as dressage as long backs are more supple.

"However, long backs are clearly not a desirable trait for eventing and would most certainly contribute to an increase of breakdown in the sport, and longevity is vital to an event horse in order to reach the highest level of competition," Soraya says.

Other conformational issues that riders highlighted included issues with the cannon bone, hock, shoulder, neck and quarters.

In another open-answer question, competitors were asked what personal criteria they would employ when selecting or buying an event horse.

Half of the competitors responded that temperament was an important criterion for selection of event horses, while 37.5pc of the competitors questioned referred to the attitude of the horse. This was followed by the third most frequent answer, conformation. However, the riders also mentioned athletic ability, good paces, the horse as a whole, health and price as important factors in choosing a horse.


"When buying a horse for any specific purpose it often comes down to personal preference," says Soraya. "Some riders prefer a slighter build of horse, some prefer bigger-framed horses, some prefer extravagant movement and others would choose differently again.

"I expected a variety of answers to what the most important criteria was when choosing a horse," she adds. "However, almost 90pc of riders agreed that the attitude or temperament of the horse is their primary criteria for selection.

"Behaviour, therefore, must play a very important part in eventing performance that cannot be easily evaluated," she adds.

"Riders specified that horses they selected in the past had a 'look-at-me factor' about their attitude and behaviour.

"The belief that temperament or attitude may influence performance is supported by a 2003 study by Visser, which proved that it is possible to predict a substantial part of jumping performance by personality traits assessed earlier in life."

The tests to assess personality in horses in this study included a novel-object test, a handling test, an avoidance-learning test and a reward-learning test.

Horses in the Visser study were subjected to the personality test early in life and, as three year olds, were backed and trained under similar circumstances and presented with a novel jumping course.


When analysed, more than 60pc of the variances in the showjumping performance could be linked to variables of the personality test.

"This strongly supports the competitors' belief that temperament is the most important performance variable to consider when selecting a future three-day event horse," claims Soraya. The University of Limerick student insists that there is a need to include temperament testing in the selection criteria for event horses and suggests that an explicit temperament assessment could be incorporated into the scoring system for the Future Event Horse League.

  • Next week we will cover Soraya's study on the Future Event Horse League as a selection system for three-day event horses.

Irish Independent

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