Horse Shopping in Europe

Finding the right horse is a process, as this journal of a horse shopping trip to Europe reveals.
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Finding the right horse is a process, as this journal of a horse shopping trip to Europe reveals.

We arrive in the Frankfurt, Germany, airport four hours late because our flight from Philadelphia, Pa., was sidelined for repairs. From the airport in Frankfurt our rental car takes us in jet-lagged fashion to the town of Paderborn and the stable of Hubertus Schmidt (Fleyenhof) two hours north. We are, of course, late so we don't get to see Herr Schmidt ride. Some of the other riders are good but not better than many Americans so we're disappointed in day one.

We are also there to pick up my student, Katie Alms, who has been with Herr Schmidt for a long stay with her horse, Roodepoort II. She will join us on this horse shopping tour. My other students who are horse shopping are good amateur riders. Molly is very tall and looking for a schoolmaster. Denise is looking for a younger horse than her 13-year-old Remy Martin.

From Paderborn, we drive to the stable of Klaus and Judith Balkenhol. They have a beautiful stable. The dressage arena is set amongst the flowers with the elegant indoor arena attached. It is periodically pouring rain so the indoor is where we settle.

We may or may not buy a horse here, but we know we will see the best riding here. We also trust them, which is an important factor. It is one of many factors to consider when shopping.

First, there are all the left-brain factors. Is the horse the right size? Is he sound? Does he have three good gaits? (They needn't be flashy, but the rhythm of all three gaits must be good.) Is he safe? Does the rider feel confident? Sometimes the confidence factor isn't totally related to safety. Maybe the horse acts fresh and it bothers the rider or maybe it does not bother the rider. Most young horses act fresh at times when they might not have a go button which is the worst problem. The good horses have a great go button but they often need to learn about half halts and whoa. If the rider needs to constantly use the aids to make the horse go, she can't use them to make transitions and exercises. Then the rider always needs to push instead of being carried.

There is another factor that is totally chemical. Sometimes you just love a horse. Sometimes a horse meets all the left-brain requirements but for some reason he is not fun and you don't feel confident. even though he is beautiful and young and safe and sound--and within the price range, which is another left brain consideration of course.

The Balkenhols show us beautiful horses and invite us to ride even the horses we can't afford. The best experience was watching their daughter Anabel riding her Grand Prix horse. This is, for sure, the best experience we will have on our trip!

Denise rides a 7-year-old very well, and Molly tries an older schoolmaster that was Guenter Seidel's horse in his hay day. The horse is wonderful, but Molly doesn't feel confident on him.

We have a noon appointment with Helen Langehangenberg who was, for years, Ingrid Klimke's assistant trainer. We have been struggling with our GPS system which refuses to speak anything but German no matter how many times we program it to speak English. We have managed so far, but Helen's farm is remote ,and we give up and turn to Katie's iPhone. We blindly trust this little machine as it takes us here and there, and finally to an extremely remote road that can better be described as a bike path through a dark forest. Trees are hitting the roof of our Passat when we decide we should turn around. Then as we are turning around, we see large buildings looming through the forest. The fact of the matter is that this phone has taken us the closest route to Helen's farm, which is a small back entrance from which we can see the grand front entrance. They are amazed to see us arrive through this little gate.

There are 150 horses at this stable, a small percentage of them are with Helen and her new husband, Sebastian Heinz. He tells us that he has taken his new wife's last name, so he is Sebastian Langehanenberg. Helen is tiny but rides so correctly that she is wonderfully influential with the horse's balance. She rode Ingrid's Damon Hill in the Young Horse Championships as a 6-year-old when Ingrid was injured. They won. Sebastian is a good rider too, although today he walks with a limp, and other good riders ride for him.

We came to see a horse I found on the Internet. He is by Frappant, and one of my favorite horses is by him. However, this one is a bit too big for us. Katie tries a young horse and although he is nice, he is not for us. We move on and thankfully our navigation system gets us out of this area, which is far from anything. We will go to visit Eiren Crawford, a transplanted Canadian who also rode with Ingrid.

Eiren is an extremely good instructor, and she helps all three of my riders on a very handsome giant of a horse. Eiren has ridden him first, and makes him look fabulous. I wonder if he would be easy to get in front of the leg if he hadn't been warmed up by Eiren. It's hard to say.

We stay at the Ibis Hotel in Munster and plan to visit Michael Klimke the next morning. He has arranged to have eight horses that meet our specifications and price range. We arrive and I meet his wife who is cheerful and friendly and due to have a baby boy soon. The grandson of the great Reiner Klimke and his wife Ruth will be named Max. I think they are excited!

The horses we see here are all lovely. There are two by Welt Hit that are 6 and 7 years old and very nice horses. Michael has a good young horse that is very well educated. Katie tries a young horse, and Denise and Molly ride the Welt Hits, but the chemistry isn't there, although they are all good horses.

At Klimke's I notice that he has the same wing of the barn that his father used. I remember coming here in the 1980s and seeing Ahlerich in one of these stalls. Michael's mother Ruth comes to visit me. It is great to see her. She is a lovely person, and I remember her as an extremely good rider. She is part of German history and, in fact, world dressage history.

We are planning to meet Michael Ripploh in Warendorf at 2 p.m. I've known him for many years and have bought good horses from him. He has a certain type of horse that is often very suitable for amateurs. They are usually pretty and well trained. He does not disappoint.

First, Katie sits on a 4-year-old mare by Florestan out of a Rohdiamant mare. She is gorgeous. The bloodlines are fabulous and in my experience the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Katie isn't riding as well as usual for some reason, so she has lost her confidence and feels she doesn't ride well enough for the mare. I tell her she's doing a good job, so she keeps riding. The mare turns to her for advice, and she rides better and better. They click. This is chemistry. So this mare fits all the left-brain factors. She is beautiful and sound. She is safe because she is naturally well balanced and has a good mind--and Katie rides her well. She falls in love with this mare. She is also within her price range, but we will make a lower offer. My commission will be paid directly so it doesn't need to be included in the price. I expect the price to be lowered in view of this. There are too many people who will take too much commission, but that is another story.

The other horses Michael shows us are good but not quite what we want. There is a wonderful schoolmaster, but his conformation is a little weird, and he is expensive.

Next we drive north in preparation for seeing some horses recommended by Sabine Rode. We have bought two fabulous horses from her that are still in our barn. So we find a hotel in Essen (the northern Essen that is near Bremen), and we plan to be at the next barn at 8:30 a.m. the next day. This didn't work out. When we arrive, Herr B is very busy with another client. We don't mind waiting, but 35 minutes later we learn that the primary horse we are coming to see was sold. We ask about the other horse. Herr B tells us that Americans are always in a hurry. He gets on the second horse, and we see in two seconds that he is dead lame. We wave goodbye feeling disgusted. I make a note to never return. We always like to visit new people because they are often good people, and we broaden our resources.

Next we drive north of Bremen to meet a man I have seen before. He tells me he is one of the riders for the Hanoverian auction in Verden, and now I know why I recognize him. He has two young horses for us. One has funny conformation and we tell him he's not for us. The other is by Lauries Crusader out of a Weltmeyer mare. He is really well proportioned and naturally well balanced. We think he is small, but we see that for a 4-year-old, he is quite large and will mature into a big horse. He has a bit of a puppy dog in the window look. Both Denise and Katie ride him, and they both look good, but the mare has raised the bar for Katie, and he's a bit green for Denise or Molly.

I note that he's the kind of horse we like to bring home. He has good breeding, is naturally well-balanced, has three good gaits, has a good mind and is a fair price (Euro 25,000). We take the man's business card and say we will call him.

Next we head for the Danish border--1 1/2 hours north of Hamburg, but we are a half hour south. We come to a stop on the autobahn amongst campers and cars that are stuffed to the gills. Although it is cold and wet, vacationers seem to head north for some reason. We sit for six hours. The navigation system does its best to reroute us, but so far this day has been a bust because of luck and traffic.

In my experience, the horses in Denmark aren't always so close together, and they aren't always so well trained as those in the middle of Germany, but they are often less expensive, and it is possible to find a diamond in the rough. But it is also possible to waste time--precious time since we are only here for a week. I've found some sale horses with good breeding in southern Denmark on the Internet, and we hope to see them today, but the traffic is changing our plans.

After six hours of inching along through Hamburg traffic to the northern city of Flensburg, we finally start to move. We have asked the farmer to meet us late, and we're grateful that we can at least meet one of them. The horse has great breeding and when we arrive, we see he is, as promised, large, but he is actually freakishly elephantine and clunky. He didn't look sound either, and we said he was not for us. He wanted us to see a 4-year-old Holsteiner trot free, so we reluctantly stayed a few minutes. He trotted madly in a weathervane frame, and we repeated, "not for us." "Why?" He asked suddenly with a bit of a challenge. Just not our type we tell him. but, he's lovely.

The next farmer we plan to visit has lived in New Hampshire, so we can at least understand him. I can usually understand the Germans but Danish is totally beyond me. I often can't even tell the first letter of a word, so I say "spell it," more than a few times.

The man from New Hampshire has made a reservation for us at a great hotel. He promised it had good food and he was right. We had healthy, delicious food that didn't break the bank for dinner and again at breakfast. I'm always slightly fearful of starving in Denmark. Too many days of bread, cheese, chocolate, raw fish and other slippery foods can leave you depleted and overfed at the same time.

The following morning we visit the farmer who has a very well bred 6-year-old with a very large "no" button. Onward. More time wasted. We head to the very north of Denmark to Katrinelund. It is a wonderful stud farm nearly at the end of the line in Denmark. Ib Kirk is always pleasant and seems to love his horses. The navigation system gets us there with no problem, and the first horse we see in the paddock is Weltjunge, a beautiful stallion by Weltmeyer. He looks fabulous--an Adonis--large but somehow elegant. The last time we were here, Ib let my daughter Jennifer ride him, which was a thrill. He is apparently doing very well in competition. He's gorgeous inside and out.

Ib has a few horses we aren't interested in for one reason or another. The first one he shows us is a fairly normal horse of unknown breeding. I like to know the parents, but this horse is fairly diligent about his work and appears to be a perfect 5-year-old amateur horse. We might buy him together and develop him over the winter. Denise rides him very well, and I enjoy riding him, too. He doesn't understand half halts like many Danish horses that just go flat out against the bridle.

At the next farm is a 7-year-old schoolmaster-type gelding by Weltjunge. I'm very excited because the photos are beautiful. The horse is all we expected and more, but he has lost a left hind shoe and injured his eye on something. Hopefully these mishaps are not habitual. He is large but a lady's horse. Kind, well-balanced, cooperative--and only 7 years old. We think he is reasonably priced, but he is still too much for us. We think maybe we can negotiate his price.

On our way south we visit a large sales barn. I love a gray gelding who is very active, but Molly is a bit intimidated by the power. The rider (a man) seemed to have electric pants, so I wonder what he would be like with a normal rider. It's often a problem when we look at horses that have been ridden aggressively by large men. Denise and Molly ride him and find that he has no whoa button. I like him regardless, but it doesn't matter if they are uncomfortable with him.

There is a well-bred large old-fashioned type gelding also ridden by the electric pants. I really worry that when we bring him home, and he is ridden by small ladies, he won't be so willing to go--a far worse fate than no whoa.

Next we drive south. We go to a place where we have bought horses successfully before. It is near the bridge from the mainland to the island of Fyn. It is good to see the rider again. He is an extremely good rider. I love how he starts the horses walking for 10 minutes so they can look around and check things out. When he goes to work, the horse's frame is nice--no cranking the neck down. The horses, unfortunately, are not for us. Some of them are just not shaped the way we like. One is cute but too small. Out of seven, none are for us. Next we go east on the island outside the town of Odense. The horses here are well bred and normal-sixed (16.1 or 16.2 hands). One is cute, but I don't like how his front legs sort of splay out. Denise rides him anyway since we are here, and she finds that he has no whoa button. He's not for her. The other horse is beautiful and by Weltjunge. Denise rides him fantastically, but he paces badly in the walk, and the canter is subpar.

From Odense we make our way back, again, to the northern hinterlands--another three hours north to ride the chestnut Weltjunge again in the morning. We stay in the same hotel by the water near the bridge on the Isle of Mors. The food is OK but not great: bread, cheese, salami, liverwurst, watermelon, cukes, olives and yogurt. It was a buffet of things we usually don't want at 7 a.m., but we found Frosted Flakes and light milk that is actually cold (for a change). and very good coffee.

Back we go again. He stands ground-tied like a beautiful statue. His eye is better but not better enough. His shoe, instead of sitting sideways, has been pulled. We saw no blemishes except windpuffs and a mysterious bump on his nose, which we can have a vet check out. It's hard to ignore the experience of a malignant tumor on the nose of a horse in our past. He behaved well considering his apparent discomfort, and we felt cruel riding him, but we had driven nine hours to see him, our favorite. We hoped to make it up to him once he is in America. He was exactly the same in the snaffle bridle today. Eager to please, lovely to ride and nice on the eyes!

Now we need to drive nine hours south to see the big black horse at Eiren's (Molly's second choice) and Katie's mare at Michael Ripploh's a second time. Hamburg was mercifully traffic-free. This time we would look at the horses without the benefit of the warm ups of the normal riders. Katie and Molly will be the first ones to get on these horses. When Molly got on the black horse, he immediately flattened, stuck out his chin in unwilling fashion and put his hind legs way out behind him. Despite Molly's best efforts, the horse clearly didn't want to engage. If there's anything worse than a horse with no go button, it's a huge horse with no go button. That answered that question. Molly asked for trot, and the horse said, "huh?" Yet when he finally picked it up, he looked beautiful. We had seen enough.

Epilogue
We negotiated a fair price for three horses. We gave the Danish veterinarian our list of requests including blood work necessary for import, drug screen, 30 radiographs and a videotape of the physical exam and waited for their reports, which was reviewed by our veterinarian. If they pass, they will be insured and then we will make plans for shipping. When they arrive in New York, they will go to quarantine in Newburgh, N.Y., where they will stay for a few days. Then we can pick them up or have them shipped to our farm. Only later will we learn: Are they what we expected? Is there a fatal flaw that we didn't detect? Are they even better than we thought. We'll find out.

In the end, we brought one horse home, which was about average for us. And it was a fun-filled, educational week!