When Heidi Degele answers the phone at 8pm she apologizes for not being able to speak earlier. She has three sales horses in process and another horse flying to Las Vegas in the morning, but that is just a standard day for the Wellington based trainer who sells an average of twenty five horses a year. Degele has helped clients all over the globe find their perfect partner, sending horses everywhere from Canada to Peru. "I think I have horses in almost every state!', she exclaims. In addition, the USDF Gold Medalist is an accomplished rider, having lived in Germany where she trained with Olympian Huertus Schmidt and earned a name for herself in international competition. However, what is most striking about the incredible horsewoman isn't her unparalleled sales stats or her impressive training resume, but rather her candid advice when it comes to horse shopping. Degele is a straight shooter that knows horses inside and out, and her one resounding piece of advice for riders seeking their dream horse is shockingly simple - buy a horse that will make them happy.
Speaking honestly Degele says, "Sometimes I'll see riders that want a younger horse in biggest, nicest, fanciest package they can afford." But Degele has a soft spot for seasoned horses with proven track records and believes schoolmasters are often more enjoyable to ride than their younger, flashier, and less trained counterparts.
"Buy the horse with the best education that might be a little bit older. Often I'll see riders who don't want to buy the thirteen or fifteen year old horse because they feel like they aren't buying the best value." However Degele insists "the older well schooled horse will teach you so much more. I have a saying, 'green plus green makes black and blue'. When these riders get a horse that's too green then I hear them say 'oh, my trainer is riding the horse all of the time and I don't get to ride it'."
According to Degele, being honest about your own abilities and aspirations will help you to find a horse with whom you'll have the most fun with in the long run.
"I've had clients in my barn who have bought many horses from other dealers and then sent them to me (because they weren't the right fit). I have one client now who bought a fourteen year old Grand Prix gelding and she's in heaven with this horse. She said she's bought and sold 20 horses to find this special horse, and she this time didn’t look past him because of his age and now she’s having the time of her life."
When searching for one's dream horse, Degele believes there are advantages to both buying within the US or going to Europe, but where a rider's search takes place should be dictated by their purchasing criteria. Though many riders fantasize about browsing for their perfect partner amongst quaint German farms filled with gorgeous dressage prospects, Degele warns buyers to be wary of the glamour of Europe and seriously consider if their needs can best be met at home or abroad.
"I definitely recommend the US for the average adult amateur that is looking to buy a horse. I can't tell you how many horses that I get for sale because somebody went to Europe and bought something, and once it landed here it reacted to so many environmental changes, like weather or palm trees that they have never exposed to before."
For the sensitive equine, the risk of culture shock is very real. As a result, Degele says the European dream doesn't always end in a fairytale. Buyers should be aware that these animals need time to adjust to life on American soil.
"I remember the barn that I was at in Europe where the horses literally never had to go outside. The barn was attached to the indoor arena so the horses could go from the stall to the indoor arena, indoor arena back to the stall, and that was their training program every day. They never went outside. They never got turned out."
"Then all of the sudden you bring a horse here where the majority of the time the horse is outside and they see things, and they are afraid and it takes a lot of time and patience to adjust."
Degele estimates that nearly 60% of her resale horses are those that were imported from Europe and didn't work out. She then takes them into training for several months while exposing them to trail rides, giving them regular turnouts and "letting them be horses" before eventually putting them back on the sales market.
"On the flip side if there's someone looking for a talented young horse and they want a three to five year old for a good deal, then I think there's of course a huge advantage to Europe. If you're looking for the best mover, or an investment horse that someone wants to put the training into then I think you can go to Europe and see so many three to six year olds, that are extremely well bred and aren't as expensive, and you have the option of going to auctions."
You can get good bang for your buck here in the US though, and according to Degele the best thing you can do to stretch your budget is to ask if the price of prospective horses is negotiable.
"If I see trainers listing a horse I'll just call them up and ask "is this horse priced with a commission? Is this price at all negotiable?" It's best just to tell the seller that you don't want to waste their time so you are asking if the price is negotiable. You would be surprised how many times they will say, 'sure go ahead and schedule your client to come'. There can be as much as a twenty percent leeway in some of these prices so I definitely recommend asking if it's negotiable. What I don't advise though is running around trying horses that are out of your budget and then telling the sellers afterwards that their horses aren't within your budget."
Another aspect of the horse buying process that often draws confusion and anxiety is the vet check. The process is often met with bated breath but Degele implores riders to expect a few physical imperfections from seasoned competition horses.
She says, "A flawless vet check doesn't exist. And if it does, then you don't have a good vet."
Instead of perceiving vet checks as "pass" or "fail", Degele encourages buyers to assess the gray areas in between, reasoning that a few blemishes on a vet check shouldn't be the kiss of death.
"Riders need to realize that if the horse got this far (trained to upper/FEI levels) there's going to be some wear and tear. There aren't not going to be perfect x-rays all the way around. My saying is 'three strikes you're out'. So if there's a little bit of this or that, or there's a slightly positive flexion or there's an old chip, I tend to think it's not a big deal. Of course there are things you can live with and things you can't, but sometimes they take one "bad" flexion, like a 2, and then the deal is off. That horse could be needing a day off, it could have banged its hock in the stall or slept wrong. Then you come back two days later and flex it and it's not even there anymore. The question is really, 'does the issue bother the horse and is it relevant to the horse's future with his or her potential buyer?'"
While a horse many tick all of the boxes in terms of physical health, training, and price, Degele says for a horse and ride to make a good match sparks need to fly. The trial ride is when a horse and rider get to test each other out to see if they click, and according to Degele the horse is often quick to reveal his or her vote.
"I swear I've seen horses pick their buyers before. I've seen horses go 'oh this is who I want!' and then give 110%. A lot of times you see it - they sit on the horse and they keep asking the horse questions and the horse keeps answering correctly, that's when they know that that is their horse."
Before the rider even has a chance to speak Degele will recognize when her clients have found 'the one'. She says you can't miss the signs. "You know when they're smiling from ear to ear."