Choosing the perfect eventer
Frances Stead, the founder of Clifton Eventers, has proven her ability to identify future top-level eventers, even when they are still green youngsters and she never sits in the saddle to try them.
She is frequently asked what she looks for, and this is her response:
What I look for in a horse for top level eventing is difficult to pin-point; so much is gut instinct on how I feel about the whole package of the horse. However, I believe the essential criteria that influence my thinking are these:
A scopey athletic jump
I always want to watch a rider leave the horse completely alone coming into a low wide oxer several times and see how the horse reacts. It's not a problem if they duck out a few times or knock it down, but after they have hit it or had it down, the next time they are presented to the fence I want to see that they have learnt from the experience and try harder to use themselves to clear it, especially behind. If the horse continues not to use itself behind over a jump, then I would never buy it.
A big kind eye
If a horse doesn't have a big kind eye I would not even bother to see it under saddle. I would never buy a horse with a piggy eye.
Overall athletic body and pleasing conformation
They must have a powerful thigh and I like a rangy type with long legs as a youngster. A nice sloping shoulder, never behind at the knee, well set on and quite a long neck. This generally gives them a better longer-striding gallop. Natural presence and a 'look at me' attitude always help!
The main pace I look at is the canter; it tells you so much about how the jump and gallop will develop.
A really choppy trot is a worry, but I don't mind if the trot is not naturally great, as it can be developed so much by training.
I always want to see the horse gallop if possible. I am looking for a horse that naturally gallops uphill (or, at least, not downhill), as that will dramatically increase the chance of it standing up to the rigours of eventing and stay sound.
I also look for a stride that goes over, not into the ground. A horse that is heavy in its stride is likely to not only struggle when the ground is wet but also find it far harder to do the time on an 11+ minute four-star three-day track. Add to this is the probability that such a horse is much less likely to stay sound at high level competition.
As I don't ride the horses I consider buying, temperament is probably something I am less influenced by than a rider would be. I tend to believe that a good rider and a generous-eyed horse will be able to work out a way to form a good partnership one way or another. Of course, an easy-to-train horse will get to the top faster, but it won't necessarily be better. Most of my really good horses have been a bit quirky in some way, and I actually like that rather than dislike it. However, as the owner, I don't have to deal with the quirks on a day-to-day basis!
New Zealand thoroughbreds
Whilst I believe star horses can come from any country and a variety of breeding lines, I am personally strongly influenced towards a really good New Zealand thoroughbred being an excellent candidate to make top-level eventer. I think a full-blood horse really shows its class once it gets to a full-length four-star course, and particularly if the ground is soft and holding. A good thoroughbred will cope with this much more easily than anything else.
I love the basic stamp of thoroughbred you can find in New Zealand. They are generally taller, more rangy types than you find in some other countries (although this is often a disadvantage for them as racehorses, as they are slower to mature). They also tend to have good brains as most breeders, owners or trainers are amateurs who don't want to cope with a really highly strung or bad-tempered horse.
Lastly, they tend to be very sound horses as there is little money for ground preparation in New Zealand, so they have to be able to run on anything from rock-hard ground to deep mud and still perform.
Add to this the fact that they live out 365 days a year and grow up on lovely lush grass and you have a great formula for success.