Buying in Europe

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European warmbloods dominate the top ranks of U.S. jumper competition. Over in the hunter ring, you’ll find more European horses. In dressage, the European breeds have long been preferred. If you’re involved in any of those sports, should you hop the Atlantic for your next horse?

Many good warmbloods are bred in the U.S. these days, but lots of riders and trainers still head for Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and other European countries to shop. To give you an idea of what you’ll find—and what to watch out for—we talked to two horsemen with long experience buying overseas.

David Hopper of Amenia, New York, is among the top horse dealers in the United States and regularly brings in European stock for resale here. Among the horses he has imported are top jumpers such as Boxcar Willie and Ally Oop, current green hunter champion Trout Line, and Dutch Warmblood stallion Anriejetto, four-time dressage breeding champion at Devon.

Dressage trainer Steven Wolgemuth of Manheim, Pennsylvania, makes monthly trips to the Netherlands with clients, acting as agent in 50 or more sales a year to amateurs and FEI riders. His picks have included Jan Brons’ Josien, the top-scoring qualifier for the USET Pan Am Games tryouts last June, and Victoria Lamas-Wanner’s Ramora, North American Dutch Warmblood keuring champion in 2001.

In many respects, buying a horse in Europe isn’t so different from buying in the U.S., these experts say. Some sellers are reputable, others less so—and buyers must be sharp.

The European Market

David Hopper has been buying in Europe since 1983, mainly in the Netherlands and Germany, and he has witnessed great changes in the market in that time. As European warmbloods have edged out American thoroughbreds as the breeds of choice in hunter competition—the fastest-growing segment of his business—European breeders and dealers have wised up.

“Twenty years ago few European dealers knew what a hunter was. There are no hunter divisions in these countries, so the hunter type had no value. For less than $8,000 you could buy a horse that a year later would be a top champion in the United States,” he says. “Now all the European dealers think they know a good hunter, and prices are hugely inflated for American buyers.”

If the bargains are gone, what’s the big advantage to shopping in Europe? Hopper sums it up in one word: numbers.

“Holland, which is about the size of Massachusetts, raises more than 10,000 horses a year for sport. Germany raises maybe four times that number,” he says. “This is a big business in Europe. I sell 55 to 75 horses a year, but dealers there sell 250 to 300 a year.”

Steven Wolgemuth concurs: “In Holland you can see 20 horses in three days, and that makes it easy to compare them.” In addition, he says, “European countries have had a head start in breeding sport horses, and the well-run breed associations have really helped develop the industry. The result is a higher percentage of quality horses than you see in the States.”

When you figure that roundtrip airfare between New York and Amsterdam can be under $400 in the off season, a horse-shopping trip begins to sound appealing.

Where to Go?

That depends on what you want. The Netherlands is a popular destination because it’s small, making a trip there close to one-stop shopping, and because many people in the Dutch horse industry speak English. If you want Holsteiners or another German breed, obviously you’ll head for Germany. Researching breeds and bloodlines before you go will help focus your search. The major warmblood breed associations all have helpful websites (listed in the box on page 15).

Should you visit breed auctions, dealers, or individual breeders? Work with or without an agent?

Unlike many U.S. auctions, European sales aren’t dumping grounds for problem horses. They’re run by breed associations, with tests and exhibitions, and breeders present good stock. Buyers have a chance to ride the horses and to see them ridden by professionals, and the horses are pre-vetted, with records on file. But don’t expect to find a bargain at a sale.

“The European farmer wants his horse in the sale because he gets a better price there than he does from a dealer,” says Hopper. “Paying retail at a sale doesn’t work for me because I need to resell at a profit.”

Nor are you likely to find a bargain by scouring out-of-the-way breeding farms. “As the industry has gotten more sophisticated, even farmers in rural locations know when they have a good horse, and they price it accordingly,” says Wolgemuth. Like Hopper, he calls mainly on dealers with whom he has longstanding relationships.

Such contacts are key. It’s possible to shop on your own—dealers advertise, and breed associations can refer you to breeders. But everyone has heard stories of Americans being fleeced by European horse traders, and our experts warn against making the trip without guidance. At the very least, Hopper suggests, “Start by tagging along with someone who has done this.”

Wolgemuth says, “Every barn has some horses to unload, and those horses are usually offered to first-time and one-time buyers—not to a customer who comes back every month. Work with someone who has experience in the type of riding you do and an ongoing business relationship with sellers in Europe.” Without that sort of relationship, you have no recourse after the sale is complete.

Besides providing contacts, an agent can scout the market for you, making the most of your time there. Like dealers, some agents are more reputable than others; the best way to find a good one is through a personal recommendation.

Shop Until You Drop

While some buyers complain that Europeans trot out their second-string horses for Americans, Wolgemuth hasn’t found that in the Netherlands, where he does most of his buying. When possible, he picks out a few horses to see before the trip; once in Europe he lines up other prospects.

“It’s a fluid market—horses come and go quickly,” he says. He tries to arrange trips geographically. “In three days, we usually find two to four horses that are interesting,” he says. “When a horse is unbroke, you can often decide in one visit. For others, you want to make two visits, if possible two days in a row. That helps sift through the difference between how the trainer made the horse feel and how you can make it feel.”

Hopper rarely previews horses before he gets on a plane, preferring to see what’s available when he arrives. A recent trip netted 11 horses. Rather than buying outright, he sometimes works in partnership with his European contacts, importing a horse and then splitting the profit from the eventual U.S. sale. He often looks for three- and four-year-olds when he’s in the market for hunter prospects because they haven’t been put through European-style jumper training or jumped against the clock.

“I look for a well-balanced, athletic, good-moving young horse. If it turns out he’s not a hunter, he can be a jumper or dressage horse,” he says, adding, “You can’t always expect a finished package. A horse may be overbent and wearing heavy shoes, but with training and different shoeing he could still be a hunter.”

Both horsemen say you should visit as many different barns, in as many different areas, as you can. You’ll be able to compare horses and get a better sense of their value, and you won’t be overly influenced by the sales pitch of any one dealer. “There are some good salesmen—dealers who wine and dine you, and make you feel guilty if you don’t buy,” cautions Hopper.

Closing the Deal

When you’ve found that perfect match, it’s time to negotiate the sale, have the horse vetted, and put it on a plane. As in the United States, some European sellers are flexible on price and some are not. Wolgemuth says the key is to study the market, so you know what comparable horses sell for. As a reality check, he suggests, ask yourself what you could expect to get for the horse if you had to resell him in 30 days, in the same condition.

Don’t forget to figure the cost of shipping (see box on page 14), commissions, and a pre-purchase exam by a European vet, with the report and x-rays sent to your U.S. vet for review. Wolgemuth employs one of two veterinary groups, depending where the horse is. “Both groups speak very good English, are used to working with Americans, and are excellent veterinarians,” he says. “There are lots of horror stories about imported horses that turned out to have soundness problems. That’s why it is so important to employ a very competent veterinarian, with high integrity, who understands the U.S. standard for pre-purchase evaluations.”

The horse will need blood tests and a health certificate to be shipped; both should be arranged with a government-licensed veterinarian and coordinated with the shipping date. A few weeks later your new horse will step off the plane, ready to begin a career in the U.S.A.