Ask Al: Advice from a Master Horseman: How to Select an Equine Athlete

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How to Select an Equine Athlete

Al Dunning riding Zack and Blue, 2011 NCHA 3,000 Novice World Champion. Photo courtesy Al Dunning

by Al Dunning


Many people wonder how to predict the next champion, whether considering a homebred youngster or while searching for an unproven horse to buy. We asked Al these three questions about selecting a quality equine athlete.


Question: When selecting horses what is more important to you—conformation and breeding, or mind, heart and trainability?

Answer: When selecting a horse I first want them to be bred to excel in the event I’m choosing them for. Second, they must have correct conformation to help insure their soundness and have the athleticism to perform to a high standard. After that, if they are old enough I ride them to evaluate their trainability and mind. It is hard to know if they have the heart until we get into the training and showing. A horse’s past history should give you a key to many of their attributes.


Question: At what point in a horse’s training can you make an accurate prediction of how talented they will be?

Answer: There are times that I can tell in one ride that a horse is extremely talented, willing and understands what I’m asking him to do. That horse, 90% of the time, is close to a “sure thing.” On the other hand, there are some horses that I ride for the first time and find they are clumsy, don’t think well, are discontent with the process, have no understanding, etc. This horse I know is a lost cause for major competition. The most difficult horse to predict for talent is the average horse. The horse might play you along for 6 months, promising excellence, and then not advance past mediocre. That same average horse can one day, out of the blue, have the light go on! He suddenly and unexpectedly becomes brilliant and finally comes to the party, doing his job well and wanting to please you.


Question: What do you think separates a good horse from a really good horse?

roger world show
Al Dunning riding Zack and Blue, 2011 NCHA 3,000 Novice World Champion. Photo courtesy Al Dunning

Answer: I have trained hundreds of horses in the past 50+ years. The good ones let you train them to do certain things and have a good expression. They have attentive ears, bright eyes and show little resistance. The better horses are trainable and have special talents. The great ones—and there are only a few in a lifetime, at best— seem to love showing and truly are a partner in the endeavor to excel. They think like you are thinking, and have the heart of a champion. This is hard to understand unless you have experienced the unbelievable relationship where horse and man become one.



Published in January 2016 Issue

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