My square one is an OTTB named Bernie. He is 9-years old and had two Beginner Novices under his belt (before I got him) with a young rider, placing well in both events I believe. I've had Bernie for about three months now and will post other stories about our rides together, but I want this post to focus on choosing your first event horse. In trying to think back to what was on my requirements list (conformation and soundness issues aside), I realize in some areas it was too specific and other areas, not specific enough.
My Requirements = Bernie's Qualifications
1. Some eventing experience = 2 BN events, check (not specific enough)
2. 16H or larger (I have long legs) = 16.1H, check (maybe too specific)
3. NOT chestnut = Liver chestnut, sorta check (way too specific)
4. Under 10 years old = 9 yrs old, check (too specific)
5. Quiet = had a quiet trial ride, check (not specific enough)
6. No breed preference = Thoroughbred, check (perfect amount of not specific)
7. Straightforward to fences = thinks about going over the fence more than he thinks about not going over the fence, check (not specific enough)
That's about it for me. Now, in choosing my horse, I did have help from my esteemed trainer, Tom Waters. I don't know the exacts of his list for my first event horse, but he did have one seemingly innocuous requirement, and this is probably the only piece of sage advice in this blog post: Tom wanted a horse that keeps an easy rhythm, maybe even a bit slow to fences, and needs a kick, rather than a horse that picks up speed to the fence, running for it, and needs to be pulled back. Sagely indeed. Let's not confuse this requirement with my #7. Newbies (me) tend to ride a bit tentatively, hesitatingly to fences (when you have no idea what you are doing, tentative seems reasonable), in most cases, trying to do too much in front of the fence. More specifically, too much with their (my) hands.
Now, as a newbie, riding to fences is already a little scary. A horse that accelerates to the fence can FEEL out of control and make me freak out, frantically pulling back on the reins to "regain" control, I mess up his rhythm and spot to the fence because I have no concept of distances yet, we reach the fence with no pace (because I've pulled him back) so now I'm throwing the horse his head and lurching forward, hoping that by throwing myself forward, it will encourage him to continue forward, over the fence, too. You can imagine how pretty this fence looks (sarcasm). It either results in a stop, because let's face it, we are practically at a stop any ways, or the horse mercifully, yet ungracefully, lurches himself over the fence with an extremely unbalanced rider. This is my normal reaction to a horse that is strong to fences. The other scenario is for me to hold on and allow the horse to run to the fence, uncollected, as he pleases. On the surface, this might look better and turn out better than me frantically reining him in, but it will never do for (future) larger fences and could be downright reckless for cross-country. Tom would never allow this any how.
In contrast, a horse that keeps a steady rhythm or is even slow to fences will teach a rider like me to be more aggressive and ride forward (leg on) to the fence. I do little to nothing with his mouth (no frantic reining in necessary) and get to experience encouraging the horse forward with my leg instead of the dreaded forward shoulder lurch. Having to kick a horse to the fence also builds my confidence. Aggressive, forward riding to fence = I'm telling the horse (and myself) "yes, yes, yes, we're going to the fence, I'm sure we can do this = confidence; freaking out and pulling him back at the fence = "no, no, no, something is wrong, the fence is scary" = insecure.
I'm not saying horses that are strong to fences are bad, I'm just saying that at my riding ability (beginner-ish) horses that are strong to the fence can create some bad reactions in me (and maybe other newbies too?) and hinder the confidence-building I need. I am not skilled enough (yet) to tell a strong horse "yes, yes, we are going to the fence, I'm sure we can do this, BUT you need to wait a sec and listen to me." At this point my communication skills are "yes" or "no" the "buts" will have to come later.
Okay, this got long, so I didn't get a chance to breakdown my pre-purchase check list and discuss the general idiocy of it, so that will have to be blog post #2.
Also, for those new to eventing (like me) below are the different Eventing levels and subsequent fence heights (according to Wikipedia). Don't feel bad, I didn't know either and had to Google them.
In theBeginner Novice: 2 ft, 7 in
Novice: 2 ft, 11 in
Training: 3 ft, 3 in
Preliminary: 3 ft, 7 in
Intermediate: 3 ft, 9 in XC; 3 ft, 11 in Stadium
Advanced: 3 ft, 11 in XC; 4 ft, 1 in Stadium
International Events: These are Concours Complet International (CCI) events
CCI**: roughly comparable to US Intermediate level
CCI***: roughly comparable to US Advanced level
CCI****: really f***ing big. Wikipedia doesn't give the fence heights for the 4star event, just says "the very highest level of competition"