Watching a perfectly paired horse and rider is a thing of beauty, poetry in motion and art in real life. But it can be easier said than done to find that sought-after connection. Fortunately, there are many factors to consider that can help pair a rider with the right horse, from basic information to gut instinct.
We asked two matchmaking pros for their tips on how they do it. Amanda Vance is the New York trainer for New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, the nation’s oldest and largest racehorse adoption charity. She provides rehab and transitional training for New Vocations at her North Country Horses, in Gansevoort, where she also uses dozens of her own OTTBs in her lesson and show program for riders of all ages. Brit Vegas Gengenbach owns and operates Royal Fox Stables, in Milford, Nebraska, where she specializes in OTTB sales, training and rehab. She competed in her first Thoroughbred Makeover in 2015 and has been a regular competitor ever since, most recently finishing fourth in Field Hunters with Sing One For Mama (a 2018 Oklahoma-bred filly by Home of the Brave) at the 2022 renewal.
Vegas Gengenbach says she starts the matchmaking process by evaluating an individual horse’s traits. For instance, she says, “Are they forward or laid-back? Are they independent thinkers, or do they prefer to have a person help them make a decision? What are their strong suits?
“After I have ridden a horse a handful of times, I have a pretty good idea of what kind of rider would make this horse most happy and help them shine where he or she is best suited.”
In her experience, she says, horses that are brave and laid-back in the arena and tackle new questions and obstacles in stride are often incredibly happy in stimulating careers such as fox-hunting. A horse that’s very sensitive off the seat and leg, on the other hand, is often happiest with an experienced rider rather than one who’s still refining his or her skills and makes the occasional mistake.
“Really, it’s all about where the horse is going to find the most success,” she says. “The horse’s happiness always has to come first.”
The Rider’s Skills, Wants and Needs
Just as important as understanding where a particular horse is likely to excel is understanding the potential buyer’s or adopter’s skill set, goals and desires in a perfect mount.
Of course, the basics are important, Vance says: “What’s the rider’s current skill level? Will they have help producing the horse, or are they going it alone? Are they looking for a competitive partner or a trail partner?”
It’s just as important to gather additional details that could make or break a potential match.
“What will the horse’s living situation be like: a busy boarding barn with limited turnout or a quiet, private farm with big pastures?” Vance says. “There’s nothing wrong with either facility, but one horse might thrive on the activity at the first barn, while another gets overwhelmed and never settles in.
“It seems like everyone wants the 17+ hand horse with an impressive build, but there are some riders that, physically, need a tall, big-bodied mount; tell me that,” she says. “Even think about things like cribbing or weaving. One adopter might not care about a vice if the horse is otherwise a perfect match, but it might be a hard pass for another.”
Finally, our sources agree that the importance of riders being honest about what they want and need in an OTTB — both with the horse’s current connections and themselves — cannot be overstated.
“I respect riders who come to me and say, ‘I’m a slightly timid rider currently jumping 2-foot courses, and I’m looking for a forever horse with a great mind to bring along with my trainer’s help,’ as much as I do a professional who’s seeking the next super-sporty upper-level prospect to develop and either sell or compete,” says Vance. “Sometimes I might be able to show those two riders the same horse, but more often than not I’d recommend they consider a different group of horses.
“But that’s the beauty of the Thoroughbred, right?” she adds. “They’re so versatile and have such a range of temperaments that both those riders can find their perfect matches if they’re open and honest about their skill levels and what their goals are.”
And, says Vance, don’t just be transparent about skill levels and horse physical capabilities. “An adopter might be fully capable of handling a horse who’s difficult to deal with on the ground, or maybe one who’s spooky or hot under saddle, and they could do it very well,” says Vance. “But is that really what they want to manage and ride on a daily basis?
“It’s OK for an experienced equestrian who can ride anything to want a quieter horse with a great brain to enjoy,” she adds. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being honest about what you really desire.”
Trust Your Gut
Indeed, understanding the basic information about horse and rider is key to forming a successful match. But in some cases a gut feel tells our sources everything they need to know.
“It’s a lot of trusting your gut on both positive and negative aspects,” says Vance. “Sometimes even if something doesn’t necessarily look like the perfect match on paper, you just feel like a certain horse and rider will click. That’s how I’ve made some of my best matches over the years.”
Vegas Gengenbach agrees. “(Listening to) my gut is one of the most important parts of my job. I am located in Nebraska, so many people buy horses sight-unseen off video and my word,” she says, which means she’s had many conversations with potential purchasers over the years. “I have gotten very good at reading between the lines.”
If she has any qualms, especially if she hasn’t worked with a potential buyer before, she might encourage him or her to come try a horse before purchase, or she might do some digging on social media to see what he or she looks like in the saddle.
“I can hop on someone’s social media and take a look at their riding ability and what kind of horses they are currently riding,” she says. “People post their best work, typically, so I have a good idea of just how much ability they possess.”
From there, she takes her knowledge of each horse to decide whether it appears to be a partnership that will succeed.
“I feel I am extra lucky to be able to meet and know my (horses’ race) training connections,” she says. “I very often know what a horse is like in and around their racing stables, how they like to work in the mornings and what kind of rider does best with them. I get insight on any soundness issues they may have experienced or any vices they may have. This gives me a really good idea before I even walk them off the trailer on what I need to do to help transition them off the track (and into the best situation possible). Keeping them happy transitioning makes it much easier to find them their next amazing connections.”
It can take time and effort for a rider to find his or her perfect horse. But, our sources agree, there’s no feeling quite like watching a match made in heaven develop.
“The most important factor to consider is whether the horse will be happy in its new job and circumstances,” Vegas Gengenbach says. “A happy horse is typically eager to please their humans, which usually leads to a harmonious relationship.”
Vance adds, “I really love when somebody can see what I saw in or felt about a horse. They might have been a little apprehensive at first, but they trusted me and gave it a shot. When it clicks and they realize it’s a really great match … that’s my favorite part.”
Try as everyone might to make the best possible matches, sometimes things just don’t work. And this isn’t necessarily a reflection on the horse, the new owner or the seller or adopter.
“Sometimes it’s simply just life circumstance,” says Brit Vegas Gengenbach, who owns and operates Royal Fox Stables, in Milford, Nebraska, where she specializes in OTTB sales, training and rehab.
Amanda Vance, who oversees the New York branch of New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, in Gansevoort, agrees.
“A horse might not end up adjusting well to the adopter’s only available turnout or management situations,” she says, “or it might turn out that (a horse) doesn’t really love his new job. That doesn’t mean he’s not a quality horse or the rider is ‘giving up’ on him. It just means there’s a better match out there for that horse or that rider.”
Vegas Gengenbach says that while she’s only had a few such instances in her barn, she’s offered to bring the horse back into her program to find him or her a more suitable match, so the burden doesn’t fall on the owner.
“Being able to stand by what I send out into the world is important to me, so I always want to be available if needed,” she says. “I have a first right of refusal in my contracts, as well, so I always know if one of mine is getting sold and require that the new owner info be shared so that I can extend my resources to the new owners if they wish.”
Likewise, Vance says New Vocations allows adopters to return horses that aren’t perfect matches.
“I’d much rather the horse come back to find a more suitable match than stay in a situation that’s like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” she says. “There’s no shame in admitting that you just don’t mesh with a certain horse. Another rider will, and that’ll open the door for you to find your perfect horse.”