It’s The Partnership That Counts

Looking Beyond Warmbloods

by Sarah Crampton

If you consider the definition of a sport horse, it is a type of horse, rather than any specific breed. Typically, it is a horse that is bred or is suitable to compete in dressage, eventing, show jumping and combined driving. In the United States, we also include hunters and jumpers in the sport horse category. 

So, if we agree it is a type of horse, what type of horse are we talking about? Most would agree that it is a horse with a balanced conformation, ground covering gaits, perhaps the talent to jump, and ideally, a willing temperament. What horses possess these qualities? 

Years ago, before warmbloods hit the sport horse scene, the sport horse world in the United States was largely dominated by Thoroughbreds. Before Thoroughbreds were bred for the sport horse world, ex-racehorses were often retrained for jumping and dressage. They are athletic and have the desire to go forward. Perhaps a bit too forward and sensitive for many riders. This hot blood tendency fueled the need for another type of horse, and the warmblood breeding both in Europe and the United States began to flourish. 

Romi Skolnik competes in the hunters with her Belgian/Paint Quarter Horse Cross

Warmbloods undeniably dominate the Olympic sport horse world across the board. Jumping, eventing, driving and dressage horses at this level are almost exclusively of one warmblood breed or another, or a warmblood cross. Although there are plenty of exceptions, the warmblood’s beautiful movement and athletic ability is hard to beat if you are looking to be a top competitor. However, often the most talented warmbloods are not the easiest to ride. Many riders are looking for that rock solid temperament and all things considered, may choose it over a more talented animal. We all enjoy driving cars, but generally we do not desire or need a Maserati. Perhaps what we are yearning for is an all-around, four-legged sports utility vehicle. And they come in all breeds and all colors. 

Indeed, there are various horse breeds that are being ridden and competing right along with the typical European warmbloods. Friesians and Andalusians for example. And there are individuals of other breeds often overlooked for the job; quarter horses, Appaloosas, Morgans, Arabians, Paints, and others. Add to that a plethora of cross breeds, or mixed breeds – the equine version of mutts – Thoroughbred crosses, Arab crosses, draft crosses, and many combinations of two or three breeds, and plain-old grade horses. 

A Percheron/Arab/ Thoroughbred Cross competes in the dressage ring. Photo by Kristin Selden.

Crossbreeds are often appealing to riders primarily for a steady temperament, an easy-going nature, and their willingness to please. The canine world has a term for a dog that is docile, agreeable, and willing to do what you ask. This word is biddable – willing to do your bidding. And it’s an excellent personality trait in an equine as well. 

As a sport, the horse world is unique. We ride and compete, but we are devoted to our competition partner who is also our pet and companion. We ride, but we also enjoy the daily care, attention, and time spent with our sport partners inside and outside the competition arena. 

As one dressage adult amateur who rides a Shire-cross explains, “For me, temperament is more important than movement. You can have a great mover, but you also need a willing partner. A rider can do very well if they have the right trainer to help. With correct training and proper instruction, you can be competitive with a horse that is not the best mover in the world. 

“I enjoy the horse partnership; the closeness to the horse physically and mentally,” she continues. “I enjoy working with the horse, bettering myself and the horse. It is challenging, but in a good way. The horse waiting for me at every moment, willing to do what I ask – it’s achieving a higher understanding. You’ve hit the sweet spot and you are both at your best. The horse is right there for you. When everything is working as it should and you feel as one with your horse – that’s a real high.” 

Cross breeds, like this Shire Cross, are becoming more and more common in the show ring. Photo by Kristin Selden.

An adult amateur who is extremely competitive in the hunter ring at A shows rides a Belgian/Paint quarter horse cross. She noted that currently you see more spotted horses in the hunter ring, more Paints and even some Appaloosas. She comments, “It’s the individual horse that matters, not the breeding. Judges reward good riding. If I lay down a good trip, I have a chance to do well. Each horse should be judged on its merit, not its papers.” 

Every rider’s experience with their unique horse will be a different one. And no one can tell you how to navigate it. Focusing on improving your riding skills, schooling your horse – whatever the breed or type – working up the training pyramid and achieving your best is so rewarding. It is one of life’s best examples of enjoying the journey. 

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