The Basics of Producing Quality Young Horses
Young horses are tempting for many people to invest in. What sounds better than producing your own Grand Prix mount? Although this proposition is possible, there are certain basics that every future green horse owner should know about producing a quality horse out of theoretically speaking nothing. Having patience, setting boundaries, working on the ground, riding forwards, introducing bend early on, taking into account individuality, and seeking help from a qualified professional are all parts of the journey.
The key to most things in life and especially horses is patience. It’s too easy to think that what we are demanding is crystal clear. Think about it this way: you are the horse’s mentor, and the horse is a child. Just like a human child, every horse learns differently. In addition, each horse has a varied way of communicating, and with young horses some challenges require addressing all possible issues prior to carrying out corrective training. You may end up finding out that something is causing your horse pain or disturbance. Furthermore, there will be days when you will feel useless as the trainer, because the youngster seems to be testing you (Arnold). Like a teenager, green horses want to see what they can and can’t get away with. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to need to take a step back in order to progress. As a matter of fact, this logic is applicable to just about any problem in the riding world. However, this does not mean that you should be allowing the horse to do whatever he/she wants.
Just like parents set boundaries with kids, trainers are responsible for creating boundaries for the horse in a fair yet strict manner. The goal is to establish that you are the leader in the so-to-speak herd, both on the ground and on the horse (Arnold). This isn’t to say that the horse should be fearful of its rider, but rather the horse should know what is strictly forbidden. Disrespect will follow you for years if you allow the behavior to continue early on. Although, as mentioned previously, ensure that your horse feels safe and is pain free before blaming the behaviors on the horse's nature. Assessment of all possible factors makes training that much more easier for both horse and rider.
Good rideability comes from the ground, think of it as the draft of the art piece. Note that groundwork is not just lunging, we work on the ground with horses any time we groom, tack up, and even feed. Groundwork with any horse instills basic cues, a foundation which allows us to build from there (Lesté-Lasserre). Besides learning to move from pressure, desensitization to certain objects such as flags and the whip is best introduced early on. This makes riding and handling of the horse much more safe. In addition, lunging before riding is a good way to warm up any horse, including a youngster. This allows you to understand how the horse is feeling, and assess his/her gait. Ask yourself the following questions when lunging: Do I have control? Are we on the same page? Is my horse exhibiting any signs of discomfort? Working on the ground is the basis of trust, so find time to learn more about it and apply it with your youngster.
Forward riding is something that is commonly missed as so many riders focus on collection too early on. Collection is viewed as the basic control, but it cannot exist (just like any other part of riding) without true forward movement. Starting a horse on the lunge with loose side reins is a good way to introduce contact and forward movement simultaneously (Arnold). The horse stays on the lunge as a rider is introduced in order to avoid changing too much at once. Eventually, the rider takes up the contact, but it may be useful to have the ground person who has been doing the lunge work still in the arena to help with verbal cues. When riding off the lunge, one way to practice forward movement is through upward transitions (e.g. from walk up to trot). Also, ride on the long side of the arena and don’t get too caught up on the turns. Instead, focus on keeping the pace. Keep your hands in mind as they must be soft in order to encourage the horse forward. A soft contact is not one that stays stiff, but rather follows the horse (your hands belong to the horse). Green horses have a tendency to like a bit of a vibrating feel in the mouth, which encourages chewing, but this varies from horse to horse. The most important part is for the horse to start to accept the contact while moving forwards, so that he/she eventually starts to naturally work in a correct frame.
Besides going forwards, every horse needs to be able to bend in both directions, as this is key to suppleness. Bend is also vital in encouraging the horse to accept the contact instead of going in front or behind the bit (Arnold). Big circles (20 meters) are the basis of just about any form of bend, but they are more difficult to master than it seems. Therefore, large half-circles may be easier initially. Wide serpentines have also proved to be useful as it requires the horse to change the bend frequently. Eventually, you will be able to introduce leg yielding: another important part of improving rideability. The easiest way to do this in the beginning is by long-reining (once again emphasizing the importance of ground work). When first doing lateral movements on the horse, turn-on-the-forehands are fair to attempt, as you can use the arena wall as guidance. Remember that before attempting to bend the horse properly, he/she must be moving forwards freely.
Just like humans grow at different rates, so do horses. The competition standards may say that the horse needs to be performing at this level by the age of four, but this is not fair to expect from every horse (Arnold). Just because your young horse is not currently performing at the FEI level for his/her age group, does not mean that he will never move up the ranks. Furthemore, most youngsters will need little riding at the start of their careers. Fifteen to thirty minutes is often enough for the developing minds and muscles. Risks remain important in the form of challenges, but keep in mind that every horse’s timeline varies so watch for times when you need to pull back.
It might seem tempting to go on and do all of the training by yourself, but take no shame in asking for help from a qualified trainer. There is always something that we could do better, and we are after all better as a team. This is especially applicable to non-professionals, because there are some things we have never dealt with. A professional in the life of the horse may be able to pinpoint if things are going correct in the training, and help you with important milestones that require extra care (Arnold). These professionals will help by staying consistent and using their experience to evaluate what should or should not be done. Remember that behind all successful horse and rider pairs stand a team of people. Extra help may save you years of time in the long-run
Training a young horse is not for everyone. However, with the right amount of patience, groundwork, correct riding, assessment of each individual, and help, great results are possible. Without a doubt the journey with a youngster is more than likely to be bumpy, making it a test of your skills as a rider, trainer, and human. Be kind yet stricts in your work with these horses, and you will find that you will have an incredible lifelong partner.
Arnold, Jenna. “Six Strategies for Training Young Horses.” Dressage Today, Dressage Today, 16 June 2020, https://dressagetoday.com/instruction/six-strategies-for-training-young-horses-jenna-arnold-part-1.
Lesté-Lasserre, Christa. “Groundwork with Our Horses: Why We Do It.” The Horse, The Horse Media Group LLC, 2 Nov. 2018, https://thehorse.com/136950/groundwork-with-our-horses-why-we-do-it/.