By Devon Walther
August 3, 2020
The development of young horses is essential for the future of our sport. It is a steppingstone to getting that seasoned champion everyone is seeking. Young horse development can be one of the most rewarding and accomplishing ventures and for some riders it is their specialty. The process of developing young and green horses can be challenging, however, as your approach will need to be flexible to meet the horse’s ever-changing physical and mental abilities. The process has its ups and downs, but just like riding these athletes, it is important to always go forward! Here are several essential tips to help you stay on track as you navigate the fun, rewarding, and challenging world of working with the young or green horse.
1. Create a strategy
Just like people, not any one horse is the same. Creating a tailored plan for each horse requires knowing your horse and having a realistic goal or purpose in mind. Assessing the horse’s potential strengths and taking into account if there is an intended rider – whether it be an amateur, professional or sales horse – will help you blueprint a potential future. While the blueprint will be your reference point, you will need to be flexible and modify the plan to the horse’s individual strengths and temperament. The modified plan will then be your course of action to attain your goal.
Having a well-planned, flexible strategy is key because horses are creatures of habit. For example, having a consistent feeding and exercise routine will benefit your training program in more ways than one – it will improve learning by reducing anxiousness and stress in your equine partner. Managing time when working with young horses is also an effective strategy, slowly increasing training time is beneficial when dealing with young horses to ensure you don’t overdo it. Too much work with a horse that does not have properly conditioned muscles can make them sore, and in turn will make them sour if they remain working. To continue to keep your horse’s engagement and willingness, incorporating riding outside the ring into your strategy is another productive tool.
An effective strategy requires knowledge of the inner workings of your horse, his physical readiness, and a sense of which exercises will bring out the horse’s strengths while improving his weaknesses. Make sure your horse is healthy. Physical problems can lead to attitude problems and steps backwards.
2. Work on the basics
Devon flatting a young horse at Hyperion Stud. Image from Devon Walther.
First and foremost, basic groundwork and flatwork need to be attained in training before trying to teach anything else. Basics such as, going forward, seeking the bit, straightness, balance and understanding the aids need to be set in stone before trying to attain any further accomplishments. One of your mantras of young horse development should emphasize “flatwork, flatwork, flatwork.” Take time to train and incorporate basic dressage fundamentals in your daily routine, the jumping aspect will come much easier. Always be mindful of the horse’s physical development as well as his mental state. If the horse hurts, he won’t perform. If he is anxious, he won’t listen.
Solidifying the basics with young horses means you cannot cut corners. Even the simple things such as standing at the mounting block for safety and overall manners are important to maintain in your training process. Even if repetition might be the focus for a whole training session, it is important.
3. Practice patience
Devon's co-young horse trainer Muiris Hinchion long-lining a 3yo at Hyperion Stud.
There is no need to rush when working with young horses. Going too fast can be your worse enemy. If you are anxious, your horse will be anxious. Working methodically will ensure thoughtful and lasting outcomes. Typically, young horses do not understand right away the questions that are being asked of them. Taking small steps to introduce the tasks, then repeating them until they recognize and begin to show progress will take patience. Don’t get discouraged, it can often take longer to get the point across to the naive youngster. There are loads of late bloomers and that is just fine. Make sure your horse is physically ready and continue to persevere, it is part of the process of developing young horses.
Young horses will undoubtably teach you, however, patience and humility are one of the first things you will learn. Take it as it comes and use it to grow, and remember, patience is a virtue.
4. Set your horse up for success
It is most effective for development to give your horses a positive experience when learning. Questions should be asked that are at a level of experience your horse can access, you do not want to over-face them if they are not mature enough or equipped to handle the new task. Build on the last positive lesson. Some horses learn faster than others, some retain their lessons better, but always return to the basics when things get sticky.
An optimal way to support a young horse’s success is to prepare before experiencing new things – prior to facing the first horse show take the horse to local shows. You can bring him along to ride around the show grounds with a buddy and get use to the commotion around the ring before you ask him to focus in the ring. Utilizing your local shows will help build necessary experience. Likewise, taking out the technicalities and focusing on simple, straightforward tasks can help you attain the cadence and awareness you need to then ask those difficult questions and get the desired response.
Be mindful that just because certain techniques work for most horses, it doesn’t mean it will work for your horse. You should have a repertoire – you might need to entertain pulling another method out of the bag.
5. Be confident
Hyperion Stud's 4yo mare at first horse show Photo by: SPORTFOT
Young horses need to be able to rely on the confidence of their riders. If you have confidence it will help them build and maintain theirs. It is the responsibility of the rider to educate the horse. Similarly, educating yourself will enhance your confidence as well as your wisdom.