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HomeFirst Steps to starting your Horse



10 steps to educate young horses - Uwe Spenlen

This lecture is meant for breeders, trainers and riders. It provides guidance on how to prepare young horses for riding and how to work them during the first months under saddle.

The aim of all schooling is to produce a horse that is happy, healthy, willing and able to carry the rider in balance, obediently and willingly. By familiarisation, careful education and gymnastics the natural abilities of the horse are maintained and improved.

Only the experienced, sensitive rider can school a horse correctly. Ideally the schooling should be overseen by a teacher observing the rider and the horse.

Proper starting and schooling of a young horse is a lot more complex than generally assumed. Each horse is different, with differing character and temperament - and it is a phase of constant bodily change both of growth and development.

Only experienced riders and trainers can judge the various stages of development correctly, therefore avoiding excessive strain or damage to the young horse.

It is very easy to make serious mistakes during the preparation and education, regardless of the discipline, and some of them are very difficult und time-consuming to repair.

These mistakes are caused by numerous reasons but they are avoidable. What we are talking about is for example the loss of confidence.

Trainers must be aware of inability, carelessness, too high expectations or the desire for early profit.

This contribution is trying to handle the schooling of young horses with understanding, care and interest in a honest, professional and patient manner. Step by step.

Power of observation, sensitivity and knowledge about the nature and behaviour of the horse should be paramount for rider and trainer.

Step 1: Character and Nature Riders and trainer need to know about the characteristics of a horse. This is the basic requirement for riding. Only those who constantly strive to understand the nature of horses will treat them correctly.

Every horse differs in character and temperament, in preferences and aversions.

Their disposition and attitudes can be read for instance in their ears, eyes and movement of the tail.

Horses are not aggressive by nature. They can be rough with each other, noticeably the stallions. But problems in handling them, predominantly comes from an inproper treatment or bad experiences.

Horses demonstrating satisfaction and willingness in their daily work offer the best precondition for a stable and harmonious partnership between human and animal. With patience , respect for the mentality of each horse and frequent praise these foundations are strengthened.

The needs and characteristics have to be taken into consideration especially when schooling young horses in order to avoid installing fear and resistance.

That does not mean the horse doesn’t need certain set guide lines. It is decisive to react according to the situation.

The confidence of a horse can be shattered or lost quickly by unreasonable treatment. A correction takes month or even years. Unsystematic training or demands made by force often lead to physical or mental damage or premature wear.

The mental development of the horse is of vital importance in schooling and riding. It is the decisive criterion for harmony between human and horse and can only then be positive if the horse’s well being is satisfactorily observed in all demands placed upon it.

Step 2: Rider and Trainer

The first partner for a young horse needs to be an experienced rider with a balanced seat and sensitive aids. He or she especially needs to be able to sit independently from the hand and should not be too heavy or too tall nor be easily frightened or impatient.

The ability to ride with shorter stirrups and a secure foward seat are among the requisite tools for starting and schooling a young horse. A versatile, trained rider will best be able to respond to the constantly changing centre of gravity of a young horse.

The trainer who observes the schooling of a young riding horse from the ground needs a profound theoretical knowledge apart from practical experiences.

Knowledge of the training scale is as important as knowledge of functional anatomy.

Only then will the trainer be able to give valuable advice and help to overcome difficult situations without using unnecessary force or pressure.

Step 3: The Balance

For every riding horse, regardless of its use, it is vitally important to be able to balance with the weight of the rider.

An unbalanced horse will usually move all tensed up and with tight muscles in order to compensate for the missing balance. Outward relaxation cannot be achieved.

Without balance physical well being and health are at risk.

But also, relaxation cannot be achieved because no living feels well without balance.

The rider’s ability to adapt to changes in the centre of gravity is vitally important for starting and schooling, because the rider’s weight will initially upset the natural balance of a young horse. By nature the horse carries more weight on the forehand. With the added weight of the rider the horse faces a new situation of balance which will have to be mastered in several steps.

The first phase of training aims at gradually bringing horse and rider towards a mutual balance.

Therefore achieving looseness and relaxation is a central aim of further training.

At first the horse needs to be able to balance itself with the rider’s weight. Tight muscles will not accomplish this. It leads neither to balance nor to natural movements.

To further improve inner and outer suppleness and balance the general basic education of the young horse should be varied. Regardless of how talented the horse might be fore one discipline.

A varied basic education improves skills, suppleness and calmness and best maintains the health of the young horse.

Generally horses are started at the age of three. Whether this happens some months earlier or later depends upon the development of the individual horse. More important than the age is correct and gentle handling. Therefore nothing can be said against starting a young horse at the age of 2 ½ to 3 years .

A full grown horse is often stronger and some times more strong willed, which can make starting at 3 ½ to 4 years more difficult.

The most suitable time should be considered for each horse individually.

Step 4: Age to start

Before the real training begins the young horse has to get used to people by leading, trying and grooming. This is best done when it is still a foal. Cleaning the hooves and lifting each leg improves trust. These tasks can be done with foals, yearlings or two years old.

Step 5: Lunging

Lunging should begin only when the horse has become familiar with it’s new surroundings and has gained a certain amount of trust and respect.

Lunging is highly recommended for preparing to train under saddle because it gets the young horse used to work, helps it to understand the aids and obedience and improves rhythm and looseness.

At first the horse slowly has to get used to the bit, (even better: lunging cavesson), lunging girth or saddle respectively. Everything, especially the bit, need to fit.

A defined circle or lunging arena are recommended because they present a barrier for the young horse and make the work easier. At first side reins should not be used in order to let the horse find its natural balance.

The horse is mainly lunged in trot. In this pace most horses find it easier to acquire certain looseness and start to let the neck drop. Only when the back begins to swing and the horse is moving in a relatively balanced fashion may side reins be used.

At first the side reins should be fixed long enough to leave the horse without pressure on the mouth, side bar and poll. Gradually the side reins can be shortened. It is important for the horse to stretch towards the bit and not to shorten the neck

The side reins (triangle or simple reins) have to be even in length and fixed at a length that leaves the line of forehead and nose in front or just at the vertical. The Training Scale is also valid for lunging.

Therefore rhythm is more important than contact to ensure workability of the horse. Rhythm shows balanced and natural movements and looseness. Enforcing contact of using side reins which are too short will lead to resistance and tightness. It prevents looseness and hinders the flow of movements and swing through relaxed muscles.

It is most important that the horse learns and understands the aids taught on the lunge line. At first the driving aids of whip and voice and later the restricting aids of lunge and voice. It will help with schooling under saddle if the young horse can be framed in by the aids already learned on the lunge.

Lunge work with a young horse should take not longer than 20 minutes or up to half an hour in order to keep it sound and build stamina. Direction should be changed frequently.

A horse is presented in hand to judge its conformation on a triangle line. Its temperament and correctness of the paces can be tested and judged at the same time.

The triangle line is used mainly at selections for stallions and mares. The straight line is used at tests for riding horses as well as sales.

Therefore each young horse should be familiar with the procedure.

Step 6: Presentation

The horse is led on the left side. Ideally the leader walks at shoulder level and keeps soft, springy connection to the horse’s mouth. Rough or abrupt influence on the bit should be avoided because this disrupts the horse’s trust in the hand and discourages relaxation.

In general the horse should go forward with trust and present itself as loose as possible.

Step 7: Starting to Ride

Before the first mounting the horse should be lunged, giving the opportunity to move freely and achieve a certain relaxation.

The first mounting should take place on the lunge line in a fenced area, preferably in a covered arena. The horse should be held by a helper while a second assists in boosting the rider up. The stirrups should be a little shorter to enable the rider to free the horse’s back.

After mounting, the horse can be left standing to allow it to become accustomed to the weight of the rider. The rider can talk to the horse and if possible pat it carefully. With nervous or very uptight horses it may be better to let them walk immediately to avoid building up more tension.

Gradually the horse is led on a larger circle and the lunge is allowed to become longer. If the horse wants to trot one should let it do so.

On the lunge, the horse should learn to react calmly to the weight of the rider, at first in walk, then in trot.

Canter should not be prevented however it is usually quite difficult for a young horse to achieve with the unfamiliar weight on it’s back.

The first exercises should not take too long. Frequent, short periods of training are preferable. At the end of the exercises mounting and dismounting can be practised several times.

Spurs are not recommended at this stage.

The rider needs to enforce more than to restrain the tempo offered by the horse. He needs to feel which tempo is right for the horse to find its balance.

The rider maintains only very soft contact with the reins (so-called „waiting hands“) to the mouth. By no means should it be tried to get the horse „on the rein“.

A too enforcing position can lead to resistance as well as head shaking, noticeable disturbance in rhythm, tight back, flattened ears, problems with the mouth and a swishing tail.

The more forward in rhythm and the less forming by hand at this stage, the more solidly the correct foundation will be laid.

The main goal at this stage of schooling is for the horse to find its balance.

Starting a young horse aims at improving trust, education and obedience before the actual training begins. It is especially important to recognize signs of tiring. Diligent observation of the horse is vital for evaluation of its strength.

Riders and trainers need to know the different points and phases of the training scale, understand them and need to be able to apply them in practice.

Step 8: Beginning Basic Education

The three points of the familiarisation phase are the main goals during the first weeks and months of training: Rhythm, Suppleness and Contact.

The first aim is the consolidation of rhythm by keeping a pace adjusted to the particular horse. Riding forward too fast, leads to hasty foot-fall sequences and disturbance in rhythm.

Forward does not mean a fast pace but activation of the hindquarters to push their load forward energetically, diligently and forcefully. Suppleness is the central goal of training which should never be lost sight of. It has to be tested regularly and refined because it is the foundation for all subsequent work.

Suppleness means ability to use muscles without tension, to compress and relax when needed. Suppleness can only achieved by avoiding force in handling and training.

The supple horse moves with a swinging back and a natural forward rhythm - but without rushing forward.

Suppleness can be tested by the horse’s willingness to stretch from the withers forward downward, therefore letting the reins slip (controlled) is one of the most important exercises even at this stage of beginning basic training.

The right amount of contact conveys security to the horse enabling it to balance with the rider, move forward in rhythm in all three paces and to swing the back.

In walk the reins are shortened only before starting to trot, otherwise the walk is ridden with loose reins. At trot and canter the young horse is driven towards gentle passive "waiting" hands. During the familiarisation phase the rider uses a soft contact but does not enforce position with the hand.

The young horse finds balance, rhythm and suppleness easiest with soft contact. This also applies to horses that have been lunged for a certain time and are accustomed to move in position.

Initially, it will be a relatively low point at which the horse finds contact. The mouth will be roughly at the level of the elbow joint. This is the position in which the desired stretching and relaxing of neck and back muscles will be easiest.

It is incorrect to form the horse’s neck by the reins only. A shortened neck creates tension and obstructs balance. Forming by hand prevents sufficient forward swing of the hind quarters and with the flow of movement via a swinging back.

Overdoing the bend causes young horses to loose their balance In teaching young horses, their condition, lack of force and avoidance of over-work are critical importance. If those criteria are observed, the young horse will not be harmed.

In the early stages of basic training no prescribed figures are asked of the horse. Exercises such as changing on the long or short diagonal, circles and changes of circles and serpentines with rather large turns are suitable to further develop the young horse.

Tight turns and changes that will train the joints suddenly and strongly have to be avoided.

Step 9: Further Basic Training

After four to six months the primary basics under saddle should be almost

consolidated: forward in rhythm, supple and relaxed with a constant contact where the horse moves toward the rider’s hand and stretches.

Gradually the demands can be increased. To what extent depends on the skill of the rider and the abilities of the horse. Furthermore the daily situation plays a role. While the older horse should be settled in its training standard, young horse suffers from inconsistencies.

Ups and downs in its performance, spurts of growth, differing levels of tiredness and the need for movement plus influences of environment can affect the daily training and with it the schooling results.

A young horse should be trained with as much variety as possible. Varied training makes it more skilled and prevents the horse becoming one-sided. Trail riding, cavaletti work and jumping are the main options.

With progressive dressage training the rider should be able to frame the horse by aids. It should react to more and more refined aids and travel forward towards the bit. To achieve this the horse has to be „ in front of“ the driving aids.

By nature the horse carries the largest part of its weight on the forehand. Adding the weight of a rider makes the forehand even heavier. Therefore it is important for maintaining health and balance. The hind quarters must encourage to travel towards the centre of gravity, even in a young horse.

Sitting trot may be performed if the horse swings through the back and travels forward willingly towards the hand. At first it is sufficient to do it for only a few steps. If the horse locks up rising trot should be established again to reinforce the swinging back.

Good basic training creates a horse that follows the riders aids willingly and remains supple at all times.

A versatile basic education, built on knowledge and sensitivity, offers the best guarantee for young horses to remain healthy.

Every young horse should be familiarised early with trail riding. This improves attentiveness, calmness, balance, coordination and sure footedness.

Step 10: Free Jumping

Jumping without the rider offers a change for the horse. It improves basic skills and suppleness and makes subsequent training for jumping easier.

Before starting, several preparations should me made:

The horse can jump either without or with halter or with headstall, reins removed.

In an arena the doors have to be sufficiently high or closed. Mirrors mu
st be covered.

A jumping lane is formed by wings.

Jumps set up should be especially inviting.

Distances between the jumps must be correct

A trainer and at least two helpers are necessary. It is important for the horse to get a positive impression from jumping. Therefore trainer and helpers have to show correct conduct. Silence and calmness are paramount.

Horses should not jump out of fear but discover enjoyment.

It is unfair and bad habit to make talented horses that enjoy jumping clear very high obstacles during their first month of training.

This can disturb the trust of a young horse and must not be allowed.

After four to six months of basic dressage education, small verticals and free jumping over low obstacles, the actual training for jumping under saddle may begin.

During the first months regular easy trail rides are sufficient, either in a group or with an experienced lead horse.

Trail rides help to relax the horses mind and are highly recommended.
Finally just a short, but an important remark:
Handle young horses at all time after the rule: „Always calm but never slow“ and „Always active but never hurried“.

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