To bring out the best in them, young horses need correct handling and patient training. Here, we offer useful advice to set them on the path to success
1. Put your safety first
Even if a young horse has a calm, sensible temperament you must remember he is a baby and could be easily spooked or frightened, especially in a new situation.
On the whole, youngsters will be less predictable than a more experienced horse. Therefore, wearing a hat and body protector or air jacket at all times when mounted is essential.
Wear safety gear when handling him on the ground, too, and don’t take risks or shortcuts that put you in a potentially dangerous situation.
If the horse is feeling a bit fresh, work him on the ground before getting in the saddle, until he’s got the sparkle out of his toes.
2. Prepare him for anything
The more your young horse sees, the less spooky he should be as he progresses in his ridden work and starts to go out to competitions.
Avoid throwing him in at the deep end and always prepare him for anything new by practising at home first. For example, load him two or three times a week, so it’s not a big deal when you want to take him somewhere.
Set up mini obstacle courses in your school, incorporating things you might see or encounter on a hack. You can lead him around the obstacles until he’s used to them.
Don’t just take him to a show and expect him to perform perfectly. Box up and go to events simply to ride around at first. let him soak up the atmosphere and see the sights.
3. Build up trust
It is important that a young horse trusts you, so treat him with respect, reward him when he does well and build up his confidence by introducing new challenges slowly but surely.
There is a great quote from Antoine de Pluvinel, a French dressage trainer, which says: “You can never rely on a horse that is educated by fear. There will always be something that he fears more than you. But when he trusts you, he will ask you what to do when he is afraid.”
4. Be firm but fair
Be clear what you want your horse to do – reward him when he’s got it right, and correct him if it’s wrong. Avoid losing your temper, as this will cause the horse to become worried and frightened, and he’ll lose trust in you. Achieving the right response is about patience, repetition and giving clear instructions.
Never let the horse walk all over you and do his own thing. This is how bad habits develop and it can lead to a horse becoming dangerous to handle and ride.
If you don’t have the right experience, get help from someone who does, whether that’s a good instructor/trainer or an equine behaviourist.
5. Ensure his tack fits
You often hear of people using cheap, older saddles on young horses because they don’t want to pay a lot for one that might get damaged, or won’t fit when the horse changes shape.
However, badly fitting tack can result in all sorts of problems – it can cause the horse pain or discomfort, and lead to serious physical issues, including lameness.
A horse that has suffered pain from a saddle or bridle can understandably develop a phobia about being tacked up or ridden.
Well-fitting tack and a suitable bit is a must. Have a qualified saddle fitter check your saddle to ensure your young horse is comfortable.
6. Keep lessons short
You will achieve much more in a short period of time, rather than making a young horse go round and round in circles for an hour. Youngsters can easily lose concentration and become tired, and will therefore not be strong enough for long sessions.
Lessons should be regular, though. Don’t just do a 10-minute schooling session and then leave the horse in the field for the next two weeks.
Keep it simple and choose one or two things to work on at a time. If he gets it right first time, why not even end it there? It’s far better to finish on a good note, even if it took a lot less time to get there than you expected!
7. Avoid a battle
Never put your young horse in a position to fail. For example, if he’s spooking in one corner of the school, work away from it for now.
With time, you can gradually edge nearer to the corner, praising him when he does so calmly.
If you insist he goes into it straight away, you may end up having a fight, resulting in an unhappy horse and rider.
8. Don’t hold onto your horse’s mouth
Allow young horses the freedom to move forwards. The temptation can be to hang on to the reins in anticipation of him misbehaving, but doing this will only make him more likely to be naughty.
A useful tip is to use a neck strap, which you can slip a finger through to offer more security. You can buy neckstraps from many tack shops, or an old stirrup leather will do. also, there are several different products on the market that are designed to help riders stay safer in the saddle, such as the RS-tor (visit: www.rstor.co.uk).
9. Allow him to stretch
Ask any top rider what are the most important elements of a schooling session, and stretching is sure to come high up on the list.
Allow your horse to have a good stretch at the start of your session and at the end, but also regularly while he’s working.
Encourage him to take his neck forward and down, and stretch the muscles over his back.
Stretching helps to relax the horse and builds up his topline muscles, making him stronger and physically capable of carrying out the exercises he will be required to do as his training progresses, so be sure to include it often.
10. Focus on the basics
A horse’s early lessons are the foundations for what he will become later on in his career, so it’s important to get things right, and not rush him.
While you may be keen to move forward and get out to competitions, it’s much wiser to spend longer in the arena putting the basics in place.
For example, focus on getting the horse off the aids, perform lots and lots of transitions, work on his straightness and polish up your square halts.
Have him working between leg and hand, and taking the contact forward.
Do this now, and with time you’ll go on to reap the rewards. Make short cuts and it will hold you back in the future.
For the full article, see the April issue of Horse magazine.
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