Young horses! It is such an honour as a rider to be one of the first people they get to work with, however can sometimes feel like you are riding an eel! They are moving up and down in the rhythm and if there is a dance that you are both moving to, it quickly becomes evident that no one is really sure of the correct moves or steps!
Horses need to be allowed the time and space to begin working out how they can carry themselves, with all this new equipment and also, how they can then carry the added weight of a rider on board their backs as well. When given the necessary time and when the correct guidelines are there to help, your horse will soon become more confident in his abilities to carry you and confidence is key for balance.
The reason the ‘dance’ seems so staggered is due to the lack of true balance. So, in saying this, balance is first and foremost for young horses. However very often riders try to do this job for their horse, rather than allowing the horse to figure it out on their own. This usually results in a horse that insists on holding on to or grabbing the contact and being unable to relax enough through their backs to truly use themselves correctly. This, as I am sure you can imagine, will inevitably lead to all sorts of trouble and problems further down the line.
Before we go any further, it is important to stress that the rider must be experienced, sympathetic and patient. Young horses should not be ridden by riders who lack a balanced and independent seat. It will only make the horse’s job much more difficult and very often results in a loss of confidence, that will have repercussions all through their riding career.
When working with a young horse, remember it is the quality of the work, rather than the quantity that is important. Ride for shorter periods and rest often throughout each ride
Many factors will influence how quickly your horse progresses, such as age, breed, build, confirmation, groundwork, consistency and even his upbringing. Remember, even if your horse is the ‘ideal age’ to start, he may still not be physically or mentally ready to begin work. Again, slow and steady will win out over pushing your horse to do things he is not ready for.
So assuming that you have assessed the situation and have deemed it the right time in your horse’s life to begin introducing him to a more ‘structured’ training program, I suggest by starting off on a long rein. You can begin teaching your horse this on the lunge initially and then, when you’re on his back. The long rein will allow him to stretch out his back muscles and overall body, which will encourage relaxation and rid him of any excess tension
Start at the lunge. This will allow your horse to loosen up, and also work out any excess energy that he might be ‘storing up’. It also gives you a great opportunity to assess him further which will then help you to create a more structured plan. Which gait is the most balanced and comfortable for him? Which rein, if any, does he prefer? You can then use this information when you mount up to help relax him and start by doing something he enjoys and working on the side he goes better on.
Keep in mind that lunging is not just chasing him around the ring; he must begin with relaxing, just like he would if on a long rein and then slowly beginning to work into a contact, with emphasis on moving forward at all times. You can also use the time on the lunge to reinforce the voice aids.
When riding a young horse, the focus should begin on rhythm and balance within that rhythm. As I mentioned before, you as the rider must be balanced in your seat and able to move with your horse as he works forward. At no point should you begin trying to ‘shorten’ him or force him into a ‘frame’. If he is to develop correctly he must learn to balance himself and from there, then look for your contact and accept it happily while moving forward all the time.
Another thing to keep in mind when riding a young horse is that he will be naturally a little ‘downhill’. His body must strengthen, over time, before he can begin to transfer that weight back onto his hind quarters, and during this period it is your responsibility as the rider not to add to the weight being carried by his front end by leaning or slouching
When working in the arena, vary the work and sprinkle breaks or rest periods throughout the ride, which will allow him to relax and stretch out on a long rein again. This will help to make sure he does not become stiff or tense which will in turn, ruin the work you are trying to achieve.
Work on basic school figures such as large circles, all the time trying to establish the rhythm in the gait. You can also work in some transitions, however I find that it is better to work in a chosen gait for a few minutes, allowing him to become confident in his balance and rhythm, rather than chopping and changing gaits. Transitions are a wonderful tool when schooling horses but I have found that if too many are incorporated into the early rides, the horse can tend to become a little choppy, short and tense through his work, rather than moving forward in a relaxed and loose fashion.
Keep in mind that you are there to guide; he must learn to balance himself. So correcting him is important, but it should be only that, a correction, rather than a constant support or aid
After a few weeks or months, depending on your horse, and once he is happily carrying you around the arena you can begin introducing ground poles into his schooling sessions. You will know the time is right when he has found a certain rhythm and balance to his way of going, which he can adjust in and out of with ease. Like everything else, incorporating the poles too early will only serve to do more harm than good, so proceed with caution and only when you are confident that he is confident!
Start with a single pole on the ground, which you can allow him to walk over. Walk over it, from both directions quite a few times until it becomes a non-event in your horse’s head. Keep in mind that your horse might just jump the pole on the first few occasions and take the precautions to avoid any discomfort for him or you if this happens! Make sure that you do not punish him when he successfully navigates the pole by catching him in the mouth or becoming heavy on his back.
Once he is happily walking over the single pole, you can then begin trotting up to and over the pole. Again, we want him working over the poles happily and relaxed before you move on to anything more complicated. This may take a few rides, however your patience while he is finding his way here will be worth it later.
Poles can be used in all sorts of ways when riding a young horse, as both obstacles to navigate over and also guiding rails to ride between or around. Depending on your horse, you can use them to help reinforce a concept and also, to ask for more flexion and a way of asking him to ‘use’ himself more.
Riding young horses can be a challenge, but when done with patience and kindness as well as consistently, it pays off as both a rewarding for the rider and it sets the horse up for a happier, healthier working life as well.