Written by: Karen Robinson

Steps to developing young horses with positive attitudes

Thumbnail for Creating the Happy Young Athlete with Wendy Christoff

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“When I think about taking a young horse and building a confident and happy athlete, the words of the great master Nuno Oliveira come to mind: ‘I don’t want riders who work physically hard. Work by thinking.’ Contained within that philosophy is the belief that young horses should not be trained by green riders; an experienced and empathetic rider and coach are what it takes to produce a ‘happy athlete’ from the very beginning of a horse’s career.

Positive Reinforcement

Horses do not have the intellectual capacity for deductive logic. They learn by trial and error, and by repetition. If a young horse successfully bucks the rider off in a canter transition, the horse will repeat it because he will have been rewarded by becoming free. On the other hand, if the rider sets the horse up for success with a forward, balanced trot transition into canter, and if the horse is praised for the correct response, he will repeat that transition in order to gain the reward.

Another component to developing the right attitude in the young horse is to keep the rides short, and to make sure they always end on a happy note. A successful 25-minute ride that ends positively is far better than grinding out a 45-minute ride that ends with an exhausted and/or confused horse. Develop the habit of quitting while things are good, and you will find you have an enthusiastic horse the next day.

Once in a while the ride will have to be longer if the horse becomes resistant to something. On days like that, try to find a simple exercise at which you can be successful so that you can end with it, and start there the next day. Never end a ride on a mistake.

The Right Amount of the Right Work

There is a risk of asking too much of very talented young horses. A more talented horse should be brought along at the same pace as any other horse. Talent does not negate the need to allow a young horse to become stronger as its body matures. Over-facing a talented young horse will result in confusion and physical pain, which leads to a situation in which the young horse either refuses to cooperate or gives up.

Regardless of the level of talent, you should be constantly aware of the physical development in the young horse. Horses continue to grow until they are six or seven years old, and their balance changes with each period of growth. From the ages of one to five, horses grow in spurts that alternately make them croup-high, and then they level out again. In your training, it’s important to recognize these balance shifts and to support them with the right exercises. Lateral movements such as shoulder-in are difficult for young horses that are “bum-high.” Avoid shoulder-in when the horse’s balance is downhill. It will be much easier for him once he has leveled out and can bring his hind legs underneath him. Exercises such as trot poles and forward-and-back transitions are much better suited to this phase in the horse’s growth.

A young horse has a lifetime of work ahead of him in the arena. Change the work load and situation often; it will improve your horse’s attentiveness and coordination. Trail ride and go to another arena where there are experienced, calm horses. Young horses follow the example of the horses around them.

Discussion, not Confrontation

I teach my students to avoid confrontations, but not to avoid discussions. The key is to know the difference. A confrontation arises when a horse has learned a resistance and is using it against the rider. The only solution to that situation is to go back and retrain the horse’s learned behaviour from the undesired response to the correct response. This is achieved, as I mentioned above, by positive reinforcement for the acceptable behaviour. A discussion is a normal – indeed necessary – part of the learning process in the young horse, and arises when the young horse is unsure what you are asking for and gives you the wrong response. Mistakes are a part of learning; do not punish the horse for them. Instead, repeat your aids until you get the right response, and then reward lavishly when you get what you want.

Horses do not respond well to mixed signals, such as kicking and pulling on the reins at the same time. Keep the work simple, and your aids clear and concise. Horses are very happy to work for us when they understand our requests and can respond without doubt as to what the correct response is. When the young horse trusts your aids, he will develop confidence, and that in turn will create a happy athlete.”