Learning to Train Young Horses

Trainers from the United States and Canada met at the 2005 Young Horse Dressage Trainers Symposium at Hilltop Farm to network and learn more about the job of schooling young horses correctly.

Scott Hassler instructs young trainers at the 2005 Young Horse Dressage Trainers Symposium. | Photo by Richard Malmgren

For three days in April 2005, Hilltop Farm in Colora, Md., became the nexus for a new generation of horse trainers. Forty enthusiastic professionals, at varying stages of their careers and with different backgrounds, came from 24 states and two Canadian provinces. Hosted by Hilltop Farm and Harmony Sporthorses of Kiowa, Colo., the 2005 Young Horse Dressage Trainers Symposium was a first step in bridging the critical gap in the North American sport horse industry that exists between the breeding of fine young stock and their successful entry into competition.

Some European professionals work exclusively with young horses, a skill that is recognized as an integral part of the horse industry. However, North American trainers do not have a mechanism that identifies and rewards trainers who focus on young horses. Their path to success has always been to compete at the upper levels. with the advent of the Fédération Equestre Internationale young horse tests at select U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) competitions, this is slowly changing. Breeders, trainers and riders now have an objective benchmark by which to measure the progress of their young horses and a new goal to strive for.

Scott Hassler, director of training at Hilltop, wanted to create a symposium that would underscore the immense importance of proper early training to ensure that the young horse can make appropriate progress along the Training Scale. Also, he wanted to take the first steps in the development of an informal network of young horse trainers. “It’s a tough industry,” he said. “You can’t go it alone and you shouldn’t have to.”

Hassler wanted the symposium to have a collegial atmosphere that would foster the growth of long-lasting relationships between like-minded peers. To these ends, he turned to his long-time friends and colleagues, Ulf Möller and Ingo Pape. Möller, a veterinarian by trade, is one of Germany’s most successful and sought after young horse trainers. Pape is a renowned breeder of Hanoverians and Oldenburgs. Hassler, Möller and Pape met 18 years ago while working with the late dressage master Herbert Rehbein. Friendship, as well as business, has continued to flourish among the three.

Symposium Format

Each day started with an overview meeting. Then with 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-year-old horses, participants followed the progression of training–from unbacked horses through those being prepared for the FEI young horse tests. The symposium was designed for maximum interaction among all participants. They were encouraged to ask questions and give their opinions on specific issues that came up during their time at Hilltop; no topics were off-limits.

In addition, participants wanted the experts’ thoughts on many business aspects of the sport horse industry–how to work with clients and owners, how to promote themselves as trainers, how to breed and raise young stock and present horses for breed inspections. The symposium offered a non-judgmental and supportive environment in which to learn about these issues.

Hassler wanted the participants to get a sense of how he, Möller and Pape evaluate a horse that has just come into their stables and how to form a training plan based on the horse’s qualities. They discussed a wide variety of topics during the three days:

  • free schooling and free longeing
  • the steps to backing a 3-year-old
  • development of basic gaits and rideability with 4-year-olds
  • exercises to improve the gaits, ride-ability, condition and control of 5- and 6-year-olds
  • preparation for collection and more advanced movements

With the FEI dressage tests for 5- and 6-year-old horses roughly equivalent to USDF Second and Third Level tests, respectively, the participants had a lot of ground to cover. Discussions continued during lunch and dinner at Hilltop’s conference center. On the first day, the group jointly assessed the wide variety of horses and got a sense of where each one was in his training.

That evening, Möller showed videos of the medal-winning 5- and 6-year-old tests at the World Championships, which was a fitting affirmation of what trainers aspire to do. Unfortunately, Pape had to leave unexpectedly due to a family emergency, so Hassler and Möller continued for the remaining two days. On the second day, Möller or Hassler worked individually with each rider, giving opinions and advice. It was an excellent opportunity for the symposium participants to hear different solutions for the same problem, though it was clear that Hassler’s and Möller’s goals for each horse were similar.

That evening after dinner, there was a general discussion directed by the participants’ questions. They wanted to know about the use of draw reins, trotting poles and cavalletti and when to start work in-hand. Some of those elements were incorporated into the final day of the symposium, along with a continuation of the basic work from the previous days.

Training Issues with Young Horses

Hassler, Möller and Pape all said that there are many ways to bring a young horse along. No one way is better than another, as long as the trainer adheres to certain basic tenets: The horse must go forward, be responsive and obedient. However, the specific attributes of the individual horse must be taken into account. For example, some horses need to be ridden deeper in the frame, while others need to be higher in front. Möller said that the FEI 5- and 6-year-old tests give a timetable of where a horse should be at a certain age. But, this is not an absolute–especially if the horse is used for breeding, has had an injury or came late into training.

Hassler emphasized “even subtle improvements are huge in a young horse, and is enormously important to recognize.” Möller also encouraged them to set goals for each horse: “If you don’t say, ‘This is what I want to do next,’ you’ll never reach it. There are no miracles. In the end; it is about training each day.” Both Möller and Hassler stressed knowing a horse’s strengths as well as his limitations.

Despite the growing number of high-quality young horses bred in North America, trainers must also be prepared to find potential in horses that aren’t ideal candidates for dressage. To demonstrate this point, one of the participants rode a Hilltop-bred horse that was more suited to the hunter arena than to dressage, and the trainers discussed how to improve the horse’s capacity for dressage. Hassler stressed how important it is for a trainer to “understand a horse’s highlights and make those a 10. Find the weak point and make that acceptable.” However, he cautioned that trying to force the weak point into a 10 can result in “making the 10 quality worse.” Also, a trainer must be open with an owner about a horse’s limitations.

One 6-year-old was startled by the microphone system, and Möller urged the rider to use the horse’s extra energy to her advantage, rather than trying to stop and correct every time it happened. Again, he stressed the need for a young horse to be taught to go forward, even when there is a mistake or an overreaction. “Always go forward after it. Never stop! The horse then learns to stop on his own.”

For the bigger issues, Hassler and Möller both believe that the trainer should be diplomatic in approaching the problem and should give the horse a chance to respond. Most important for Hassler was that the trainer should be confident in his or her approach: “The trainer has to choose a method of handling a problem and then do it. If [he or she] starts guessing, there is no chance for success.” However, if the chosen path does not seem to be working, then it is time to re-evaluate; and this is when having a network of colleagues can be especially helpful. Despite their professional success and vast experience with young horses, both Hassler and Möller still ask for advice if they need it.

Both trainers enjoy the challenge of working with young horses, watching them grow and mature and seeing them become ready to move on. They liken the work with young horses to that of elementary school teachers: different from, but as important, as college professors (or Grand Prix riders). Möller believes that young horses, like children, are looking for boundaries and can be more relaxed and happy when they know exactly what is expected of them. Of course, the trainer must be explicit at all times about those expectations and must also let the young horse, like a child, have plenty of time for play–hacking outside and in different environments, galloping and, perhaps, jumping.

Forming a Network

For Hassler, one of the most important aspects of the symposium was helping the participants understand the important role they have in changing the American system. According to him, the European system works so smoothly because there are established links between breeders and young horse trainers as well as between young horse trainers and FEI competitors.

“People in Germany understand that sometimes it is a totally different type of riding (training young horses or training Grand Prix horses),” Möller explains. “The professional young horse riders then give these horses to the next group of riders, who move the horses up the levels. I think this is the perfect system because the Grand Prix riders might not have so much time to spend with young horses and, maybe, not the patience.”

Hassler believes that this niche in the sport horse market can be very lucrative: “If you really look at the market, maybe 90 percent of the amateur riders want a safe horse that is already started well and is between 5 and 7 years old that they can progress with,” he says.

He would also like to see young horse trainers be able to form partnerships with some of the more recognized professional competitors. “It’s better for the Grand Prix rider to have a trainer to leave his young horses with when he goes to Florida. The young horse needs more time than the Grand Prix rider has to give,” said Möller. This is also a more cost-effective solution for the owner of the young horse, as the horse doesn’t require an extravagant environment in which to learn the basics–just a safe atmosphere in which to develop.

Möller adds that owners need to understand that a young horse rider does not need to be an FEI rider: “One participant said to me, ‘What should I do? I need an FEI horse to make a name for myself. If I don’t compete at the FEI level, then people don’t accept me as a trainer.’ There is the possibility to specialize in young horses. A person who is riding a lot of young horses has more feeling for them than a Grand Prix rider [does], and that is what the horse needs at that stage.”

Supporting the Industry

Hassler also believes that North American breeders have an important role to play in establishing a system that ensures their talented youngsters receive the proper basics: “What good are the offspring if they can’t be ridden well? Successful breeding is not selling breedings,” he said. “Successful breeding is [when] horses that you breed go into sport. That’s the bottom line. So not only is it a personal help to our business if the horses are ridden better, it is also a great improvement to our industry.”

Möller underscored the importance of well-trained youngsters to the entire industry, even within Europe, because so many talented youngsters are exported to North America from the German auctions. He cautions that “as business people, we need happy clients. If [North Americans] buy a young horse and they can’t handle him, or they can’t find someone in their country who can handle him, then they don’t have success. Then, maybe they get out of the horse business sooner or later.”

Moving Forward

Without doubt, participants at the Young Horse Dressage Trainers Symposium left Hilltop with a feeling of camaraderie and the knowledge that they have a new base of support. In addition to learning some new training techniques, they also have a better understanding of their important position as young horse specialists in the North American sport horse industry. It will not be simple or quick to change the training system, but with a team effort from breeders, owners, trainers and riders, North America can give its young horses the future they deserve.

Read the complete article in the September 2005 issue of Dressage Today magazine.

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