Horse-Riding: The Athletic Horse

Becoming an athletic horse is not done by food alone. The formal education of any animal, including the human, is heavily influenced and even determined to some degree by heredity. The animal is born with a genetic package of assets and limitations. Formal education should address a horse that is limited by his inborn abilities, aptitudes, talents, and potential. He will also have experiences prior to the beginning of his formal education. Consequently, the horse’s background warrants some attention.

The genetic makeup of a horse is very important in determining how much education the horse will be able to receive. It determines how well the horse will perform. The best upbringing, the best education, the best training will not eliminate hereditary shortcomings, whether they are of a physical or mental nature. This is the reason why selecting the right young horse for our educational purposes is paramount to riding and competition success.

The upbringing of the young horse from his birth to the time his formal education commences is of great importance. The best hereditary traits can easily be thwarted, inhibited, or ruined by incorrect upbringing. A young horse can easily be physically stunted and mentally ruined long before he is mature enough to receive formal education or training. Damage in early life can cause shortcomings that are difficult to overcome and correct.

Like all living organisms, the horse exists in several contexts as a result of his interaction with his environment. The horse’s “present” condition as we work with him in training does not exist in a vacuum. It represents two relevant dimensions: (1) The “present” of the horse is a result of his past; his memories, in particular. By the same token, his present is becoming the past of his future; whatever we do to him now, he will remember. (2) The horse will always spontaneously interact with his current environment, which, while training, includes us.

Therefore, to experience his world sympathetically is the first and foremost principle in the upbringing of a horse. We must consciously adopt an attitude of empathy toward the horse. We should try to experience the world (including ourselves) through his senses and as if through his thinking. This attitude presumes not only a willingness to empathize and an eagerness “to play at being a horse,” but also a solid academic knowledge of the horse’s nature.

To know our goals for the horse and chart our course to fulfill them constitute the second most important element of a successful training plan. Goals should be formulated in a hierarchical pattern. The cumulative, overall, paramount goal should always to be to develop our horse’s innate potential to its utmost. If we select our young candidate horse properly, then his potential will guarantee that, as he develops it, he will also fulfill our competitive ambitions, as if by coincidence. Lesser, interim training goals will have to be designed for years, months, weeks, daily lessons, and even minute to minute. Since training is hierarchical, lesser goals must always be supportive of greater ones. We cannot hope to succeed in a year’s program unless we do those things from minute to minute that will enhance and contribute to the yearly goal. In a brief outline of training suggestions, I will suggest major goals for about a one-year period.

From birth to six months of age, a foal is nurtured and nourished by his mother; therefore, his life is with his mother. They may be part of a herd of broodmares and foals or they might be in an area just as a pair. In either case, they should be in a large area where they can move about at leisure and at their chosen gait. Food should be plentiful and include natural pasture. When herding to pasture is necessary, it should be done at a leisurely walk, allowing opportunities to feed all the while.

From six months to two years of age, the weaned foal ideally should join a herd of similarly aged youngsters. The horse is a herd animal with well-developed social instincts. For his unfolding, the society of other horses is essential. Competition horses shying from others, kicking at others in a warm-up ring, reveal great social inhibitions and resultant impairment. Horses raised correctly in a herd usually will not exhibit such undesirable and abnormal behavior. While sheltered overnight in a more confined and well-protected area, the young horses should remain free (untied) and together in their shelter. During the daytime, and weather permitting, they should be herded out to pasture for the day’s duration and back at evening time. As they grow older, both the length of the herding distance and the quality of its challenges can be increased gradually. The morning and evening herding times are those of purposeful exercise. Young horses should travel an ever-increasing distance on their feet and be moved over terrain that will contribute to good hoof and joint development.

These twice-a-day exercise periods should present physical and mental challenges in the form of small climbs, slides, ditches, ravines, brooks, ponds, logs, etc., as the local terrain naturally offers. Should the area be void of surface challenges by nature, herding paddocks should be constructed that will contain obstacles built to accommodate the desirable exercises.

From two to three years of age, formal schooling of the horse begins. The young horse should be separated from his fellows periodically and eventually, for most of the time. He is tamed and made accustomed to human companionship. He should receive a halter to wear, be groomed, housed in a separate box or paddock, and his hooves trimmed and shod. He becomes familiar and, if handled properly, friendly with people.

At first, he should be handled in the halter, then eventually lunged. At first, he will be lunged from the center of the circle. His balance will develop, and his familiarity with and love of people result in his obedience to his handler. Once the young horse obeys verbal commands given from the center of the circle on which he is lunged, he can be trained to accept two lunge tapes. The second tape is added around the outside of his body, running below his tail and above the hocks and leading to the handler, who holds it in the center of the ring. Lungeing on two tapes, or long reining, adds to the control of the horse, especially encouraging him to bend onto the arc of the circle. It also prepares the horse for the next step in his training. Care should be taken to use lunge lines (tapes) that are sufficiently long for this purpose (i.e., 10 meters, or 33 feet). Great care must be taken to avoid accidents whenever handling a horse. However, when lungeing a horse, potential for mishaps and accidents greatly increases. Riders must never be in “shooting range” of their horse’s hind legs, never stay within kicking range of a horse. As a matter of principle, riders and handlers should not spend time behind the girth line of a horse and do all passing from one side to the other in front of the horse.

The horse is warmed up daily on the lunge tapes from the center of the circle on which he works. Later, he should also be driven from behind by long reining. The two tapes are held and handled as if driving a horse hitched to a buggy. The trainer must follow the horse on foot at an ample distance to prevent being kicked. He should aim to teach the horse to walk straight in front of him without excitement. Anytime the horse deviates from the straight line of his progress, the trainer must step directly behind him, making himself invisible, and insist on the horse’s continued trust in him. All this work must be done without threatening the horse. When the young horse lunges well, both on a single tape controlled from the middle of a circle and from double tapes being driven from behind, he is ready for the next step of his education.

The horse should then be driven in a buggy or cart. There are several good books on how to teach a horse to pull and what proper equipment should be used while doing so. The importance of driving a horse from a buggy, or rather his pulling something, is enormous. As you have gathered by now, during each step of the horse’s training, attention is paid to both his physical and mental development. By driving a horse, he will be straightened. He will develop his muscles further, while developing strength and stamina. He will acquire rhythm, especially through periods of trotting. He will develop the trotting muscles. He will be able to perform transitions that are gymnastically important for muscle and joint development. The horse will become supple, especially through transitions. He will learn to accept the bit and the handling of aids that communicate to him through complex equipment. Mentally, the horse’s attention span will increase. He will be expected to keep his focus on small but meaningful communication signals. He must submit to his driver through trust. From the buggy, his handler can communicate to him, place demands on him, and intensify meaningful gymnastic exercises.

Driving is a great pleasure to the horseman and teaches him good hands and the use of the whip as an aid rather than an instrument of punishment. Being driven should be a joy to the horse. Pulling a light buggy or cart should be no strain; yet, the pleasure of traveling on straight stretches at a good clip, liberated from a tedious lungeing circle or the boredom of walking on two long tapes, should encourage his impulsion and zest.

From three to four years of age, the well-founded horse should move under saddle with his rider on his back for the majority of the training time. The horse can still be lunged to warm him up in order to supple and relax him before each session of riding. He can occasionally be driven from a buggy. At the age of three most of his training time is spent under saddle, and he becomes a riding horse. The foundation of his career as a sport horse functioning under a rider is now being laid. The horse should move in a generous frame, free of hindrances and interferences from the rider. The rider should concentrate on harmonizing with his horse. This is not a simple task, for the young, saddled horse will lose his balance often. He will be uneven and insufficient in his gaits. He will rush. He will “fall through” turns. He may be stiff in his joints, reluctant to use his muscles, tire easily, and resist. These are all the expected symptoms of the shortcomings that are due to lack of physical fitness. To help the horse, the rider must sympathetically follow the shifting center of gravity of the young horse with his own center of gravity, in order to harmonize. The rider should plan to ride his horse over open country as much as possible. Freedom, both from the rider’s restrictions and from confinement in a small arena, is essential. Under the foreign weight of his rider, the horse will be gymnasticized and find his balance best by moving over irregular terrain, by climbing, sliding, and taking small leaps.

About two or three times a week, the horse should be gymnasticized in an arena. These sessions should include cavalletti work. (Good books on cavalletti work are available for you to consult.) The arena work should be more demanding mentally, but less demanding physically than the cross-country work.
This year in the horse’s training is critical for his future career. It is during this time the horse learns all the basic aids. His rider must teach him the meaning of these aids. Therefore, being overdemanding is a mistake. The literature that is concerned with how to train young and green horses is vast and should be consulted.

From four to six years of age, the horse should be “generalized.” His education should be that of a combined-training horse’s training. He should be dressaged, moved over open country, and jumped in an arena. Horses should not jump higher than four feet before they reach four years of age, for their joints can be overtaxed and permanently damaged. The time has come for working the horse more intensely.

Competition may be pursued during these two years. The horse should learn all about the competition environment, including the mental state of his rider. All competition environments alter the behavior of both rider and horse.

At age six and beyond, the horse has reached full maturity. He should be appropriately specialized. In order to pursue greater demands in performance, time spent with the horse must be focused on particular tasks. The horse will either be more suitable for dressage or jumping or for continuation of combined training. One of these areas of specialization should be selected and pursued with the appropriate training.
The great competition athlete is a horse that is raised through motion and exercise. In a species that survived by flight, the “survival of the fittest” will favor those individuals who grew up moving.

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