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Joanna Thurman-Baker’s dressage blog: why do some people rush their young horses?

Hi everyone and welcome to my next blog.

It is time for something different today. Before I get into it, please don’t bite my head off. My dad always says “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” — I think this is a motto to live by, one that many need to take of board (I’m looking at you, keyboard warriors). But at the same time, some issues do need to be raised, in a safe environment, where no individual is targeted and no one downgrades anyone else. There is no right or wrong answer to this.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my new boy Simba is green for his age. It’s something that I want to touch on, whether or not it is controversial, as it picks at me nearly every day.

A big problem I see at the moment is young horses being pushed rapidly up the levels. I think the root cause of this is social media. Every day I’m seeing videos or photos of scores of young horses, all looking amazing, and I get a cold swell of panic, thinking my young horses are so far behind. But in reality, they aren’t.

Simba will be six this year, but not until the summer, so he is really only five-and-a-half. He can perform basic walk, trot and canter off the aids and in an outline, which is perfectly acceptable for his age and current growth/strength levels. However, I feel disheartened when I then see videos of horses his age doing medium tests. I see videos of rising five-year-olds (so really, only four and a few months) doing flying changes. Should I be pushing my horses to perform like that?

I’m not sure there is a definitive answer that will satisfy everyone, but for me the answer is no. I want my horses to be successful horses with careers way into their teens. There is never a time limit to their learning, so why try to do everything now? Every horse is different and unique.

Perhaps some people really are lucky in having a fully developed horse by the age of four, and if so, that’s great! I’m seriously envious. But the problem I find is that because one person is doing X, Y and Z with their youngsters, everyone else thinks they should be too. Much like the Hollywood celebrities who endorse weight loss teas, the message being sent out could be detrimental in the long run. Many young people will see these videos of four-year-olds practising flying changes and could try to replicate it to be like their favourite online idol. But is that correct?

Pascal, aged seven at a riding club show

Statistically, how many from the young horse classes and novice classes at regional and national level actually make grand prix? Maybe my horses are ‘behind’ in their learning, but can someone point me to the book of timescales horses have to be trained in?

I get increasingly agitated when I see horses advertised for sale as being ‘Great for the young horse classes’, but is that all there is?

Currently, I’ve got two lovely rising four-year-olds, who are out in the fields enjoying being young and growing. They will be gently broken in this year, having done tiny bits of lungeing and leaning over at the end of last summer. I have no current expectations for them. But I see on social media other rising four-year-olds like them who have been in full work since last summer. It makes me panic and question, are mine going to be left behind in the long run?

But then I force myself to remember what we have achieved with our current horses. Pascal (who was a very successful grand prix horse, pictured above and top) wasn’t even broken in until he was five. He had no brakes or steering until seven. So what’s the need to make my six-year-old do medium? There can be great benefits to competing them young, like getting them used to a competition atmosphere, but there should be limits too.

Everyone seems to want to do everything so soon. Nowadays, if a five-year-old for sale has no proven competition record it’s basically worthless. If it’s not working elementary it’s price is lowered as it’s considered to be behind for its age.

Apollo, aged six

At five, my dear Apollo had been pushed from pillar to post. He went to multiple jump and dressage yards and never lasted longer than six weeks. When he came to us as a six-year-old, he had nothing but a bad history to his name. He was considered a problem, but to us he was a misunderstood horse with a big heart and willingness to please, despite his conformation difficulties. To this day, you can’t put the reins over his head when you put his bridle on — they have to gently go on attached to the headpiece. What happened to him to cause this behaviour is a mystery, but he has never forgotten. I wish he could tell me why he can’t let go of the past. If he still holds this in memory, what else does he hold in memory from being a young horse?

Apollo now

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The message I am trying to get across is to raise the question of why we as a community are pushing our youngsters. I want to enjoy the ride and the journey, trying to make a happy athlete for the future. I try not to worry what everyone else is doing to just do what I feel from the saddle and the ground work required. So what if your six-year-old hasn’t done a competition yet? Don’t worry — neither have mine!

Anyway, I’m off now to go and see the horses, watch them enjoying the sunshine and dream with them about the future to come.

Until next time,

Joanna

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