If you rush the early years, a youngster is unlikely to flourish. But spending time improving their physical strength and teaching the basics will set them up for a lengthy and successful career.
Former European Champion Tina Cook has started numerous youngsters, including Miners Frolic with whom she netted three Olympic medals. Here she shares tips on how to kick-start a youngster’s career.
1. Contain the Canter
If a horse’s natural canter is long and covers a lot of ground they must learn to shorten it so that when they are negotiating a cross-country course they can condense in front of a fence.
“If he doesn’t know how to sit back and shorten his stride he will eventually meet a fence wrong and scare himself or run out because he can’t work out what to do,” explains Tina.
Tina advises shortening the canter on a circle. If the horse breaks into trot, keep practising this until they realise what they are being asked to do.
“He will struggle and when he does shorten he won’t be able to hold it for long so be quick to praise him.
“Allow the strike off to happen and then contain the canter. Beware of what your inside rein is doing because if it crosses over and he gives you too much neck bend you won’t be able to control the pace.”
2. Pole play
In training Tina places three poles on three quarter marks of a circle and canters over the middle of each pole. She explains the key is a controlled canter with a regular rhythm.
“Relax your inside hand and support him with the outside rein so that he doesn’t drift out. Think about what’s happening beneath and behind you rather than focusing on his neck,” advises Tina.
“Keep your weight down in your heels and sit back — that will help you to support him.
“Instead of drifting out and then launching over the pole he’s got to get to the point where he jumps the middle of it without the canter changing,” says Tina who adds that this is an exercise she does with her own horses, including the racers and her Badminton mount De Novo News.
“It’s a good exercise for the rider as much as the horse because you have got to make it clear what you want to do.
“The way you travel from pole to pole is important and the horse should be doing it correctly before you go across country so that you know he responds to your aids in the right way.”
3. Smooth links
Tina explains that if you have to slip the reins to accommodate a youngster’s big jump you must be sure to shorten them between fences.
“You are right to do that as catching him in the mouth would be off-putting. However, you need to be quick to get the reins back so that you have more control over his approach to the next fence.”
A guide pole can be placed on the ground before the fence to keep a young horse straight, Tina says, adding that hesitation before a fence is not a bad thing in a youngster.
“All he is doing is having a bit of a look — he’s being green rather than naughty — and that’s when you need to be in a position to give him the confidence to keep going forward using your legs.”
4. Don’t overdo it
If your horse finds these exercises difficult don’t keep going endlessly.
Tina recommends practising them for up to 20 minutes at a time rather than risking overdoing it on a tiring horse.
“Be strict and stop even if the horse hasn’t quite twigged what you are trying to achieve,” says Tina. “It could go wrong if you get too ambitious and he’s not ready. Spend time getting the basics right at home and it will help you in the long-term.”