Learning to stand still — and other essentials for starting a young horse

  • This time of year is traditionally when many young horses are started under saddle. Once you’ve got to the stage where they’ve accepted the rider and done the initial riding away process, however, what are the essentials for a young horse to learn from there? H&H asked some professional riders and trainers for their top tips

    Learning to stand still

    North west-based Michael Cooper started his career with eventers before switching to show horses, and now competes working hunters at the highest level, as well as having a busy schedule judging and training. Finding and starting young horses is a key part of his business and Michael says teaching a horse to stand calmly is high on his list of priorities.

    “It’s essential for a show horse to be able to stand; for the judge to get on, for example, or to receive their rosette, but any horse should be taught to stand. Being willing to stand quietly at the mounting block is one of the things we make sure they will do fairly early on,” says Michael.

    An advocate of lots of long reining during the starting process, Michael first teaches horses to stand on the long reins. Once the horse is under saddle, this training continues.

    “I’m a big believer in teaching young horses to be calm — if they won’t stand quietly when asked, you’re going to struggle to get them to work calmly in walk, trot and canter. I like to have another older horse in the arena working round me and then focus on getting the youngster I’m riding to stand and watch.

    “Start by asking for just a few moments of stillness, then allow the horse to circle if he needs to before asking for halt again. Gradually build up the amount of time you ask him to remain standing quietly while the other horse is working, and remember to reward him when he does,” advises Michael.

    Learning to be forward off the leg

    Professional showjumper and UKCC Level Two BS coach Faye Raw likes to see her young horses learn to go forward confidently off the leg once they are past the initial starting stage.

    “A mix of work in the arena and out hacking is great for keeping youngsters engaged and thinking forward. Lots of lengthening and shortening in trot and canter is the start of getting the horse to step under and use himself correctly, and that’s something easily done while hacking,” says Faye.

    “As the youngster builds strength and stamina, this work can then be taken into the arena. I like to use poles on long strides so that I can ask the horse to trot down first in three strides and then shorten for four every so often, and that exercise can be done in canter as well.

    “Make sure, as well, that you don’t allow the arena boards or fencing to become a ‘crutch’. Come off the outside track and make sure the horse is able to work in a straight line — it’s surprising how many young horses miss out being taught this crucial skill.”

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    Hacking out confidently

    Getting young horses out hacking is something Intelligent Horsemanship’s Kelly Marks agrees is fundamental to their foundation training.

    “It can be a daunting prospect sometimes, though, and so good preparation is a worthwhile time investment. Ideally, find a circular route and walk it first yourself to make sure it doesn’t ask too many questions of a young horse — heavy traffic, very spooky objects etc.

    “You can then walk the horse round it in hand or on the long lines to give him confidence initially, before going out under saddle. It can be helpful to have an experienced older horse to go out with, especially for the first few times doing canter work — having a steady partner upsides will give a youngster confidence to go forward safely in a straight line.”

    Kelly also recommends taking youngsters out to shows and events purely as observers, giving them time to relax and take things in.

    “It’s another thing which means investing some of your time, but is something which will pay dividends later when you start asking the young horse to begin his competition career.”

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