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Starting young horses: the secrets to success from some of the industry’s best *H&H Plus*


  • A sound foundation is essential for young horses, regardless of which discipline they follow. Alice Collins finds out how the Billy babies start out

    Having backed over 1,000 of them over the past quarter-century, Will Plunkett (pictured throughout) is well versed in starting young horses. He gives 50 Billy Stud three-year-olds their basic training every year.

    “I’ve broken horses for everything; eventing, showjumping, dressage, Arabs, for racing – even a Shire horse,” says Will.

    His diverse CV is testament to Pippa and William Funnell’s firm belief that an all-round education is crucial, regardless of the horse’s intended use.

    Pippa says: “William and I are insistent that the basics are done correctly, no matter which route you’re going down. In our case, we’re breeding them and it’s important to handle them correctly from the beginning. They stay in herds until they’re three.”

    “Horses learn so much from the herd environment,” says William. “It’s like kids at primary school learning as much from their classmates as from the teacher. And it’s the same basic education for all the horses regardless of what they’re going on to do.

    “We basically do what Monty Roberts does – take the horse out of a group and make them want to join you,” adds William.

    Leicestershire-based couple Ginnie and Will Turnbull have been producing a variety of horses for 30 years, with Will doing the breaking in before handing over to Ginnie.

    “Our least favourites are horses that have been over-handled,” she says. “Horses who have been part of a herd have learnt about pecking order and patience. They might be a bit feral, but they’re open to learning.”


    William in the barn with the young horses

    William Funnell agrees.

    “An untouched horse is a blank canvas,” he says. “Of course some are more difficult than others, but I haven’t ever had a horse born nasty. Those are created by people.”

    So what is the formula for building the correct basics – over and over again – with a range of horses?

    1. Relaxation

    “Initially, my main emphasis is relaxation,” says Will Turnbull. “That’s the most important thing to me because it means they can go on and be ridden in all three paces on as light a contact as possible.”

    When Will introduces side-reins, they’re fitted loosely.

    “It’s just so they feel the weight of the rein on the contact and to teach a little inside flexion,” he explains. “I am very against trying to tie the horse into an outline.”

    Ginnie and Pippa are both adamant that speed is never the answer when teaching young horses. Success comes via the horse calmly understanding what is being asked.

    “A lot of people go wrong by using speed,” explains Pippa. “We’d rather spend longer establishing the basics, and proceed more slowly but with improved understanding. That applies to meeting llers or the first log; anything new. You have to kill the speed and keep them on line with your leg.”

    Ginnie concurs: “If the horse tries to rush, we take all the pace away and let them think about it. If they’re ever in a pickle or not coping well, it’s so important to give them time to think. It’s about trying to minimise their flight instinct and teach them that they have time to do things confidently.”

    2. Consistency

    William Funnell points to consistency being key from the outset.

    “It’s like when you let your dog jump up at you, but then the day he has dirty feet and he gets in trouble,” he says. “That’s a mixed message and not good training. It’s the same with horses; the rules have to be consistent, but it’s even more important because it’s a safety issue.”

    Pippa adds: “It’s invaluable to spend time on the ground getting the horse calm but teaching them that they’re not allowed to walk over you. People get in trouble when they miss the moment to react and eliminate issues early on.”

    All these experienced producers of young horses agree that calm consistency is absolutely essential.

    “Horses get con dence from discipline,” says Will Turnbull. “I don’t mean being hard on them, just them clearly understanding the boundaries. Don’t be inconsistent and leave the horse in no man’s land of half being in charge as it makes them tenser and it’s harder for them to understand what’s required.”

    William concludes: “Horses learn to cope with all sorts, but you’re always either training a horse or untraining. If you let them get away with something, then you’re untraining. If you’re consistent, you don’t need to be tough.”

    Will Plunkett getting on young Billy Stud horse Billy Candle. They could barely touch her 2 weeks before!

    3. Balance

    Pippa stresses Will Plunkett’s superb balance in the saddle as one of his star qualities. A balanced rider can transmit balance to the horse, which is crucial with green horses.

    “People need to be very aware that youngsters find it really difficult to keep their balance,” says Pippa. “If on top of that they have an unbalanced rider, that makes life even harder. The horses should be allowed to travel freely forward. If they spook and the rider loses balance, they learn that they get pulled and grabbed. A balanced rider can be more in uential; the stiller you can sit, the better.”

    Will Turnbull echoes the sentiment.

    “When a horse is tense – which a breaker might be – people tend to hang on,” he says. “I am very careful not to. Even if a horse is trotting very forward, I won’t hang on. I’ll maybe ride a transition to walk and then trot again, but I won’t hang on to the reins. Hanging on doesn’t teach them to relax.”

    William reiterates the role of the balanced rider in creating a con dent horse: “Rider balance is so important. We have riders come to us who can ride a grade A, but I wouldn’t let them jump a metre on a four-year-old because their balance isn’t good enough. A four-year-old can’t differentiate between being pulled to stop or because the rider has lost balance.”

    Pippa’s top tip is always to use a neck strap with young horses: if the rider loses balance, the strap takes the strain, not the horse’s mouth.

    4. Simplicity

    Everyone agrees that the only items on the menu to begin with should be the absolute basics.

    “A lot of horses’ problems stem from the rider doing too much,” counsels Pippa. “Will Plunkett is great; he doesn’t worry where their heads are. In the beginning, it’s all simple. Just stop, go; left, right. It’s key you spend time on the basics and don’t run before you can walk.”

    Both Will Turnbull and Will Plunkett use a tried-and-trusted system for starting youngsters, with the emphasis on step-by-step simplicity. Will Plunkett adds one building block to his routine every few days and drops o the first part, so the vast majority of the day’s work is still familiar to the horse, yet they are also adding new skills.

    Will Turnbull uses a lunge pen to transfer the voice and body aids from
    the person on the ground to the rider. Although he does not use a lunge line, the handler in effect lunges the horse while the rider sits quietly on top. The aids are then gradually transferred from one person to the other, until eventually the rider is in full control.

    5. Straightness

    Keeping a horse straight sounds so simple, but straightness needs to be carefully nurtured in a wobbly young horse.

    “Straightness is always the main thing,” reiterates Will Turnbull. “We use loose side-reins on the lunge so they can’t just fall out of the outside shoulder. We also work on straightness early by turning them from the leg and moving the outside shoulder. We never drag them round from the inside rein.

    “Any horse broken with absolutely no contact is often tricky later. There’s no forcing, just a gentle contact. Popping a fence checks the straightness and the confidence.”

    Once the horse understands the leg, it’s also a straightness tool.

    “We channel the horse with the leg,” says William Funnell. “We use our legs to keep them straight over fences – when you narrow the options down for a horse, he doesn’t look left or right. “They learn not to question what you’re asking because you’re consistent and they understand what’s required.”

    Will Plunkett getting on young Billy Stud horse Billy Candle. They could barely touch her 2 weeks before!

    6. Horsemanship

    Reading a horse’s reactions is paramount to ensuring a successful start. Quick and appropriate reactions nip issues in the bud, ensuring they never blossom into bigger problems.

    “So much of the early training is building trust so the horse understands we’re here to form a partnership,” explains Pippa. “I’m their friend while also reading their body language and acting accordingly. It’s about meshing that with telling them what to do that’s the fine line.”

    William agrees that the small lessons add up to a positive bigger picture.

    “For example,” he says, “the day a horse doesn’t want to walk to the school, you clearly nudge it with the leg rather than being afraid to and waiting until it’s a bigger issue.

    Otherwise you might have to hit it with a stick, and if that’s done in the wrong way, you’re creating further problems. Before you know it, you’ve got a horse who’s worried and refuses to walk to the school.”

    7. Confidence

    “Confidence is crucial,” says Pippa. “Without confidence, trust cannot be built; and that magical partnership you want to build between you and your horse has to be formed around trust. Confidence makes it so much easier to go on to the next stage, whether that be a progression in training or the next level in competition.”

    Instilling confidence is the driver behind the Turnbulls’ belief that horses of all disciplines should jump.

    “We break eventers and dressage horses mostly, but the process is the same for all,” says Ginnie. “The dressage horses pop a jump and hack. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t good at the jumping, they just need to be confident enough to answer the question.”

    Will Plunkett does all the breakers alone.

    It began as necessity, but as he developed his system, it became by choice as he finds it easier to build trust and confidence.

    “When it’s just me, everything is more predictable,” he says. “Sensitive horses often get more sensitive the more people are there.”

    As Will says, confidence and trust go hand in hand, and with this instilled in a young horse, it has every chance of fulfilling its potential.

    Will Plunkett’s secret ingredient

    Will Plunkett getting on young Billy Stud horse Billy Candle. They could barely touch her 2 weeks before!

    Will is adamant that there are no magic tricks to starting young horses properly. But he does have one superpower.

    “It’s not for everyone, but I vault on every horse,” he explains. “I vault across the saddle from the ground, then from there I swing my leg over. The horse barely notices and it means mounting is a non-issue.

    “I see people trying to make young horses stand still to mount, but I let them walk and they learn that I’m going to jump on anyway, so they may as well stand still. Later on they can learn to stand at the block, or whatever the owner needs them to do. I’ve earned more money from vaulting on than anything else,” he laughs.

    Ref: 11 February 2021

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