Video: Training Young Dressage Horses

Michael Bragdell talks about young horses bred and started at Hilltop Farm in Colora, Md., and shares a video from the 2008 Breeders Group Class at Dressage at Devon.
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Michael Bragdell talks about young horses bred and started at Hilltop Farm in Colora, Md., and shares a video from the 2008 Breeders Group Class at Dressage at Devon.

In the January 2009 issue of Dressage Today magazine, Natalie DiBerardinis, breeding manager at Hilltop Farm, explains how she matches mares and stallions to create champion offspring. Her goal is to produce the best sport-horse prospects possible. In 2007, she matched Hilltop's Cha Cha with its stallion Contucci. The 2008 foal, Chiquita HTF, won the first U.S. warmblood foal championship.

Credit: Practical Horseman, All Rights Reserved

Credit: Practical Horseman, All Rights Reserved

Hilltop trainer Michael Bragdell shares his secrets to successful in-hand training and showing of youngsters.

What preparation do you do with your young horses before a breed show?
At Hilltop, the groundwork starts from the early days when we are leading the newborn foals from their stalls to their pastures. All staff members are trained in one method of handling so it is consistent. Because of this consistent, daily work, before a show we only have minimal training that is necessary.

For Chiquita, Devon was her first outing off the farm. Starting two weeks ahead, we had regular practice sessions of walking, trotting and quietly stopping in-hand. Early on these schooling sessions took place in an enclosed paddock or arena. As she gained confidence, we then moved the training sessions to a triangle to simulate the show environment.

When practicing, you don't need to school a big trot. The focus is to establish confidence, rhythm and balance between the handler and the horse. In addition, we always use an assistant handler who follows and encourages the horse to go forward as needed.

It's not how long you train that is important, but rather the quality of the training that makes an impact on your young horse. Their attention span is shorter than that of a mature horse, so don't over-train your youngster.

What's your handling routine to warm-up at the horse show?
It's important for the horse to be relaxed to show to its best advantage. Some horses do well with lots of hand-walking, and other horses need very little warm-up. It may take you a couple of shows before you learn the right routine for your horse.

What's being demonstrated in the video below?
This footage was taken during the 2008 Breeders Group Class at Dressage at Devon, where Chiquita HTF and Rhodora HTF handily won with a score of 87.2 percent.

As you watch this video, observe the following:

  • In the walk, you'll see both handlers checking their horse's walk to see that is relaxed and swinging. We've worked with both these horses at home and know how much of a walk they naturally offer.
  • For Chiquita (the chestnut), in the trot you'll notice that the lead is kept quite loose. On the last turn the handler half-halts the horse by raising his left hand, allowing the horse to stay balanced and relaxed.
  • For Rhodora (the bay), she stayed very balanced through her whole presentation, including through the turns where her rhythm stayed the same as it was on the straight lines.


Video by SportsTech Productions and Hilltop Farm

Michael Bragdell is originally from Gothenburg, Sweden. In 1995, Michael joined the Hilltop team, where he now holds the position of trainer and professional handler. Over the years, he has presented numerous stallions and over 500 mares and foals at different breed registry inspections. Michael has handled hundreds of horses at breed shows around the country and frequently presents in the championship classes, including handling Cabana Boy to his Reserve Grand Championship at Dressage at Devon as a 2-year-old. In 2003, he received the Sunshine Sporthorse Horse Association Master Handler Award at the Region 3 finals. In 2005, Michael began the major task of young horse backing at Hilltop Farm. Four of the youngsters that Michael has started at Hilltop have gone on to recent wins in the USEF/Markel Young Horse Championships. At the 2008 Championships, Michael captured his first National Championship aboard Selten-HW in the FEI 4-year-old division.