A Lesson in Handling Young Horses - Dressage Today

A Lesson in Handling Young Horses

In this book excerpt, Ingrid Klimke explains her theories on handling young horses.
Author:
Publish date:
Grooming begins at a very young age and is often enjoyed by a foal. A foal will often begin to nibble the person brushing him in return as a sign of grateful thanks. Should he bite, however, it is best to push him away or reprimand him with the voice in a sharp manner such as “leave it!” (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)

Grooming begins at a very young age and is often enjoyed by a foal. A foal will often begin to nibble the person brushing him in return as a sign of grateful thanks. Should he bite, however, it is best to push him away or reprimand him with the voice in a sharp manner such as “leave it!” (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)

In times past, it was very common for a trainer to take on the education of a horse from a foal. During the foal’s development basic rules were taught, making it far easier to introduce ridden work later on. Nowadays, it’s normal for riders to buy horses who are 3- and 4-years-old and already ridden. Often these riders have little knowledge about the horse’s previous ownership or how a young horse should be handled in the early stages before he is ridden for the first time. By caring for a young horse one learns not only how to feed and look after him but how to develop his training in the future.

A 3-year-old horse who has been brought up as one of the family trusts people and his surroundings. So he is naturally easier to train as he becomes older, being more accustomed to civilization than he would be if he had grown up in the field. However, despite this initial advantage, we have found horses who have spent longer “in the wild” are just as good to train in the long term as those brought up as “one of the family.” While the former are often more afraid and need more care at first, once they have learned to trust people they become very dependable.

It is extremely difficult to win the trust of young horses who have been badly started by the wrong people. They are certainly difficult during their basic training but one has to find out slowly and gently what the previous problems were in order to overcome them. However, despite the important need to win their trust, problems can be caused when training young horses by being too gentle with them and as a consequence they make poor progress—but generally this can be put right. It is very much a personal matter for the rider, but one should not try to humanize a horse.

Education Begins as a Foal

A good breeder establishes the basis of trust by rearing and handling young horses correctly, which prepares them for subsequent work with a rider. Education begins as a foal. The first days and weeks set the foundations for later development of a trustful working partnership between man and horse, not by hours of aimless playing around with foals, but by winning their trust. This begins with them becoming accustomed to the stable. Foals are naturally inquisitive and after a while will investigate contact with people, but they are braver more quickly if you crouch down to their level and wait until the foal comes to you. This acceptance of human contact is developed by keeping low and stroking the foal at first, progressing to holding him with the left arm under the neck and lightly passing the right arm around the hindquarters. Through this he learns that existence in the world is not entirely a matter of being free. His inborn urge for freedom must be slowly but surely brought under control.

Once the foal lets you hold him a short time a halter can be introduced (it must not be too big), which can be fastened around the foal’s neck. The advantage of this is that you do not have to interfere with the sensitive ear area. Once it is in place, the foal must be praised. This is enough for the first lesson. When the foal accepts the halter confidently, then you begin leading him. 

To start with when leading, one must go along with the free movement of the foal. This can be done first of all in the stable provided it is a minimum of 15 to 16 square meters, such as a foaling box. The next step is to lead the mare from the stable to a nearby field with the foal following, wearing a halter. You need two people for this as this first outing can unsettle a young mare. This short walk should just be fun for the foal and a way of quickly building his self-confidence, so discretion is important in these first days of holding and leading the foal. Pulling at the rope can be detrimental and should be avoided. If the foal stops, the person leading the mare should walk ahead undeterred. The further the mare walks away from the foal the more inclined he will be to follow. From experience, the person leading the foal should have learned not to turn to look at the foal but to stand their ground and expect him to follow.

Once the foal’s trust has been won and he has led successfully he must be praised immediately. A short word of praise is enough. Excessive patting and caressing at this age is dangerous as this arouses the foal’s urge to play and may encourage him to nip, which is not desirable. 

Foals are inquisitive. They want to smell and nibble everything such as halters, ropes and sometimes their mother’s mane and tail. Even the handler’s arm will do. If you allow the foal to play around with you, you will not surprisingly be covered in bruises. Vicious biting from the foal, which is distinct from inquisitive nipping, should be recognized and punished. Maliciousness is frequently made worse by anxiety on behalf of the handler. Experienced breeders do not allow close-contact playing with the foals. They would rather keep the youngsters at a safe distance and occupied with educational exercises for a few minutes at a time. 

When the foal totally accepts being led behind his mother you can begin the next stage, which is to tie him up. In the past, this was done outside using a strong rope or chain, which would not break if the foal pulled at it. Later, research by vets found that the inability to coordinate muscular movement could be caused by strong pressure on the upper vertebrae of the neck. So this method has been superseded.

Tying up must first be done in the stable. The lead rope is passed through a ring on the wall and the end of the rope is held loosely in the hand, which enables you to give and take as necessary. Tying the foal to the mother’s girth and going for a short walk is another way of introducing the idea fairly easily. The foal must learn to stand still beside his handler when the handler is still. 

Grooming and picking up the foal’s feet come next. A foal loves for his coat to be brushed gently with either a rubber currycomb or a brush. A foal will often begin to nibble the person brushing him in return as a sign of grateful thanks. Should he bite, however, it is best to push him away or reprimand him with the voice in a sharp manner such as “leave it!” This behavior with people is not desirable and must be corrected before the foal grows up.

Foals learn easily to pick up their feet. One begins with the leg that has the least weight on it and lifts it, not too high, so that the foal does not lose his balance. It does not matter if a front or hind foot is picked up first, but saying “foot” as the leg is raised teaches the foal the relevant voice command so that he understands readily what is required. 

Experienced breeders are satisfied when a young foal will pick his feet up, accept being groomed and can be led around on the halter. More than this is not required at this stage; training a horse is a long and difficult process without extending it any further. In the first and second year the young horse should be given the chance to grow up naturally and he should spend plenty of time out in the field. 

Leading In Hand

It is customary at stud farms in Germany for young stallions at the end of their second year or beginning of their third to be shown in hand. The mares are 3 years old when assessed for entry in the studbook of the relevant breed society. Ideally, the aim is to appear in hand at the yearly Elite Show. To get there, the horses must have been carefully trained in order that they create a good impression and thus increase their value. Apart from major shows, there are many occasions where the young horse will be required to demonstrate his movement and conformation. In addition to showing in hand (to demonstrate the movement), there is also standing in hand (standing the horse ready for inspection); the standard procedure for which are described below. Traditionally, this showing is done using a snaffle bridle, as is the case for other displays later in the horse’s career, such as riding horse tests or trotting up to establish soundness in eventing competitions. 

Showing in hand can be seen as a simple extension of the training for a horse who is yet to be ridden, and is thus beneficial for a 2-year-old horse as a preparatory exercise for later work under saddle.

Standing For Inspection

In-hand work with a horse is both educational and fun. This is Lafayette Lord as a 5-year-old stallion by Lord Sinclair. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)

In-hand work with a horse is both educational and fun. This is Lafayette Lord as a 5-year-old stallion by Lord Sinclair. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)


To stand for inspection the handler should halt the horse (always on level ground) with his shoulders about level with the judge, take a step forward and stand in front of the horse, feet slightly apart. The right rein should be held in the left hand, and the right hand should hold the left rein at about a hand’s breadth behind the bit rings. The thumbs have to lie on the reins and the ends of the reins should be coiled and held in the right hand. Finally, the handler must encourage the horse to stand square on all four legs. If he does not do so initially, his stance can be corrected with either a gentle pull to move forward or soft pressure on the mouth to move slightly backward. From this stance, the horse should be allowed to take half a step forward so that he stands straight with all four legs somewhat open so that the judge can see them all clearly (as in the photograph above of Lafayette Lord). The horse’s head and neck should be held slightly forward (not so much that he hollows his back) so that the quality of the forehand makes an impression.

After showing the horse the handler returns to the left side of the horse and takes the reins in the right hand. The reins should pass between the forefinger and middle finger and be held a good hand’s breadth away from the bit rings. The tight (outside) rein should be shorter than the left so that the horse’s head cannot turn inward, thus assisting the horse to move straight when he trots. The ends of the reins run from top to bottom through the whole of the right hand and are held in place with the thumb. 

Ways of Leading In Hand

Short walks with the foal’s mare should be fun for the foal and a way of quickly building his self-confidence. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books )

Short walks with the foal’s mare should be fun for the foal and a way of quickly building his self-confidence. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books )


There are two ways to lead the horse in hand at a show. In Germany, if the horse is judged in an enclosed show ring it is usually triangular. Generally, one is expected to lead up and down the arena in straight lines and at each end the horse should be turned to the right, away from the handler. The horse is shown first in walk and then in trot.

Then the handler accompanies the horse on the left side, staying about level with the horse’s head. The right hand (rein hand) is held at the height of the shoulder; the left arm is left hanging down. In trot the handler must run in time with the horse’s steps. If the horse goes too fast he can be steadied by lifting the left hand quietly. A horse will often canter if he is led in trot without any contact on the rein. It is better to keep a light contact so as not to interfere with the rhythm of the trot. 

There is a set way to lead in hand. The young horse must be introduced to each single aspect in order to do it properly. We recommend carrying a long schooling whip. Begin by standing close to the horse’s left shoulder and having the rein reasonably long so that the horse will respond to a light contact. The horse is then walked on a long rein in the same way as he learned when he was a foal, so he does not become stressed. It is important to stay by the horse’s head and neck and not to get in front of him, and to walk confidently and precisely so that the horse knows exactly what to do and gets no other ideas in his head. Once he is doing this, stand still and quietly say, “halt.” The young horse may take a step further on before stopping, but he must pay attention. Then give a small tug on the rein and immediately slacken it again to avoid any possible resistance from the horse. At this point, pat him briefly on the neck and wait a moment, looking at him. Then look forward again and say, “come” and walk on. The horse should follow but, if he hesitates, touch him lightly on his hindquarters with the whip.

 This shows Lafayette Lord being led successfully in hand. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books )

 This shows Lafayette Lord being led successfully in hand. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books )

We repeat this exercise of walking on and halting until the horse understands it well; this usually takes just a few days. We always allow the horse to run free in the school and work off any excess energy by romping around beforehand, then the exercise works without any great problem when he is quiet and relaxed. The day will come though when the horse is tense and spooky—and this usually happens when introducing trot. This is a test for the handler’s reactions; one must always be quicker than the horse. Sometimes the only way to maintain control is to take a firmer contact on the rein, since it must be very clear to the horse that he must stop and go no further. This firmer hold should not, ideally, involve actually pulling backward and under no circumstances should the handler hold for too long on the rein as this created the risk of the horse pulling back. At a later stage, when the horse is more obedient, he can be led and steadied in the approved manner, with the left hand raised quietly in front of his head to steady him before he gets too strong. 

Leading a horse successfully in hand depends upon the amount of control in your hand. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)

Leading a horse successfully in hand depends upon the amount of control in your hand. (Credit: Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books)

When leading lazy horses in hand it helps to have a second person to encourage the horse with the whip. But it is wrong to crack it.

Obedience in hand is important preparation for basic training of the riding horse. Young horses who trust people around the stable yard are confident when being introduced to new experiences and always willing to learn something new. 

In 1985, German dressage Olympian Dr. Reiner Klimke wrote Basic Training of the Young Horse, a book that offered valuable advice on training the horse, from birth to his first show. In 2006, Klimke’s Olympian daughter, Ingrid, added her thoughts and knowledge and reprinted the book titled The New Basic Training of the Young Horse by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke. It is from the new release that we bring you the following excerpt about showing the young horse in hand. 

DTMP-150100-BOOKEX-01

Used with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.

Related