*Please note that this article first appeared in the January 2006 issue of Dressage Today magazine. DT now requires all riders featured in training articles to wear helmets.
Some of us have the privilege of learning from schoolmasters, and we are taught by the horses. However, if we prefer to work with young horses or have no alternative but to buy an untrained horse, the rider becomes the teacher.
Here are general guidelines for getting started:
1. Choose a horse that hasn't been broken in later than 4. A horse that is broken in at the age of 4 or 4 1/2 is often more difficult to train because he's stronger physically and has a stronger will.
2. Choose a horse that has a natural rhythm and balance. A horse that constantly changes his neck position—comes above the bit, behind the bit, etc—usually is naturally unbalanced or has had incorrect training.
3. If you choose a horse that is older and comes from another discipline, follow the same guidelines. Because these horses have a "history" that includes good and bad experiences, they take much more time to train.
4. A 3-year-old horse should only work three to four times a week for half an hour. When the horse is 4 to 4 1/2, you can increase this to 40-45 minutes. I reject anything that lasts longer than an hour, even with an older horse.
5. For most horses, use a simple bridle with a flash noseband and a double-jointed bit that fits well.
6. Never mount the horse, thinking, "Today we are going to practice this exercise." Horses go differently every day, so adapt to the situation that you have that day. If my horse is tense, I don't go ahead and practice a certain exercise, but work on getting him loose. Instead of having practiced an exercise, I've achieved an optimal "riding feel," which is even better.
7. If you feel that today your horse is going especially well--he is totally balanced, smooth, supple and in front of the aids--don't hesitate to do an exercise your youngster hasn't practiced yet, such as the beginning of a half pass or flying change. Do it playfully, don't force it.
8. Teach your horse to walk on a long rein when you get on. The back muscles will release the best by doing this. If the horse is too fresh, he needs some turnout or longeing before riding.
9. Make it simple for your horse by starting on the rein he prefers.
10. Choose the gait in which your horse has the least difficulty balancing--where he can better keep the rhythm and "stay together." Most horses balance the best at the trot.
11. Be consistent in your dealing with your horse. Horses feel more comfortable when they have a clear leader.
12. Give your horse lots of breaks at the walk on the buckle.
13. Bring variety to your training. Go on trail rides, longe your horse, do cavalletti work or ride over some low jumps.
14. Make sure your horse has enough power and energy when working with him. Twenty-three hours of pasture every day might cut down his energy, but 23 hours in the stall might not be good either.
15. Use the Training Scale as your underlying guideline. The Training Scale is a series of steps to ultimately achieve collection. The steps include rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection.
16. Always end a session positively and walk on the buckle again.
17. Be content with small steps in your progress.
Test your progress to see if your horse is on the right track. You want your horse to:
- Walk with long, even strides and nod his head when walking on the buckle.
- Go on both hands without loosing the rhythm.
- Draw evenly on the reins on both hands.
- Make easy turns, such as circles, without your horse losing his balance.
- Stretch forward and down at all gaits when given the reins while maintaining an even pace.
Read the complete article, Susanne Miesner's "Training Young Horses", in the January 2006 issue of Dressage Today magazine.