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A U.S. National Training Center For Young Horses

Young horses don't always fit into a "program."

Recent events have again stirred up the Internet discussion about developing a National Training Center for training and selling young horses, something similar to what exists in continental Europe. John Strassburger, lifelong competitor and trainer, and Horse Journal’s Performance Editor, offers some thoughts on why he doubts it could actually work:

And then last week a very nice lady who owns a 3-year-old came for the grand tour of our Phoenix Farm (California), and she unwittingly asked a question that set my mind to turning.

“What is your program for young horses?” she asked.

It’s a simple question, and one for which I do have a fairly well-rehearsed answer, since our mission has been to start young horses under saddle and in competition. But it’s also a very complicated question, especially since, for us, it hasn’t been a lucrative business model.

It’s a complicated question, because we believe that the secret to training horses, whether they’re babies or older, more experienced horses, is figuring out what each horse needs and making sure they have that. And the word “program”—a very popular one in horse world these days—seems rather at odds with the notion of managing each horse as an individual.

Many people want to explore the topic right now, and the conversation generally goes something like this:

“Why do so many people go to Europe to buy horses instead of shopping here?”

“Because they can see large numbers of appropriate horses, at appropriate prices, in one place, or close together.”

“Why can’t they do that here?”

“Geography and lack of consistency in the training and development of young horses. I can see 100 fancy 4-year-olds who are jumping three-foot courses and doing lead changes in one day in Europe, but half of the 4-year-olds in this country can’t even canter yet, and you drive six hours to see one horse.”

“Why can they do that in Europe?”

“They have a centralized system of breeders, young-horse trainers, show trainers, auctions, and breed registries that work together to deliver a product [the horses] to consumers.”

“We need that here.”

“I agree.”

And so a few people start brainstorming how to make that happen here. But the problem I see with this idea, lovely as it might be in the abstract, is two-fold.

The first is that our American psyche is rather different when it comes to our horses than it is in Europe. Breeding and selling horses is a business there, period. That doesn’t mean they don’t have top-notch care and horsemanship. But animals that don’t measure up get culled, often to a dinner plate. They think of them more like cattle than like puppy dogs.

The Europeans also tend to be culturally better at working together in an interconnected way than we Americans. The horse goes from the breeder to the young-horse trainer, then to the show rider (often being sold multiple times along the way), and none of those people have any desire or need to play the role of any other party. The young-horse trainer isn’t resentful when the horse goes off to the show rider. The breeder isn’t resentful when the horse sells for double what they sold it for out of the show rider’s barn, because they all understand their role in the chain, and they understand that success for one of them means success for all of them.

In this country, the breeder gets angry because either the young-horse trainer won’t train and sell their horse for free or because someone buys their unstarted 3-year-old for $5,000 and then sells him 18 months later for $20,000 or more as a proven performer. The breeder thinks they’ve been ripped off and swears never to sell a horse to that person again. What the breeder fails to understand is that, yes, they created a nice horse, but it was a diamond in the rough that someone else had to put through school. And the horse wasn’t worth $20,000 before that.

While there are certainly folks here who understand this chain, to make a national center work, you need everybody—breeders, trainers, riders and owners—to buy in to that chain of production. And that seems unlikely, as it’s not how our national thought process works.

The second challenge is more esoteric. Not every horse fits in to the cookie-cutter mold of “how horses behave when they’re trained with method x-y-z.” If they would all just read the manual, we could all knock off early and have a beer. But most horses have never even heard of the manual, let alone read it.

A horse that doesn’t fit a mold over there better move like Totilas or jump like Hickstead. And even Hickstead ended up with Eric Lamaze because the conventional wisdom on the other side of the pond was “too small and too hot.”

I’ve certainly met more than one fancy, imported horse that came through the auction system with a fried brain. Many, many horses go through that system and end up lovely. But those that are a more sensitive, or have a quirk or two, sometimes don’t recover. Because no “system,” no matter how old and established, works for every horse who’s born.

That’s why when I think about a National Training Center for U.S.-bred youngsters, I’m ambivalent. Anytime you have a strict program, there will be horses that fall through the cracks. There is always the exception that proves the rule, and I wonder how many potential superstars would be lost because they fell outside the lines.

So how did I answer the nice lady?

“We start with a lot of ponying and hacking to build fitness; we emphasize going forward and teaching to them body use and awareness, and how to think for themselves; and then we let them tell us what they need. And if along the way they need something different than what I just told you, I’ll let you know and we’ll do that.”

I hope she found that a satisfactory answer.

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