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The Rewards Of Training Young Horses

There’s nothing much sweeter than taking a young horse all the way to its first competition–unless you also bred that horse.

In this blog from Horse Journal’s Performance Editor John Strassburger, he tells the sweet story of two of his very special horses:

I got to do, once again, what’s at once the most anxiety-causing and the most rewarding thing you can do with a young horse–take him to his first competition.  And just a few days before that, I experienced, also once again, the joy of giving another young horse his very first jump school.

Both horses responded better than I’d dared hope, and since they’re each 4-year-old home-breds, both experiences were even more rewarding than usual.

The horse I took to her first USEA-recognized event is Bella, a filly out of our Thoroughbred mare Lizzie’s Hero and by the pinto Dutch Warmblood stallion Palladio. Bella was an orphan because Lizzie suffered “broodmare colic” and died when Bella was just two weeks old.

The horse whom I jumped for the first time is Piper, a gelding out of the warmblood mare Phaedra, whom we leased at the time, and by the warmblood stallion Panzyr, whom we trained for several months. Phaedra was maiden mare, and Piper was a big foal who was malpresented, and he ended up emerging while Phaedra was standing instead of lying down, right into my arms. Since he now stands about 16.3, it’s hard to imagine that I ever held him up!

We started working with both horses last spring, and we hired a local young rider, Edee Riggar, to be the first person to sit on them last summer. Bella’s introduction to riding was blessedly uneventful, but Piper’s wasn’t. He has a slow warmblood brain, and when I urged him to walk away from the mounting block, he was surprised to feel someone on his back, and he deposited Edee ungainly, injuring her.

Since we had no other way to continue their early education, in February we sent Bella to a Western trainer who’s accomplished in starting young horses named Amanda Wensch, whose stable is about two hours away from us. Bella only stayed there a month; Piper spent three months there, and we brought him home June 1. Amanda did a fabulous job making sure they were each as steady as rocks under saddle, ready to go to work.

I’d longed Bella over cavaletti several times before sending her to Amanda’s, and when she returned I repeated that exercise two or three times before presenting her to a jump with me on her back for the first time. Like most big, long-legged horses, it took her about half a dozen tries to figure out how to work her limbs in order to actually leave the ground, but once she figured that out, jumping was full speed ahead.

I’d decided several months ago to aim Bella for the Shepherd Ranch Horse Trials for her first real event. Shepherd Ranch is one of our smaller, quieter events, and it offers an introductory level, for which the jumps are only 18” to 2’3”. I’d never ridden a horse at this so-basic level before, but I thought it was, literally, the perfect introduction for my so-green filly.

To prepare Bella for her debut, I rode her in a local dressage show in early May. Predictably, she found the judge’s stand initially terrifying, but she got over her fear and tried her best. Then I took her cross-country schooling three times, at the last of which she convinced me that she was ready. The big moment in teaching a horse to navigate a cross-country course (or a show jumping course too) is when they recognize the jumps as jumps, when they perceive them as a series of exercises they know how to do, instead of as random frightening obstacles. This is what I call the “Ah-ha!” moment, the moment when you feel them land and look for the next jump. I felt that with Bella on that third school, and I knew she was as ready as she could be for her eventing debut a week later.

Bella's performance in her first event exceeded my expectations.

Bella’s performance in her first event exceeded my expectations. | Photo courtesy of Horse Journal

We arrived at Shepherd Ranch—which is 370 miles away—late on Thursday morning, and Bella schooled well in the warm-up ring and in the dressage ring that afternoon. Not all event organizers allow riders to ride in or around the dressage rings on warm-up day, and I was very glad that the Shepherd Ranch organizers did. It gave me a chance to make Bella feel comfortable in a dressage ring, which she would be seeing for only the second time.

Bella hardly blinked at the crowded warm-up ring on Friday afternoon, for which I have to credit Amanda’s and my own efforts to ride her with other horses, instead of in splendid isolation. And then she went in the ring and performed as professionally as she possibly could. I was extremely proud of her willing obedience, and the judge liked the test too—placing her second and giving her a 9 on her gaits. That was a mark that we, as Bella’s breeders, were especially proud of.

On Saturday afternoon, Bella again warmed up professionally, this time for cross-country, and she started on course as if she knew precisely what she was doing. Fences 2 and 4, which were shrouded by deep shadows (our ride time was 5:45 p.m.), caused her to take hard looks, but she responded with willing trust to my leg, seat and voice aids and pressed on to them. She also went willingly into the water jump, and she finished by galloping boldly over the last three of the 12 jumps. She then pranced back to the barn, feeling rather proud of herself.

I wasn’t sure how Bella would react in the show jumping phase, as the only ring with jumps she’d ever seen is our ring at home. I sat on her outside the rail, looking at the first fence, for about 30 minutes before warming her up, and her deportment in the ring suggested she really had done it all before. After jumping from an awkwardly long stride at the first fence (because she did stare at it a bit and shorten her last two strides), the rest of the course felt smooth and easy, as she met each fence in the long, easy rhythm of her canter stride.

By adding no penalties to her dressage score, Bella held on to second place, a red ribbon that was a really nice reward for one of the best performances I’ve ever had from a young horse in his or her debut. Her next horse trial will be at Woodside in mid-August, with a stop at a local combined test before that.

For much of the long drive home, I found myself smiling at the thought of Bella-Boo (as we began calling her as a foal) officially joining my other two competing girls of Phoenix Farm. I call Alba “the queen,” because she’s the oldest, at 11, and competes at the highest level (intermediate). She certainly carries herself with the assurance of a queen and greets everyone from the first stall as you enter the barn.  Amani, who’s 6 and competing successfully at preliminary, is very much “the princess,” with a distinctly “princessy” attitude about herself and her surroundings—and an intense will that’s her greatest strength on cross-country. Bella is now “the duchess,” serene in her ability to do the job she’s just begun.

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