Opinions…….. Everybody has one…….

Recently I posted on a Facebook group regarding 2 things with Francis. One was in concern to him not going forwards but that maybe it was just me thinking he wasn’t going fast enough really. The other was suggestions on a one word name that was slightly foreign to show him under in dressage and hunters.  I attached a video taken a few weeks ago where I finally got him to take his left lead with ease.
The comments on this post? I think there were around 35-40. The range of opinions weren’t very far apart. There were 2 that just suggested names. The rest were either turn him away, which I assume means put him outside; keep doing what you are doing and finally schooling suggestions to help him get better.
My conclusion before I deleted my post was that there are so many opinions in the sport horse, dressage, hunter/jumper world that it’s really hard to figure out what to do with a youngster like Francis. So, I decided to do a bit of research. What do the majority think about starting under saddle babies in the sport horse world. I mean lets face it, in Europe they are trained and taught a way that has been handed down through the generations from some of the masters. However, here in America, we tend to get taught and trained many different ways because everyone has their own opinions on when and how to start sport horse babies.
Here’s my personal opinion on what age to start riding a horse and how.
There are many things to consider when I start a horse under saddle and then proceed to riding them. I look at the size, breed, disposition, way of moving and carrying themselves, and their mental status. Different breeds develop in their own ways. Arabians for example from my experience are started in training as early as yearlings but may not carry a rider until they are 3. Lots of long lining, bitting and teaching them the ropes. Thoroughbreds are usually started as early as 1.5 yrs for training and then go to the track as a 2 year old where they gallop or walk most mornings and occasionally perform a workout.  Quarter Horses are started as early as 1.5-2yrs.
But what about the sport horse. Well, the opinion on what age is best varies greatly. You have those that say to leave them turned out no matter the breed or size until they are 3-4 years old. Then start teaching them the ground work, lunging and long lining. At about 4 they start learning about carrying a rider and start learning the pyramid of dressage. Some suggest waiting til they are 4.5 years old to start riding.
Many have research they have found that suggests that by riding a horse too early, like at 3, the horse will have soundness problems later in life, or you should wait because they aren’t fully developed and carrying a rider is too much stress/strain on their bones, joints, and overall body.
So, WHAT is the right answer?
The following article (Grand-prix rider Wilhelm Genn) was pretty much how I started Francis when I got him at the end of January.  I think taking it slow with him has helped him figure out the answers to all of my questions. He also has learned to enjoy our riding times no matter what we are doing; though he still drags his hooves when we venture to the arena. That’s just him being his normal lazy self. Article
The next article was really a great read because it talks about starting and training the young sport horse. It goes in to A European View of starting youngsters and how using the classics is really the best way. I have to agree. The classical ways are solid foundations that are tried and true and make for a much nicer horse to ride no matter what discipline.  Article
The next Article written by Chantal Marleau talks about balance in a horsemanship sort of way. Think more western style. Again the classics hold true no matter the discipline. Using common sense, great horsemanship and knowing your horse.

Before I started jumping Francis, I starting by teaching him to move forward and off my legs. I wanted him in front of my legs and not so lazy. It took a lot of time and a lot of rides before he eventually figured it out. I had to be consistent and patient. I also had to consider that he was growing and wasn’t all that balances either. Just because he was trained for racing and spent time at the track didn’t mean that he was already well balanced. He wasn’t even close. I also had to consider that he was deemed too slow for racing but then had to figure out the buttons that would make him go. Once we both figured things out life got much much easier for us as a team. I had to wear spurs and carry a riding crop. Francis is one of those 17+hand geldings that knows how big he is and uses it to his advantage. I had to make sure he knew that I was not scared of him and he couldn’t use his size to bully me into giving up.  This all started with teaching him that he was going to lunge on a line both directions no matter what he tried in order to get out of work. Ducking out and turning quick? NOPE. Stopping like he was suddenly stuck in cement? NOPE. Rearing up and turning away from me quickly? NOPE. There were some really hard lessons the first two months. There were times that I was so red-faced angry with him that I spent almost an hour just trying to stay calm/cool/collected and trying to get him to just do a tiny thing correct for me. Even if it was walking once around on the line without trying to get out of work. There were times that i had to quit before we even got into an argument. Those were the times that I didn’t ask him to do much at all. Trot a few rounds to the left and that was it. Then there were the sessions that Francis ended up tied to the patience pole for a little bit because he refused to even try to do anything I asked. Several times we walked the 1/4 mile down the road to a friend’s training barn and utilized his solid sided round pen. Those sessions started out bad but Francis soon figured out that his efforts to get out of work were useless. Those sessions forged a bond between us that was the key to everything else. Once Francis realized that I only wanted him to try to do what I was asking him and that it really wasn’t all that hard; He started trying harder for me. Every time he did what I asked, no matter how tiny, I made a celebration in praising him. He started to figure out that him trying made me HAPPY. So, he tried harder.

To give a bit of back history on Francis and his personality.  He is a huge teddy bear of a horse. He loves kisses, hugs and treats. Think Marmaduke or a giant puppy dog. In the herd, Francis is the bottom of the pecking order. He’s also very non-confrontational. I can’t turn him out with the entire herd because of this. He has so many scrapes and bite marks that he looks like he’s gone several rounds with a prized fighter.
Francis being so intelligent figured out what made me happy pretty quick and knowing that it also made his life pretty easy as well.

After we figured out the whole lunging job, I started putting ground poles in. Then some cavaletti and eventually a small jump (cross-rail). His balance improved and so did his left lead. Francis struggled with the left lead really bad. My instructor said to soften him on the left rein and get him off of my left leg. We worked on this for almost 2-3 months before it became easier and easier. Now when I ask for the left lead Francis can pick it up but I know what works and what doesn’t now, too.

Francis’s first show was May 13th. It was a small schooling show that was a fundraiser for the LSU equestrian team. I entered us in the 2′ hunters. This was a learning experience for both myself and Francis. I learned more about what makes him tick. I learned he fears being by himself in an indoor arena. He learned that he couldn’t run off with me nor buck or act like a true baby. He also learned that I wasn’t going to push him to canter 2′ jumps and that he could trot them and take his time. He also learned that being by himself wasn’t all that bad. He quickly figured out the second day after watching a few ponies; that he was going to go in the arena, jump his round and then leave the arena and go stand quietly with a few friends. This horse show life soon became really easy.  This show allowed me to figure out what we needed to work on. I was able to take Francis to a lesson at my instructor’s barn a few weeks afterwards. That lesson was valuable.
Our next show together was June 11th. Francis showed 2′ open hunter. These jumps were much bigger and with plenty of filler. We cantered both of our rounds and did well on the flat. Placing 5th, 3rd and 6th. The second day we did two rounds at 2’3″ and placed 3rd and 4th. He was definately bored with the 2′ and tried much harder in the 2’3″.
The last two shows for us were like night and day. Francis grew up both mentally and physically. His attitude was even different at the second show. He stood by the trees outside the arena and waited his turn. I did have some trouble getting him into the arena but he didn’t act crazy, just dragged his hooves a bit more than usual. Once we got into the arena he was pretty much business and let me drive. He was more forwards and although we didn’t get every single lead, he learned quickly when I asked for a simple change. Sure we have homework, but isn’t that what training and showing is really all about? He was better balanced at his second show. Of course, I did lots of flat work in between shows and we worked on a couple of grids and cantering jumps.
Overall, I’ve listened to my horse. I know when I can move up in height and when I can push him a little bit harder and when to just let him be. He’s also learned so much in 5 months.
Our next show is planned for August 26-27th. I’m sure we will be ready and have lots of fun. Plan is to show 2’3″. This venue is known for huge “A” type jumps. This will mean we’ll be ready for 2’6″ at the Tb Makeover in Kentucky.







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