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Making a Finished Dressage Horse: Part I

We have started many horses over the years at Willowview Hill Farm. Naturally much thought and planning goes into every horse we produce. Which stallion to choose? Which vet to trust? The delight of the moment of birth and imprint training that follows is truly wonderful.

Then the weaning, the years of daily handling, new introductions to everything a horse should know and confidently manage and then when the time is right, longe work and backing.

Here is a video of how we start our youngsters to train to the saddle. This video is of our Gambol's Middernacht WVH. You will hear some deep outward breaths from behind the camera, which Midi hears and do relax her. I am teaching her to trust me as a 2nd ground person, so when she is mounted for riding she still has a person on the floor to look toward for help. The point in the video where Paul says, " Now you've seen it," is Midi noticing the banner on the side wall. She had previously been frightened by the indoor lights reflecting off it but she didn't even notice it for the first few minutes. When the horse starts to relax, it starts to look around. We encourage this by keeping the longe line loose but in no danger of hitting the ground or leg entanglement and then gently take her head back to the inside telling her we'd like her focus back. Horses must be allowed to look. Your quiet energy, acknowledgement of their sighting and then return to purpose teaches them there is nothing of which to be afraid.

You will note that to begin with the longe line is attached to the bit via a coupler. We walk the horse first and then ask it to go out on the line. There are many trains of thought on whether to use a cavesson as the attachment or to go directly to the bit. This is our thought after many years of experience and having started horses both ways.

At some point in the horse's life, in fact at multiple times, the horse is going to hit the bit. It can be the first time you mount, a spook, a bolt, or a quick taking of the bridle. The horse will naturally panic and run. Do we want the horse to learn without the addition of the rider that the way to avoid the pressure of the bit is to yield the poll? Yes, of course. Do we want to be aboard while they figure this out? No.

Folks like Laura Bechtolsheimer ( Tomlinson now), have video decrying the use of side reins or longe lines being attached to the bit. The common theory being that the horse will learn to distrust the bit.

We believe the opposite. In our experience the horse quickly figures out that they can fix the pressure themselves quite easily. They can simple yield at the poll. Some horses take longer to figure this out than others.

WVH horses are not started with side reins attached. That is too much information for them to digest, too much stimuli all at once. Once they understand the longe on the bit, can work on command to walk/halt/trot/canter in relaxation, then we will add the surcingle.

After the horse is settled with this we will add the side reins. Boots are usually added after the first few sessions of longe work, usually 2 fronts then all 4. Gradually the horse will be introduced to leg wraps/polos in the same 2/4 program.

Once the horse is totally happy with the elasticated side reins ( we use quick release velcro design but they are sadly now hard to find), and can work with strength across their backs, then we will switch the surcingle for a saddle, Again, at first no side reins or even stirrups. The side reins will be added next, then the stirrups with a clip attachment across the top of the irons, you can use a bit coupler, so they cannot fall down or bang on the back too much.

At this point we will have already laid over the horse's back in the stable, played around with saddle pads and stood above their head height on mounting blocks and such so they are not alarmed when we are above them. It is important to practice being above them on the mounting block with the sun behind you.  An early mounting with the shadow can end in disaster as your shadow on mounting looms in front of the horse. So prepare for this.

Depending on the horse we may have sat upon it in the stable. Usually at the evening bed check when the barn is peaceful and energy low. The horse may walk and circle and we will gently slip off. No big deal. Always be sure you have a knowledgeable horse person with you to be the ground distraction with a carrot treat handy.

The workplace is important too. The workplace must be safe and peaceful, the work is always calm, patient and quiet. With mares we will start work during the quieter periods of their seasons, and then move to their less focused times on purpose. This tests their attention span and we can see how much they have learned in the left side of their brain as they are distracted by nature's rhythms.

We additionally work the youngsters in hand utilizing Mark Russell's Lessons in Lightness program. It is a good program to follow. We used to use Fritz Stahlecker methods, but have found Mark's methods better. Today I shed tears on the very sad news that mark suffered a fall from a young horse yesterday during one of his clinics and was airlifted to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, where his injuries have been stated as devastating. At this time his life hangs in the balance. Mark has a wonderful quiet way about his work with horses and a lifetime of experience and he has always been one of the most generous trainers in sharing his knowledge. At this time our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family. ** Update: Sadly Mark died at 4pm 6/13/16. My deepest condolences to his family and friends. He helped so many during his lifetime with his great energy and kind spirit. He will be sorely missed.

Please be careful when working with young horses, or any horse for that matter. Doing the proper preparation, showing due diligence and kindness and above all patience is so imperative. Even this is no guarantee an errant event can occur resulting a tragedy, but at least you are minimizing the risk.

When working with young horses on the ground it is prudent to wear an ASTM helmet as an extra precaution and of course, paramount to always wear one in the saddle.


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