Training Young Horses Is Stressful and Wonderful

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it's springtime, and that means it's time get the babies out and started on their careers, writes my wife, Heather Bailey, in this week?s guest blog.

Starting young horses can be a magical time, but it's also one fraught with every kind of stress, uncertainty and anxiety you can imagine. And that's something that goes across every breed and discipline. Because no matter the breeding, the preparation and the training, you never know if?and how?they're going to do the job, until you ask them to do it.

Sometimes their answer is a resounding ?yes,? and sometimes it's a disappointing ?no.? But most often, at least at first, it's kind of a gray ?maybe.? No two young horses respond in exactly the same way to the questions every discipline asks.

The real challenge is to see each horse as an individual?and to feel what they need to be successful. Sometimes they need to be pushed and challenged. Sometimes they need to be coddled and taken slowly. And sometimes they need a different job altogether. What are they trying to tell you, with their actions and body language'

A friend of ours loves to quote the statistic that only 30 percent of 2-year-old Thoroughbreds actually make a start in a race, let alone win a race. And a much, much smaller percentage becomes stakes or classic winners.? I'd like to think our sporthorses have better percentages (in part because they're older), but every year you see the story of a winning dressage horse who was imported as a jumper, or the hunter who was meant to event, or an event horse with impeccable reining breeding who's eating up cross-county courses.

So the biggest challenge when getting those babies out and about is determining when a less-than-perfect performance indicates a horse that just needs more miles and when it indicates a horse that needs a different job.

Last spring one our homebreds, Amani (whom John wrote about a few weeks ago), made her competitive debut to less-than-spectacular results. After a jack rabbit leaped out from under the judge?s stand in dressage, she refused to go anywhere near that end of the ring, and she didn't get over the first fence in show jumping because she was distracted by horses galloping around the nearby cross-country course. She was just too busy staring at everything outside the ring. We went home in despair?she?d been going so great at home and had attended a schooling trial and done well!? Maybe she wasn?t going to event, we said to ourselves. Maybe we'd missed a step in her training.

So we came home, went back to the drawing board, changed some things about the program we were doing with her. We took her to a few more schooling trials in the spring and summer, and while she had some more ?moments,? she started to show significant improvement.? She started eventing again in the fall and was a different horse, and she got some good ribbons.

This spring, as a 5-year-old, she made her debut at training level, and jumped around confidently, and now John is aiming her toward the training level three-day event at Galway Downs (Calif.) in Nov.? She just needed more time. But for every story like hers, there will be the horse that just never lives up to its potential in the discipline that his or her breeder intended.

The eternal dance for every trainer is knowing when to push and when to find a new job for a horse.? Some people live by the mantra of ?slow, slower, slowest.? And some people believe any horse that can't be show ready in 90 days is worthless. Neither of these views takes the vast array of equine personalities and types in to account, and both try to apply a cookie-cutter approach to an animal that's notorious for its ability to defy stereotypes.

it's this uncertainty?this inability to tell us what they want or need, rather like a young child?that keeps us trainers up at night. This time of year, we're thinking about it day and night, dreaming up new things to try, trying to determine who needs a step back and who needs to step up' Who gets another chance, and who gets another career' it's the best, most stressful, most wonderfully challenging time of all.