Every horse trainer has their own training program, a basic philosophy of training horses that governs the types of exercises they do with the horses in their stable and the pace at which those horses proceed through training and competition. One of the many things that determine a trainer?s success rate is how well they adapt their program to suit each individual horse. The trick, though, is that horses don't come with instruction manuals, with information about how smart they are or how quickly they can learn.
I'm sure that any schoolteachers reading this will relate the observations I'm about to make to countless children in their classes. I truly believe that working with horses has many similarities to working with young children.
Many factors can dictate how well and how quickly each horse proceeds with his or her training. These factors include physical and mental maturity (especially in young horses), fitness and strength, previous work, soundness and tendency to get hurt, and the horse's temperament.
For instance, some horses have quick brains and an inbred willingness (even eagerness) to work, to figure out new challenges. Some have much slower brains and need for you to give them time to figure out a new challenge or to learn new exercises. And some horses are just unwilling to do certain things, most often because of an innate and deep-seated fear, because they haven't been (in their view) properly prepared for an exercise, and sometimes because they're simply not willing to work that hard.
Right now I've got three 4-year-olds, a 5-year-old and two 6-year-olds in my program at Phoenix Farm, and working with them is a continuing reminder that, like children, horses proceed at their own pace.
One of the 6-year-olds is our homebred mare Amani, who moved up to preliminary level in eventing in March and has now jumped four faultless cross-country rounds (in just four starts at that level) and has, thus, qualified for her first CCI1* (preliminary three-day event). Amani was a bit worrisome as a 4-year-old because sHe's a rather careful jumper with a rather opinionated personality. At that age, her response to uncertainty about a jump was to stop or run past it.
Amani and I had three or four rough events before I convinced her (through a variety of exercises and by extremely positive riding) that if I was pointing her toward a jump, it was because I knew she could do it. I knew, even then, that she had more than enough scope and cleverness to jump anything I'd ever point her toward, and in the fall of her 4-year-old year I was able to convince her that the answer to jumps she hadn?t seen before was ?go,? not ?stop.? SHe's never stopped again in the 12 starts sHe's made since then.
Those first few months of competition with Amani were rocky and disconcerting, as she expressed her self-imposed anxiety about handling the new demands. On the other hand, Bella, another homebred mare who's now 4, has quickly become all business about new experiences and about competing. SHe's actually been pretty confident dealing with most of the many new challenges sHe's been experiencing in the last several months.
Yes, Bella did spook badly at the judge?s table and at the letters at her first dressage show, but sHe's never done it again. And her first cross-country school was decidedly uncertain and green, but she worked hard to figure things out, and last weekend, in her first start at beginner novice, Bella proved that sHe's fully internalized my directive of ?look for the next jump? as she galloped faultlessly and incredibly confidently around the cross-country course at the Woodside Horse Trials here in California.
That round was one of the two best ?baby horse? cross-country rides I've ever had. She absolutely felt like a veteran, and all I had to do was point her toward the next jump and smile. But I also kept reminding myself, ?Remember that sHe's 4?don't take her for granted at the jumps.?
The essential difference between Bella and Amani is their temperament. Amani, who is by the Irish Sporthorse stallion Formula One and out of our Thoroughbred mare Gussie Up) is unmistakably expressive about everything in her world, especially about anything that surprises or concerns her. And as a young horse her initial reaction to anything unexpected or new was to ?shoot first, ask questions later? by rearing or kicking.
Bella, who's by the pinto Dutch Warmblood stallion Palladio and out of our Thoroughbred mare Lizzie?s Hero, has a much more even-tempered and business-as-usual personality. Her reaction to something new or unexpected is more like, ?How can I solve this'? than ?Oh, my god!?
Bella is at the head of our 4-year-old class right now, but she had quite a bit of catching up to do. Tiny, another homebred, was the early leader. She was remarkably easy to start under saddle, as if she were saying, ?I can't wait to get going!?
Tiny, who's now a 15.3-hand, chestnut warmblood mare, started jumping with great eagerness last December, and I took her to two schooling combined tests in January and March. But her eager performance at them only seemed to make her overconfident and, thus, rather difficult. Since May, sHe's had a series of injuries that have set her back, and sHe's just started back into work with her teenage owner. it's too soon to say if three months of R & R have developed some new mental maturity. But sHe's still acting pretty eager.
The opposite of her is our third 4-year-old, a gelding named Piper, who's actually by the same warmblood stallion as Tiny. Piper is 3 or 4 inches taller and 250-300 pounds heavier than Tiny, and I expect he'll mature to 17-plus hands. Tiny is sort of physical and mental version of a warmblood sports car, while Piper is an SUV, perhaps a Hummer. Piper is a rather low-key horse, and his brain doesn't fire quickly. That was the trick to starting him under saddle?it took him awhile to comprehend why someone was on his back and how to respond positively to the signals they were giving him.
These physical and mental differences are why my competition plans with him don't coincide with the girls?. Bella is scheduled to make three more horse trial starts this fall, and I anticipate that I'll move her up to training level early next year, pointing her to the training level three-day event at Galway Downs next November (as I did with Amani).
Piper, on the other hand, might make a start or two at the introductory level in October or November, but he might not compete before January. We have no doubt that he needs plenty of time to mature, mentally and physically. And I'm not going to try to predict how quickly he might move up the levels after that.
The key to Bella is going to be not to accidentally move too fast, because she does everything so easily and so willingly. Piper isn?t going to let us move too fast; He's going to force us to be patient.
Tiny will likely proceed at a rate somewhere between them. I suspect that sHe's become highly excited as the result of being introduced to what an athlete she is, and now We've gone back to the basics, emphasizing that she has to listen to instructions, not just do what she thinks is the answer.
As her owner, Victoria, says to her, ?OK, you're a genius. But you still have to go to math class.?