Young horse training: forward & flexible

The training of the young dressage horse should be approached with a flexible mindset and a big emphasis on forwardness, explains Olympic rider Julie Brougham

Julie riding her homebred Donna Hope (Donnerubin/Kinnordy Golda) who was four at the time this was taken

I break my horses in at three, which is a good age. I don’t want to leave it any longer, because they get too strong. When you get your horse back from the breaker, you need to check your turning and stopping rein aids for safety. If your horse is spooked by something, you need to be able to turn and stop – eventually!

Hope has been under saddle for about a year. She was broken in a year ago and when she came back from the breaker I rode her for a bit. Then I went away overseas, so Hope went down to Anna Gale in Blenheim. She herded sheep and swam in the river, which was marvellous – I just wanted her to have some life experience. I don’t compete my young horses properly until they are five, but I do take them out, so they can practice getting no and off the truck.

Plenty of walk 

 Hope and I walking the diagonals at the start of session. The aim here is to achieve a relaxed, marching walk with over-track and shoulder freedom, and the poll being lower than the withers

I do a lot of walking – 20 minutes at the beginning of each schooling session. This is something that Ton and Alexandra de Ridder insisted on when Steiny and I were based with them prior to Rio. Of course at Hof Rossheide they were coming straight out of the stables, so you were just making sure you really had that synovial fluid flowing through all the joints. Ton also insisted that we had a cover on the horses, particularly through the winter, when we walked them out; either a quarter rug or a proper polar fleece rug.

We just walked the diagonals and you really rode every diagonal in extended walk for a 10 if you could. The horse had to put the head down, with the poll the same level as the wither, and really learn to walk with purpose and a great deal of activity.

Vom Feinsten’s walk improved immensely through doing this. You do have to be careful with some young horses, when it comes to picking them up in the walk, that you don’t block them and wreck it.

We definitely made sure the horses were properly warmed up and there was a real emphasis on long and low and stretching the horse over their topline and both ways in trot and canter. There were also a lot of walk breaks and we certainly didn’t spend too long in any one thing. You didn’t go out and do a dozen canter pirouettes; if you don’t get it quite right today, there is always tomorrow.

Forward first 

 Hope is round over her top-line. She is being asked to be active with her hind-quarters (pushing power) and stretch into the contact

The first thing I establish with a young horse is getting them going well forward in a round outline (longitudinal suppleness), so they learn to stay in front of your leg, go into a steady, connected contact and swing over the back. This is when they should learn ‘pushing power’. The horse may lean on the bit during this phase but this is okay – the horse will become lighter in the contact and front end as he engages the hind legs more and finds an improved uphill balance on the way to developing carrying power.

You must teach the horse to come under and engage, swing through and really use the shoulders. If you start to do this when they are younger, it’s easier later. Unless the horse is going forward with energy, you have nothing to collect.

When I was in Germany, I found that everything was ridden very forward, including in the lateral work. Their collected trot is almost like our medium trot, but they are riding wonderful quality horses and they are on a good surface that’s stable and consistent – you can’t go and do this in a grass paddock!

The contact

There is a saying ‘if you can control the neck, you control the horse’. The whole contact and connection from the back to the front of the horse is very important.

Some horses are just born with a good contact. Others are quite hard. Hope is actually excellent in the contact. I really like it when you get a horse that will just grab the bit and hang on to it, because you can always shake them to be lighter. It’s the horses who don’t want to go there that are the problem.

Introducing lateral work

With a young horse like Hope, I work on a lot of straight lines. I’ve started to introduce her to circles and serpentines and some leg-yielding, but at this stage it’s all preparatory work until they get to five and then you can really start to think about working them.
When you start to go sideways, horses tend to slow down, so you have to really establish that they stay in front of the leg and go. Introduce the lateral work on long lines and make sure that you maintain engagement and forwardness.

We don’t want dressage horses out there piddling around the arena. We want them going like athletes, so we have to do that from here, from the beginning. And to be honest, if they don’t really get going as young horses they’re probably not going to Grand Prix – they’re going to need a tonne more energy than that!

The canter

Here Hope is showing suppleness laterally and longitudinally, with an uphill tendency and balance.

Hope has only just now found her balance in the canter, but I think she’s going to have a huge canter that’s really uphill and gorgeous. Hope finds canter on the left rein easy. In left canter she is secure in the outside rein, so I can give the inside rein and even give her a scratch on the neck. Here, she is on the way to self-carriage.

A scratch on the neck rewards Hope, as she is secure in the outside rein

Hope doesn’t find balancing on the right rein as easy, so I have to help her more.

Using outside flexion to help soften her neck in the right canter

Although she is still uphill, in this photo you can see I have slightly flexed her to the outside to soften her neck and then simultaneously I push her left shoulder with my left leg to the inside to straighten her. This helps achieve a better balance. Then I ask her to flex right again and maintain the balance.

Different strokes

The difficult about horses is that you’re working with a changing being, so you never 100% know what you’re going to be sitting on that day. Tailoring the training programme to each individual horse is important. They all vary, so you have to be flexible in your approach. This is the programme for a horse like Hope, who is easy and laid-back. If you’re got a very hot horse, then it changes. Often with hot horses, I introduce the lateral work much earlier, because you have to put a brake on them to slow them down. And I would ride a lot more transitions, to say ‘hey, come back to me.’

When Steiny came to me, he was five, going on six, and I used to just go along and turn him into the wall because he completely ran through the bridle and I couldn’t stop him – he was so crazy! We did everything on an angle, to slow him down.

The secret of success

I think the main thing is dedication and hard work, putting in the hours. I’ve definitely got a system, although I probably take a little bit longer than other riders, because I’m not as strong. I can’t bully the horse into a shape, so I have to do that over a long period of time, through schooling, the correct muscling and repetition. I’m not as supple and strong as I once was, but I’m probably more skilled in balanced a horse and half-halting.

The next stage 

Hope in a higher frame showing impulsion and over-track

Hope feels good, so we’ve got to move to the next step. I don’t want to just bring the head up; I want to put the hind leg more under, so the tummy and back come up and then the front comes up. Probably in the near future I’ll make her go down the long side in a medium canter, to shoot the back end under so the front end starts to come up.

When you start to bring the horse back, you’ve got to maintain that hind leg under you, still supporting you. The horse has to learn to come back, but keep the hind leg under. So you start to rock them back on their hind leg, but the minute they don’t come through with that hind leg it’s forward again until it comes under and then back again and forward, back and forward.  If you haven’t got the hind legs engaged, you don’t do dressage very well!

Video doesn’t lie

The big difference between Germany and home is that Ton watched me ride six days a week. I always had somebody saying ‘don’t pull, don’t kick, keep your elbows in.’ You actually get to the point where you’d like some time to yourself, but there’s no doubt about it – it keeps you riding really well and they monitor the way the horse is going every day. That’s just something we don’t have in New Zealand. Without that person on the ground you definitely need mirrors and a video camera. I think you should video yourself once a week, at least.

Routine is key 

Hope doesn’t just get schooled – she needs to go out and hack as well. Even Steiny doesn’t work in the arena every day; he goes around the farm and opens all the gates. We like to do quite a lot of hacking, but this summer we haven’t done as much as we usually would – it’s not much good taking precious horses out when the weather is absolutely appalling! Hope is working in the arena four days a week and one day she goes for hack, so she has two days off. She doesn’t get much, because she’s just a baby.

So much of the training with young horses is just the routine of them coming in and out every day. They are groomed, saddled up and they go off on little truck trips. My facilities are nothing like they have in Europe, but they are adequate and good enough to help me cope. I’ve got good little safe paddocks – they are small paddocks, so they don’t get too fat and we don’t allow them to get too much speed up!

A relaxed, active walking to finish

What I look for in a young horse

Hope as a foal

Hope has been the easiest horse I’ve ever broken in and trained; my second easiest would be Glenturret. She is so extremely trainable, I almost wonder if she’s a bit too quiet for me – at the moment I think she could go and be somebody’s trekking pony! I like hot horses as I don’t like kicking, although they are not so easy. I think we all know now that it can actually be quite difficult to make big-moving horses quick enough for piaffe and canter pirouettes. It’s easier to slow a quick horse down than it is to make a slow horse go quicker. Breeding a horse that can do all aspects of dressage is really quite hard. At the end of the day, sometimes the best horses look ‘wow’, but they make mistakes at the lower levels because they’re a bit all over the place.

  • This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of NZ Horse & Pony

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