Working a Young Horse

There’s such extreme opinions and attitudes towards working young horses; when they should be backed, first jumped etc. Racehorses are still on the track as two year olds, and some people leave a horse feral until they’re five.

Despite scientific evidence about when a horse’s skeleton is matured, there is still a lot of pressure for talented, well bred sports horses to be produced for four year old classes. Which causes all sorts of problems later in life for them. It’s a society of instantaneous gratification; in which horses who are capable of performing today do, rather than waiting until they are mature enough to in five years time.

In this sense, lesser quality horses – perhaps with less talent or with a less favourable conformation – actually fare better because they are produced at a slower rate and usually later in their lives.

Anyway, I’ve come to my own conclusion about how I feel an intelligent, talented young horse with a trainable temperament and good work ethic should be nurtured. It’s important to introduce brain work early in their lives, without doing too much physical work.

Mental stimulation can involve introducing a young horse to different environments, showing them poles, fillers, tarpaulins etc, in hand work to establish good manners, taking them to in hand shows, leading them out along quiet lanes, and meeting cars and bicycles. This sort of enrichment builds a bond with their handler, which should make the backing process less stressful for the horse, and builds the horse’s confidence when out and about.

I’ve got a new client, with her new four year old. The mare was produced in Ireland before being sold at a sales, and has a very clever mind as well as talent to boot. Whilst she needs to mature and increase condition, she also needs work to keep her busy brain occupied so that she stops jumping out her field or box walking.

They had their first lesson this week. The mare is fussy to mount, quite anxious and tense. This behaviour stems from anxiety so we have formulated a plan to overcome this. As it’s not rudeness, I don’t think the mare will benefit from a confrontational approach, but we do need to encourage her to stand more quietly to mount. It’s a long term approach, of mounting and allowing the horse to walk until she relaxes slightly and then asking her to halt momentarily. Hopefully each time she’s mounted the walk period gets shorter and halt gets longer. Time can also be spent standing by the mounting block with nothing further happening. We don’t want to add to the tension, but we need to introduce the concept of better mounting manners. Hopefully within two months she is less anxious about the mounting procedure and only needs walk a couple of steps before halting for as long as her rider needs her to. Racehorses have a similar problem with mounting because they’re used to being legged up and hurried into work.

The mare, as with all youngsters, walked into the arena and immediately started calling and looking for her friends, drifting back towards the gate. She’d left her brain in the stable. Add this to her tense, quick walk, and there’s nothing to work with. So we began the lesson by my rider just walking around the arena, circling around every jump she passed. I told her not to worry about the quality of the walk, or the bend. We just wanted to use the circles to draw the mare’s focus to her rider, forgetting about her friends in the stable. My rider could start to think about her aids and assess the mare’s understanding and response, but we didn’t want to start changing the mare until her brain was on side and she had begun to relax. It took a good few minutes of walking for the mare to take her mind off the gate and stables, and to relax into a longer striding walk. You could see she was starting to concentrate on what was going on in the arena.

Now that the mare was starting to relax we could introduce halt transitions. Reluctant to stop, she opens her mouth and tries to barge through the hand. She’s in a Micklem bridle, with a Neue schule eggbutt snaffle with bit stabilisers, which means she isn’t fussing as much with her tongue or gaping her mouth as wide as she did when viewed, so I’m hoping this habit reduces more when she settles fully into her new home. Anyway, I asked my rider to vibrate the rein as the mare set against her hand so that we diffused the tug of war situation. After a couple of halts, the vibrations were less because the mare was starting to understand the question and responded to my riders’ initial aids.

With this starting to fall into place, and the mare focused on her work, we could then take a five minute break. They halted and stood still for almost five minutes, taking in the scenery, and most importantly, relaxing. This halt is the type I’d like them to get upon mounting, so it’s good to see the concept is there. We repeated the halt frequently throughout the rest of the lesson to give the mare time to assimilate each exercise.

Staying in walk, as I now wanted to ask the mare a couple of questions to see how trainable she is, we began to introduce the idea of straightness. Now I know it’s halfway up the Scales of Training, but the mare was showing preference for left bend and unless we iron out her banana-ness, we won’t be able to start at the bottom of the Scale.

On the right rein, the one which the mare bent outwards, we started riding a square. Again, we weren’t making a huge change to the mare’s way of going, but rather showing her that there was a different way of moving. Riding straight lines emcourages the mare to straighten out of her left bend, and start to think about bending to the right. Her rider could also check she was sitting straight and giving even aids.

As with all youngsters, the mare wobbled along the sides of our square, so we made sure the reins and hands were channeling the mare straight without being claustrophobic, and the legs hung round her barrel to guide her between the reins. Just with a little more support from her rider and the mare started to move straighter, stride out and relax.

We repeated the square on the left rein to show the mare that she didn’t have to curl up to the left. Then we did some more circles around jumps and my rider felt the mare was better balanced and she had more influence over their direction. I was pleased with the improvement in the mare’s walk. As she relaxed she was exhaling in big snorts, lengthening her stride, lowering her neck and generally looking happier.

We finished by trotting a gentle square on both reins, aiming for a consistent rhythm and the mare relaxing into trot, stretching herself into a longer frame as she and her rider found their balance together.

Despite spending most of the lesson in walk the mare was mentally drained. She stood with her head low, ears floppy. You could see that she was tired. Her working routine will be two schooling sessions a week; one a lesson similar to this one and the other a shorter revision session with her owner. The rest of the week will be spent either in hand walks, some in hand work, such as pole mazes, or short ridden hacks. She’s a very clever horse so we need to keep her brain ticking over in order for her to be more manageable in the field and stable, but we do need to be careful not to stress her body physically, but I think this arrangement should benefit her best.

Training Bursaries

My poor bank account has taken a bit of a beating this month. As well as paying HMRC my tax bill, I`ve also just paid for my exam fee and training. Which means I`ve done quite a lot of maths.

As a BHS AI (Assistant Instructor) I`m at the second level of instructor. To get here I had to sit my BHS stages 1-3, PTT exam and then complete a portfolio. After qualifying and having a time in a riding school I went self-employed. Like numerous other instructors.

So when I started looking at taking my next exam, improving my knowledge and qualifications, I had a bit of a shock. I`m not surprised there are so many BHS AIs around, and comparatively few Intermediate Instructors (IIs), because training is out of reach for so many of us.

This exam costs £300, plus £300 if you need to take your stage 4, to complete the II qualification. Then if you look at training with Fellows of the BHS for these exams you are looking at a rate of £45 per hour. Now, if you are a freelance instructor, perhaps working at a riding school, you are looking at an hourly rate of £15 per hour. So for one hour of training you need to teach for three hours. For private lessons, you are looking at £20-25 an hour once you have taken out the expenses of traveling and insurance. Which means you need to teach two private lessons to pay for one hour of training. Never mind the fact that while you are engaged in training you cannot earn any money – either from the riding school or from private clients – is it really surprising that so many capable instructors don`t bother to further their education?

Whilst doing a bit of research, I came across a training bursary offered by the BHS – click here to read. However, in order to qualify you must be associated with, and teach a minimum of 20 hours a month at a BHS approved riding centre. Working at such a centre means that you will already have a network of support and the ability to be trained for a reduced rate (If you are training for your Stage 4 riding exam you can often be a guinea pig for ITT training days or join in with client group lessons of a similar standard). Some centres may even let you attend clinics and lectures on site for free, or to pay for you to attend others at different centres.

The BHS is trying to promote the development of coaches, and to motivate instructors to further their education, but in doing so I feel they isolate the self-employed. The self-employed have to fund their own learning, motivate themselves and have limited contacts within the BHS network to gain support.

I thought I was the only one who thought of this bursary as flawed, and feel that many freelancers would benefit from a similar training grant, but I have just read a paper by Jo Winfield, FBHS – you can read it here – which states that as a freelance instructor she felt “very isolated once I achieved my professional coaching qualifications and had no further opportunity to advance my skills and competency as a self employed coach. The equine industry lacked any support for my own career development.”

Jo Winfield discusses in her article how important self-reflection is for coaches, and I admit that that is my main method of self-training. Teach a lesson, reflect on it, and make notes about how to improve my performance. I hope that this means that I can do the majority of the learning by myself and then use any formal training hours effectively.

Perhaps I have shot myself in the foot by not being associated with a BHS approved riding school? Riding schools usually provide a reliable source of income, but as the rate of pay is substantially lower than private clients surely if you can build a business on purely private clients you are showing better business sense? I`m sure there are also other freelancers who either teach at an unapproved riding school (perhaps an ABRS approved school) or do not teach at a riding school, preferring to work more closely with a Pony Club or their private clients.

With so many freelance instructors, and the BHS Register of Instructors, I would have thought that the BHS could run a similar training bursary for the self-employed. Especially if training can only take place at approved BHS training centres, then they are putting money back into their society. Perhaps I will have to petition it to them!


What did everyone get up to on the weekend? I had quite an interesting one.

I was at home with my parents, being molly-coddled by my Mum, who insisted on applying witch hazel to my bruises and strains, and painkillers at every opportunity. Turns out she had an ulterior motive – I had to move plant pots and look after her friend’s horses. 

On Saturday afternoon I had a bit of downtime so went to visit a friend, who lives on the side of a Welsh mountain in a small holding. The views are stunning, and we walked the dogs around the Punch Bowl before going to see the equines.

We have a story here. When I was drifting around having left school with no direction or ambition, I was introduced to this lady who had two ponies on the verge of laminitis. One was rescue so couldn’t be ridden, but the other one was quite capable of doing some work.

So I went there three times a week and lunged, schooled in the field, and hacked this pony. It was a massive learning curve for me; being asked for advice, having minimal facilities, having to source and fit tack, instruct someone on how to lunge and give basic riding lessons. I really enjoyed this new found responsibility and have always kept in touch with this lady.

Anyway, since I stopped riding the pony my friend has acquired a young donkey. He’s now three years old and ready to start his working life. Not that his working life will be particularly arduous, but his mind needs occupying.

He is now leading well, stands to be groomed and have his feet picked out, and has had the bridle put on a few times.

My job on Saturday was to check the bridle and make sure it was comfortable and well fitting.

It’s strange, fitting tack on a donkey. I mean, the basic premise is the same, but a donkey has huge ears to fit under a headpiece, a deep jaw, wide forehead, and a tiny mouth. But with a bit of tweaking the bridle fitted nicely, and he looked very smart!

Do I have any donkey enthusiasts reading my blog? Because my friend picked my brain, which unfortunately doesn’t have much donkey knowledge.

Can donkeys get canker? The farrier visited last week and thought it was canker, but as he didn’t know if donkeys can get canker he wanted to ask some farrier friends and return to treat the hooves, which don’t seem to hurt him. A photo is below, please feel free to tell me about donkey foot care.

Another thing we looked at, were the donkey’s teeth. I was looking for wolf teeth, but instead found the tip of his corner incisor (the last incisor to grow) just breaking through the gum. Which can lead us to a whole new topic about teething!

Next time I go home it will be interesting to see how this donkey is getting on with his education. Again, if any donkey enthusiasts have any hints on long reining donkeys, or tips to train donkeys then please let me know!

The Noavel Headcollar

Whilst discussing the difficulty of shoeing some horses, a friend told me about the Noavel headstall.

Her horse is notoriously difficult to shoe and needs sedating by the vet. Obviously this is an expensive and time consuming procedure. This woman has owned the horse for over a year and whilst she has improved in other areas of her training, shoeing still remains an issue.

Now her farriers assistant has spent a lot of time in Australia and when he came back he suggested using the Rick Wheat Noavel headpiece. It worked a treat, and the mare stood perfectly still to be shod, but was still very aware of the comings and goings of the yard. The farrier said that this headpiece only needed to be used once before the horse learnt to behave and do as asked of him.

Naturally I was interested in this potentially useful piece of equipment, and after looking online realised it has some mixed reviews.

First of all, the leather bridle come headcollar is designed to fit comfortably over the horse’s ears and poll. It is bitless, but has a metal noseband, or bosal. It claims to be more humane than many other pieces of headgear as it does not restrict airflow or put something in the horses mouth. However, it does have a pressure point which works on a nerve on the left side of the horses head, which runs right up the cheek and to the poll. To me, there is a serious risk of causing permanent nerve damage if used incorrectly.

The Noavel headpiece is advertised as being a training aid for the many behavioural problems:
shoeing problems
trailer loading
hard to catch
run away horses
head shyness
barn soured
walking off while mounting
controlling miniature horses
halter breaking colts
head tossing.

There are many people who like this and find it can help unruly horses, but I think it should be a “use once and never again” tool when you reach crisis point in your training, such as my friend and her tricky mare. In the wrong hands the steel bosal is extremely harsh, and can bruise, cut and damage a horse’s face severely, which surely must cause future problems with head shyness?

One person on a forum put it quite succinctly;

It’s meant to drag the horse into submission instead of making a willing partner.

Don’t just go by what I say, there are plenty of sites with a lot of information and conflicting opinions to peruse.