I am genuinely a bit shocked that I’m back here again, owning another 4 year old horse. I thought if I ever made the decision to sell Coco, I’d take on something a bit older with more experience and honestly that was my intention until I sat on Cosmo. While Coco and Cosmo are two completely different horses, I have to say I learned a lot from bringing Coco on from the nappy, bunny-hopping 4 year old that she was to the 7 year old all rounder she is today. I can be proud knowing that I did a lot of things right with Coco but I’m also aware that there were a few things that I could have done better and things I know I did wrong.
With that in mind, I decided to compile these 6 things I feel are absolutely essential to know when you make the decision to take on a young horse. For the sake of clarity, when I talk about a young horse I am talking about a horse who is broken, has been turned away and brought back in, ready to start their ridden career. Typically this is when a horse is around 4 years old but this obviously depends on the individual horse.
1. Variety is Everything
Keeping variety in your work with your youngster is so vital to their development on so many levels. The last thing you want is for your horse to go sour to ridden work as this can cause a stream of behavioural issues down the line.
Mentally, you want to keep them happy and focused on the job and the best way to do this is to give them a good mix of days with hard work schooling and days where you do something fun and different, all with the correct amount of time off in between. In addition, this also does wonders for them educationally as doing different activities during each ride gives them new experiences to get used to and enjoy, which is vital when producing a young horse.
For Cosmo – I give him two days off a week which are scattered between his ridden days. The other five days consist of two hard work days and 3 easy days that may involve riding in the field, a road hack, a lunging session or a very short walk-trot-canter session in the arena where he doesn’t get pushed to do anything difficult. Unless its a lesson, the hard work days will never be longer than 20 minutes.
2. Focus on Building the Correct Muscles
A young horse is constantly developing which is clearly demonstrated in a graphic we recently posted on Facebook which details the stages of equine skeletal development. Indicating that the horse’s spine isn’t fully developed until it reaches 6 years of age, this graphic serves as an eye opener to how important it is for us to look after our young equines and, most importantly the muscles that surround and protect these ever changing bones.
With this in mind, your key focus when deciding which exercises to do with your horse should be anything that helps to develop your horse’s topline. The topline is the string of muscles that stretch across a horse’s back from the base of the neck right back to the croup. When this group of muscles is correctly developed, your horse’s back is in a much better place to be able to cope with the different levels of work you expect from him.
3. Feed them What they Need
This may seem like a very obvious statement but bear with me. While we all know that horse’s have basic nutritional requirements, some horse’s require a little more help than others. For example, a large 4 year old tends to take much longer to develop and mature than a smaller 4 year old horse as there is much more of them to grow and fill out.
When it comes to helping Cosmo develop his topline, I know he may need some assistance so I intend to start him on a supplement that will promote muscle development. Darielle is currently using Equitop Myoplast on Dante and is seeing great results so I may give this a go. This isn’t something I ever considered starting Coco on as she was a much smaller horse who, with the right exercises, built topline without requiring assistance.
4. Don’t Allow your Riding to Suffer
This was something that I really took liberties with when I had Coco as a 4 year old. I 100% used her young-ness as an excuse for why my riding wasn’t as good as it should have been. We tell ourselves that sometimes your position needs to give way to the needs of the horse and in some cases this is true – for example, I used to put more weight on my inside stirrup when riding Coco in an arena she was prone to spooking in as this would put me in a better position to sit the spook if it came. But for the most part, there was no real excuse for my rounded shoulders, vice-grip knees and up-turned heels.
Earlier this year, I really began to focus on fixing my position and I made serious headway before I broke my foot. Now that I’m back riding I’m determined not to allow my old habits to sneak back in just because I’m riding a 4 year old. If anything I need to be stricter with myself as I discovered once I started taking better care of my position, it had such a positive impact on Coco’s way of going. This just reaffirms that the correct position and riding will only help your youngster in his education with you.
5. Take Regular Lessons
This kind of stems from my last point but there’s a little more to it. While taking regular lessons helps you keep on top of your own riding, it’s also so so important for schooling your youngster. I genuinely regret not doing more lessons with Coco in our first year together. I told myself that I didn’t want to spend the money on the lessons when all I’d have to put up with was a ratty bunny-hopper who wouldn’t go straight but this was probably when I needed lessons the most.
In your young horse’s early days, it is invaluable to have eyes on the ground that can pick up on something that you’ll most likely miss. An instructor will catch any of your bad habits that might be hindering your horse’s way of going and they can also provide important exercises for you to work on to help you both develop. This time round I am making a point of doing lessons with Cosmo as often as I can afford them.
6. Time Off is Essential
This is one that I’m not sure everyone is aware of, I certainly wasn’t when I got Coco. We all have a good idea of how the breaking process goes. Horse gets backed and lightly schooled and introduced to the basic concepts for a few weeks before being put out to the field for 3 – 4 months to mature and think about what they were taught. After this time they are brought back in and ridden away to get produced. At this point most people assume the time off part is done but I’ve come to learn that this might not always be the best way.
Of course it all depends on the horse and how it was broken and what it’s being produced to do but I think giving your horse some further time off after they’ve had a few months of work and schooling put into them, is something that everyone should consider doing with their youngster. I don’t mean that they should get another 3 – 4 months off but even a few weeks to a month after they’ve been schooled well, have tried their hand at everything you’d like to do with them, entered a few low level shows and just generally seen the world could be just what the doctor ordered to keep them fresh and keen on their new job. This is certainly what I intend to do with Cosmo anyway. I’d like to spend the next 2 months or so to get him working well and out to a few small training shows before giving him some time off in December to digest everything he’s learned.
With this being my second time round, I think I’m much more prepared for what’s in store with Cosmo. I know he’s a completely different 4 year old to what Coco was and in some ways I find him much easier than she was but in other’s I feel I have some new challenges to face which I’m looking forward to. I think if I keep all of the above in mind, I’ll have a good shot at producing another well-rounded horse.
Have you recently made the decision to buy a young horse? I don’t pretend to be an expert in any way, but if you have any questions I’d be glad to help as best I can – just leave a comment 🙂
Thanks for reading, hopefully you’ve found this helpful!