Twenty-two American bred horses helped find the answer to the question posed to Willy Arts and David Wightman, “So I Have a Young Horse; Now What Do I Do with It?” at the California Dressage Society’s Annual Meeting and Symposium on Jan. 21 at Starr Vaughn Equestrian in Elk Grove, California.
Before nearly 150 spectators, Arts and Wightman addressed topics ranging from young horse evaluation, conformation, handling, lunging, starting under saddle, training the basics, and riding the 4-, 5- and 6-year-old tests. With each horse, the presenters gave a rundown of the horse’s breeding, experience and prospective future while demonstrating both conformation and training goals and methods for the individuals.
A native of Holland, Arts has long been associated with the DG Bar Ranch in Hanford, California, breeding, training and competing the farm’s horses to national and international levels. In addition, he has competed several FEI horses, and qualified many for the FEI Young Horse Championships.
Wightman’s most recent success includes first place with Hotshot AF in the 2017 USDF Region 7 championship and reserve champion in the 5-Year-Old CDS Futurity. With Silberpfeil in 2016 he placed in the 6-Year-Old CDS Futurity and represented the United States in the Netherlands at the Young Horse World Championship for 6-Year-Old Horses, finishing 12th. He and wife Kathleen Raine operate out of Adventure Farms in Murrieta, California.
Arts started off the seminar with a systematic method to evaluate conformation. With input from Wightman, a few points that he discussed were:
- Consider your first impression: balance and harmony in the body
- Then look at the eye. Is it big and kind? “This is the window to the heart. It tells about the horse’s temperament,” Arts said.
- Study the horse’s posture, how it stands naturally. Is it built uphill or downhill?
- Look for an open throatlatch, not too short of a poll, a neck not to fat or thick, sloping shoulder, wither, a strong, but not stiff back. A solid, level loin is the bridge between the back and the hindquarters.
- Square vs. rectangular body type. For a dressage horse, a rectangular body is easier for extensions and collection. Wightman added that a rectangle is harder to balance but a square is harder to bend. Valegro is a square. Verdades and Suppenkasper are rectangles.
- Evaluate the stifle position. If the stifle is too far back the horse will push, not carry, the front legs.
- With too long pasterns the horse will not have enough push off the ground.
Despite their vast experience competing in the upper levels of the national and international arenas, both presenters emphasized solid and patient upbringing and training of the young horse to achieve any kind of future success.
The teaching and testing segments of the seminar viewed the 4-, 5- and 6-year-old age groups, each followed by a demonstration of the USEF and FEI tests for their age group. With each horse, Arts and Wightman made a point of discussing their breeding
“What we want in the modern sport horse is that it is balanced, carries itself, has a good work ethic, and is self-motivated,” said Arts. “Allowing is teaching. Training, especially with young horses, is a step by step positive approach.”
Being as the symposium was in January, the presenters often reminded the audience that these horses had not had their birthdays for that age, and what a difference a few months can make. “With the 4-year-olds, they are 3-year-olds turning 4 now. By summer you can have quite a different horse,” said Wightman.
The goal for the 3- to 4-year-old is to go straight and forward. For the 4- to 5-year-old, the presenters wanted to teach them changes of tempo, a slight bit of collection and see that the horse follows the rider’s hand. With the more developed 5- to 6-year olds, lateral work should be supple and easy.
“Find reason for a problem, rather than working on symptoms,” said Arts who emphasized the importance for the 4-year-olds to be forward while working with Ashlyn Dodge on Jericho DG, Rachel Wade on Johnstone and Ericka Reining on Bella Luna.
To develop forward responsiveness, he asked these three at the trot to slow the horses down a little, then move them forward. Even in the leg-yields he wanted to see them forward from the leg, and only then moving sideways. If it wasn’t working, he had the rider stop, do turn on the forehand so the horse focused on the leg, and then return to leg-yield.
Wightman reviewed parts of the USEF 4-Year-Old test with Alyssa Doverspike on Figaro, Anna Wood on Navarro and Sandy Savage on Fleur Noir. The latter two were half siblings by Furstenball.
With his goal to see real working gaits on the 4-year olds, Wightman asked for trot-canter-trot transition on the 20-meter circle. “The push forward adds suspension to the trot. The working trot helps steadiness and connection as well,” he said.
When Savage’s horse took a misstep crossing the diagonal, he said, “When you ask for more trot, and there is an error in rhythm or he canters, he learns to trot better. You have to help the young horse to carry herself in balance by asking her to go forward. When she pushes, she learns she can balance. I know it’s supposed to look perfect, but if you have to lift your hands a bit to show her where she has to be, so be it—it’s a young horse.”
For Wood’s horse he asked for canter-trot transitions as well. “It’s important for a young horse to stay on a proper 20-meter circle as a young horse. After all, a proper pirouette starts on a proper 20-meter circle,” Wightman said.
“If the horse wants to fall down going from canter to trot, and he’s not too hot, give him a kick in the transition to remind him to use his hind end.”
Always Think Forward
The afternoon started off with 5-year-olds Impression DG with Ashlyn Dodge, Ion SWF with Caitlin Hamar and Ignite DG with Stephanie Schauer who also worked on the circle with working and medium canter gymnasticizing. “Most horses going left want haunches left,“ Wightman pointed out. “The challenge is that most people aren’t good to the left. I fix this by leg-yielding right on the circle. The outside rein half-halt, even creating a slight counter flexion, brings the shoulder left.
“Teaching the horse that the leg doesn’t just mean forward, it also means to move some place in the body. Sometimes you have to make a horse straighter in the neck for more bend in the body,” Wightman pointed out.
When Hamar’s horse broke from the canter to the trot, he recommended, “keep the trot forward after to break, then canter again. Then the horse always thinks forward. You can’t have collection without impulsion.”
As he asked the riders to attempt 10-meter circles, he reminded them that the horses are really 4, not 5. “Make the circle slightly larger so he’s balanced. By April, he’ll be okay on 10 meters,” he said.
Allyssa Dodge demonstrated the FEI 6-Year-Old Preliminary Test on Wightman’s horse Hotshot AF, only her third time on him. Her horse didn’t make the trip because of a hoof abscess.
The Neck As Balancer
Six-year olds were represented by DG Hollywood with Lauren McKeand, Sacretaria, the symposium’s only PRE, and ridden by Ericka Reining, and Kristian, the only Friesian, and ridden by Beth Spuhler.
With Arts, the Friesian and the PRE demonstrated in different ways the need to use the neck as a balancing pole. The former needed to lower his neck to allow better use of the entire body and control of tempo, said Arts. The latter needed to stretch the neck more out, take slower steps, and bring up in the frame.
Toward the end of the day, the audience was treated to test rides and demonstrations by young horses that have proven themselves in the national and international competition. California favorite Craig Stanley rode his homebred Habanero CWS (Idocus—Caliente DG), winner of the 2016 Markel/USEF FEI Young Horse Dressage National 4-Year- Old Championship.
Wightman rode Silberpfeil and found the opportunity to express his philosophy about young horses. “I’ll try developing Prix St. Georges in August. I want him comfortable and balanced and confident. Years ago, I would compete a 6-year-old at Prix St. Georges. That was a mistake,” he said. “Just because a horse can do it doesn’t mean he’s strong enough. You learn those things. My experience taught me to wait. The 4-, 5- and 6-year-old test are fine to do. After 6, some people take a 7-year-old to Prix St. Georges. It should be showing fourth 1 and 2. At 8, you can go Prix St. George. For Grand Prix, 9 or even 10.”
Allowing for mistakes and learning from them was clearly a theme for horses and riders.