Friday, May. 24, 2024

Finding The Young-Horse Line Between Too Much And Not Enough



I bought Ojalá (Vitalis—Fienna, Sir Sinclair) from her breeder, Belinda Nairn, as a foal. She grew up in a field, learned to stand on crossties, lead, have a bath, be civilized. At 3, she was backed. She learned to walk, trot and canter on the bit like a lady, work with other horses in the ring, and hack out by the time I picked her, now 4, up in April of this year. I rode her and found her delightful, and then handed the keys to my wonderful assistant trainer, Ali Redston, who has a much greater affinity for the youngsters than I do. They went on an off-property outing, which was uninteresting. They went to a recognized show, where they performed admirably in two Materiale classes, and behaved to perfection.

And then I gave “Lala” a month off.

Why? She was sound. She was working well. She approached each day cheerfully, with good manners both on the ground and under saddle. She’s barefoot behind, clean legged and has a strong topline. Why stop?

Well … because I could. Because there really isn’t anything else I particularly care about for her right now. Lala happens to also be truly every inch of 18 hands, but I’m truthfully not sure I would have done anything differently if she were 16 hands. I came back to this: At 4 years old, there’s really not much to win, but plenty to lose by doing too much.

Four-year-old Ojalá went to her first horse show in July with Sprieser Sporthorses assistant trainer Ali Redston, then she took a vacation. Aster Equine Photography Photo

Her month’s vacation kept her routine: out all night in private turnout, in her stall during the day. She got groomed and occasionally bathed. I told myself I would work on trailer loading, and then promptly didn’t (oops), but I did fart around when time permitted with balls and flags and nonsense; since she really wasn’t fazed, I didn’t do it a lot. Mostly I gave her some scratches and a cookie, and then walked away. 

I told my team that if she started to act the fool on the ground, or get pushy or fresh, we’d put her back to work earlier. But she didn’t. So she vacationed.


And today, the month was up. She has lost a bit of muscle, and while she certainly hasn’t gotten fat, I didn’t want to wait too long to get back to work. Ali longed her first then hopped on and rode around. Watching her, perhaps her trot is a bit flatter than it was before her break, but only marginally so. The walk and canter are excellent. She accepted the aids. She smiled. It was really like she hadn’t missed a day. Mission: very much accomplished. 

Not every 4-year-old is like this. Some are monsters when not in work. Some get balky. Some are tricky at 4 and need to stay in a program. Some have slow metabolisms and get fat, and—while, yes, the horse grows until it is 6, and too much work too soon is bad for them—I think we can all agree that allowing horses to be obese is at least as big a problem for their joints, long-term.

I’m writing this on Day 1 back to work. By Day 3, she might be an angry twerp. I doubt it, but you never know.

It’s such a tough judgement call to know where the line is between Too Much, Not Enough and Just Right. I often hear, “Well, Lauren, I didn’t want to back Fluffy until she was 5 because I wanted to give her time to grow, and then she seemed like she was a little unhappy about it so we just hacked through the woods for a year on no contact and a bitless bridle, and then she was still a bit angry so we treated her for EPM/Lyme/Tumeric Deficiency”… and now Fluffy is 9 and the human equivalent of the 37-year-old boy still living in his mother’s basement and who can’t hold down a job because his bosses “just don’t understand him.” This is the dire end of Not Enough. There’s a window for instilling work ethic, the ability to take pressure and manners that gets harder to bust open the longer you wait to do so.

But we also all know the horror stories of the horses that are at every show at 4 and 5 and 6, earning mountains of rosettes and trophies and accolades, only to be done at a young age.

I write this as we begin the week of the Young Horse Championships at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions in Illinois, where we’ll see many of the country’s best youngsters. Some of them will go on to be great Grand Prix horses and have long and sound lives; some will have other things that keep them from the top tier of sport, like being sold to owners with lower ambitions, or being redirected into breeding. And many weren’t going to be Grand Prix horses anyway, because not every horse is. That’s rarified air. 


I bear no ill will to the Dressage Young Horse Program, truly. But as this championship is held alongside the high performance championships at Intermediaire I and Grand Prix, it’s worth noting how few of the horses in those rings also participated in the young horse classes. Someone told me once that there’s plenty of horses at the Olympics that were just so annoying and difficult as kids that their owners had no choice but to keep wrangling them into compliance until they finally got trained enough to be useful citizens. I’ve had a few of those at the Grand Prix level myself. And I take comfort in that, knowing that there is no One Way. 

Glamourdale has found medals both as a young horse and as a Grand Prix horse; TSF Dalera BB was nowhere at 7. 

As in all things, I strive for the Middle Path in my own program. Work with my horses of all ages is done well, with clarity, consistency, fairness and, ultimately, brevity. I work hard to use good vets and farriers and bodyworkers to help stay ahead of trouble, but I also have to listen to both my horses and the team of people who work with them. And then I err on the side of doing less. When it comes time to think about fitness, then I’ll think about fitness. But until then, I’m not afraid to let them have a break—particularly when I want their careers to be long and distinguished. Maybe I’m passing up the opportunity to win some baby horse ribbons, but there’s also plenty to lose. 

Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist with distinction making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s C. Cadeau, as well as her own string of young horses, with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.



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