I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Lorenz’s recent piece for COTH, “We Are All Individuals.” As someone who brings a lot of young horses up the levels of dressage I agree wholeheartedly that there’s no timetable, that they come along at whatever rate they come along, and that, as trainers and as stewards of their lives, we have to treat each one as an individual and evaluate what they’re capable of by using our own best judgement combined with advice from exceptional veterinarians, farriers and trainers.
As a 5’10” dressage trainer, my own personal horses are exclusively warmbloods, and most are north of 17 hands. Swagger is the youngest of the current group, bought in July of his 3-year-old year, a stallion, and already at least 16.3. Gelding him made him pop another inch, and between that and being put on a plane he arrived in the States looking like Skeletor. He needed time to eat and get healthy from the trip, and so he had about two months of vacation time where we fed him and turned him out. Once he looked healthy enough, he went to an event rider student of mine to work three days a week for a month or two, and then he came home where we worked him three days a week.
Could he have sat out longer? Sure. He’s a good dude. When I tried him in Europe, his trainer swung on him, from the ground, helmetless, on cobblestones, without lunging first, and then walked on a loose rein out to the outdoor arena. He’s a tremendously solid citizen, for whom going on the bit is very easy. There was no more capital-D Dressage he had to learn that year. Why not let him grow a little longer?
Because studies have shown over and over again that work builds stronger bones, tendons and ligaments. Concussion builds bone density. Strong muscles support the more delicate small structures. I believe that too little work is a bad thing for big horses’ bodies, that it is just as bad as too much work. And I believe that, temperamentally speaking, there is a window on teaching a horse to submit to the aids that closes over time, and letting that window close without teaching a horse to yield his body properly and work over his back makes teaching him to do so much harder for both horse and rider.
There’s an old adage that 3-year-olds should work three days a week, 4-year-olds four days, and 5-year-olds five days. But what is work? For Swagger, who is pretty mentally and physically compliant, “work” at 3 was 20 minutes absolute max, two days a week, of work in the arena, walking trotting and cantering on the bit, plus one day a week of hacking. When he turned 4 that became three arena days plus one hacking day, and he stayed on that program until mid-summer, when he got a little skinny again—growing, maybe?—and it was hot and hideous and I said “Screw it, off you go.” He had about six weeks of working in the arena one day a week and hacking two or three, as we had time. When he came back to work as the weather got nicer he felt great in his body, still good in his mind, and stayed my delightful and compliant little angel…
…until November. He started getting a little spooky. He started getting hotter, particularly on Tuesdays, when he’d hacked Sunday and had Monday off. He started threatening to buck. And while he has yet to do anything actually defiant, I just started getting the vibe from him that he wasn’t working enough. So I added the fifth day of work, again 20-30 minutes max, basic things. It made a remarkable difference, and even with the extra day he’s kept his weight, smiles at me when I go to bring him in from the field to work. For Swagger, this plan is working, and at least so far, the amount that he’s working and the good footing and farrier work with which he lives has kept him healthy and sound.
Fender was also a big horse, at least 16.3 when he came into my life at just-shy-of-4. Fender was a much trickier mind at that age than Swagger is, so he had to work more during each session, so I could get his mind on board, and that meant that he definitely only worked four days a week at 4. But he had to work, or I’d be in big trouble when I got on. Fender’s mind didn’t come around until he was much older, more like 9, so he worked a lot as a young and middle-aged horse, and through his life he didn’t suffer from crazy arthritic change or untoward injuries. I utilized my great health program and worked him on a variety of surfaces, and Fender stayed sound and flourished in my program throughout his life.
They are two of the biggest horses I’ve ever had, and they’re ones I’ve had from the beginning of their riding careers. Over my years I’ve had other horses who came to me later, of all sizes, who didn’t have work in their younger years, or at least not much work. While not all of them have had soundness problems, a lot of them have, not to mention a more difficult road to hoe when it came to ground manners, acceptance of the aids, and work ethic.
The challenge with any young horse, but particularly with a big young horse, is to balance their physical needs with their mental ones, and also to work them enough that they develop the strength to carry their big bodies around, but not so hard that they injure themselves in the process. Turnout is crucial, and at my farm we’re so lucky as to have a covered exerciser, so my horses can walk a ton.
But they have to be ridden, and they have to be ridden with a purpose and clear rules. From a training perspective they have to have enough work to learn to accept the leg and the hand and the seat and the application of all at the same time, and they have to do so early, or it’ll haunt them for the rest of their lives. But I also think they have to work enough to build the physical toughness, the density of bone and the strength and resilience of soft tissue, to support upper level work. They can’t be ridden with crazy gaits, and they can’t be pushed for crazy collection, but they have to work. Babying them too much is just as big a risk to their development as not riding them enough.
Horses were bred to work. It’s our responsibility to pick the right work, to keep them on good food, on a variety of surfaces, and in the care of a good veterinarian and farrier team. And we have to listen, of course. But they have to work.