Are beginner novice and novice levels too much to expect from a 4-year-old event prospect? Earlier this week I read numerous comments from an article spotlighting talented 4-year-old horses that had competed through novice and were for sale. Many of those comments challenged how those horses had been brought along and whether that level was appropriate for a horse of this age. This seems to be a real hot topic, so let’s talk about it!
We now live in a world where we order everything online without ever seeing it. We can read about literally any topic in depth and watch videos on how to perform open heart surgery. Often opinions are put out into the world without any first-hand experience with the actual horses or the trainers involved. We aren’t physically present to watch these horses or watch these trainers train. There are many factors involved in producing young horses and, honestly, horses of any age.
Trainers must account for the horse’s temperament, trainability, conformation and physical stage of development. While these factors are at the forefront in producing young horses, they are also the same factors to consider at any point in development. Is the horse naturally cautious, or is it brave? Reactive or non-reactive?
I have seen my share of middle-aged horses over faced and jumped too frequently, causing them to break down. Just because a horse has been granted more time to grow up before starting its journey does not guarantee that it will be mentally mature or magically more seasoned. Some individual horses could have really benefited from more exposure at a young age to build confidence.
There is plenty of research that shows that the muscular and skeletal systems must experience some stress, whether it’s at 4 years of age or 7 years of age, to strengthen. The trick is not over doing it!
Is it more strenuous for a 4-year-old to lope around a beginner novice or novice course or to raise them in a 20-acre field, where they can gallop at top speed, which is so much faster than novice level, until 4 or 5 years old ? An argument could be made supporting both sides.
Correct assessment of a horse’s physical condition is always key. Some are too immature physically to do much more than hack the first year under saddle. Just as people vary in body type, some horses naturally have more muscling. We have all seen the 8-year-old Thoroughbred with a poorly muscled topline. Genetic make-up and correct training play a huge role in physical readiness.
There are many young horses that have come through the U.S. Eventing Association Young Horse program and been produced through three-star and four-star level. The program and classes are designed to identify elite equine athletes that show great aptitude for the higher levels. Only a handful of youngsters in this country exude Olympic talent at a young age, so naturally these classes are only for a handful of horses. Unfortunately, they don’t accommodate the gangly youngster that needs more time to grow, but it doesn’t mean these immature youngsters won’t achieve great things.
While these classes are open to amateur riders in the United States, typically it is a professional rider who can showcase these horses’ talents. In other countries, young horse classes are only open to professionals. In 2018, USEA started a new certificate program, the YEH Instructor and YEH Professional Horse Trainer, to identify qualified professionals to start young horses.
Breeding for jumping talent has also been a dedicated industry for decades. Some young horses naturally have incredible technique and scope from the first fence they pop over, whereas some horses would need to train for several years to have that same shape over a fence. Less time training a horse to have a particular jumping technique ultimately means less wear and tear on their joints over their lifetime. It takes years to gradually train a horse to the top of our sport. Smart riders learn to conserve their horses if they want to keep them sound.
Another factor in training any horse for eventing is the access you have to cross-country, trails, hacking and instruction. Do you live in a part of the country such as Florida or California with better footing throughout the year? Do you have access to a skilled rider to help your event prospect build required confidence? Do you have the opportunity to make good choices about which schooling events you can attend?
The bottom line is that every horse is an individual no matter its age. It’s very difficult to assess what any horse’s training regimen should or shouldn’t be without physically looking at the animal, working with it, and knowing what kind of access to training or training aids are available.
I’m in no way endorsing pushing young horses to achieve greatness in the young horse classes. If you find yourself pushing, please stop! It is likely one of the factors mentioned above is missing. However, as a small breeder myself, I support these classes as a tool to identify quality horses being bred here in the U.S. and as a tool to get them into the hands of qualified riders to develop to the top of the sport.
In May, I blogged about how my two 4-year-old Holsteiner mares weren’t ready for the Young Event Horse classes. Good horsemanship is doing what is right for each individual horse.
To answer the original question about whether it’s appropriate for a 4-year-old to compete beginner novice or novice: For some horses, beginner novice or novice will be too much for them, and for others it’s very achievable! They are all individuals!
Sarah Lorenz owns and trains out of Stone’s Throw Farm in Eugene, Oregon. She’s ridden through the advanced level, is a certified USEA ICP Young Horse Instructor and a certified Young Horse Rider. Sarah breeds Holsteiners, and her business focuses on developing young event and dressage prospects. Sarah currently gives back to the Area VII YR program as one of the team selectors.