If you ask sport horse breeders why American-bred horses aren’t taking over the market, they’ll list a dozen or more reasons. But one of them will always be that they can’t find anyone to train the youngsters they produce each year.
“This gap certainly has existed for a long time,” admitted Scott Hassler, director of training at Hilltop Farm in Colora, Md. “People have been talking about it for years, breeder to trainer, but the ideas remain on the table, and nothing has really happened yet.”
For riders in the United States, the glory–and the money–comes from showing at the top levels and selling horses to their students. It’s been difficult to convince trainers to spend three, four or more years with a young horse when they could buy a made one in Europe and spend about the same in the long run.
“We keep improving the breeding quality with good mares and good stallions, keep trying our best, and so what, they’re good models,” without people to break and train them, said Hassler.
But with the dollar’s value steadily dropping against the Euro, a few breeders are making a concerted effort to promote young horse training in the United States. Hassler, who sits on the USEF Breeders’ Committee and is chairman of the U.S. Dressage Federation’s Sport Horse Committee, decided to jump-start potential young horse trainers.
“The idea was to have an educational event, sponsor this event, pay the expenses, and provide a good educational opportunity that will inspire people to come,” he said. With the aid of another breeder, Harmony Sporthorses, Hilltop Farm is doing just that.
On April 25-27, Hassler, Ingo Pape and Dr. Ulf Moeller will conduct a symposium at Hilltop Farm that covers starting the young horse from their first backing up through their 6-year-old year.
The emphasis is on training dressage horses, but eventers will be allowed to participate, and Hassler hopes that the skills will be applied cross-discipline.
“We’re not talking about a demonstration, but about training people with skills they need,” explained Hassler. “We have to show resistances, show ways to train the young horses, because if we’re going to really help the horse, we’ve got to show how to ride a sensitive horse, a lazy horse, all the kinds of ways you can take care of the individual horse.”
With more than 100 applicants sending videotapes in for “a few select spots,” Hassler has had more response than he anticipated. “The initial thought was to have a very small group of individuals that we felt are going to make a career out of this,” he said.
“But because of the overwhelming response, we’re going back to the drawing board. We’re still going to choose people who want to make a living out of this, but we’ll probably have other people coming who are already very experienced. Everyone will be involved, hear the discussion, and work as a group.”
A Long Road Ahead
A three-day weekend isn’t supposed to create young horse trainers as if by magic, but it’s one step in a gradual process of increasing the number of educated young horse trainers out there.
“There needed to be a goal as to why to do young horses,” said Hassler, as he discussed the USEF Young Dressage Horse Championships. “If you didn’t have the competition structure first, and you did the trainer symposium idea, it would have much less response.”
“The Young Horse Championships are now becoming an important part of everybody’s program,” explained Edward Borresen. He had the highest score at the USEF Young Horse Championships (N.J.) in 2003 with his 5-year-old Oldenburg Beemer (Laudatio–All Day Long, Aldatus).
“There were horses there that came from California,” he continued. “[Dressage At Devon (Pa.)] has classes for horses that have been bred in the United States. There’s starting to be money, and everybody is getting a lot more serious.”
And if people are serious about training young horses whether for a championship or a business, they need to know how to do it correctly.
“I find it so frustrating that you look at so many young horses in this country that are ridden badly in the beginning,” said Borresen. “When people start them badly, you have a 31Â³2-year-old with a bad attitude. That’s scary when they’ve been started backwards.”
Borresen isn’t the only trainer willing to take on young horses, but it’s difficult for breeders to find someone with talent and experience. The Young Horse Championships have given them one place to look, and clinics like the one at Hilltop may give them another.
Britta Johnston, a trainer from Germany who has lived in the United States for 11 years, demonstrated her skill as a rider of young horses at the USDF National Symposium in December. She got on 3-year-olds that had just been backed and rode them for the audience, demonstrating how to allow them to go forward in all three gaits with confidence.
“In Germany we have professional raisers,” she explained. “A lot of the raising farms have training programs, pretty much like a young horse school. A lot more professionals start them there.
“There are no self-made trainers in Germany. You have to be accredited by the German Federation, kind of like passing the bar. The apprenticeship is very, very hard, physically and mentally. In order to take on apprentices, you have to have your master title,” she added.
This kind of strict regimen of riding education probably wouldn’t work in the United States because the German government subsidizes their federation, but the continuing education of young riders by experienced young horse trainers is something that Johnston thinks should happen here.
“People don’t want to put in the time to really learn,” she said. “They think it can be done overnight. You have to be gutsy enough to go forward with the horse. The only way to learn this is with the trainer’s eye on the ground, doing your apprenticeship, and really learning on hundreds of horses so you learn to feel all kinds of different scenarios.”
It’s Not Just Because They’re Cheaper
Although the European model may not work in America, Hassler is looking across the pond for guidelines on how to start horses and how to progress with them.
“Europe doesn’t know everything, and they’re not perfect, but they certainly have a lot more records and history for riding the young horses,” he said.
“Critics say they go too fast, that it’s artificial. My answer to that is, ‘Why does everyone go to Europe to look at young horses?’ It’s not just because they might be cheaper or because there’s more to look at in one trip. It’s also because you can get on them and ride them and test if they’re going to be your future horse,” Hassler continued.
He said that people call him to complain that after six months under saddle, their horses explode when they finally decide to canter.
“The goal is that young horses can be young horses,” he said. “They can walk, trot and canter, which is three natural gaits, with a rider on their back. That’s why eventing is great. An event rider is not afraid to get on and canter through the woods.
“We have people who say their horse is calm, quiet and trusting. But he’s walking and trotting. You can’t sell that horse. It’s the education gap that exists,” he added.
Hassler hopes guidelines for training young horses will come out of educational events like his.
“You take the experts in the industry and get their heads together. Right now there’s no definition of what you do with young horses. You have anything from severe cowboy to severe European,” he said.
Hassler continued, “Let’s really find what we think are the general guidelines of how we develop horses, using the pros and cons of Europe and the pros and cons of America, and really try to represent a whole new fresh start because nothing’s already there.”
He hopes to develop a small army of trainers who’ll follow those guidelines in starting young horses. “Hopefully we find that the sport gets bigger with more names in it, instead of the same Grand Prix riders grabbing somebody’s 5-year-old and going to the Young Horse Championships,” said Hassler. “I’d love to see new talent coming up.
And then if they’re good and they get an opportunity, then one of the bigger names says, ‘Hey, you’re a great rider, come and work in my stable.’
“But the first goal when they’re 16 isn’t the Olympics. They’ll say, ‘I want to ride the young horses and try this.’ “
How Much Is Too Much?
It’s not unduly stressful to ask young horses to walk, trot and canter under saddle, but there is a point where pushing young horses may have negative repercussions.
At the World Championship for Young Dressage Horses in Germany, spectacular young horses have the opportunity to strut their stuff. But many of those horses are never heard from again.
“A lot of the horses you see win in Europe in that caliber of competition, you don’t see them at Grand Prix because they’re blown out,” explained Edward Borresen.
“They’re burned out by 6 because they’re going for a lot. But you do see some coming up. It depends how much the trainer is pushing the horse. That’s up to the trainer whether you’re going to blow his mind or his body out.”
But that doesn’t mean people should let their horses sit in the field until they’re 5 or 6 years old.
“I don’t feel like you have to go for maximum power with your horse all the time,” said Borresen. “But you have to be able to teach him to push and have balance, and if you can do that, you can pretty well negotiate the test. Maybe you have a bad flying change, it’s not a big deal.”
Borresen also pointed out that the horses are usually sold after the championships, and you never know how good the next trainer will be.