There’s a joke, or what I guess you could call a joke, about how long it takes to train a horse. It goes like:
How long does it take to train a horse?
A year longer than the horse has.
Upper level competition horses have clocked numerous hours under saddle to get where they are. In addition to numbers, there are factors of conditioning, conformation, care, aptitude, attitude, and soundness. Training isn’t simply hopping on and going for rides; it’s about the process in which you create and train athletes.
If you’ve been around horses for a little while, you’ll hear the words “training program” thrown around. Through experience, each trainer has come up with a process they like to bring along horses and/or keep them sound and going for a particular job. Some trainers are better with maintaining older, wiser athletes; others are better at bringing along young horses; some trainers are best at competing and keeping competition horses sound and going. When you’re looking for a trainer, it’s important that your goals match the experience and expertise of the trainer with whom you’re working. Happiness will not be found if your goals are outside the comfort zone or goals of the trainer with whom you’re working.
When developing a program for a horse and/or rider the aforementioned factors are incredibly important to consider. Proper conditioning takes into account that tendons and ligaments take time to strengthen and while the process can be helped along, it cannot be rushed. Rushing the process of conditioning can create sore muscles or torn tendons and ligaments. This is not to say that even in the best training program these things don’t happen, but it’s more likely to happen if a conditioning program isn’t in place. Conditioning requires varied work over different terrain and gradually increasing the level of difficulty. This process takes years, no matter how competent your trainer or how gifted your horse.
Conformation is also an important factor to consider in training a horse. If the horse’s conformation doesn’t fit the job intended, the horse will have a hard time trying to do it and will often not last very long. Conformation often goes hand-in-hand with aptitude and attitude. Aptitude being the physical and mental ability of the horse to do the job at hand. Attitude is how much they like or want to do it. Some horses, like some people, are born with great work ethics. Others are not, and many are somewhere in between. It’s important to have a varied program of work both inside and outside the arena to avoid sourness and keep the horse interested in the work. A good program will help develop a work ethic and avoid overtaxing the horse to a point of chronic soreness that may make the horse not want to or not able to work. I believe horses often pick their careers based on what they can or cannot physically or mentally do. A successful horse is one that finds it’s calling and is allowed and trained to do just that.
Care and maintenance are often as much six-sense as they are science. Knowing your horse and what feels right or “off” can be the difference between a couple days R&R and a full blown lameness. Knowing what to feed, how much of it, and when for each horse can make the difference between a healthy and happy horse and a sour, skinny mess. What works for one horse may not work for another horse. Experience, constant research, and experimentation are important when developing a good care program for a horse. Knowing when to call the vet for a colic or lameness can be the difference between having a horse and not having one.
While I work with a variety of horses from young to older, I love most working with young horses or bringing along horses. It’s a long process each time but very rewarding to see awkward young horses develop into competitive athletes. I’ve ridden young horses my entire life, partially by choice and partially by chance. They require patience, dedication, consistency, and a good sense of humor. It’s not without it’s frustrations at times, but I find it to be a very rewarding process. I also really enjoy watching riders grow with their young horses and seeing both turn into confident partners. There are so many facets to horses and training that it really does take more than a lifetime to learn everything there is to know. Each time I train a horse, I improve the process and learn something as well.