Defining Success for the Young Horse

…with classical horsemanship

by Stefanie Reinhold

The silhouette of the tall gangly horse entering the barn to participate in a Path to Performance™ clinic at the beautiful Norwegian Hill Farm featured some visible hip bones (on the horse). Stepping into the light, I could see the horse’s ribs under a gleaming coat leading the glance to the wasp-like waist of a lean thoroughbred.

young thoroughbred horseThis was their first week at the new barn, where the horse should soon blossom with better feed and care than in the previous environment.

The dark bay with a lower set neck, high withers and really nice feet looked like the famous duckling in the story of the duckling that turned into a swan. There was little muscling and the bum-high trunk moved on long, gangly legs, giving the horse a colt-like look.

One thing, however, stood out the most: This barely three-year-old was calm, with a quiet trusting eye and the owner – a lean and athletic young woman with a beaming positive demeanor – adored this horse.

What a pair!

During the following three Path to Performance™ clinics after this initial encounter, the gangly pair made it cheerfully through several transformations:

  • Realized that an ill-fitting saddle kept the horse from trusting the rider and offering his back
    >>> new saddle that could grow with the horse, fitted and adjusted for this horse at this stage
  • Embraced concept “function over form”, e.g. a ‘pretty equitation seat’ is not necessarily functional
    >>> relaxation and suppleness as the highest goal
  • Made the decision to embark on the slow, classical approach to bringing a horse along
    >>> sustainable mental and physical soundness.

Still exotic? Classical Horsemanship…

A horse show short story

young thoroughbred dressaage

Jessica Darby and her horse Raiden (Photo by Aullmyn Photography)

Just before competing at their first a show of the year this summer, the trainer dropped the pair unceremoniously at the show. The horse’s very visible – yet not dangerous – behavioral response to the show environment that day threatened to ‘embarrass’ the trainer.

The rider was not discouraged, instead patiently worked with her horse to get him relaxed and focused. They went home with the their highest score to date in addition to a blue ribbon and high points blue ribbons. This – by the way – was just an appreciated ‘nice to have’ but not the ultimate goal of this wonderful schooling exercise.

When Horses were “Essential Workers”

In the pre-WWII reality of cavalries, horse-drawn carriages and millions of horses in industry and every day life, the “ROI” (return on investment in money, time, effort, horse material…) largely depended on the depth of knowledge around horse care and training. The cavalry was the institution that developed, documented and disseminated this knowledge (now called classical) and put all that to the test.

In that, the classical approach is never outdated nor out of style. It lays out how a road map to success and health. For the young horse, this approach makes all the difference, building a trusting, capable equine partner.

cavalry rider relaxed and open frame

1912 Cavalry Manual: Riding a young horse

Elements of the Classical Approach.

  • Patience – “Meet the horse where it is, considering the nature of the horse” (rephrased from the HDV12 German Cavalry Manual)
  • Humility – “Life is too short to learn to ride right” (Felix Bürkner)
  • Love – “Lasting success can only be achieved if the hearts and souls of all instructors and riders are filled with the joy of riding and the love for the horse.” HDV12 German Cavalry Manual

From Duckling to Swan

Many horses never make it from duckling to swan. Blamed for perceived physical shortcomings, supposed flaws in temperament or simply being asked for “too much too soon”, these beautiful manifestations of possibilities remain ducklings all their lives. (Note: I love ducks… but if you can be a swan, why not?)

This pair is well on their way and: They are BOTH enjoying themselves on frequent hacks, work inside and outside the arena, and in the show environment.

They have a partnership that allows the duckling to blossom and eventually turn into a swan. The swan feathers are already visible. And the beautiful calm and trusting eye is still there.

How inspiring.

Rider/trainer: Jessica Darby of Darby Sport Horses