At what cost?
It’s true that you can scoop up a good quality young horse for a fraction of what a schoolmaster will cost. OTTBs (off-the-track Thoroughbreds) and South African Warmbloods are the breed of choice when it comes to picking a prospective competition horse. You can pick up an OTTB from as little as R5,000. However, it’s not easy to purchase a horse from the track directly if you are unknown to the racing circles. Most OTTBs are rehomed through the trainers’ personal network and are then lightly schooled and introduced to life off the track by the new owner or dealer. From there, you can pick up an OTTB with the very basics in place for anything from R10,000 to R20,000. Pedigree of course plays a role. Don’t be fooled when buying an OTTB. There are many dealers who will take a chance selling a green OTTB with a price tag of around R50,000 to a first-time buyer who doesn’t know any better. Do your homework and get second opinions from your instructor and riding friends.
Warmbloods are known for being the ideal breed when it comes to correct conformation, resilience and athleticism. Riders aiming to ride at higher competitive levels may opt to rather invest in a young Warmblood. A good young Warmblood straight off the stud can range anywhere from R40,000 to over R100,000 depending on pedigree and their loose movement. A Warmblood who has been schooled with the basics will cost more.
Old habits die hard, so the young horse needs to be correctly produced and brought on from a young age. This goes for handling on the ground as well as schooling. Young horses are hard work from this perspective, as consistent repetition and routine are the best foundation for establishing a well-mannered and well-schooled horse. For example, if you spend time teaching something one day, let’s say standing still at the mounting block, you cannot expect your horse to still know it a week later if you haven’t practised it daily. Young horses will only learn with constant reinforcement and you as the rider needs to be prepared to put in the hours daily. This is where the young horse becomes a time-consuming option, only suited for riders who have the time to teach them. This is not to say they need to be drilled every day, but just that little repetitions every day will help them progress quicker.
When it comes to schooling, the young horse needs a variety of regular work in short time frames. Establish a routine that incorporates different types of work such as flatwork, pole work, small jumping, lunging, hacking and track work.
It’s important that your horse is exposed to variety so that he does not become arena sour or unmotivated to work. Horses can also develop unwanted habits like napping if they are overworked. Hacking is important from a fitness and mental health perspective, but ensure that you always hack in safe areas where the ground is not too hard on your horse. Lunging is super for helping to develop condition and lunging aids can work to help promote work in the correct frame.
A young horse has a very poor attention span. Think of them like children. They’re interested for the first 10 minutes and then something will catch their attention and that’s their focus gone. You then have to spend the time refocusing them, by which point you are left completely frustrated, which then translates to a bad quality schooling session.
As a rider, you need to understand that young horses are learning something new every time you get on their back. It’s important that you are fair and patient in your riding and that you allow time to teach the horse, but then allocate a ‘recovery’ or ‘absorbing’ period. The horse will need to process what you’ve taught him. This means that once he has offered you what you want, you need to stop asking and praise him for his correct answer. A reward can be offered in the form of a five-minute free walk where he can process his reward for the correct thing. He needs to know that he’s done the right thing. If you continue to re-ask a certain schooling exercise without rewarding him, even if he’s done it right, he will keep trying to offer a different answer.
Schooling sessions should be kept as short and sweet as possible. Twenty to 30 minutes is more than enough time as their attention spans don’t have the capacity for longer sessions. Once you’ve achieved what you wanted, you should stop and rather take him for a relaxing walk where he can be mentally stimulated by his surroundings. Don’t overdo it and you will reap the rewards of a happy athlete!