Warmbloods Today — September/October 2012
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Point Of View : Trainers Discuss Starting Young Sport Horses
Liz Cornell

Your Horse’s Foundation: Three Trainers Discuss The Art of Training Young Sport Horses

The best way to start young sport horses, from breaking to walk-trot-canter under saddle, is a touchy subject for breeders and owners of young horses alike. Methods and opinions vary immensely across America, ranging from the breeder/owner who can put on a trainer’s hat and do it him- or herself to those who send their youngsters to a local cowboy to rodeo through the potential bucks and spooks. Then there is the growing group of trainers, including those using the Parelli system, who focus on “natural horsemanship” when starting youngsters. Ask ten different breeders/owners how they start their young horses started under saddle, and you’ll most likely hear ten different answers.

Larger breeding operations generally have their own trainer or trainers on staff responsible for starting the youngsters, or will at least coach students through the process. Yet the smaller breeder or the owner of a young sport horse is faced with the challenge of finding trustworthy local help to get the job done if they aren’t able to start their youngster on their own. After a few minutes searching on the web, various equine chat rooms will quickly reveal people sharing their daunting experiences: trainers who “ruined” their horse, or trainers who promised to ride four times a week and only rode twice a month, or a top trainer who only put his students on the horse and wouldn’t risk being hurt on a youngster.

On the flipside, one reputable barn in California has recently decided to get out of the business of starting young horses since they found that the vast majority of clients weren’t willing to pay for their very affordable 90-day training package. Plus, there is a complete lack of consensus on what people consider “correct training,” ranging from the owner who wants the horse on contact from the very first ride to the owner who doesn’t want the horse on contact even by the final ride. The inconsistencies in what people demanded and expected made it a losing proposition for this training stable.

A European View

“Sport horses need to be started in the classical way, regardless of which career they specialize in later,” advises Dutch-native Jos Sevreins of Newnan, Georgia. Jos has competed in dressage (to Grand Prix), as well as eventing and jumping. He is also a USEF breeding judge for the registries KWPN/NA, AHHA and NAS, and has more recently been actively judging for the Young Horse Show (YHS), a series of shows up and down the East Coast for young horses, ages one to five, in all disciplines. When Jos refers to classical training, he is primarily referring to what we label as the dressage training scale.
For him, work with an unbroken horse always begins on the lunge line.

The discrepancy in training methods and expectations can be traced to the types of horses used years ago in the U.S. hunter and jumper classes, says Jos. “Before, the hunters and jumpers were mostly Thoroughbreds that have a different way of moving and who have a different temperament and conformation than the Warmbloods. America’s training system for those types of horses developed accordingly. However, today the European Warmbloods dominate the hunters and jumpers, and the Warmblood–Thoroughbred crosses are becoming more and more popular in eventing. These horses should be ridden more European style: focusing on balance, asking them to use their backs from the beginning, moving forward into a steady contact,” he explains. “The correct seat and aids for the rider are critical to achieve this.”

“Look how many Warmbloods are imported from Germany and Holland for the hunters!” he continues. “Recently a wellknown hunter trainer came to my farm to try a young prospect we had started. After a few minutes, this trainer was able to figure out the connection with the horse and was extremely pleased with the level of balance the horse carried himself in.”

Change may be coming to the hunter ring. In April, the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) announced, “The USHJA Officials Committee is a strong advocate of allowing a horse to show expression, not to the point of it being a safety issue or significantly disrupting the round, but natural and enthusiastic about the job at hand.” Recent criticism from industry pundits has expressed concern about the extreme tactics people are using to calm their horses down for showing over fences. Perhaps this announcement by the USHJA regarding how hunters will be judged is a step in the right direction to ultimately influence the training, moving towards a more classical approach.

“In Europe, all horses are basically started the same way,”

Jos adds. “There is a classical system in place, and because of the volume of horses being bred and started, the young horse trainers garner respect and are readily hired.” Often there is talk about establishing a “Young Horse Training Center” here in this country for sport horses. “Until this country can agree on the basic training of sport horses and we put a system in place to train the trainers, as they have in Europe, this type of center will be hard pressed to succeed,” he remarks.

Two Successful Trainers – Two Very Different Methods

There are, indeed, owners that are more than pleased with the trainers that they have hired to break and start their horses under saddle. We found two unusual trainers of young horses that both came highly recommended by numerous happy customers. While their methods and approaches are completely different, both aim for the same end result: a calm and confident young horse ready to learn more specialized skills.

In Grantham, New Hampshire, Joe and Patty Forest specialize in starting young horses at their Horton’s Farm (www.Hortonsfarmnh.com). The Forests have developed their own training system that they adjust for each individual horse. Their training services are so popular, there’s always a waiting list to get in. “Our training program begins on the ground with longlining and an unhurried approach to getting horses started under saddle,” Joe explains. When Joe was young he competed in driving four-in-hand which is the foundation for his proficient long-lining work. “We take our time starting youngsters because we have proven that it pays off—the end result being a confident horse. We also start horses over fences in the same manner, with horses learning to jump through a chute without a rider before we begin to jump under saddle.”

Since the 1970s, the Forests have started horses for all the sport disciplines of hunter/jumper, dressage, eventing and driving. While horses are in the lines with tack on, they learn to go forward, steer, stop, both in and outside of the ring, getting used to distractions. Movements like turn-on-the-forehand and spiralins are also taught. Depending on the horse’s age, canter work may begin in the lines as well. Joe and Patty gradually introduce weight in the stirrups, eventually climbing aboard. “A horse needs time to learn, and building trust by progressing in these baby steps is crucial. Each individual horse determines the pace of training,” Patty remarks.

Joe mentions that he’s not sure who will take over the reins, so to speak, when he’s ready to retire. “This is a tough business because the work is very hard,” he explains. They are so busy that he acknowledges the growing need for professional young horse trainers. His son, Robert Mendoza, who rides jumpers and who also trains with long-lines, is currently employed as a trainer at Bannockburn Farm in southern Indiana, a large Belgian Warmblood breeding facility.

Another unique horse trainer who is rising in popularity is Jose Alejos Vonesh, a native of Guatemala and a U.S. citizen, who has been traveling across the western United States helping numerous breeders start their young horses (www.josealejos. com). What’s unique about Jose is that he travels to a farm and stays approximately two weeks, working intensively with 10 to 30 horses during his stay.

Jose’s program begins with roughly thirty minutes in the round pen, progressing to work under saddle, and before long he has each horse going forward softly in a snaffle bit and his program builds from there. He stresses that every horse is an individual and he adjusts his program accordingly.

“By the end of the two weeks, I have them bending correctly, performing lateral exercises and changing leads at the canter. I also take them on short trail rides and have them going over small obstacles. All of this is accomplished through the sensitive timing and feel I first learned from my ancestors. I have further developed my techniques over the years of starting many horses,” explains Jose. He grew up working on his father’s ranch as well as his grandfather’s ranch in southern Guatemala and learned traditional horsemanship at his grandfather’s side. Both ranches used Jose to start young colts, beginning with his first colt at age ten, and he has started thousands since for virtually every discipline.

“I met a wonderful person, Linda Allen, in Mexico who encouraged me to come to the United States. Linda believes there is a need for more trainers in the U.S. focused on starting youngsters and that my horsemanship can serve to help fill that need,” he says.

Jose has come to Branscomb Farm in Northern California for three years now starting many youngsters there. Among others, he has also started horses for Maplewood Stables in Reno, Nevada (Julie Winkel’s barn) and Kilfani Farm in California, owned by Barbara Zylbert. He is well known as the young horse starter for La Silla in Mexico for the last two years, putting the foundation training on many international caliber show jumpers. He is featured on Bernie Traurig's equestriancoach.com website and is endorsed by Mr. Traurig as a master horseman.

Jose further explains his program. “I call my method ‘rational horsemanship’ because it is based on the natural principles of interaction between horses in a herd. I take advantage of a horse's natural reaction to pressure and, even more importantly, of the horse's reaction to the precise timing of the release of pressure. I teach the horse to be increasingly responsive to the rider's aids—seat, leg, and hand,” he continues. “I train through the feel I have when the horse is just giving to pressure and then reward the horse with the release. I can produce a responsive, balanced and happy young horse in a short time so that a professional or good amateur can continue with the horse in their specific discipline.”

Jose insists that horse owners will be 100% satisfied and therefore guarantees his work. “My programs typically run about two weeks long, but I absolutely guarantee my work and I will stay as long as is needed in order for the riders and trainers to be comfortable riding and handling their horses themselves after I leave.”

Final Thoughts

Finding a trustworthy and gifted trainer to start your young horse with a good foundation is hard to find, but not impossible. Besides the obvious recommendations from other young horse owners, according to Jos Sevreins, a good young horse trainer is not only able to develop the correct muscling and balance for your horse, he/she should make the horse easily rideable for another trainer to continue on afterwards.

Jos also recommends that youngsters are cross-trained and learn to jump. “It takes two years to get the basics on correctly with good muscling, and from this training you can determine which career your six or seven year old should be specialized in, whether it’s dressage, jumping, hunters or eventing. At age seven, a Warmblood has finally matured.”

The correct development and cross-training of young horses is what drives the goals as well as the format of the Young Horse Shows. As an ambassador for the YHS, Jos stresses the advantages that this type of program offers for the one to five year-olds. “I believe that the YHS is the most productive program for the breeders. It supports and guides the training progress in young horses because of its wellrounded approach. For instance, the YHS offers the evaluation of the horse’s gaits in hand as well as at liberty so that the allimportant canter can be judged. Plus there is the free jumping, as well as dressage suitability and under saddle jumping suitability classes where the rideability score plays an important part in the final outcome.”

Looking to the future, Jos hopes that the YHS, still a work in progress, will expand its reach nationwide so that every breeder/owner can compete within 200 miles (or less) in this new standardized format of showing young sport horses. According to Jos, “This could help to promote a standardization—a horsefriendly classical system where balance is developed between horse and rider—which is missing in this country. This would help the industry at large in conjunction with their breed organizations.” It’s a future plan he supports and one he believes would offer great results for horses, breeders and trainers.