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How to Buy and Train the Young Dressage Horse

How to Buy and Train the Young Dressage Horse

If you’re buying a young horse for dressage, there’s a lot to think about! In this in-depth, detailed guide, we discuss how to go about buying and training the young dressage horse.

You can either read the whole article or use the bookmarks we’ve included below to ‘jump’ to the relevant section where you can find exactly what you need right away.

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BUYING A YOUNG DRESSAGE HORSE


If you have experience in backing and training horses, you may be considering buying a young dressage horse to train for competition.

Buying a horse for dressage that is effectively a “blank canvas” can be a good idea, as that can mean you’re not inheriting problems that have been caused by poor training or soundness issues that have occurred through incorrect management.

Here are some things to consider when looking for your young superstar.

External considerations

Set a budget

Before you begin your search for the perfect dressage horse, it’s essential that you set a budget and stick to it! Knowing how much you have to spend will help you to target your search, saving you a lot of wasted time and hassle.

You must also decide what budget you have for training your horse. Bear in mind that higher quality horses are often more responsive and sensitive, and may need some professional training.

Don’t be tempted to struggle on alone just so that you can afford that expensive saddle you set your heart on; invest the money in help with your horse instead.

What facilities do you have?

You must take your home set-up into consideration when you’re choosing a horse.

  • If you have a busy life and a full-time job, can you afford to pay for full livery for your horse?
  • Do you have ready access to a riding arena or do you have to travel to reach one?
  • Does the arena have a good-quality surface that’s well-maintained?
  • Does your yard offer year-round turnout?
  • Is there a horse walker that you could use on days when you can’t ride?
  • Are you hoping to keep your horse on a dressage yard? Like-minded, enthusiastic individuals can make dealing with problems easier and sharing knowledge is invaluable.

Five primary considerations

When considering buying a young dressage horse, there are five primary considerations you should have in the forefront of your mind:

  1. Soundness
  2. Temperament
  3. Paces
  4. Conformation
  5. Breeding

1. Soundness

Whatever discipline you want a horse for, it’s crucial that the animal is sound and has “a leg at each corner.”

In dressage, the regularity of the paces is essential, so any soundness issues are a deal-breaker.

2. Temperament

Having the right temperament for the job is essential for the dressage horse. Horses that are habitually tense, stressy, and prone to explosions in the arena are definitely not good dressage material.

Ideally, you want a horse that is calm and sensible, willing to please, and enjoys learning.

Horses with a stubborn streak who are resistant when asked to work on something new or challenging should be avoided; dressage is about a partnership, not a tug-of-war!

3. Paces

If you are an amateur dressage rider and you are content to compete at the lower levels of the sport, a horse with super-flashy paces is not essential. In fact, most amateur riders find it difficult to balance a horse with huge paces, and are often more confident and comfortable on something with more modest movement that is easier to ride.

That said, for dressage, the paces must be correct. For example, if the trot and canter are pleasing and correct but the horse has a lateral walk, he will not be suitable for dressage.

Bear in mind that, if you are hoping to achieve the very top level in dressage, you must have a horse that is easy to collect. So, if the walk is too good with a huge overtrack, the horse will most likely find collection difficult.

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4. Conformation

Conformation can play a part in your decision on whether or not to buy a horse for dressage.

Ideally, a dressage horse will be built “uphill”. A horse that naturally has a heavy forehand will be challenging to balance and engage.

Horses that are overly long in the back often find it difficult to bend around circles, and may also tend to work on the forehand. Also, animals that have weak hocks may struggle to carry more weight on their hindquarters, and horses with a very upright shoulder will lack freedom of movement in the walk and medium paces.

Ideally, a horse that’s intended for use as a dressage animal will have well-let down hocks, a sloping shoulder, be relatively short-coupled, and be built in proportion.

5. Breeding

If you’re buying a mare with the intention of putting her in foal one day, her bloodlines are important, as her progeny will be more valuable if her sire or dam have a good competition record and are themselves from good stock.

Generally speaking, stallions are not a good choice for a novice who has no experience in handling and riding them. However, if you do have the necessary experience and you’re confident that you can train and bring on an entire horse, you might want to consider buying a stallion. If your chosen horse goes on to perform well in the dressage arena and is successful, he could enjoy a second career at stud.

That said, most riders who are starting out in the dressage field will find a gelding more amenable to training. Also, most livery yards do not allow stallions, so unless you have your own place, a gelding is probably a better option for you.

Also, a horse’s breeding can influence his temperament, which is an extremely important consideration when buying a dressage horse. For example, certain breeds can be hot-headed and stressy, whereas others can be chilled-out to the point of being lazy.

Other considerations

There are a few other secondary considerations that you should have in mind when choosing a dressage horse.

Size matters!

The bottom line is that you don’t need a huge, 17hh warmblood for dressage, and certainly not if you’re only 5’2” tall!

So, choose a horse that is the right size for you so that you can balance him effectively and sit comfortably to his paces.

Age limits

If you don’t have any experience in training and bringing on young horses, don’t buy a three or four-year-old. The early years of a horse’s training are the formative ones, and making mistakes at this tender age could ruin a potentially lovely horse’s future dressage career.

Similarly, unless you are either experienced in backing and schooling youngstock or you’re happy to pay for a professional to do the work for you, buying a two-year-old might not be the best option for you. Also, if you’re keen to ride your new dressage prospect down the centerline, you may find it frustrating to have to wait two years before you can begin training and competing your new horse under saddle.

Where to find a young dressage prospect

So, now you have an idea about what you’re looking for in a potential dressage horse, where can you find one?

Home or away?

You don’t always need to go abroad to find a good dressage horse.

Buying abroad will entail traveling, potentially overseas, to view horses. That’s expensive, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll find what you’re looking for. Also, if you do find the horse of your dreams in another country, you’ll have to hassle of vetting, passports, transportation, and quarantine to go through before you can bring your horse onto your home yard.

Related Read: How to Import a Dressage Horse (from Europe to the U.S.)

If you buy a horse from your home country, not only will that be cheaper and less complicated than buying abroad, you will probably be able to find out more about the horse, especially if he already has a competition record. Also, you’ll be able to use your own vet to carry out the vetting before you part with your cash.

Networking

If you travel around some of the major dressage competitions and ask the top riders where they found their horses, most would tell you that they used a professional network of some kind, rather than relying on the classified ads section.

Contacts within the sport are invaluable, so don’t be afraid to ask others where they found their horses.

Social media is also useful for networking. Join a few dressage groups, and ask around online. You’ll most likely find plenty of dressage riders who are only too willing to pass on their suggestions on where you can find your ideal horse!

Breeders

If you want to find a three or four-year-old dressage prospect, contacting breeders can be a good tactic.

Spend time browsing through back-issues of magazines with stallion issues and try calling those farms. Sometimes, a talented horse can be rejected as a stallion prospect, although he would make a fabulous dressage ride for someone.

If you’re buying an unbroken horse, you must take a look at the horse’s parents and siblings, ideally in competition or at the very least under saddle. How rideable a youngster is can be incredibly difficult to predict purely by watching and handling him from the ground. You have a much better chance of finding a horse that you will like if its parents were horses that you would be happy riding and looking after.

Trying and viewing the horse

So, having found what appears to be the perfect dressage horse, you’ll need to try him, assuming he’s not an unbroken youngster. Always take an experienced rider with you, ideally your instructor; two pairs of eyes are better than one.

Unless you’re accustomed to riding strange horses, you may find trying your dressage prospect is a somewhat daunting experience. Be sure to ask the owner or dealer to ride the horse first. That will give you a good idea of what to expect. If the owner is reluctant to ride the horse, ask why!

You want to see the horse ridden in all paces on both reins. Are there any signs of stiffness, tension, resistance, and irregularity of the paces? Is the horse obedient and willing to move forward? Does he stop when he’s asked to?! If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you should look elsewhere.

When you ride the horse, make sure he stands quietly while you mount and moves off obediently and promptly when asked to do so. Remember that you’re going to ride the horse every day. If you feel at all nervous or worried about getting onboard or you can’t wait to get off, this is not the horse for you!

If the horse is an unbacked youngster, ask to see him loose-schooled or worked on the lunge. The paces must be correct and regular. The horse should be willing but not too “hot.” What is the horse like to handle? Does he lead obediently or does he pull and barge his handler? Remember that you will be taking this horse home and starting to work him yourself. If the horse is a “problem child,” how willing are you to take him on?

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Don’t be afraid to ask!

Many people are nervous or embarrassed about asking direct questions, such as, has the horse ever been lame, does it have any insurance exclusions, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask! Similarly, you must ask why the horse is for sale.

If the person selling the horse is evasive or reluctant to answer your questions, walk away.

Vetting the horse

Regardless of the horse’s age, you must have him vetted before parting with your cash.

If geographically possible, it’s a good idea to use your own vet or one who specializes in treating horses who has been recommended to you, ideally not by the person selling the horse!

Although it’s more expensive, a five-stage vetting is the best option, as it’s very thorough. If you’re investing a large sum of money in the horse, go for blood tests too.

TRAINING THE YOUNG DRESSAGE HORSE – THE EARLY DAYS


In the first part of this section, we look at the early days of training your young dressage horse.

From when they’re weaned up until the age of three years, many horses are left to their own devices, living out with a few companions. However, experts agree that early handling and groundwork go a long way towards producing a mannerly, trainable horse when the time comes to back him and begin his ridden career.

The work that you do in the horse’s early years will have a huge impact on his future success as a dressage horse. Take your time with every element of the horse’s training, and don’t be tempted to rush. Patience and a methodical approach should be your watchword.

Early lessons

Your horse’s early lessons should be kept short and sweet. Do a little at a time to build trust.

If you have a problem or a setback, just go back a step or two and start over until the horse accepts the exercise.

1. Leading

One of the first things that your horse must learn is to be led. For early leading lessons it can be helpful to have two handlers, especially if your youngster is feisty.

Use a headcollar and a cotton lead rope. A chain is not suitable for use with a baby as it’s too severe. If the horse pulls back, never severely yank on the rope, as that could lead to rearing or head shying.

If the horse won’t walk forward, don’t pull on the rope. That causes pressure behind the poll, which often causes panic, and using a whip may frighten the horse.

Instead, position one handler on either side of the horse, one at the head and the other at the side. Push the horse forward with a hand on his thigh or use a butt rope.

To create a butt rope, take a long lead rope across the horse’s back and pass it under his tail so that it lies across the thighs, forming a figure eight, and apply gentle pressure. Make sure that the horse accepts being touched before you introduce the butt rope.

If the horse still won’t walk forward, try walking in a zig-zag line, as the horse will find resistance harder if his neck is bent. Don’t give up! Keep on patiently repeating the process.

2. Tying

Your youngster must learn to be tied and to stand quietly.

Distract the horse with a haynet or some food, and begin by passing the rope through a piece of bailing twine attached to a tie ring.

Once the horse accepts that, tie him with a quick-release knot in case he panics and pulls back.

3. Standing

No-one wants a horse that walks off while you’re trying to get on! So, teaching the youngster to stand still and understand voice commands, such as “whoa” or “stand” is important.

Use a voice command and a gentle tug on the head collar to teach him to stop and stand still.

Stand for just a few second before praising the horse and asking him to walk forward again. If the horse moves, correct him immediately.

Gradually increase the length of standing time as the horse becomes more confident.

4. Blanketing

Teaching the horse to accept a blanket or rug is another important lesson that he must learn.

Start by folding the blanket into a small square, drape it over the horse’s withers, and then gradually unfold it in small sections. Only move to the next stage when the horse is relaxed.

Take your time with teaching the horse to accept a blanket. This is the first step towards introducing a saddle, so it’s crucial that you don’t rush it.

5. Hosing and vacuuming

When the horse is ridden, you will want to wash him down, and in the winter months, you’ll probably want to clip him. So, begin gaining the horse’s confidence with water and noisy gadgets when he’s young.

Introduce the hose by letting the horse see and sniff it first. Then, turn the water on and allow it to flow over the horse’s feet and up his legs.

If the horse is nervous of the water, it can be helpful to use a wet sponge on his legs first.

When introducing the vacuum, show it to the horse first, and then turn it on. It can be helpful to allow the horse to watch another horse being vacuumed too.

Note that you should never tie the horse when introducing a potentially scary experience, just in case he panics and pulls back.

6. Loading

If you want to get out and compete your horse in years to come, he must learn to go in a trailer or horsebox.

Start training your horse to load from day one, especially if he’s not confident. Clearly, the horse must have traveled to your yard in a trailer or lorry, but that doesn’t mean he’s a confident traveler.

7. Picking up feet, farrier and shoeing

Your young horse must learn to accept having his feet picked up and held.

Most youngsters tend to plant their feet or shift all their weight onto the foot you want to lift! Horses generally push back against pressure, rather than moving away from it. So, rather than trying to shove the horse off the offending foot, ask him to move forward slightly, and then lift the foot as he raises it.

Before having your horse shod, it’s best to ask the farrier to trim his feet a few times first. Time the farrier’s visits to coincide with other horses being shod. Tie your horse next to an experienced older animal that will stand quietly while the farrier works. Your new horse can then watch his stable companion being shod and become familiar with the smells and sounds.

Rather than expecting your youngster to accept shoes all round, it’s best to have only his front feet shod the first few times. The hind feet are usually more problematic when it comes to shoeing, as many horses feel insecure when their hind feet are lifted up and held. You can discuss with your farrier the best way to move forward with this.

Training theories

According to behaviorist BF Skinner in 1938, positive reinforcement strengthens behavior while punishment weakens it.

If a young horse becomes distracted or anxious with a task, you should back off the pressure, ask for only small steps of progress, give lots of verbal praise, and ask the horse to do something he is confident and familiar with. You can then go back to the new lesson later in smaller increments.

Proprioception

Proprioception is the term used to describe the sense of recognizing where all the parts of the body are positioned at any given time. It’s the sense that allows you to walk in the dark without falling over.

In young horses, the sense of body awareness is typically lacking in relation to what the handler asks of the horse.

You can improve the horse’s physical coordination, build trust, and encourage cooperation by incorporating patterns of movement into the early training. Leading the horse over poles and around obstacles helps to improve his balance and coordination, while encouraging him to learn in a relaxed state.

While teaching these exercises, you should carry a whip. The whip is not there for punishment but rather as an extension of the handler’s arm to provide directional cues to the horse and to keep him focused on the job in hand.

– The Labyrinth exercise

The Labyrinth exercise involves using six long poles, placed on the ground with enough space between them to allow the horse to walk through without tripping. Practice stopping and starting, as well as leading the horse around tight turns and corners.

As you lead the horse through the poles, he learns to balance himself, as well as becoming more flexible and coordinated.

The exercise also teaches the horse to remain focused on you and helps to improve obedience too. You can also teach the horse to move backwards by using this exercise.

– Desensitizing training

A tense, spooky horse will not be given good marks in a dressage test. Many horses benefit from undergoing desensitizing training as youngsters.

Desensitizing training helps to curb the horse’s natural fight-or-flight instinct, which is what causes tension and spookiness in strange surroundings or when faced with unfamiliar sounds or sights.

Introduce objects and obstacles, some of which could be noisy, to the arena one at a time. (Don’t do everything all at once as this is equivalent to ‘throwing your horse in at the deep end’ and may result in sensory overload!) Useful objects include ground poles, plastic bags, flags, balls, streamers, jump stands, fillers, umbrellas, and tarps.

Lead the horse around and over the objects until he is relaxed and calm. Keep the lessons brief, ideally lasting not more than 10 to 15 minutes.

Safety comes first when working on the ground. Always use an enclosed arena that gives you enough space to get out of the way if necessary. Wear a hard hat, boots, and gloves, and never wrap the lead rope around your hand.

Introducing tack

You can introduce items of tack, such as a saddle pad, surcingle, and bridle when the horse is approaching two years of age.

Rather than lunging, which can place too much strain on the horse’s developing muscles and joints, try long-reining instead. That will accustom the horse to the feel of the contact and to the reins touching his sides, which is all important preparation for ridden work.

When the horse is rising three, you can introduce a saddle, weight in the stirrups and over the horse’s body. Finally, a rider can sit on the horse, but only in walk. The horse should then be given a few months off before work resumes.

If you don’t have experience in breaking youngsters, it’s sensible to hire someone who does to do the job for you.

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TRAINING THE YOUNG DRESSAGE HORSE – STARTING UNDER SADDLE


When you begin working your young dressage horse under saddle, keep in mind that he will have a short attention span and be very easily distracted.

Don’t be tempted to ride him for too long. Too much schooling in the same arena is a sure way to make the horse sour and resentful. For that reason, try to include variation in the work routine, such as hacking, polework, lunging, and maybe some jumping grids.

The other thing to bear in mind is that young horses’ joints and bones don’t finish developing until they reach the age of six or seven. Also, like any athlete, the horse’s muscles will be sore after a hard training session or after learning a new exercise. So, vary your training so that the horse isn’t asked to perform the same exercises every day.

Lunging

When you begin working a young horse, he will not have much muscle, very little balance, and virtually zero coordination with you on his back. You can help to build up your horse’s muscle by lunging him in loose side reins.

Encourage the horse to work forward into the contact with a rounded topline. That will help to build the muscle he will need to carry the weight of a rider.

Don’t have the side reins too tight. The horse must seek the contact, not be forced to accept it by being held into a false outline.

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The Scales of Training

When developing a young horse under saddle for the discipline of dressage, keep in mind the dressage Scales of Training:

Think about having the horse relaxed, working forward through a swinging back and in a rhythm, into a soft contact, and moving uphill.

Related Reads: Why ALL Dressage Riders Need to Know The Scales of Training

Developing relaxation

A tense horse cannot work through his back, so he will be hollow through his topline, and his hocks will not be able to step underneath him. Also, tension is penalized heavily in dressage tests, as it indicates a lack of harmony between horse and rider.

How you can solve the problem of tension depends on what the root cause is. It may be that desensitization will help to solve the problem, or perhaps working the horse in company with an experienced older animal may be effective.

You might also want to consider cutting down the horse’s hard feed ration or increasing the length of time the horse spends turned out. If turnout is limited, try lunging the horse before he’s ridden to burn off excess energy, which could be causing tension.

Whatever method you choose, developing relaxation is the first goal that you should strive for when working with your young horse.

Related Reads: How to Encourage Your Horse to Relax at Dressage Competitions

Developing uphill balance

When the horse is asked to carry a rider, he will automatically seek to take the weight onto his forehand so that his shoulders and front legs bear the most load.

When training a youngster, you must teach him to adjust his balance with you on his back so that he takes the weight onto his hindquarters, lightening the forehand, and producing more expressive, uphill strides.

Don’t be tempted to try to pull the horse’s head up in an attempt to lift him off his forehand. If the head is too high, the horse’s back will become hollow, his hind legs will trail out behind him, and he will end up even more on his forehand than he was to start with!

The best way to encourage the horse to come off his forehand is to ride him forward.

Riding forward

The term “forward” is often misunderstood by riders. Speed and forwardness are not the same thing!

Most newly backed horses don’t have a desire to move forward, and you must train the horse to have a “forward thinking” ethic. The most effective way to get your horse thinking forward is to ask him correctly with your leg, and then reinforcing the aid with your whip or voice when your request is ignored or delayed.

Changes of pace and direction will help the horse to establish his balance, and by riding him forward and leaving his head alone, you will encourage a gradual shift of the horse’s weight more onto his hindquarters.

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Contact and outline

During the early days of your young dressage horse’s training, you should leave the horse’s head alone as much as possible. Don’t panic if your horse is not working into an outline! That will come in time.

When the horse begins to work forward properly over his back, he will start to offer a frame of his own accord.

Fiddling with the bit or trying to pull the horse’s head down will only result in him opening his mouth, bringing his head too far behind the vertical, trying to put his tongue over the bit, and offering other forms of resistance.

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Suppleness

Once your horse has developed a desire to move forward in a good rhythm, you can begin to focus on developing suppleness.

Concentrate on asking the horse to bend to the inside around turns and circles, which will gradually develop his lateral suppleness. As the horse becomes more supple laterally, he will be softer through his shoulder, loins, and neck, and will step through more with his inside hind leg, which will increase the carrying capacity of his hind legs.

As you work your horse, it will become apparent that he is softer in one direction than the other. Be sure to work the horse equally on both reins so that the unevenness disappears and he becomes better balanced and stronger.

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Straightness and impulsion

Your horse will not be able to show true impulsion until he is straight.

After the first few weeks of training, the young horse should begin to understand the aids from your rein, seat, and leg. Now, you can correct drifting shoulders and hindquarters, and ask the horse to become more supple laterally and, therefore, straighter.

As you make the horse straighter, keep him moving forward with an active hind leg.

The straighter the horse becomes, the more he will naturally round his back and use himself properly. As this happens, you will notice that the horse is lighter in your hand, rather than leaning on you for support.

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In conclusion

There’s a lot to think about when buying and training a young dressage horse.

First and foremost, the paces must be correct, and then the horse must have a trainable, willing temperament.

When it comes to training the young dressage horse, take your time. Proceed with patience and tact throughout the early weeks and months and focus on developing the horse along the dressage Scales of Training throughout the whole of his career.

If you’ve bought a young dressage horse and trained him yourself, we’d love to hear about it! Tell us your experience in the comments section below.

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