In the final installment of Piggy French's guide to developing the young event horse, Piggy spills her secrets to setting up the five-year-old horse for a long, successful future. If you missed her tips on selecting and starting three-year-olds and developing four-year-olds, be sure to catch up on your reading before diving in.
We sometimes keep the five-year-olds in work over the winter — we are at home much more so they can benefit from your time a great deal at this stage. November and December in the U.K. is often a good time to get on the grass and do plenty of cross-country schooling on nice ground. If they are left until January or February, you can easily get caught out by the weather.
If they are kept in during the winter, they are able to start eventing in March, when the season begins, and have a busy first six weeks before I go away for the spring three-day events. After that, they can have a quieter time to absorb what they have learned and enjoy the spring grass.
I would do four to six events at the .90m/1.0m level, and I don’t think it does them any harm to learn about competing in the inevitable mud at that time of year. They have to learn to go in soft ground at some stage as preparation for the higher levels so it makes sense for them to get experience when there is less for them to jump. I’d try to do this when they are relatively established at the level, but you don’t always get the choice.
Knowing Their Job
Once they are five, I expect them to come into the arena and know what working means. I want them to come comfortably to the bridle without force or pressure. On the flat, they will start doing leg-yields, moving away from my leg when asked, and I start putting in a few transitions within the pace — but always in a forward-thinking, positive way.
They should be comfortable with going ‘out and about’ away from home; that’s where having gotten some life experience when they were four-year-olds really does make a difference. If they missed any education at that time, you can be playing catch-up a bit, but every horse varies. When jumping in the arena, they would do little grids and basic exercises to help them strengthen, to use their brain, and to learn to be good with their feet. But the exercises would be kept simple and consistent.
Some young horses need to go to competitions to keep their brains engaged, some need them less. You always have to work with the individual, not play everything by the book. It’s also important to consider the physical development of the different horses. Some are much more mature than others at this age so might be ready to be asked more questions, while others could still need time and less intensive work to keep strengthening without too much pressure on them.
We increase the level of difficulty of their work gradually and naturally, but they are now in the main yard system and are ridden every day — they aren’t on the ‘baby plan’ anymore. We have our own gallop [tracks] at home, so they might trot up those or do a very slow canter, but they certainly wouldn’t be using gallops as part of their work at this stage; they will still hack, work in the school, and be lunged.
Building a Future
If a five-year-old is naturally forward-going, I might do a couple of novice events in the autumn of that year, but I wouldn’t be bothered if they didn’t – horses progress at different speeds. I would always prefer to give a horse more time to make sure they are ready to step up to the next level than be in a hurry. If your five-year-old isn’t ready to do a novice then I wouldn’t worry at all — the six-year-old championships are only at CCI2*-S level, so there’s no need to be in a rush. The age classes are a useful guide to where most horses should be at that age but don’t become obsessed by them. Some won’t be either physically or mentally ready for them (or both), while some might be ready to compete at a higher level.
Don’t take any young horse for granted — they might be very brave one day and not so brave next time. It is easy to take one step forward and two steps back, so keep the importance of consistency and preparation in mind. Set them up to succeed and gain confidence. For example, they might need to go cross-country schooling between events at this stage to keep them happy and confident. If you have a horse who is nervy, it might want to be on the trailer as much as possible in the week leading up to the event to help settle them and get used to being in a strange environment away from home. It’s important to keep thinking about them individually. They are all working in the same system to get to the same end result, but each will need their program tailored to suit their individual needs.
Photography by Sophie Harris/SEH Photography for NoelleFloyd.com.
Written by Amber Heintzberger
Freelance writer and photographer Amber Heintzberger lives outside New York City with her husband and children. She grew up riding and is a graduate "H-A" member of the Greenville Foothills Pony Club. As often as possible, she loves to spend time on her parents' horse farm in Upstate South Carolina.