Building Confidence for the Long Game: Piggy French's Guide to Training the Four-Year-Old

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iggy French — one of Britain's well-respected producers of young event horses — is back and teaching us what it takes to prep four-year-olds for a long, successful career. ICYMI, catch up on the first installment of this series on the art of starting the three-year-old.

Keep It Simple

We generally bring young horses back in [from their time off after their three-year-old backing] during late spring as four-year-olds. We start from scratch again and take a couple of weeks to “re-break” them. Never assume you know how a young horse will cope with something, so give them time and the best possible chance to live up to your expectations in terms of behavior. Hopefully, that same process that you went through with them as three-year-olds will now take only a third of the time once they are four-year-olds. 

All of our four-year-olds are ridden in simple snaffle bridles. Nothing fancy at this stage.

Get Them Moving

We start where we left off [at the end of their three-year-old year] with plenty of hacking — every day to get them going, but once they are totally happy with a rider on board, hacking can be done a few days a week. Once they are in work, they should be ridden regularly and consistently, balancing nice hacks with more structured training. 

Going to Work

  • We vary their work at this stage. They might go for a hack, or trot around an open field, or do some pole work in the arena. We also start taking them for outings on the lorry (trailer to the American folk) to quiet venues. This means they get accustomed to going on and coming off the lorry without over-facing them when they are still green under saddle.
  • It’s good to build up to an outing. They might hack one day, do some work in the school the next day, and go out somewhere on the third day. Prepare for the outing — don’t go when the horse hasn’t been ridden for a week. You want them to feel relaxed, trusting, and ready to do what you are asking.

  • We take our four-year-olds to competitions with older horses and just ride them around at the venue. I would lunge them first, before riding them, out of fairness. They can have a trot round, hear the loudspeaker, see wagons and other horses, and get out any playfulness.
  • They are asked to do basic flatwork — to trot around the outside of an arena without hanging in and to go forward and to where you want them to go. They start doing circles and getting a feel for shape and roundness, and gain an understanding of transitions between paces — staying relaxed and forward to the transition.
  • We then hire a local arena with a small course set up inside and trot 'round over small fences until they are confident with jump-fillers and other "scary" things.

There is an art to managing the sensitive horse.

  • When they start to go cross-country schooling, they have a lead from an older horse over small fences and through water and over ditches. Some horses are naturally very brave, but for the more cautious ones, it is important for them to feel they can do it. Having a lead makes it obvious to them that they can.
  • We build up to taking them to do a competition, which might just be an unaffiliated .80m one-day event. If they complete that in a nice, "friendly" manner, feeling sweet and willing, that would be enough for me and I would think about giving them another little break, maybe for a month or even a few months.

  • If your objective is to do age classes, your program might be a bit more accelerated, but I am not too fussed about them for young horses. I think they are often more of a shop window than a really vital stage in training. Four-year-olds do not have to compete at a championship for their age group to become good horses.
  • The four-year-olds might then have a month or so off while I am competing the older horses at the higher levels. This is an important stage of their physical and mental development, and rest periods allow them to grow, fill out and absorb what they have been taught. Nine out of 10 horses come back into work feeling as though they have learned something and grown up. I’ve never had one feel more backward-thinking after a holiday.
  • After four to six weeks, depending on other commitments, they come back into work for a repetition of what they did earlier in the year. Remember that they are still young. Be fair to them and consistent, and don’t expect them to move onwards in their work without proper preparation.

Nervous to ride your young horse? Read this.

  • By the end of this period, I would expect them to canter round a .90m course. I’m not into jumping young horses over big fences — I want them to feel confident and happy. They should be confident enough to come off the lorry, trot 'round the collecting ring on the bridle, and do something that resembles a dressage test.
  • I wouldn’t be afraid to do a few mornings’ autumn hunting on a four-year-old, particularly a backward one — they learn to follow other horses, to think forward, and to enjoy themselves.

Part three is coming soon: Training the five-year-old to set them up for long-term success.

Read this next: Hot Take: Letting Your Green Horse Refuse Jumps Can Actually Pay Off Later

Photography by Sophie Harris/SEH Photography for NoelleFloyd.com.

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Written by Catherine Austen

Catherine Austen is a UK-based freelance journalist specializing in all things equestrian sport and racing. She reserves all equine related over-the-top mushiness for her own horse, the very beautiful Molly, whom she hunts with the Heythrop.