2019 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials champion, Piggy French, is one of Britain’s most respected producers of young event horses. It is a process she's deeply passionate about and takes great pride in doing well. Piggy breaks the process down to NF reporter, Catherine Austen — her proven methods, secrets, and how she approaches training for horses at three-, four-, and five-years-old.
Is Your Three-Year-Old Ready for Work?
At the age of three, it can be hard to assess a horse’s potential. They can change a great deal, and can do so very quickly — but you can also learn a lot about them in a short space of time.
When looking at three year olds, ask yourself whether you like the type, the horse’s outlook, its conformation, and its movement. If you are viewing a horse at a sale, remember that the sudden, unexpected intensity of sales atmosphere might affect the horse and take that into consideration.
Watch the horse free-jump over a little pole — what shape does it make, what is its technique like, how does it use its body and its brain? I always like to see the knees come up together. For eventing, I am more interested in its front end than whether it has a really expressive hind end.
Horses with a lot of Thoroughbred blood are often very weak as three year olds, so bear that in mind — they will change with time more than a warmblood. But they do need to be fairly naturally balanced. Balance is something that is hard to train.
Remember that at sales, prices often correlate to jump. Extravagance and eventing don’t really go together for long-term soundness — so their jump needs to be acceptable, they don’t need to hit the lights.
At three, they may not have had much handling. I want them to trust me and feel comfortable around me, but also to develop good manners and have the right amount of respect for people. I don’t do vast amounts with our three year olds, but they will be broken in, be ridden away, and will have popped over their first few fences under saddle.
First, they go on the walker with tack on, and are long-lined and lunged wearing tack, and are lunged with the stirrups down so they get used to them.
They are leaned over in an enclosed space for a few days — the length of time this takes depends on how sensitive they are. Then they are led in tack for a little way with someone leaning over them, and finally, sat on and led up and down the barn. It is essential to have a good, experienced person on the ground at this stage. It is also important to not be too 'careful' getting on them. The horse has to trust that the rider isn’t going to do anything crazy, but if they aren’t used to you patting them on the shoulder/hindquarters/etc., then you may get a nasty surprise further down the line. It’s important that you are careful that they don’t have a bad experience, but you shouldn’t over-protect them.
They will be asked to trot up and down the barn and then, if everything looks OK, they go out hacking. We get them hacking out as soon as it is safe to do so, and it is such an important part of the process. They must learn straightaway to go forward and to have the confidence to get out and about and think ahead.
They go hacking with a safe, quiet lead horse, and they get trotting quite quickly to encourage them to think forward. This is when the aids are installed.
At this stage, they would do 10 minutes on the walker or five minutes in the lunge pen with tack on every day before their hack to settle them. Be careful to be quiet and focused when getting on and off. Consistency is the key and you don’t want them to associate being ridden with tension.
We do occasionally free-jump them at this time, both as exercise and to see how their jump is developing as they start work.
Hacking is their primary exercise and activity. However, sometimes at the end of a short hack, we ride them into the arena at this stage, and they learn to trot around the outside, to change the rein across the diagonal, and have a little canter in both directions. Going forward willingly remains the most important thing.
We begin to trot them over poles on the ground, gradually building up to jumping a few small fences at the trot and then eventually at the canter.
On some days, they might be lunged for a short time in loose-ish side reins to start learning that contact can mean shape and outline.
At the end of this initial period of work, they would go out for a hack on their own.
Then they are turned out to just be horses – for how long depends on their temperament and your objectives.
Photography by Sophie Harris/SEH Photography for NoelleFloyd.com.
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.