Preparing a young horse for his/her first event by Alice Goring Eventing
The time it takes to get a horse ready for his first event very much depends on the temperament, age and maturity of the horse. You can have a 4YO who acts way beyond his years or a 6YO who would really benefit from taking things very slowly.
When I have bought young horses in the past, they have mostly been unbroken, just broken or pretty green. This means that I have always had to start with the basics, build their trust and go from there.
The Early Days
I always make sure I do a lot of ground work with my horses. They all know how to long rein, lunge well and also jump on the lunge. That way I can assess their talent and teach them about life whilst being on the end of a line rather than on their backs. Thankfully, I have been really really lucky with the young horses that I have had so far. They have all had really trainable, “can do” attitudes which is something I will particularly look for in a youngster. For me, this is much higher on my priority list than buying a horse with good breeding.
Once broken, I will try to get them out hacking as much as possible. Working full time this can be really difficult in the winter, but it is so important for an eventer especially to see the world from very early on. I will start by hacking them in company and then begin hacking the horse alone with someone on foot to catch me if needs be!
Their First Outing
Once they are able to walk, trot and canter a circle on each rein in the arena without losing balance too disastrously and have been hacking successfully, I will take them out for the first time. Normally this will be a dressage lesson or I will simply hire an arena to ride around in to get them used to the excitement of being away from home, before adding in the other distraction of other competitors.
I normally take my youngsters to a dressage competition soon after this and quite early on compared to some people. My way of thinking is that you don’t really know what you have to work on until you’ve been out with them, as a horse can be completely different away from home (this can be good or bad)!
Leaving the Ground
After teaching my horses about jumping at on the lunge, I will then start under saddle. To begin with I will do trotting poles or place poles strategically around the school. If they react well I will then move on to cross poles, an easy grid and then start to introduce fillers. After a successful showjumping schooling session away from home, I will normally then enter my first showjumping competition. Even if this is absolutely tiny, just being in a competition environment is a brilliant experience for the young horse.
Depending on the horse I will normally make sure I have done a dressage test (with canter in it), done a showjumping competition at the height of the forthcoming event and had at least three successful outings over cross country jumps before taking the plunge! If it is winter I will often do a hunter trial too – pairs is often a really good introduction to eventing for a baby, especially if you alternate who is in front and who is behind. When I cross country school I will make sure that I have practiced stringing fences together and riding away from other horses to mimic what would happen in an event. Often schooling venues also have start boxes, which can be super useful to simulate the 5-4-3-2-1 countdown which a young horse will of course not be used to at all!
The First Event
For my first event with a young horse I will normally enter an unaffiliated, as they are nearly always much more low key. Instead of putting pressure on myself to do really well, I just try to make the day really enjoyable and relaxing for the horse. I will not push for the time cross country and certainly not worry if they have a few poles down. Instead I will use it as feedback; what do we need to work on, what went well, how did the horse cope with all three phases in one day, are they fit enough?! Some of these questions you won’t be able to answer unless you go for it and do your first event.
Producing a horse for his first event is the most rewarding thing you will ever do; as even though it will take blood, sweat and tears (sometimes literally) you know that the finished article is a credit to the hard work you have put in. So my advice would be to take your time, enjoy the process (because there will be plenty of cold nights where you will question your sanity) and be proud of every milestone. Because no matter how small it may be to other people, each little bit of knowledge gained is a triumph and will take you one step closer to owning your dream horse.