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Technique dressage : Detect the potential of a young horse

Technique dressage : Detect the potential of a young horse

What to Look for When Selecting a Very Young Horse: Choosing a Foal Under its Mother is Possible


Driven by technical preference or purely economic reasons, many dressage riders choose to partner with very young foals in the hope of reaching high levels one day. Passage, piaffe, pirouette at a canter... How to detect the potential and the capacity of a horse to collect itself before even seeing it evolve under the saddle? Guillaume Recoing, a professional rider based at Haras de Hus and accustomed to young horses, helps us unravel the mystery.


Identifying the Predisposition for Collection in Young Horses


The general public is usually fascinated by young horses with huge gaits. However, the issue for riders at the highest level is primarily a question: "does the horse have a predisposition for collection?" From a very young age, it's about detecting whether or not the horse will have a natural aptitude for piaffe or canter pirouettes that will make access to the Grand Prix easy. Without this intrinsic ability, it will have to make a much higher effort both physically and mentally and risks having its competitiveness limited.

Only an expert eye has been trained to detect this potential in a foal with "normal" gaits, estimating its future ability to collect itself. It requires enough imagination to appreciate a quality that is sometimes almost invisible. If a foal is spectacular under its mother, it should remain so as it grows, but a more common foal can also become an exceptional horse. In reality, very few Olympic horses have previously been extravagant foals.


On the contrary, and like Isabell Werth's Weihegold, most of them do not have the abracadabra gaits that allow them to be medalists in young horse events. Their common point is rather the power they exude, the engagement of the hindquarters, and natural balance. Of course, some horses have all the qualities. This is the case, for example, with the stallion Damon Hill, already world champion at five then six years old before being an Olympic medalist. These horses are very rare, and what is rare... is expensive!

Riders hoping to train a horse up to the Grand Prix will therefore turn to young horses with as many of the pre-requisites suggesting a chance of reaching this level. In order to maintain an accessible budget, some compromises will have to be made. The purchase of a foal or a young horse with less impressive gaits is considered, provided some rules are respected.


Evaluating Foals: Timelines and Traits to Consider


While foals are not easy to evaluate, the old adage "three days, three weeks, three months, three years" remains relatively reliable. While each foal matures at a different speed, these are the ages at which they are likely to be best balanced in their growth and therefore the most accessible for evaluation. "The qualities sought can be detected quite early," explains Guillaume. A lot can already be seen in foals. In a three-year-old not yet broken in, we can better judge the balance and strength that the horse exudes in freedom. A more precise idea of the horse's model also emerges at this age. Do not blindly trust the movements of a foal dominated by its croup, whose withers are momentarily crushed, weakening its natural balance. Even at less than six months, look for a foal that moves through the whole body and not just in the limbs. Seek a flexible back and a nice neck carriage, already paying attention to its conformation. A "pigeon throat" neck or poor alignment will not make its training easier. On the contrary, physiognomy defects may risk weakening its physical tolerance to training. Do not take into account the expression that the foal gives off when it trots tail on the back, it is the fruit of its excitement and is likely to disappear as soon as it returns to calm. Judge it when the context allows it to be energetic while remaining relaxed.


Evaluating a Young Horse's Engagement and Energy in Freedom


Evaluating a young horse in freedom is done more by observing the engagement and energy of its hindquarters than the movement of its forelegs. A foal galloping at full speed, if naturally balanced, should flex its back by bringing its hindquarters under the mass when it halts in front of the fence. Look for a tendency to sit back, almost comparable to the movement of western horses. Similarly, a horse that immediately starts from this stop towards the canter seems to have the propulsion necessary for a dressage horse. The combination of sitting and propelling abilities is indispensable for both the piaffe and pirouettes but also for producing nice extensions and flying changes.

"The most important thing is the balance of the horse," confirms Guillaume. "I primarily look for horses with a naturally upward balance, a neck with length that comes out at the top. Big or small doesn't matter, it depends on the riders. Then I look at the activity of the hindquarters and especially the strength they exude. Even if all the criteria are met, it's still difficult to know if the horse will make the leap from collected work to passage and piaffe," admits Guillaume Recoing.


There is obviously a great deal of unknown and uncertainty. The robustness and reliability of the horse will only be revealed as its training progresses. "It's really only when the rider begins to touch on the high school movements that they will truly know if their horse can be competitive in the Grand Prix." The difference will always be seen between an innate piaffe and a forced piaffe.

For the same performance, a horse with superb extensions at the trot and collected canter will score better than a competitor with more modest gaits. However, in the Grand Prix, coefficients are applied to the two pirouettes and three piaffes against three trot extensions and only one canter extension with a simple coefficient. The most complete horse will win, but the collected horse will take advantage over the one that is only comfortable going forward. All horses born for dressage should be able to reach Saint Georges with a good rider, but the Grand Prix is reserved for a handful.

"Horses from German and Dutch studbooks have been selected for decades for their ability to carry on the hindquarters while maintaining a great amplitude. This is precisely what we are looking for in high-level sport: intrinsic qualities allowing to extend and shorten the amplitude in a very close way while maintaining expression and bounce in the gaits. Lusitano breed horses are naturally inclined to shorten their gaits and carry on the hindquarters, and the amplitude of their gaits has been and continues to be greatly improved."


Optimizing a Young Horse's Gaits: A Balance of Rhythm and Amplitude


The correction of gaits must be undisputable in freedom as well as in hand. The rhythm must be pure: a clearly four-beat walk, a canter respecting the three beats, and a regular trot. A deficient walk or canter will be extremely difficult to correct, even with the best training. Only meticulous, patient, and expert work can hope to improve a lateral walk which will always risk deteriorating when approaching collected work in pirouettes or approaching the piaffe. Choose a generous stride without being excessively large and an uphill canter that covers ground. An excessive stride could become problematic when introducing collected work. A more common trot, on the contrary, can be transformed and gain expression under the saddle of a competent rider.


Therefore, an extravagant trot should not be a priority in choosing a young horse. Of course, prefer a horse with good shoulder freedom and knee flexion over a skimpy trot with little ground cover. Good cadence, an upward tendency, and elastic movement will make your task easier. However, keep in mind that the trot can eventually be considerably perfected under the saddle.


Nurturing Detected Skills: The Magic Recipe of Transitions


Once the aptitude is detected, it will be about nurturing and deepening it. For Guillaume, the magic recipe lies in the transitions. "Hundreds and hundreds of walk/trot, trot/walk, trot/canter, canter/trot, trot/stop, stop/trot, collected walk/stop, stop/collected walk, collected trot/working trot, working trot/collected trot, collected canter/medium canter, medium canter/collected canter, collected walk/medium walk, medium walk/collected walk transitions." Whatever the inherent abilities of the horse, these variations will guide him towards greater flexibility. "They will teach him to carry himself, make him understand how to use his hindquarters to transform his balance upward and shift it onto his haunches. These transitions can be made in different working attitudes, more or less round, higher or lower. The horse can also be asked to perform these transitions while working laterally in shoulder-in, leg-yield, head-to-the-wall, or half-pass. The important thing is for the horse to learn to use his body, particularly his hindquarters, and gain bounce in his locomotion. On a more advanced horse, one can work on mobilization and diagonalization with a ground helper asking the horse to diagonalize his stride towards the piaffe. This work can also be done on long reins with someone experienced in this field. The most important thing is to give the horse time to assimilate the exercises and teach him these new things in a serene and relaxed way."


Temperament: A Key Factor in Evaluating and Training a Young Horse


Never neglect the temperament factor, which is crucial in evaluating a foal and paramount for climbing the ranks of dressage without hindrance. A willing horse can overcome many of its weaknesses if it receives proper training. "The temperament of the horse must be friendly; to reach high levels, you need horses that are hardworking and have a close relationship with humans." Even as a foal, the interaction between foals and their human handlers is revealing. "Under the saddle, of course, the rider's feeling will play a significant part in the choice of the foal. At that point, they will have a more precise idea of the horse's temperament and its ability to grow."

Remember that harmony and ease are integral parts of dressage, and the horses that captivate us are ultimately those that seem to perform without constraints. The impression of ease will make the difference between a Grand Prix horse and a superstar, between a horse that executes the required movements and a horse that dances with its rider. For a horse to enjoy being an athlete, it must, of course, have the mental strength, but above all, its physical capabilities must make the exercise accessible.