When starting a young horse under saddle, many people have concerns about the fragility of the horse’s still-developing body. Yet, starting a horse using the classical principles of dressage should never cause harm.
There are a few ways to begin instilling fitness in a young horse before the work in an arena is introduced. One of the first considerations is how much time the horse spends turned out in a field. Time spent moving around as opposed to standing in a stall allows the horse’s bones, tendons, and muscles strengthen. Also, correct farrier work in the early years of a horse’s life will ensure proper development of the rest of their body. A balanced hoof will help the horse to move in a balanced way when turned out. This is key to allowing the horse to mature and safeguard itself against injury.
After being allowed to mature in the early years, we assume that the horse is used to living in a stable and being generally handled by people. The horse should also be used to wearing a bridle, and saddle or surcingle. Covering that is an entirely different topic for another time! Many people start their horses by getting them used to a rider on their back and then walking for hours upon hours to get them fit. Then adding the trot, canter, etc. This is a reasonable approach but sometimes the horse ends up working for many hours in the wrong position. Why would we spend any unnecessary time working in the wrong position? Many people also think that working in collection is a strain on the horse. When the horse is moving correctly, which means the energy created by the hind legs is evenly transferred over the back into a soft rein contact, then the horse is benefitting from the exercise. This correct position or frame does depend on the horse’s level of training, though. Even if he is not ready to be asked to perform the advanced movements, the horse must walk in a marching rhythm while being soft in the bridle. Then the trot and subsequently the canter can be added. Relaxation is key to achieving this. There is a reason that it is the first step on the training scale. In fact, some training scales don’t even include it because it is so obviously implied!
Work on the lunge line is an excellent way to attain relaxation. When the horse can move calmly at all three gaits on the circle, side reins can be introduced. Don’t be afraid to play with the length and vertical placement of the side reins in search of finding the correct way of going for your young horse. They all need different side rein lengths and lungeing circle size to help them let go of tensions in different parts of their bodies. You will know you have found the correct way of going when he moves in a steady rhythm, is soft and giving in to the pressure of the side rein, and can keep the size of the circle consistently. Moving in a relaxed way is very unlikely to harm your horse. When the young horse can move loosely on the lunge line at all three gaits, it will increase their confidence in their own balance. This is invaluable to the rider! When the horse is confident in his way of going, the added weight of a rider is much less likely to upset him. Horses have a very strong mind-body connection, so a discussion about body fitness can’t be separated from a discussion about mental relaxation.
So, now that we’ve got the horse moving in the correct position, we can increase work in all three gaits as the horse becomes ready. We can then include exercises such as circles, serpentines, and even lateral work. As long as it is done without tension, this will only help the horse. The work should come easily to the horse. If an exercise can’t be done in lightness, then the rider should return to an easier exercise to build the horse’s strength before returning to more difficult exercises. Moving well in the arena does not mean we have forgotten all those hours of walking! After the horse is capable of going in a proper position, trail riding is an excellent way to build fitness and protect a horse from injury. But even then, the horse must march in the walk, and move with impulsion at the trot and canter.
To conclude, build on exercises slowly and use them to instill training principles and fitness. When the horse is moving in a correct position for their level of training and fitness, it is helping them grow stronger. Collection does not have to equal strain. Always back off at any sign of tension in their bodies or minds. If you work with your horse this way and pay attention to how your training affects their way of going, you will be amazed at how well your young horse will handle the increasing difficulties of riding through more advanced movements.