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"light riding"

From: Nan

Hello, Jessica! I am purchasing a 3-year warmblood/arab cross gelding who has not been "backed" but has been handled extensively. He has even gone to shows and shown at halter and done quite well, so he has a lot of experience for a youngster. His current owner has done a lovely job with him, letting him grow up in a field with other horses, yet handling him daily. It is my #1 goal to keep him sound in body and mind, to let him develop so that I have a healthy, strong partner for the future. I have read your wonderful archives and have a general understanding of the muscular/skeletal development of horses, how the knees close first and how the area behind the withers (where the saddle fits) is the last to reach final development. I read in your archives that light riding of a three year old is generally okay. My question is, "What is "light riding?" Does it mean walk only? Walk/trot? About how long should each riding session be? How many days a week? I am 5'4 with good (not professional, though) riding skills, soft hands and an understanding of riding from back to front. Since I have an eighteen month old daughter, a much reduced riding schedule for a year is be ideal for me. And of course, my interaction with this youngster will be general handling, progressing to lunging, and THEN light riding. Your clarification of this question would be so helpful; I really want to keep this little guy going right. -Nan

Hi Nan! If you have a healthy, happy three-year-old, he'll benefit very much from your time limitations over the next year or so. Too much riding is very detrimental to a youngster, as you know. The wrong kind of riding is also very detrimental to any horse, but especially to a youngster.

At three, your gelding will still be changing physically, and will continue to change for the next three to five years (depending on which side he takes after more - the Arabian or the WB). You'll need to keep in mind that his balance will be in a constantly-shifting state.

You are wise to think in terms of longeing, then long-lining, and finally riding - by the time your youngster is rising four, he will be much more physically able to deal with the weight of a rider. The longeing done correctly, will help him develop his musculature and balance. If you know how to long-line a horse, that will make a wonderful transition from longeing to ridden work. Those activities will help prepare him physically for the demands of carrying a rider, and will help prepare him mentally for the changeover from "The person I can see is asking me to do things" to "The person I can't see, but can feel, is asking me to do things." Horse language is visual, postural, physical - it takes time and education for a horse to make the shift from reading the handler's body language to correctly interpreting the invisible handler's use of leg pressure, weight shifts, hands, and voice.

I prefer maximum turnout and a light training schedule for youngsters, with perhaps half an hour of work every other day. If you have the time, two fifteen-minute sessions are even better than one thirty-minute session, especially in the early stages. The advantages of the every-other-day schedule are twofold. First, the horse has time to relax and reflect on what he has learned. Horses are very good at latent learning, and I've found that you can make the same progress (and sometimes better progress!) with an every-other-day training schedule as with an every-single-day schedule. Second, if the horse is overstressed physically in any way, the extra day between sessions gives the horse a chance to (a) recover, which it will usually do very nicely, or (b) show some lameness or unevenness, which will warn you to change what you are doing. A horse that is overstressed on Monday may not show the effect until Wednesday - and if that horse is on an every-single-day schedule, the effect of the stress will be MORE than doubled if the horse is stressed again on Tuesday.

Walking is ideal; after a few weeks of walking, though, add a little bit of trotting so that the horse (and you) can get in the habit of coming back from the trot to the walk, calmly. If you ONLY walk, then when the horse startles or becomes unbalanced and begins trotting - as will inevitably happen at some point - then it will be much harder to effect a calm transition back to the walk. If you practice a certain amount of trotting, you'll have a backlog of quiet, calm returns from trot to walk, and you'll be able to deal more easily with the transitions down from those sudden, energetic, spontaneous trots. ;-)

All you're really going to be asking from your youngster is that he move forward when you ask, turn when you ask, and stop when you ask. Take him out in the biggest space you have, with the safest footing, and work on long straight lines and wide, gradual curves. No tight turns or small ring figures for the young horse just starting under saddle, please! And don't ask him to move backward under saddle - to do that correctly, in a gymnastically-beneficial way, requires a good deal more development and coordination than he will have at three. If, late in his three-year-old year, your youngster can stay calm and move with relaxation and rhythm whilst carrying you on straight lines, on large circles (at least 20 meters in diameter) and on figure-eights consisting of TWO twenty-meter circles, if he can make wide turns and go back the other way, if he can stop and start and move gently without hesitation, moving confidently forward from light leg pressure and calmly into whatever amount of contact makes him feel secure, then you'll have done a very good job.

"Light" means not too often, not too long, not too demanding, and with not too much pressure from the rider - both mentally (keep the questions simple) and physically (sit light, with your weight as much on your thighs as on your seatbones, and, when possible, MORE on your thighs than on your seatbones).

I'm amazed that you're even able to take on this project with a young daughter at home - congratulations on your energy level! And congratulations, too, on the way your horse has been brought up until now, and on the way you plan to bring him up. The slow and careful way isn't just going to be convenient for your schedule - it's going to create a wonderful equine partner and companion that should live a very long, sound life. This may well be the horse that - eight years from now - gives your daughter her first ride. ;-)


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