Young Horses: The “Hope” Market

The supply of “quality” young horses is large, but the animals for sale by trainers and breeders are not always promoted or presented in such a way that their potential is apparent at first glance, particularly if the young horse cannot yet be ridden. Exterior characteristics are not the only indicators of potential performance excellence. When a young horse has been started without the necessary calmness, without feel, and with a hyperflexed neck, as is so often the case, then the buyer has an additional obstacle to overcome. In fact, many of the young horses sold at sales in Europe are already in need of retraining.

In Germany, for example, the picture or ideal image of a young horse is influenced strongly by the important young-horse events like stallion selections, auctions, and championships. At today’s stallion selection events, it is common to see two- and three-year-old stallions with stunningly developed musculature; at first glance, many appear fully developed. Also, because in recent years there has been a tendency to breed for an extremely large size with a stick measure of over 17 hands, this early physical development gives the false impression that one is looking at a grown horse. It is the same thing with the three- and four-year-old riding horses at auctions, state and national championships.

The preparation of horses for sales and championships has long been a special discipline. Riders who work in this realm have particular experience, and know how to highlight the strengths of the youngster and play down the weaknesses. With dressage horses, an over-spectacular “show” trot particularly awakens desire in the buyers; it is not by accident that an animated trot is the gait that brings in the money. With jumpers, it is all about style and capacity. The fences are set at 4½ feet for three-year-olds and put up higher in an effort to heat up purchase interest. However, it has been shown that such free jumping predicts little about later success on the show jumping circuit. 

The demands on these youngsters at auctions and sale barns are very high. They must typically attain top form in a relatively short period of time. In addition, there are the challenges of the horse moving from one barn to another, changes of feed, and different riders. Not all potential buyers are competent and sensitive when trying a horse and not every young horse can cope with such “toughness” tests. Often, the foundation that is laid at the sale barns for young talent with potential turns these horses into ones that need retraining. 

The young stallion candidates and the novice horses at sales and championships are often developed physically beyond what might be expected for their age. Many demonstrate a particular willingness to perform in addition to possessing very good gaits and/or above average jumping ability. Skillfully presented by specialists, they are regarded as having significant potential even as foals. However, these “made” horses don’t always develop as hoped: Many a “dream” horse turns out to be a disappointing prospect. 

Over spectacular trot movement arising from intentionally created tension in the horse’s back is not only worthless, it is also very harmful.” 

Gerd Heuschmann

Many young horses—especially those for sale—are presented at competitions in top form, and they win ribbons. Not all survive such an impressive performance undamaged. The driving forces behind these displays can arise through ignorance or excessive ambition, but also are frequently motivated by money. Winning or placing—especially at championships—increases the horse’s value. Naturally, every championship is also a marketplace—many medal wearers change ownership following their competition performance. 

Today, economic interests increasingly drive breeding, training and the horse market. Since time is money, training must be developed as quickly as possible. Horses with a willingness to perform—and with rideability—often respond to rider demands to come into the desired frame before they are physically and mentally prepared: Early physical wear and tear is programmed into them. However, with systematic development and solid correct training, there would be no need for such “sales riding.” To parade novice horses around and around in a “show” trot or to demonstrate their talent for piaffe and passage (despite “hover” steps) may well impress buyers and spectators, but it completely contradicts the philosophy of starting the horse with basic and Classical Training principles. Anyone concerned about the health and long life of the horse should be thinking long-term. 

The good ones grow old.

Walter Wadenspanner

It is difficult to balance economic realities with accountability for a living being—in this case, the horse. Racing and Western horses are ridden at two years old and must be top performers by three. Their sports career is often finished by age five or six. There are many jumping, dressage, and event horses that don’t reach their zenith until 12 or 13 years of age, and today, there are even horses that remain top performers at 18 or 19. However, the career of most horses has long since ended by middle age. 

There are no available numbers on how many horses fail to fulfill high expectations due to poor health and early “retirement.” Likewise unknown is how many horses are given the necessary time to become physically and mentally mature in their early years. There is an obvious connection between asking too much of a horse too early and the horse’s health. When the training is solid and correct for the horse, and the demands are gradually increased, he has a good chance of growing old as an athlete. 

The Young Horse Carousel

When marketing a horse at all costs becomes the deciding principle, it can be “fatal” for the horse. In many countries, success at foal premium inspections, at championships, or at sales depends on how the foal presents with his mother. For two-year-olds, there are also liberty and free-jumping championships. Three-year-olds are presented at breed shows, at state shows, at stallion selections and markets. There is also preparation for these exhibitions that don’t always conform to the needs of the breed, the age of the horse or to recognized training principles. 

Today, most young stallions must be earning money at the age of three. After the stallion selection, these new “stars” awaken the interest of breeders, especially the champion and premium stallions. The sons of proven stallions are attractive because they offer favorable genetic proclivities in their pedigree, but for a more favorable breeding fee than their sires. To increase the chance of obtaining a good foal, it is a better option to breed to the selected, proven stallion rather than to his younger progeny—no one knows how prepotent the young stallion will actually be. 

When next year’s offspring don’t meet expectations, the breeders’ interest dies away. 

In Germany, a stallion’s childhood is over after his second grazing season, at the latest. The youngsters are kept in stalls, fed, and prepared in order to be fit for inspection. Most stallion selection events occur in the fall when the stallions are two years of age. Most young stallions are already under saddle before their third year of life since they must be shown at the stallion shows in the spring. While three-year-old riding horses are not allowed to compete before the first of May for good reason, there are no restrictions for stallion shows. Thankfully, these stallions are frequently shown only in hand. However, many people aren’t satisfied with this. 

Most sires complete their 30-day selection test in the spring of their third year, or in the fall at the latest. Without a performance test or certificate, as a rule, a stallion loses his coverage permit. Since how well breeders think of a stallion depends on his performance, most three-year-old stallions get their first competition experiences during their first coverage season, and if presented at championships, they must be ridden. The riding horse tests, which include serpentines as well as lengthenings (elongated stride yet the tempo of the working pace is retained) in trot and canter, are demanding and require conditioning and a rideability that can only be achieved through training. To present at a competition isn’t enough; success is especially important for young stallions, since it increases breed-er demand. With a championship title, or an excellent performance score, the value of the stallion in-creases along with the number of booked breedings. With a view to the future, two chances at a career are advantageous—if breeding demand falls, the stallion can still be marketed as a sport horse. 

The double burden of breeding and sport is considerable. Whether a stallion is up to it depends on the individual’s development, breeding, physical constitution, mental capacity, and above all, whether the demands on him are increased in a reasonable way by allowing the necessary breaks for musculo-skeletal tissue recovery and repair. There are no rules proscribing use in breeding and competition; rather, participation in these activities lies in the judgment of breeders, stallion stations, horse owners, and riders, who will only behave responsibly if they are conscious of the problems caused by a load that is too heavy and asked too early. 

Riding cross-country, rhythmically forward over small jumps, makes up an important part of the work for all young horses, regardless of the future intended discipline. 

Diverse testing opportunities for all ages of horses offer many opportunities to serve the development of the novice horse. The standard to be met is very high. Whether a horse can actually reach the training goals considered the norm for his age class depends on many different factors. The high demands and strong competition in the tests lead to early specialization. Less experienced and sales-oriented riders and owners may go astray by training a young sport horse much too intensely: they take the horse to competitions too often, or prematurely start a horse in a difficult test. A training plan that is correct for the horse should focus solely on the individual horse’s physical and mental development. Exceptional horses fulfill the established standards without a problem. In other cases, the established standards lead to horses being thoughtlessly “souped up” to reach the class goal. 

In Germany, many buyers are impressed when they see a long list of good show results in the horse’s performance book. A full performance book, however, is no guarantee of success. On the contrary: For long-term, healthy development, demands should only be increased very gradually, especially at a young age; this allows the horse the necessary time for recovery, particularly after intense training. Overtaxing the horse affects him negatively, both physically and mentally. It is very difficult and sometimes impossible to retrain horses that have become “sour” and don’t want to work with their rider in or out of the arena. 

No one can predict if a three-year-old exceptional talent will later be a Grand Prix horse or an international quality athlete. How well a horse develops depends on many factors, not the least of which includes solid training and good health. 

There are riders who allow their novice horses a lot of time, not showing them at a young age at all, or only a few times in jumping and dressage tests. For them, it is not about winning and placing, but only about getting the young horse comfortable with the competition atmosphere. The rider who is thinking long-term will train her horse systematically over years, increasing demands slowly, so that she can ride the horse a long time and preserve his health. 

The demand for healthy, honestly trained horses at the top echelons of the sport is larger than the supply. This has caused prices to reach astronomical heights for high-performance equine athletes. In isolated cases, even young horses achieve six-figure sales—at least when they are marketed by prominent sale barns. The auction sales business functions according to its own rules, similar to the stock exchange: The background of what is being sold is not publicly known. Only those involved in the business actually know whether the bid is ever really paid, if a horse actually changes hands, or what bidding strategy and price were agreed to before the sale. In contrast to the private high-price market just mentioned, at auctions there are a huge number of almost unsaleable young horses. 

As long as the only goals of commercial interests are to see the front legs of potential dressage horses go as high as possible in a flailing trot and receive endless, fantasy-sized sums of money, the majority of riders won’t find an appropriate equine partner at shows or sale barns. At the breed sales it is hard to find horses that have been ridden without negative tension—horses that could be fun for pleasure riders and athletes. 

Unfortunately, training is a long and difficult process, and because time is money, it is also associated with financial risk. Not everyone can or will wait for a young horse to develop. Professional riders are under great pressure to succeed and have a hard time explaining to horse owners—and students—the importance of solid, patient basic training. The temptation to fiddle with quick money is large—to earn the most possible in the shortest time. Driving young horses to perform at a high level, thus destroying them early, contradicts the concept of horsemanship. Taking time to train and develop a horse opposes financial interests. As a result, horse trade doesn’t depend on riders who provide their horse with a “job for life.” 

It depends, instead, on many horses being sold as expensively as possible. This is explained as a “truth” that it is “good for business,” when, in fact, as many horses as possible are worn out as early as possible and replaced with new ones. 

This excerpt from Balancing Act by Gerd Hueschmann, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books . Discover more educational books for Horse and Rider at: 

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