Two fillies, both about to turn 4, are beginning dressage training. One came from the track, the other from the breeder’s field. Each horse requires a slightly different approach, and each one offers a few advantages over the other, as well as a few drawbacks. Here’s a side-by-side comparison.
Filly #1: Boogie Rose, 15.2 hand bay OTTB
This pretty girl is dainty and elegant. Light on her feet, with athleticism to spare. She’s a worker-bee and thrives on exercise and discipline. She likes routine, attention, and is at her best when her energy is channeled into work. She also has a tendency to channel that energy is less-favorable ways when not worked, getting pushy and being a pest to the other horses. Overall, she’s a pretty sane, easy going girl. She’s actually my husband’s horse, I’m helping to train her, but he handles and rides her often too, so that says something about her mind!
Filly #2: Sofiya, 15.2 hand buckskin Russian warmblood Arabian Cross
This lovey little lady, while no where close to being classed as a heavier horse, is also not dainty the way Rose is. She has a lot more barrel, and a shoulder, neck, and head that give away her Arabian dam. She got a little size and substance from her warmblood sire, and from both parents, plenty of athleticism. She also likes to work, although in a slower, softer way than Rose. And where Rose’s athleticism shows in her long stride, speed, and jumping ability, Sofie’s comes out as animation, balance, and a more natural gymnastic ability – she’s like a mountain goat on uneven footing, and finds lateral work effortless. Her desire to work seems to come more from her pocket-pony nature and her high need for interaction and attention than from a need to burn energy, but she’s pretty content to go along with whatever I want to do, and even likes to hang out with me while I clean tack!
Where we Started
So we have two athletic young mares. Rose was broke at the track, and trained there for probably about a year and a half, although she was never fast enough to enter a race. Sofiya grew up living in a herd in a very large pasture, and I broke her myself last fall. We bought both horses last summer and because of their age, did only very minimal work with them last fall, and gave them the winter off to grow up more. Now we’re getting them back to work and preparing them for more serious training and perhaps even their first competitions this coming year.
Both stand for saddling and bridling, they pick up their feet, they lead politely and lunge. They accept a rider on their back, and have a very basic understanding of the aids for “go”, “whoa”, and “turn”. That’s about where the similarities end.
Restarting the Ottb
With Rose, a ride begins with taking time and patience at the mounting block. She is learning to stand still and wait for her rider before moving off, but she needs to be reminded and prefers to only pause briefly to let you get your foot in the stirrup.
Once you’re onboard the Rosie-train, she sets off at a marching pace and after a very brief walk, she’s ready to trot. I’m a firm believer in starting rides with 10 minutes of walking, so with Rosie almost immediately I will pick up the reins and start asking her to make turns, slow her walk before moving out again, and change directions. She needs to be “busy” in the walk, or she’ll just keep trying to trot off.
Once she’s had her good warm up, I trot her on the rail a few laps each way, followed by a walk break, and repeat that a few times. As we’ve just started conditioning these horses, even though Rose was previously track-fit, she’s lost much of that cardio conditioning, and never had the strength for arena work like I’m doing with her, so I’m very mindful to keep the sessions short and well broken up. Cardio-wise, she could probably trot and trot and trot, but especially as her muscles fatigue, her balance around corners lessens, and the support she looks for on the reins strengthens. I know it’s just how she feels as she’s tiring, so rather than encourage her to lean on the reins or my inside leg, I give her a break.
Fortunately with her, there is much to work on at the walk, and usually after the first few minutes of trot she settles right in to the walk work. She is very stiff feeling against the reins because she’s never been taught to be soft and supple in the contact. As we walk, I encourage to soften to the left and the right, using circles to help.
I also take advantage when I’m working on the rail to use the wall to help. I bend her towards the wall as I add my outside leg. This encourages her to soften to the rein pressure in her poll and neck, rather than by letting her entire body fall into a turn, as she’ll do if I ask her to bend to the inside. By using support from my outside (against the wall) leg at the same time she is apt to swing her haunches in anyways, I’m already helping her to get the idea of moving off my leg. Nothing so precise yet that it could be called leg yield or shoulder-in, but the foundation for both movements is already there and I can get her to shift her body away from the leg in a sort of uncoordinated version of both movements.
I only ask for a step at this point, asking her to straighten herself again before she loses balance and begins “falling” away from my leg. I want her to learn right from the beginning that moving off my leg is a precision exercise so she carries herself as she does it. I also want to ask for less and reward more, building her confidence with each tiny thing she does right, rather than ask for too much and get her feeling like it’s too hard, or worse yet, uncomfortable either in that it becomes a muscular strain or puts her so off-balance that it’s mentally unnerving.
With her, the emphasis now is on building strength, suppleness, balance, and communication. She’s used to having a job that required far fewer subtle aids and responses, and a much shorter time period of daily work. She wants to rush, to work harder than she needs to now, so she needs to learn to wait, and to think more. She also needs to learn to carry herself in a different way to negotiate the indoor arena, which is much smaller than the track she was used to, and to discover that the bit is now for communication, not balance.
Starting from Unbroke
With Sofie, it’s a bit different. Her body feels squishy compared to Rose’s toned muscles. She’s soft and supple and more relaxed both physically and mentally. But that same softness presents its own challenges. She is less focused, and is only starting to get the concept of leg means go, all the time, every time I use it. She is curious, and wants to check out everything- she will stop randomly while trotting to look at or sniff something! She wants to taste the sand, she wants to nibble the jumps, and she especially wants to get a bite of the silk flowers on the jump boxes! Everything to her is new and interesting, including this whole concept of working and being ridden and doing as you’re told for an *entire* half hour.
Like Rosie, I start with a 10 minute walk, and then move into short “trot sets”, slowly building up the amount of trot we are doing. Unlike with Rosie, Sofie seems to fatigue mentally before physically some days. She is soft about following the reins left and right, and easily shifts off my leg. She already has the beginnings of leg yield and shoulder-in, because it just never occurred to her that moving under my weight or away from my leg pressure was anything other than a totally natural response.
To keep mixing it up and doing enough to keep her mind engaged would be to ask too much of her physically. So I do what I can to keep it interesting, but while we’re building fitness we’re also a bit limited, even in the number of circles we do. I’m keeping a careful count of everything so she doesn’t do too many turns, as she is apt to do them like a more advanced horse because she is already following my body so readily. The ease with which she accepts her new job also presents the challenge of progressing slowly enough to give her young, squishy body time to get strong. Her biggest training challenge right now is that she is so smart, she’s easily bored, and when she gets bored, she wants to quit.
So part of what she’s learning right now is to be a good little soldier, and to cruise around on the rail and stay focused even when her mind wants to wander. She’s learning that there is a time to sniff and taste everything she finds, and a time when she needs to work. It’s a fine line to walk, as I don’t want to squash her curiosity and enthusiasm, but she also needs to learn the work ethic that Rosie learned at the track.
Just watching for a moment as both horses work, you could easily get the idea they are doing the same thing, on the same program. But when you dig a little deeper you quickly discover that they are only doing similar types and amounts of work because they are both unfit 3-turning-4 years olds, but otherwise what they are working on is very different.
As they gain a solid fitness foundation and we move into better weather, I can already see that both will thrive on cross training (as most horses do, some more reluctantly than others). We will be working on hills and terrain out on trails, and working over ground poles and cavaletti, continuing to train for balance and coordination, suppleness through the body, and mental relaxation and focus. By varying the routine, their bodies and minds can be challenged in different ways. My goal for the next month or so while winter turns to spring and we’re mostly stuck in the indoor arena, is to give them the preparation they will need to be able to physically and mentally handle “going places and doing things” over the summer, molding them into horses that will be safe and enjoyable to take on fun adventures!