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My Top 10 Exercises for Young Horses – Flatwork

As we all know, training young horses is a process that not only requires a lot of patience, it also requires plenty of “thinking outside the box” moments and plenty of “WTF” moments too!

My general motto when working with young horses is to work little and often, keeping it all as varied as possible while all the time, chipping away at the elements of the training scale.

We need to remember that their baby muscles are weak and need lots of time and gentle repetition to grow stronger. Our training of these young horses must be so that we are able to work a variety of muscles (and areas of their brain), all in order to prevent fatigue, both mentally and physically.

This is not always an easy task and often boredom or a lack of inspiration sets in. Usually this results in repeating the same thing over and over without much improvements or we can often find ourselves getting a little carried away, and moving through things too quickly, leaving the horse with gaps in their education. Both of these situations can result in being met with “issues”.

However, in this blog post, I am going to go through TEN of my “go-to” flatwork exercises that keep my horses improving without drilling them.

Many of the exercises I have listed here, I have previously done blogs or demo videos for so keep an eye out for the links!!!

#1: Transitions

There are 3 types of transitions…

Direct transitions – ie from one pace to another.

Transitions within the pace  – Where you work on changing the horse’s stride pattern, ie Lenthening / Shortening

Almost Transitions – Trot to “Almost walk” and back to trot.

You really cannot do too many transitions with young horses and if you imagine that every time you “whoa & go”, it is essentially like your horse doing a squat.

Your downwards transitions should be a ridden as a series of Half Halts (Training Video) and straightness should not be sacrificed at any point. Your horse should respond to as light as aid as possible and so the rider must practice being soft, yet effective.

If ridden correctly, transitions will improve your horse’s hind engagement, strength, balance, obedience and they also help to keep their mind from wandering away from the rider.

#2: Leg yielding

I introduce leg yielding to my horses fairly early on in their training. However, they usually have a good concept of it via regular, in-hand work (demo video) during early handling and as a result, don’t find the concept of leg yield to difficult. I obviously keep it shallow and never forget that forwardness and straightness always take precedence. 

Leg yielding will encourage the horse to move off your inside leg and into your outside rein, helping to establish that infamous “Inside leg to Outside hand” connection.

It also encourages hind leg engagement and therefore improves the strength and balance of young horses.

Click Here – to read more about leg yielding or watch a demo video >HERE<

#3: Ride a Square / Diamond

Instead of continuously riding circles where it is easier for a horse to subtly drift out through the shoulder, practice riding a square or a diamond (slightly more difficult). Gradually adding straight lines and turns rather than bends, will help you identify the difference between the two and highlight if your horse is losing straightness. 

#4: Ride OFF the Outside Track

Since young horses will typically be lacking balance, it makes sense that the find something to “lean on” in their training and often, the outside fencing of the arena and the track becomes it’s handrail equivalent. I like to practice riding my horses 1m in from the track sporadically, simply to ensure that it is my leg keeping them straight and that they are not relying on the fence for balance, possibly without my knowledge.  

#5: Introduction to Shoulder-Fore

Shoulder-fore position is similar to that of a Shoulder-In but the angle is not as steep. Shoulder-Fore position ensures that the horse is carrying their weight over their inside hind leg and thus has hind end engagement. So, how do I introduce this to my young horses?

Well, I usually ride what is similar to a wave pattern down the longside. I usually begin in walk to give them time to process and coordinate themselves when trying to answer what I am asking.

I come around the corner and as if I am going to ride across the long diagonal, I let the horse’s shoulders come in off the track (approx 2m). When they do I simply “change my mind” and using my inside leg, push the horse sideways back to the track. Once on the

#6: Counter Canter

Counter canter is essentially being able to maintain a balanced canter your horse on the “wrong lead”. It can be a difficult movement to master on young horse, so prior to attempting the Counter Canter, you must ensure that the true canter is well established, you are sitting correctly and that your aids are guided by the canter lead itself and not by the direction in which you are travelling.

As a guideline, your horse is ready to attempt counter canter when:

They can canter on a named leg on a corner and in a straight line
They can canter a 15m circle without losing rhythm, balance, straightness or impulsion
They can lengthen and shorten in the canter showing some degree of collection.

Counter canter helps to improve straightness, balance, strength and lots more. So much so, I have a whole blog post dedicated to it which you can find >HERE< .

And if you want to see a video of how I introduce counter canter to a young horse – CLICK HERE

#7: Loops & Serpentines

Loops and serpentines are a pain to get right, yet that’s what makes them so beneficial!

I like to add 10m loops on the longside and 3 -4 loop serpentines up the arena as they will help your horse’s lateral suppleness.

For the rider, they encourage good coordination as you change bend and they help you to become quietly influential and more in-tune with your horse.

They will also help to keep things interesting for your horse and prevent them from anticipating where they are going.

#8: Spiral Canter Circle

In general, it is far easier to introduce collection to a horse on a circle than it is on a straight line simply because the nature of the circle encourages them to keep their inside hind leg engaged thus helping them to “sit” on it.

So for this reason, I typically begin to teach my young horses collection in canter, starting on a 20m circle and gradually decreasing the size.

The amount I decrease and the length of time I stay there, will totally depend on the horse.

As an example, this would be my procedure…

Starting on a 20m circle, I will ensure the canter is forward and straight.

I will then reduce to 18m for a few strides and if I still feel them sit behind, after a couple of stride I will go back out to the 20m circle.

Next time, I will ask them to hold the 18m circle for longer and then get out.

Following that, I will decrease the circle to 15m and hold for a few strides before going back out to 20m to give them a break.  I will then gradually ask the horse to hold the 15m circle for longer.

I don’t progress to a smaller circle size until they can hold themselves in the previous size for a longer period of time i.e. 2-3 circles. And I typically don’t go smaller than a 12m circle on the babies.

My mentality for training this exercise is to dip in and dip out and I try to get back out to the 20m circle when it still feels good (rhythm, straight, engaged).

If you stay in the smaller circle for too long, they will find it too difficult and will likely begin to look for a way out – usually a loss of straightness or change of rhythm.

By pushing the horse to just below what they feel they can give you, getting out and rewarding, their outlook will remain a positive one and thus, grow their confidence. They may even begin to OFFER YOU more! A feeling which I love.

#9: Stretching

Stretching your horse is the ability to ride in a lower frame while the hind legs continue to come under the tummy.

Often horses may drop their head and neck but also lose impulsion and as a result, do not actually stretch their muscles over their back, they just simply tip onto the forehand.

Some horses love to stretch and if they have been working their muscles correctly, will take the chance to stretch them at every opportunity, while others need to be encouraged.

Ideally, we would love to be able to stretch all horses in the warm-up and again in the cool down but sometimes this is not possible. Maybe your horse is too fresh when you first get on and needs a little bit of work before they will even consider stretching. Or perhaps you have a horse that really wants to be on it’s forehand and run along on it’s nose? Well this would be a candidate for a few mini stretches during your sessions, rather than allowing them to go all out in the beginning.

Remember – “What they give you for free, you train the opposite”

While riding my young horses, having their ears at my knee level is enough of a stretch for me and I will ask them for this several times throughout a session to allow their hard working baby muscles to stay soft. The range of stretch can be increased alongside their education.

It is also worth noting that “allowing your horse to stretch” features in many dressage tests right up to the top levels. A horse will only want to stretch if it has been working correctly over its back and as a result, it cannot be faked. It takes time, patience and correct training to establish a good stretch and ultimately, this is what the judges want to see.

#10: Give & Retake

The Give & Retake is not so much an exercise on its own as it more something that I practice regularly while riding all the other exercises.

With good foundations and training, we want to produce our horses to have the strength & ability sit down behind and to lighten the front end (self-carriage). This seesaw of balance can be seen more clearly at the higher levels but our young horses have to start somewhere.

Referring back to the Training Scale which begins with Rhythm, Relaxation and Contact, once the first two steps have been established, you should start to feel some weight in your hands as the horse begins to accept the contact to the bit.

Young horses should accept the contact but not lean on it and as a rider, we can easily fall into the trap of wanting to be supportive, to suddenly feeling like we are carrying the weight of the horse’s head as they lean on our hands for balance.

While practicing the exercises above, I will do lots of mini “give and retake” with both reins, or simply the inside rein for a period of time as it acts as a reminder to me, NOT to hold the horse together with my hand.

Once again, you will see this “give & retake” movement come up in dressage tests as often, when the rider give with their reins, if they have been holding the horse together with their hands, there will be an obvious change. The judge would like to see the rider give and retake their reins without a change in the horse’s way of going. Tricky, but once again, shortcuts will not help you here.

As mentioned before, there are no quick fixes for training young horses and if you feel like you have found one, I promise you, it will show up later in their training.

Some general points to take away:

QUALITY TRAINING takes time and patience.

What the horse gives you for free, train the opposite. Each horse is different and your approach should be flexible. Each partnership & journey is unique.

Ensure that what you ask for is achievable for your horse and every time they give you what you are looking for (EVEN SLIGHTLY!)… praise, praise, praise. Make training a positive experience for your horse.

Never punish mistakes, they are trying and have a simply made the wrong choice.

Educate quietly & fairly.  

Not one of these tips or exercises will work entirely on their own. Some days you will use a mixture of two or three and other days you will have to try something else. Never be afraid to take a step back and analyze the situation. 

In an ideal world, every horse would be trained to the best of its abilities and as a result, we would have no issues. But alas, the world is not ideal and we are only human and our horses are not machines. Nobody is perfect and all we can do is our best when it comes to training our horses. However, never be afraid to seek help from a professional, ask questions or take a step back and reassess the training plan.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog post and that you have learned or have been reminded of some helpful bits. Part 2 – Polework / Jumping will be coming soon!

Sharing with your friends or on social media is always appreciated but don’t forget to tag me, sarahelebert_eventing or Equicoach_Online so I can thank you! 

Best of Luck, 

Sarah xxx

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