4 Steps To the Dressage Young Horse Championship Classes

Do you have a young horse that is knocking your socks off with his trot?

Does everyone who sees him tell you he is really special?

Petite Belle a 4 year old at Markel/USEF YHC 2011
Photo by Swan Studios, LLC

If so, you might be thinking about putting him in the Markel/USEF Dressage Young Horse Championship Classes for 4 year olds.

I hope that he is only 2 – 3 years old when you are reading this because if you haven’t done any of these things yet and he is 4, you probably missed the boat for this year.

The sooner you begin taking the right steps toward developing your talented young horse the better.

Here are 4 things that will help make your goals for him more achievable.

    1. Educate your eye as well as your brain.

      Go to the shows that are offering the Young Horse Championships and watch and listen.  Start educating your eye for what the judges are looking for and listen to their comments.

      You can find the 2012 schedule for your region on the Championships.pdf  page.

      That and more information is available on the USEF.org page about the Markel/USEF Dressage Young Horse Championship.

      There is also information there about the young horse selection trials for the FEI World Breeding Championships that will be held in Verden, Germany, August 5 – 11, 2012. 

      The selection trials for this event have already taken place, but if there is any way you can make it to Germany, I highly recommend it!  You will see the top 5 and 6 year olds in the world competing. The comments are given in German and English, so you will get a chance to see and hear what the judges think of each horse.

      If these suggestions are not possible for you then search for something like “USEF Dressage Young Horse Championships” on YouTube and watch some of the video – sometimes they include the judges comments like this one of the 2010 Market/USEF YHC winner this  (if you don’t want to listen to the comments on the sidelines, mute your speakers until about 8:55 – that is when the judge gives the scores and comments).

      If you can join DressageTrainingOnline there are some great videos available there as well as other videos that are valuable for a Sport Horse Breeder.

      Why is this important?

      You need to be able to compare your horse with the competition and see if you really have something special.  Next you need to know what things are important at each age level so that you can assure that your horse’s training is on the right track. The rider is a very important part of the success of your young horse – watch and pay attention (more about this later).  Take advantage of any valuable resources offered at these events and talk to the owners and riders – they are usually more than happy to answer questions and talk about their wonderful young horse.

    2. Learn about the tests.

      Understand the scoring and what is expected at each age.  The scoring for the Young Horse classes is different from standard Dressage tests.  They are scored on the walk, trot, canter, submissiveness, and general impression (temperament, natural talent, and conformation to become upper level).

      A young 4 year old will not be penalized much if he is high spirited or a little insecure (especially if he is otherwise showing good gaits, relaxation, and submission), however as they get older this type of behavior is not tolerated as much.

      If you take a look at the USEF page I linked to in #1 you will see the heading “Young Horse Tests and Judging” where you can read the tests and the judging guidelines.

      Why is this important?

      This may sound a little like a repeat of #1, but they really kind of go together.  You will understand what you are seeing and hearing better if you have already studied the tests. And if you only read the tests you do not have the visual – and both are important.

      I made this #2 only because I really think you HAVE to see it before you will really understand it, but if you can prepare yourself 1st by reading you will get a lot more out of the show and what you read will make a lot more sense to you.

    3. Put a training plan in place.

      If you have a plan already, take a look at these suggestions. The formal training should begin in the fall of your horse’s 2nd year.  Hopefully, if he is out in a pasture 24/7 with other young horses, you are still bringing him in for regular farrier and vet visits.

      Just because he is the “growing up and learning to be a horse” stage does not mean that he should not be getting handled regularly, and be happy and comfortable with human contact.

      This is where knowing what the judges are looking for starts to be important for you.  Remember that submissiveness, relaxation, and temperament are very important and those lessons take place every time the horse is handled.

      You may not be able to change a hot temperament – in fact it will be appreciated as the horse advances – but if all of his contact with humans is positive, calm, and fun, you will be able to manage it better.  Later this will help with the under saddle work.

      Check out my earlier posts about 2 year old horses and 3 year old training for more information about those stages.

      If you are serious about competing in the young horse championships, I recommend that the person working with your horse has experience and success working with young horses.

      Remember in #1 where I said to watch and pay attention to the riders? The riders who are winning the class, getting the high scores and going on to the championships are the ones to watch.

      Even if you can’t get them to work for you, you might get a chance to talk with them, and/or get a lead on someone else. But at the very least you have a picture of the kind of rider you want on your horse.

      I know that is not easy to find the right person in some places, but I am going to try to compile a list here so let me know if you need help finding someone.

      Why is this important?

      This is what your competition is doing.

      If you think that this is too much stress on your young horse to be starting training so early, then you may need to reconsider competing him in the young horse classes or consider this: If you are raising this horse with aspirations of an upper level performance horse, then it will be better for him if he sees his life in this way earlier rather than later.

      I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “you can’t miss what you don’t know”- right? Well, the sooner he starts coming in for a while, leaving his friends, and doing a little work, the less stressful it will be for him. It is not stressful if it is what they know.

      In the horse racing world breeders plan their foals being born as early in the year as possible so that as a 3 year old they are on a more equal playing field with the other 3 year old horses.

      Same thing here, give your horse an equal playing field by insuring that he is physically and mentally ready for the competition.  You should not be rushing to get him ready – it takes time to make a 4 year old ready for this type of testing no matter how much natural talent he possesses.

      Make a training plan that utilizes the training scale to produce the proper development of your young prospect from his early years and throughout his life.

    4. Take your horse to a show when he is 3 years old.

      I know what you’re saying – “That’s too much for a 3 year old horse!” Well, it depends on the horse. Some horses are not ready, but if you want to take your horse the following year to compete in the 4 year old Young Horse classes, which is a 1st Level test, then he needs to be in the ring at 3 doing Training Level.

      We have done this with a lot of success. Start with a small local show, maybe even a schooling show. Every horse is different. Some need a day to settle down, so they just hang out, walk around, and go into the rings after the show is over for the day.

      The next day we try out a class – something easy I know they can do. If that went well they might do a 2nd class, it depends on the horse. If there is a 3rd day we might do another class or two or we might decide to take them home.

      The important thing is that the horse is happy and having fun. No challenges at the show – only easy stuff.

      With 3 year olds we usually try for a show in the middle of the summer and another later – August or September. I have noticed that my 3 year olds are calmer than many of the older horses in their classes that are also at their 1st show.

      Part of it is their breeding, but I believe that the rest is the training and experiences they have already had early in their life.

      Why is this important?

      When you take your horse to a 4 year old Dressage Young Horse Championship qualifying class he should have some experience in the show ring.

      There are only a limited number of shows offering these classes and you may find that there are only a couple close to you. You need to have scores from at least two different shows by two different judges in order to get ranked for the National Young Horse Championships.

      Before you spend the money and possibly travel some distance to attend one of these shows wouldn’t you like to know that your horse can go into the ring at a strange place and get a good score?

      If you live in an area where the winters are mild and you can show in the winter, you might be able to accomplish this early in the year when the horse is 4. But if you have to wait for late spring, like I do, it will be very difficult, and more stressful on your horse.

      Because our young mare showed successfully at training level as a 3 year old, we were able to take her to just two shows with the qualifying classes when she was 4.

      She made it to the National Young Horse Championships and then as a 5 year old scored 60’s and 70’s at 1st Level.

      We decided not to take her to the 5 year old Young Horse classes because she is a slow developing horse (in her growth) and we don’t think she is physically ready for the 5 year old test. Maybe the 6 year old classes next year 🙂 .

      As you can see, we don’t push our horses before they are ready, but we do give them the opportunity to be ready.

I hope this helps you to understand and take the steps necessary to be ready to successfully compete your talented young prospect at the 4 year old Dressage Young Horse Championship and qualifying classes.

I also hope that it gave you a better idea of what you are in for and what to expect.

Take a look at some interviews with Scott Hassler, the National USEF National Young Horse Coach, as he shares his Vision for Young Horses with DressageDaily reporter Kelly Sanchez; and talks with Mary Phelps about the 2011 Markel/USEF National Young Dressage Horse Championships Dressage results and where the program is going below:

I would really like to encourage you to participate in this program if you have a talented young Dressage horse.

It will be wonderful when the U.S. is competing on mainly “born in the USA” horses at FEI level High Performance Teams. We are breeding quality Sport Horses.

Let’s get them out there so they can be seen!

Are you thinking about taking that special young horse you have to the Dressage Young Horse Championship classes?

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Good Luck!

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