The correct age and way to break a young horse – an interview with German top trainer Uwe Schwanz

Breaking a horse requires skill and know-how. But being a good rider is not enough, says German top trainer Uwe Schwanz who, among others, has trained the Pan Am dressage team of Argentina and is trainer to many top riders and team members in dressage competitions and jumping. Our German correspondent, Tess Crebbin, who has previously spoken to Schwanz about correct riding in a widely read article that was translated into several languages and published around the world, re-visited his yard to get some valuable insight into the correct way of breaking a young horse.

Q: Mr. Schwanz, you are one of Germany’s top trainers for dressage and jumping. Among others, you are known as one of this nation’s leading producers of young competition horses. Could you tell us what is the correct age for breaking a young horse?

US: Between 3.5 and 4 years old, as a rule of thumb. Especially warmblood horses take a long time to develop and grow, and it is important to give the young horse time to mature and develop bone structure before backing it. The horse also needs to be ready mentally. If you start too young, you can do damage on a physical and psychological level, resulting in a horse that is tense instead of willing, and that may later have all sorts of problems with injuries because of weak bone structure when first being broken. If you want a horse that is easy to ride, and performs for you a long time, you need to wait and give it time.

Q: There are exceptions to this rule, however?

US: As there are for every rule. A lot of it depends on the individual horse and its physical and mental development. Some horses mature quicker than others. Stallions can generally be backed a little bit earlier. For the youngster championships we have here in Germany, the horses are 3 years old, but in that case, we are very careful about not asking to much of them.

Q: Can you walk us through what you do, when breaking a young horse, step by step, please?

US: The horse is taken in from the field at three and a half, or, in some cases, 3 years old (see exceptions). Until then, we leave them completely alone. No lunging, no handling beyond the basics like teaching it to be tried up, groomed, and have its feet picked. And, of course, no freejumping just to see “how high he can go”. The horse will have spent its first 3 years out in the field with others of its own age, since age of 6 months, and before then with its mother. When he comes in, he is raw.
Q: And then?

US: We start by getting him slowly and carefully used to the bridle. The bit is put on, then the horse is lunged for a few days, learning to react to voice commands and to respect the pull on the bit. And we don’t overdo it. 10-15 mins is enough for the start. We always finish on a positive note, rewarding the horse for a task well done, in order to give it an experience of success and of doing things right. The horse naturally and instinctively wants to please, and it is important to create success experiences for it to keep its joy up.

Q: The remainder of the day?

US: We turn him out in the field, or handle him in or around the stable, just to get used to being around and working with people.

Q: Then you back him?

US: Heavens’ no! The risk of injury on backing a young horse without saddle is far too great. I realize that this is an approach often used in, let’s say, the United States. You take the horse, put a halter on, have someone lead it around, and then you put some unfortunate person on its back and hope for the best. This is a risk to both, horse and rider. The rider, of course, because if the horse should buck or rear, you have very little to hold on to. The horse because saddles were invented for a number of reasons, one of them being to distribute the weight evenly across the horse’s spine and not just concentrate it on one or two isolated points where damage can result.

Q: So then what?

US: After the horse has gotten used to the bit and lunges willingly with it, we get him used to the saddle. Initially, the saddle is placed on the horse and taken off again, and the horse is rewarded. Then, in the next stage, the girth is tightened, and the horse rewarded again. Eventually, we arrive at the stage where we have a saddled and bridled horse, carrying both without resistance. Then it is time to lunge the horse with saddle on.

Q: Again only short intervals?

US: Correct. And we start by lunging with saddle but without side-reins. This is done for a few days. During that stage, we may do such things as lunging with the stirrups down for a brief time, to get the horse used to having something at his sides, and prepare the way for later the rider’s legs being there.

Q: Then come the sidereins?

US: That is the next stage. But remember to keep them fairly long. You must not frame a young horse too soon or you will frighten it and also cause damage by forcing the neck into position before its time. The side-reins are there to give the horse some framing, but in a generous space. They act as preparation for the rider’s hands, as the horse learns to respect the light pull on both sides of the bit.

Q: When do you finally back?

US: As I said at the start, one of the most important things to keep in mind when breaking a horse is to take your time. Only then can you produce a horse that will respect and accept its rider at all times, something that is later very important in competitions. After a few days of lunging with saddle and bridle, again never too long, it is time to put the rider on his back. Initially, we have three people for this: the rider, someone to hold the horse at its head while he mounts, and the person who lunges in the middle. The rider is given a leg up, in order to not produce pull on the stirrups in the instance of first mounting, and then lays across the horse’s back. If the horse accepts this, he is patted and rewarded. If he does not, he is calmly spoken to, never punished, and we keep trying until he accepts the weight across his back. Most horses will do so, if brought on as carefully as described. If they really don’t, then it is time to call in the vet and check for covert physiological problems that may be present.

Q: How long will the rider lay across the horse’s back?

US: Again, this depends on the horse, but generally not longer than a minute before he carefully places his other leg across the back, and sits astride. Yet, great care must be taken not to touch the horse’s croup, as this may spook him, and to keep all movements very calm.

Q: Then you lunge again?

US: Yes, and this should now be easy. We start at a walk, to get the horse used to carrying the weight and maintain his balance. The side-reins have prepared him for the contact with the bit, which the rider now maintains, but with very soft hands. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of soft hands, so the horse learns to react to the slightest pull on the reins. We start with the command for walk and halt, which the horse knows from his time of being lunged without rider, and teaching him to combine the voice commands of the lunge leader with the soft aids of the rider on his back. It may take a day or two before we go over to trot, eventually canter. Very important before each backing session is that we lunge the horse without rider first, to refresh the commands and prepare him for what is to come. The time with the rider on his back is initially kept very short, perhaps 15 minutes, gradually increasing, in order not to ask too much too soon.

Q: How soon before you let him off the lunge?

US: Once the horse willingly accepts the rider in all three basic gaits, maintaining a generous outline (ie, he must not be asked to collect at this stage), it is then time to let him work in the full size school, following an older horse in order to provide security. In introducing the full school, again we take it easy, gradually going to from walk to walk and trot, eventually adding canter as well. When this works, which again may take days, or sometimes weeks depending on the horse, it is time to send him around the full school on its own, concentrating on the rider and his aids, initially still supported by voice commands learned on the lunge, and eventually reacting only to the rider’s aids. But before backing a young horse in these early stages, we always lunge him without rider first, to give him some time to get rid of excess energy and to prepare him for the task at hand.

Q: Once he is doing well, going around the full size of the school, then it is out for a hack?

US: With an older horse as guide, and usually this works very well. Short periods, and with plenty of reward for the young horse. Let him look at things he does not know, use voice, pats and other means of positive reinforcement.

Q: That done, it is time for serious work?

US: We usually then turn the horse out again for a few months, even half a year, before bringing him back in to start working seriously at age 4, or 3.5 if the initial breaking was done at age three in the case of a fast developer. Generally, the rule of thumb is that, if you want a long and fruitful relationship, you need to give your horse time during the breaking in stage, and he will thank it to you in the end.

By Tess Crebbin

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