Developing Horse - Specialization Age
Specialization should really begin when a horse hits its first day of a 6 y.o. birthday, i.e. 60 months old, and has been trained properly and holistically for the previous 4 years: 2 years as young remount horse, and another 2 years as an old remount horse.
The term 'remount horse' comes not only from the idea that a horse is in its basing learning riding phase of a performance career, but also it is a generalized term that does not have a discipline title in it. It is a remount and a young horse, and neither a young eventing horse, nor a young showjumping horse, nor a young dressage horse.
To be fair, we can say that a horse has show jumping or dressage bloodlines, but we should not tag a horse for a specialized discipline purely based on bloodlines, and training a horse narrowly for a certain discipline from the start would be a disservice to a horse.
Following the concept of a training tree, before its 6 y.o. birthday, a remount/young horse needs to be cross-trained across all workloads, in other words, its proper development includes a large variety and diversity of exercises on the flat, in the fields, and over fences. This concept of a training tree is described in the following sources :
by Colonel Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner in his "Elements of Dressage, A Guide for Training a Young horse"
"H. Dv. 12: Army Riding Regulation 12, German Cavalry Manual on the Training of Horse and Rider" translated by Stefanie Reinhold
by Wilhelm Museler in his "Riding Logic", with classical Lessons in Flatwork and Jumping.
It is a common perception that eventing is the most dangerous discipline and is very demanding for horse's stamina and soundness due to high speeds, distances, and jumping over solid obstacles. However, judges and veterinarians, who observe horses from different disciplines (e.g. a dressage judge who judges dressage tests in dressage and in the dressage portion of eventing, or a showjumping judge, who judges stadium showjumping and a jumping portion of eventing triathlon), note in unison that they see much looser happier horses with swinging backs among eventing mounts of ages from 5 to 9 y.o. rather than in dressage or show jumping where in North America specialization begins much too early.
Unfortunately, equestrian associations are built around specialized disciplines (USEA, USDF, USHJA), with each having their own "young horse, developing horse" programs that lock a horse into a discipline (membership fees, registration, shows, training operations, and facility, etc.). Once you started in one discipline, it is hard to break out of it, and even harder to provide your horse with holistic training.
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Specialization as a show jumper includes ability of a horse to completely relax back muscules in free jumping and under saddle in bacqule, be steady on the bit between fences and ideally come on the bit right at landing, develop substantial speed between the fences on a course, stay cool and take rider's direction and aids while being very high on the arousal curve, have ability to collect canter and sit deep on haunches within a stride or two on demand, or on autopilot at take-off point, have hyperactive shoulder and accomodating high fences on landing hind end.
When we at Equestrian Insider talk of a show jumper, we do not talk of an American 'hunter', which is a totally different jumping style, and is not a part of the training tree for a young or remount horse by any means. The key differences in a hunter training are absence of basic requirements of contact (being on the bit) in the frame, not pursuing horisontal or uphill balance, not requiring sufficient bascule with a natural hand release, not requiring high speeds on a course, overall smaller fences on a course, less combinations and complexity, more focus on looks and stride regularity, different judging system.
A show jumper and a hunter stand as far apart, as a dressage mount stands apart from an English pleasure mount. Ironically, we have a combined USHJA that enables blending of these two different disciplines in the same training facility and often presented by one trainer, on the same horses. This, among other things, creates confusion and complexity for those equestrians who pursure holistic development of their young or remount warmblood horses.
This is where we work with you to help evaluate if you have a hidden gem suitable for show jumping, help design the training program for your maturing mount and connect you with trainers and clinicians, who will be able to assist your jumping part of the training program.
Eventer needs to be bold. You pick eventing when both you and your horse enjoy speed and you are brave, but thinking. Like we mentioned in our discussion about specialization age above, because of a balanced cross-training that eventing implies event horses are usually in a very good shape, fresh, athletic, with much less back problems than horses specialized in (ironically) show jumping or dressage.
Probably because eventing combines training routines that allow a horse express itself in various dimentions, it makes horses and riders really well developed and happy. Show jumpers do not do enough flat work or work in the fields, and dressage horses are not exposed to significant amount of jumping and going on a terrain.
For some horses and riders cross-country is either not feasible (no cross-country course in a good proximity to your training stable, or gallop and jumping feels a little bit too much), but your horse jumps in a stadium quite well. Then you do the eventing duo - show jumping and dressage.
Competing in two separate disciplines of show jumping and dressage for the same horse is economically and organizationally difficult in the USA (different associations - USDF and USHJA, different show locations and competition days, home stables are usually specialized around only one discipline in terms of training arenas, equipment, schedule, and training personnel).
Based on the training tree, while you and your horse are going in the lower levels, it is more practical to do it as eventing duo, but once you really excel, it could make sense to make a shift for your next competition years, sequentially, to show jumping and then dressage. There are some famous Grand Prix mounts and riders who won prises in both Grand Prix show jumping, and Grand Prix dressage with the same horse.
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Our point of view on dressage is that this is a "default" discipline any horse can fall into at a specialization age. The main reason being that even the highest level movements are only natural movements that a horse does in freedom anyway. Dressage accepts horses of various breeds, conformations, heights, temperament, and riders of very different ages can compete in same class, same ring. However, for some horses it is still quite difficult to make a transition from collection and balance required at second level USDF, to the real collection and balance required at third level. Many horses perform movements at third level and beyond to Grand Prix nominally in required gates, but the correctness of these movements is not there, and horses might barely hit the 60% test mark, keeping it mostly in 50%+.
The warmblood breeding (especially European) these days is such that a well-bread horse already puts a tactful rider at a 65-70% merely based on its naturally brilliant gates and loose form of going with a swinging back. All a rider needs is to not mess a horse up and remember the test. If you have a horse like that, dressage is really fun and flattering, because your baseline is much higher than what most mounts could have in your class.
But if your horse for conformation reasons and training history does not have this high base line, the good news is that you still can practice and compete in dressage based on your superb technique. This is a whole different world! You may not go to the Olympics with a horse like that, but you can get to Regional shows, and can surely perform successfully at 60%+ in the local recognized shows. Horses are amazing creatures, they may have no natural trot or natural walk, or natural canter (meaning they look like 4), but with rider's guidance they transform unrecognizably to their gates being marked as 7 or even 8 by a judge observing a horse in a show ring.
This is why when you buy a horse, see a horse in freedom first (not even on a lunge line), and only then see it presented by a professional rider. Professional riders can add much more value to how a horse goes than one might think. Change a rider, and a horse is not the same at all.
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