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It’s Never Too Late For Classical Foundation Training

By Carol Kurtz Darlington, Art2Ride Associate Trainer

In past generations around the world, young horses were started and trained gradually over a period of about two years. It was a methodical process that included work in hand and lunging until the horse was developed enough to carry a rider. Training under saddle began only when the horse’s back became strong enough to support the weight of a rider. We believe this training method is critical for every horse, no matter what discipline it will eventually participate in.

So what about older horses who have not had this foundational training? The good news is that the retraining of horses of any age is just like the training of a young horse. It takes the same amount of time too. However, it can be a challenging experience for the owner who is used to riding every day. In order to build a proper foundation it is necessary to temporarily take a few steps back so the horse can develop the way it should have been developed when it was young. As each month of this training passes with the horse using its topline for movement and not pulling itself along by the under-neck and shoulders, the overused muscles will atrophy and the correct musculature will develop. Your horse will develop a completely different profile as you see his withers come up, his belly lift, and his crest become rounder.

For us, this classical foundation retraining meant not riding our 17-year-old mare Sky for several months. I missed cantering and trotting, but I knew her canter and trot were too hollow and were actually damaging her and reinforcing the wrong muscle groups. We went back to the walk and used lateral movement to lift her back.

When the horse can walk actively swinging over its back, it is possible to begin riding the horse at the walk. Then when it is developed enough to trot with a consistent rhythm of the diagonal pairs, it is ready to be ridden at the trot. When the canter is no longer hollow, it can be ridden as well. You must be willing to do what’s best for your horse during this foundational training period and not necessarily what you want to do.

It takes a full year for a horse of any age to develop a topline and a second year to begin any degree of collection (flexion of the hocks that elevates the shoulders.) It is time well spent, as your horse will look and feel like a new horse. And because he is moving correctly, the percussion in the joints will be absorbed by the soft tissue which prevents many of the joint problems and injuries that plague so many horses.

I was talking this week with Cody about her 19-year-old Morgan, Tucker. Just a year ago, Tucker was badly swaybacked, broken between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae, and very overly developed on the underside of his neck. He moved stiffly, was uncomfortable, tense, and showed it by spooking, bucking, and kicking on a regular basis. Cody went back to square one and spent the last year giving him the foundation he never received, building his topline slowly as he progressed through the gaits. He is now a calm and happy horse that flows beautifully over his back and is able to carry Cody gracefully as if he is a 6-year-old.

When your horse is trained with these time-tested methods, you can enjoy riding a sound, happy horse for many years to come. The only requirement is being willing to invest the time it takes to give your horse the foundation it needs.

Cody and Tucker Before Classical Foundation Training
(Note the nose held behind the vertical, the dip in his back behind the saddle, and tension under his neck)

Cody and Tucker After One Year of Art2Ride Training
(Which horse looks more relaxed and happy to you? I cannot wait to see Tucker in another year of this training!)