Aug 08, 2020

How to Prepare Young Horses for the Show Atmosphere with the O’Neals

By Claire Kelley - USEA Staff
Alex O'Neal and Armani Code competing at the 2019 USEA Young Event Horse Championships. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

Within their first few years of being born, young horses have the opportunity to get a taste of U.S. Eventing through the USEA’s young horse programs. The USEA Future Event Horse Program (FEH) evaluates the potential of yearlings, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, and 4-year-olds under saddle to become successful upper level event horses while the USEA Young Event Horse Program (YEH) evaluates the potential of 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds to become successful upper level event horses. Participants of both programs – Elinor MacPhail O’Neal and Alexander O’Neal have introduced over 25 young horses to the sport of eventing.

Based in Ocala, Florida, the husband-and-wife duo makes up O’Neal Equestrian where they train horses at every age and every level of eventing. In addition to training horses, they also breed horses specific for eventing, and stamp their stock with ‘Redtail’ in the horse’s name. Their barn contains a string of upper level horses, eight young event horses (all under the age of 6), and six foals on the way for 2020 and 2021.

Alex O'Neal and Redtail Achiever at the 2019 USEA Young Event Horse Championships. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

As a young horse develops both mentally and physically, the training and preparation can differ from that of an experienced event horse. The O’Neals explained, “It can be difficult to balance between having your young horse well prepared for a big event and putting too much pressure on them mentally and physically.”

“All young horses learn from a healthy dose of repetition and that’s why we try to schedule preparation events and outings in a cluster around six weeks before a major event. That way they are not only schooled and ready but also feel fresh and positive about their job because they haven’t been drilled and stressed with a long season. After a major event, we turn them out and let them enjoy being horses before picking up where we left off and starting the process all over again!”

A jam-packed warm-up ring, the announcer over the speaker system, a new neighbor in the barn, a show jumping ring like the Rolex Stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park – these sights and sounds are aspects of eventing that can be difficult to train at home. So, how can a young horse come to the big event well prepared for the atmosphere? “We try to take our young horses to as many jumper shows, cross-country schoolings, and mini horse trials as possible," the O’Neals shared. "Even if you don’t compete at the event, they can get just as much exposure in-hand or hacking around a place where other horses are schooling.”

“One of our favorite things to do is take a young horse in-hand while we teach cross-country lessons. It gets them exposed to spooky environments and used to horses passing them at pace in a calm and fun way.”

Ellie O'Neal presents a young horse in-hand at the 2020 FEH Symposium. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

The O’Neals have brought up many different types of young horses including Redtail Achiever, a 5-year-old Thoroughbred stallion who scored an impressive 81.5 percent in the 2019 USEA YEH East Coast 4-year-old Championship; Redtail Penumbra, a 5-year-old German Sport Horse mare who finished fifth in the 2019 USEA YEH East Coast 4-year-old Championship; Flash Harry, a 6-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding successfully competing at the Preliminary level; Trendy Lady, a 5-year-old Danish Warmblood mare; Armani Code, a 6-year-old Westphalian gelding; and more.

How the O’Neals prepare a young horse can depend on the personality type and breed. “It’s obvious to most everyone that off-the-track Thoroughbreds need to work more in the dressage ring because they don’t have the step up on the flat that most warmbloods had from a young age. But, it can be easy to forget that most warmbloods never learned to gallop either. We like to take our young warmbloods out with an older, seasoned horse and teach them to gallop in a balanced and adjustable way. We find this gives them a leg up on the cross-country and it’s a nice mental break from working in the arena.”

Lastly, the O’Neals shared a couple of their general tips in training young event horses. “The earlier you can expose [young horses] to new experiences, the better! We do not do much under saddle with our 3-year-olds, but it’s not too early to let them see poles, ditches, water, etc. and to hang out in the arena while the older horses work around them. We find the more relaxed you can make those experiences for them in the beginning, the easier and more trainable they are down the road.”

Alex O'Neal and Redtail Penumbra at the 2019 USEA Young Event Horse Championships. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

While the 2020 fall season is fast approaching, young event horses will be exposed to a big atmosphere if they compete at the upcoming The Dutta Corp. USEA Young Event Horse Championships, or at the USEA Future Event Horse Championships. The USEA hopes for everyone to have an educated preparation leading up to these upcoming championships!

About the USEA Young Event Horse Program

The Young Event Horse (YEH) Program was first established in 2004 as an eventing talent search. Much like similar programs in Europe, the YEH program was designed to identify young horses aged four and five, that possess the talent and disposition to, with proper training, excel at the uppermost levels of the sport. The ultimate goal of the program is to distinguish horses with the potential to compete at the four- and five-star levels, but many fine horses that excel at the lower levels are also showcased by the program.

The YEH program provides an opportunity for breeders and owners to exhibit the potential of their young horses while encouraging the breeding and development of top event horses for the future. The program rewards horses who are educated and prepared in a correct and progressive manner. At qualifying events, youngsters complete a dressage test and a jumping/galloping/general impression phase. At Championships, young horses are also evaluated on their conformation in addition to the dressage test and jumping/galloping/general impression phase. Click here to learn more about the Young Event Horse Program.

The USEA would like to thank Bates Saddles, SmartPak, Standlee Hay Company, Parker Equine Insurance, and Etalon Diagnostics for sponsoring the Young Event Horse Program. Additionally, the USEA would like to thank The Dutta Corp., Title Sponsor of the Young Event Horse Championships.

About the USEA Future Event Horse Program

The USEA introduced the Future Event Horse Program in 2007 in response to the popularity of the already established USEA Young Event Horse Program. Where the YEH program assesses 4- and 5-year-old prospective event horses based on their performance, the FEH program evaluates yearlings, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, and 4-year-olds for their potential for the sport based on conformation and type. Yearlings, 2-year-olds, and 3-year-olds are presented in-hand while 4-year-olds are presented under saddle at the walk, trot, and canter before being stripped of their tack and evaluated on their conformation. Divisions are separated by year and gender. At the Championships, 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds are also required to demonstrate their potential over fences in an additional free-jump division. Click here to learn more about the Future Event Horse Program.

The USEA would like to thank Bates Saddles, Parker Equine Insurance, SmartPak, Standlee Hay Company, Etalon Diagnostics, and Guardian Horse Bedding for sponsoring the Future Event Horse Program.

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