Mar 29, 2023

Learning about Young Event Horses: Setting Goals

By Jonathan Horowitz - USEA Staff
HSH Blake and Caroline Martin jump cross-country in front of the spectacular crowds at the FEI WBFSH Eventing World Breeding Championships at Mondial du Lion. Libby Law photo

Many riders across all levels have found that working with young horses has provided them with the most valuable experiences in eventing. The opportunities for young event horses have never been more exciting. The Dutta Corp. USEA Young Event Horse East Coast and West Coast Championships continues to grow in profile as the culmination of a calendar of qualifying events is expanding to more areas of the country. More American riders and their young horses are aiming for the FEI WBFSH Eventing World Breeding Championships at Mondial du Lion in Le Lion D’Angers, France, particularly thanks to programs like the Holekamp/Turner YEH Lion d’Angers Grant.

That’s become one of the most attended events in the world. It’s given young event horses from the United States a chance to represent the growth of the American eventing community’s dedication to properly developing talent in the sport.

In addition, at the 2022 USEA Annual Meeting & Convention, the USEA Board of Governors voted to approve the inagural U.S. based 6- and 7-year-old young event horse championships to take place in 2023. More details will be announced surrounding these championships at a later date.

Then, at the lower levels, working with young horses gives riders the opportunity to teach their horses the foundational skills for eventing, whether those are horses just starting in an equestrian sport or horses that were previously racehorses.

There are many factors to consider when working with a young event horse: desired breed, gender, size, and bloodlines; evaluating conformation; gauging temperament; the background of the horse as just starting or having previously competed in another sport; what a good workload would be; and when to start showing and what the benefits of showing are.

So, over the course of the year leading up to and beyond the YEH championships, the United States Eventing Association is going tackle different topics so that eventers can have the most positive experience possible when working with young horses. The first: Setting goals for young event horses.

The highest goal to achieve with a young event horse on the world stage is the FEI WBFSH Eventing World Breeding Championships at Mondial du Lion in Le Lion D’Angers, France. Upwards of 40,000 spectators create an atmosphere celebrating the best 6-year-old and 7-year-old event horses in the world at the CCI2*-L and CCI3*-L levels, respectively.

Caroline Martin has set Le Lion as a goal and become one of the most successful American riders to compete there. Her first time at Le Lion was with King’s Especiale (Connect x Cha Cha Cha Special) in 2021 when the warmblood gelding was 6 years old. Then, she returned the following year to finish second with the Irish Sport Horse gelding HSH Connor (Connor 48 x Galwaybay Merstona) in the CCI2*-L 6-year-old championship and 10th with the Irish Sport Horse gelding HSH Blake (Tolan R x Doughiska Lass) in the CCI3*-L 7-year-old championship.

“It’s fantastic to see what the quality of horses worldwide is and where your horses stand up compared to the world,” Martin said. “It’s a staple part of my program now, and I think it’s so important to be at Lion, especially for us Americans. I think it’s important for us to keep going over there and showing the world we do have quality horses, and we produce quality horses.”

HSH Connor and Caroline Martin. USEA/Jessica Duffy photo

In this sense, Martin compares the prestige of Le Lion to a five-star event.

“It would be very similar because everything is equal to experience,” she said. “Riding a 6- or 7-year-old at Le Lion, that’s the hardest thing they’ve done. It would be similar to getting a horse to a five-star because that’s where the horse’s level is at.”

In addition to the achievements and accolades they have bestowed, working with young horses has served as the basis for Martin’s business. She currently works with a combination of more than 50 sales and personal horses, many of whom are sourced from Ireland by her business partner, Kelley Hutchinson, the namesake behind the HSH Sport Horses.

“That’s how we started doing so much YEH, and it’s easier and cheaper to buy younger horses rather than ‘going’ horses for the sales business and my personal string of horses,” Martin said. “We’re looking for YEH winners as yearlings, if that makes sense.”

In the United States, the USEA Young Event Horse Program (YEH) was founded in 2004 and has gained prestige with East Coast and West Coast championships, as well as serving as a springboard for future eventing success.

“I believe doing the YEH as a 4- and 5-year-old is a stepping stone to Le Lion, and I think Le Lion is a stepping stone to World Championships for these horses,” Martin said.

Natagho-W and Kristin Joly winning the 2022 Duta Corp. USEA Young Event Horse 4-Year-Old West Coast Championship. USEA/Tina Fitch photo

For instance, 10 entrants at the Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event in 2022 were YEH graduates, and Fleeceworks Royal (Riverman x Marisol) was a former YEH champion.

“I produced her from a 3-year-old on, and it was quite exceptional to have a horse from the very beginning,” Tamie Smith said about Fleeceworks Royal. “Having a horse that you almost break and take from their first horse show through the Kentucky five-star—it took us 10 years to get her ready for a five-star—it was really awesome to go all the way through the levels.”

Tamie Smith and Fleeceworks Royal at Le Lion d'Angers. Libby Law photo

The Holsteiner mare, bred by Charlotte Wrather and owned by Judith McSwain, won the USEA YEH 5-year-old West Coast Championship in 2014. She was the Holekamp/Turner Lion d’Angers Grant recipient in 2016 and competed at Le Lion as a 7-year-old.

“It was a wonderful, special thing to tick all the bucket list you’d want to do throughout a horse’s career and be able to do it on one that you’ve produced from the very beginning was really awesome,” Smith said.

However, producing young horses isn’t, nor should it be, all about the top levels. To this end, the USEA New Event Horse Program (NEH) is launching in 2023 to develop a "horse most likely to become a competent, safe, and fun adult amateur, junior, or young rider horse at the Preliminary levels and below," according to the official description of the program.

“The amateur side is the bread and butter of eventing worldwide,” said Chris Ryan, who has worked with young horses at the highest levels of racing and eventing for more than four decades and who has come to the United States from Ireland to serve as a judge for YEH championship events. “The demographic of 90-centimeter [Novice] to a 1.10-meter [Preliminary], that’s where most of the horses are. For the marketplace, that is absolutely huge. They don’t have to be five-star horses, but they have to be very proficient to that level. It’s a great target market.”

Depending on the goal at which they wish to compete, amateur riders will benefit from working with different young horses than what professionals desire.

“If it’s someone that’s starting out or starting back, that’s a different horse they’re looking for than a hotshot young rider who’s looking for a horse to take them up the levels,” said Richard Lamb, an ECP-certified YEH Professional Horse Trainer, Bronze with Distinction, based in Aiken, South Carolina.

Lamb’s advice for amateur riders seeking young horses: “You want a horse that will stop and think about the situation and wait for you to a certain extent. You don’t always want a horse you have to be kicking or pushing all the time to get the job done, but you tend to do better at the lower levels with a horse that you don’t have to hold.”

Regardless of the end goal, providing a young event horse with positive first experiences in the sport is critical.

“This is my one shot to make the most suitable future,” Smith said. “So, how would I carefully plan and orchestrate it? Horses do not think like people, and it’s very important that we as riders and as trainers, no matter if we’re green at it, have the right team behind us to help us understand how they think and that if it’s not going as great as you were hoping that you get the right people who can help you.”

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