To compete at the five-star level in eventing takes a lifetime of hard work and training, but to compete at the five-star level and finish in the top three is even more difficult. That’s what Maya Black and her former longtime partner, Doesn’t Play Fair (Camiros x Oncoeur), a 15.2 hand Holsteiner gelding owned by Dawn and Jonathan Dofelmier, did in 2016. Before their third-place finish at the Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2016, Black started riding Doesn’t Play Fair (aka "Cody") as a young event horse. The pair collected top finishes at every level of eventing, and in 2016 they were named the traveling reserve combination for the U.S. team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Their partnership ended in 2017 as Cody went back to Dawn Dofelmier to compete at the lower levels, but since then Black has built a competitive string of young horses that Black considers to be the “most talented string of horses she’s ever had.” She is currently based out of Anita Antenucci's Arden Farm where they have 13 horses between the ages of weanlings to 4 year olds and most have participated in either the USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) Program and/or the USEA Future Event Horse (FEH) Program. Black also has a string of horses horses ranging in ages from 4 to 10 and almost all of those are graduates of the USEA YEH program and/or the USEA FEH program.
The upper level event horses in Black’s string include Laurie Cameron’s Miks Master C (Mighty Magic x Qui Luma CBF), an 8-year-old Swedish Warmblood gelding who started his event career through the USEA FEH program as a 3-year-old. He graduated onto the USEA YEH program the following year, and now, in 2020 the 8-year-old gelding has just successfully completed his second CCI4*-S at Great Meadow International. Another 8-year-old gelding owned by Laurie Cameron is Maks Mojo C (Mighty Magic x MS Winter Morning) who was named the FEH 2-year-old Reserve Champion at the USEA FEH East Coast Championships in 2014 and the FEH 3-year-old Reserve Champion in 2015. Five years later, and Black and Maks Mojo C just finished 10th out of 44 competitors in the CCI3*-S at Great Meadow International. In addition to these two talented horses, Black also competes her own 10-year-old German Sport Horse gelding, FE Black Ice (Stakkato’s Highlight x Co-Co); Anita Antenucci’s 4-year-old Thoroughbred mare Arden Katniss (Jaguar Mail x Lioness); and Laurie Cameron’s two 5-year-old Hanoverian geldings: Double Diamond C (Diacontinus x Lois Lane CBF) and Lanthan Lights C (Lanthan x Winter Morning). These promising 5-year-olds first started their event careers in 2016 as yearlings through FEH, and have finished in the top 10 at both the USEA FEH Championships and the USEA YEH 4-year-old Championships.
With two horses qualified to compete this year at The Dutta Corp. USEA YEH 5-year-old Championships, Black shared how she trains young event horses for big events and emphasized the importance of preparing ahead of time. “Have realistic goals and work the timeline back from the event with ample cushion room," she said. "It’s not worth it for the young horse’s long-term well-being to cram. This creates unnecessary stress both physically and mentally that can be avoided with better planning."
“Ideally, the last week before you go to something like this, you can walk ditches and pop off a bank but you’re not drilling them. You want them to be mentally and physically there for you, and not exhausted and frustrated.”
“You might want to practice at a dressage schooling show two weeks before a big event, not just for the atmosphere, but also for the dressage ring. The dressage ring in itself can be a little bit claustrophobic for horses and riders if not used to riding in one regurlarly.”
“Some horses can find a pre-ride useful, but use it to focus and expose the horse to the banners, flags, atmosphere, and not to make them tired and resentful.”
For general young horse training, Black said, “I always make sure their tummies are happy. It seems simple, but young horses are under many life changes over the first few years under saddle. Hauling down the road to cross-country school might not seem like a big deal to us, but something that simple can lead to stress-induced ulcers and behavioral issues that could have been prevented. As a rule of thumb, no large quantities of grain right before they are ridden, but make sure they have hay, grass, and/or chopped alfalfa.”
“I generally find the groundwork the most helpful. I don’t let horses, especially young horses, just run circles on the lunge line. [I practice] lots of transitions and change of direction. Running in circles will just get their body sore and tired, their legs injured, and no less focused on you. A few good bucks is okay, but one circle max before [it’s time] to regain their focus.”
In addition to The Dutta Corp. USEA YEH Championships, there is also the upcoming USEA FEH Championships for yearlings, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, and 4-year-olds. Black advised what to do when it’s a baby horse’s first time off the farm. “Make sure that you have basic groundwork down (haltering, leading). I would bring a calmer buddy horse to help with trailering and getting familiar with the new area. I would start with a small trip, like trailering to the neighbor’s house that has an indoor arena. Keep it simple if it’s the horse’s first time in the trailer.”
For a horse’s first show, Black said, “I would pick a venue that will have good footing, a good-sized warmup area, and that you are schooling at home bigger than what’s asked at the show. You have to get their focus and attention on you – that would be the biggest thing. Generally speaking, horses don’t want to be ‘hot’, but they might have more of those tendencies given their past experiences or lack of exposure. Ill fitting tack or other pain can lead to a horse seeming 'hot' or not wanting to go forward. Each horse is different, and as a young horse trainer you have to read that and make the appropriate choices and have realistic expectations for them.”
There are several tips that Black shared and the most general tip was to have loads of patience. “Don’t be in a hurry - progressive baby steps get you there much faster. Keep the young horses happy and wanting to learn. As a young horse trainer, you have the opportunity to make something great and train a horse with little to no baggage. Don’t screw it up!”
Black also recommended using neck straps. “Young horses are unpredictable and athletic. Don’t get yourself hurt or have your horse’s mouth and back punished for their exuberance.”
For shoeing, Black likes to have the young horses drilled and tapped. “The footing and weather can be inconsistent wherever you are, which can affect a young horse’s confidence. We, as riders, can easily prevent [this] by putting studs in to help them feel secure when they have a spook at a new looking jump or are on new footing/terrain.”
Lastly, “Keep in mind that all horses are not created equal, meaning that their breeding, conformation, and their past experiences may be different, so you have to treat every horse as an individual.”
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.
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