Mar 18, 2021

Understanding the Young Event Horse with Andrew McConnon

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
Andrew McConnon and D'Luxe Steele at the 2019 USEA Young Event Horse Championships. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

“I like to get them on my side – I think trust and understanding are the most important things for training a young horse.”

Based out of Tallwood Farm in Southern Pines, North Carolina, Andrew McConnon has been competing in eventing since he was 14 years old. He worked first with Marc Donovan, then Robert Costello, and in 2016 spent two years in England working for William Fox-Pitt. Now, McConnon has an operation training and competing horses and instructing a group of riders. Throughout his career, he has extensive experience producing young horses.

Among the sales and competition horses in his barn, McConnon has a couple of horses that will compete in the USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) 4- and 5-year-old classes this year, as well as a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old that have graduated from the YEH Program competing at the upper levels this year. “I really like the Young Event Horse Program,” McConnon commented. “I think it produces them really well.”

“Horses are very talented,” McConnon observed. “I think most of them can jump the height of the fences we ask them to jump, but if they don’t understand their jobs or they don’t feel comfortable with not only their rider but with themselves, that can limit a horse pretty drastically. So, if a horse understands me and what I’m going to ask of them, that becomes very important.”

“I’m one that likes to keep how I ride them at home similar to how I ride them at a competition – I don’t like to wildly change how I want them at home versus a competition,” he added. “Especially for the young horses, I want it to be repetitive and almost predictable in a pleasant way.”

Andrew McConnon and FE Caspian at the 2020 USEA Young Event Horse Championships. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

To establish that trust and understanding, McConnon said there are two key elements to his approach. The first is making sure he has the time to devote to establishing a relationship with each horse. “You can either have a lot of horses that you have a ‘lighter’ impact on, or a fewer number of horses that you have a greater impact on,” he observed. “Personally, I’m happier with a smaller group of horses that I’m more involved with. That doesn’t mean I always need to be the one who rides the horses – I think that’s a common misconception, that if you have fewer horses you like to be the only one on their back. But I actually think it’s good for a young horse to have different types of riders on their back and have that be okay.”

The second technique is simpler than you might expect – more hacking. “Spend more time on their backs,” McConnon said. “When I was overseas working for William, it was important for us to be on the horse’s back for a long time each day. But, that doesn’t mean you have to be working them or asking a lot of them. I think young horses like to know who you are as much as we like to know who they are, and I think that becomes more important as you move up the levels. You want to know their personality and how they react.”

Hacking wasn’t the only technique that McConnon carried over from his time spent working with Fox-Pitt – he also took in Fox-Pitt’s philosophy on working with young horses. “One of the most impressive things about William is that he really believes in each horse,” McConnon said. “He approaches each horse with an open mind and believes that each horse can be successful. Like people, the more you raise the bar for the horse and believe in them and put your trust in them, they rise to that expectation. Instead of being negative about their ability or scope or fitness, if you raise the bar, horses will often rise to meet that. I think that’s really important.”

McConnon, who used to do some work with CANTER helping to retrain off-the-track Thoroughbreds, also talked about his appreciation for the Thoroughbred. “The horse that took me to my first Advanced was an off-the-track Thoroughbred,” McConnon shared. “Thoroughbreds hold a special place in my heart and I think that they make wonderful event horses for multiple reasons. If you have a good Thoroughbred, you’re laughing at the end of cross-country. Thoroughbreds and Thoroughbred blood is very important in the sport of eventing.”

USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

When it comes to practical tips on how to start your young horse, McConnon has a few suggestions. The first is, when introducing your young horse to something new, do it with another horse. “Horses are herd animals, as we all know,” McConnon said. “So, when I take a horse cross-country schooling for the first time, even if they’re brave and you think they’re going to be no problem, I really like to bring a seasoned horse along, and there’s no harm or shame in having the young horse follow for the first time. Follow into the water, over the ditch, just so he can copy the more experienced horse. It takes the stress out of it to have a buddy.”

Another tool McConnon advocated for is trotting fences. “Trotting fences can be very important for footwork and for understanding,” he explained. “I think a lot of riders don’t like to trot fences but I think trotting fences for horses, whether it’s cross-country or show jumping, can be a good way for them to understand where their feet are and how to use their body without speed.”

The most important thing to remember, McConnon said, is that it’s okay for your young horse to make mistakes. “As riders, and especially as competitors, we try and minimize mistakes as much as we can, but I think letting them figure it out and not always having it be perfect is important. When we do get into competition, sometimes we are going to be a little bit long or a little bit close to a jump, and that needs to be part of the learning process instead of being such a surprise when you get there.”

His last piece of advice? “Get out of the arena! We are in the dressage and jumping arenas all the time and I think the horses need to be outside, on terrain and different footing, and not get sour. I was terrible in school, but I learned a lot more when it was practical and I could do things hands-on and I think horses are the same way. If you go in circle after circle, they’re just going to get sour. We need them to find that fun and excitement.”

“It has to be fun for the riders and it has to be fun for the horses if they’re going to do it long term,” McConnon concluded. “A lot of people have said ‘going slow is the quickest way to get there,’ and if you’re spending the time you might as well fill in the holes so you don’t have to go back and do it later. Listen to the horses – they will tell you when they’re ready.”

USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

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, 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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