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April 2007
  2007 Cherry Hill

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With foals popping out all over the country this time of year and many yearlings for sale, it is prime time to go horse shopping !

How do you choose a foal or young horse when you can't ride it?

If you've raised some young horses and wonder about their potential, this article is for you, too.Cherry Hill

Assessing Potential in the Young Horse

  2007 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information

Athletic ability can be both inherent and acquired but a champion will more likely emerge from a horse that possesses special talents from birth. Observation of the young horse as he interacts in a natural setting with other horses and as he responds to simple man-made tests can help determine his potential for a particular sport. Interpretation is most useful if several horses of the same age are compared. It is often evident shortly after birth if a horse has inherited his sire and/or dam's predilection for a particular event. A good pedigree doesn't ensure a high specialization aptitude, but it does increases the chances.

When evaluating a horse's mental set, begin by noting his sense of independence. An extraordinary physique with an insecure psyche will never reach full performance potential. Horses high on the pecking order of a herd may be more difficult to train but may also show added brilliance during performance. A horse that is low in the hierarchy may need constant reward in order to develop a good opinion of himself. For demanding sports such as dressage, hunting and eventing, it might be easier to teach willing cooperation to an aggressive horse than to develop boldness in a meek individual.

Bonding between horses in herds or stables can present a problem. A horse with a low independence aptitude is often more concerned with the location of his stable mate than with his rider's cues. The result is a half-hearted performance. Youngsters that have been weaned without trauma, that have enjoyed the companionship of a variety of herd-mates and that have been handled as individuals from birth tend to be curious and adventuresome. Try leading a yearling away from his herd-mates or if this is not possible, observe him in a safe pen separate from the others. Initial calling can be expected, but if it persists and builds to a frenzy, the horse lacks confidence. The insecure horse will be oblivious to attempts made by humans to communicate with him and may not pay attention to dangers and the limits of his confines. A horse with high self-esteem is usually quite independent. He will notice his separation from other horses, but chooses to investigate his new surroundings, remaining alert to things going on around him.

Even though domesticated horses depend on man for many of their needs, they still must take care of themselves. An individual with low self-preservation may stumble out of carelessness, panic through a fence as if he didn't see it, or have trouble locating feed and water areas when he is put in new facilities. Self-preservation is a combination of alertness and "horse sense". Although it is not necessary for a horse to be suspicious of everything, it is the nature of the horse to be wary of unusual circumstances. That is what has helped him to survive for so many years. Some family lines today have lost some natural instincts and tend to be over domesticated.

For assessment of self-preservation, prepare a test pen: place a few poles on the ground in a random fashion but where the horse must cross them; put a half-full bucket of water in the middle of the pen; lay an empty paper feed sack on the ground. Put the horse in the pen and note his reactions. The secure horse with low self-preservation may stumble over each rail as if they posed no threat, might paw the bucket and tip it over, will probably give little notice to the sack by shuffling over it or totally ignoring it. The insecure horse with low self-preservation may trot wildly and shy at the various objects or stand snorting in a corner with raised tail and no intentions of allaying his fears. The survivor may pause as he enters the pen and survey the overall scene. Then he will probably look down at each rail as he carefully steps over them, sniff the water in the pail without touching the sides of the bucket and inspect the sack to see if it might be harmful. Then he may likely stand calmly in a location that allows him to keep an eye on all of the objects.

Horses vary greatly in their tolerance for stress. Experience can increase an individual's tolerance, but some horses are still susceptible to sensory over-load in spite of their trainer's conditioning attempts. To test a horse's ability to sort out harmful stress, tie a bouquet of balloons on the rail of a horse's paddock. Or walk toward a horse's pen clapping your hands. Is he called to attention or does he immediately turn and run?

Some horses are better than others in adapting to domestication pressures. A horse that has lived in one stall or a particular pasture all of his life will probably find it hard to adapt to a new environment. A broad base of experience helps the horse to feel comfortable in a variety of circumstances. To gauge a horse's ability to adapt, put a pastured horse in a stall or a stalled horse in a pasture and watch the behavior initially and for several days.

  • Does the horse immediately locate the source for food and water?
  • Does he inspect the boundaries?
  • Does he develop a defecation pattern similar to his last?
  • Does he show signs of discomfort and distress by pawing, pacing or weaving?
  • Or does he stand at the pasture gate the majority of the time?
  • How long does it take the horse to develop his new daily routines?

A horse that has been properly socialized with man has respect but not fear of humans. Some individuals are "all horse" and a bit aloof while others seem to prefer human interaction and companionship to that of their species. Approach a group of horses in a pen. Staying the critical distance from them so that they settle, note which ones face you with alert ears and which ones huddle with their rumps toward you. Turning a rump toward a human can indicate fear or lack of respect. Close the distance between you and the herd. Do those facing you turn and move away, hold their ground or begin to step toward you. Watch the ears and head positions of the horses that have their rumps toward you. Which would be more likely to stand their ground and kick at an intruder and which would rather flee? Lead a horse on a slack line. Trot, then halt. If the horse crowds in front of you and steps on your toes, he lacks respect. If he swings to face you on a taut line, he may be fearful or arrogant. It is most productive to train a horse that is alert and slightly wary of your moves.

An honest horse makes his intentions clear and has no secrets from his handler. Others are testy and just wait for an opportunity to assert themselves. Dishonest horses are often very devious. They will never try anything naughty if they know they will be caught. Review something the horse has supposedly been taught to do well, such as unhaltering and turning loose. Be casual in your method, such as not retaining control of the horse with your arms or the lead rope as you unhalter. This is "baiting" the horse to do something wrong. The dishonest horse will sense the opportunity and may pull and wheel away prematurely. The honest horse will wait until your body language or voice tells him he can step away.

The alert cooperative horse learns a new lesson in a relatively short period of time. Others may require many lessons and frequent reviews. Intelligence plus adaptability equals trainability. Choose something the horse has not been taught, such as moving the hindquarters over. Using similar aids to turn on the forehand, apply minimal cueing at first. Tip the horse's nose slightly toward you while applying intermittent pressure to the ribs in the approximate position of the rider's leg. The sensitive, alert horse often will perform this lesson correctly the first time from light finger pressure provided he has been set up in the proper position to comply with your aids. Other horses may require a convincing poke or a slap to get "unstuck". See how many attempts are necessary before the horse understands what is being asked of him. Once he gets the message, does he begin to anticipate by swinging quickly away as your fingers approach his rib cage? The most desirable horse is one that learns quickly, requires minimal cuing and responds to each cue with a separate reaction and without anticipation.

A conformation analysis should include an evaluation for quality, substance, proper proportions and correct angles. Quality is the overall merit of the horse. It is largely determined by genetics and is exhibited by well-defined features, smoothness of hair coat and classy appearance. Substance can refer to depth and type of muscling, circumference and density of bone, roominess of joints and size of hooves. Proportions dictate how well the horse's body will work as a unit. Young horses may show desirable proportions at various times (such as birth and weaning) but imbalance at others (yearling to two year old). Most balanced foals grown into balanced adults. The adult should have an approximately equal relationship between their leg length and girth. The forehand should not be excessively heavier than the hindquarters. The topline should conform to these ratios: the neck should be equal to or greater in length than the back and the rump should be equal to or greater than 2/3 the length of the back. Correctness of angles, particularly of the limbs, gives a horse a better chance of reaching his potential while remaining sound.

Besides conformation, other physical traits should be considered. Observing young sport horses at play in a pasture can separate those with the movement for dressage and those that are naturals at jumping. The proprioceptive sense allows a horse to rely on neuromuscular transmissions rather than entirely on sight to negotiate an obstacle. This is essential for hunter/jumpers and eventers. Free-jumping or longeing a three year old prospect over a small course can be very enlightening. Natural talent and balance shows up as the horse goes over a fence the first time. Subsequent attempts might show the horse is interested in improving his performance or that he is getting careless or bored. Younger horses can be led or longed over ground rails or cavalletti on the lowest setting.

Starting with the rails five feet apart, familiarize the youngster by leading at the walk, and if appropriate, at the trot. Compare the first, second and third attempts. If the horse maintained composure through all three, hang on to him! It may be less desirable if the horse does well the first time and his attempts deteriorate than if he lightly taps a rail initially but goes clean after that. Coordination is closely coupled to the proprioceptive sense. A horse is well coordinated if his body functions harmoniously when performing complex movements. Ask a yearling to canter just as he approaches a one foot jump in his longeing pen. Watch the way a prospect changes leads as he plays in the pasture. The flexibility of the horse's spine is especially important for dressage and jumping. A stiff horse can experience pain and/or damage when he is required to bend. A horse should be able to arc his head around to each shoulder and hold it there without distress and without moving his hindquarters. Holding a horse along a solid fence and trying this on each side will reveal muscular resistance.

A sensitive horse is more receptive to cues. Individuals with large eyes and nostrils and keen hearing perceive more subtle distinctions in their environment. Nerve endings on the thin-skinned, sensitive horse are close to the surface and readily receive stimuli from the rider's aids. Approach a group of horses in a pasture. Which one is the first to hear you as you approach? Exert pressure on the horse's tendon above the fetlock. What is necessary to get the horse to pick up his hoof? Examine the tongue. Is it pink, soft and thin-skinned or meaty and tough? Look at the interdental space. Is the skin covering the jawbone thick or thin?

The ratio of fat to muscle in the growing horse should be very low. A young horse that is an easy keeper, or has larger fat stores than his herd-mates, may have a lower metabolic rate and/or a more efficient digestive system. Although this may appear to be an advantage from a management standpoint, an over-conditioned youngster may turn into a lazy performer. A young horse that has the tendency to deposit fat in the neck or over the croup, may have difficulty as an adult with freedom of movement in those areas.

The efficiency of the heart and lungs in providing oxygen and dispersing waste products during and after exercise changes dramatically as the horse matures. Rapid breathing and heart rate are characteristic of the young horse. Comparisons with herd-mates is valuable. Recovery rate is most important. Two-year-olds that don't respond to conditioning programs would be inappropriate candidates for racing or other events requiring endurance.

Strength, or an all-out effort exerted by a single contraction of a muscle, is necessary for most sport horses. Choose a young horse with the depth of muscle appropriate for the activity.

The horse's ability to balance his shifting weight, and later the rider's during various maneuvers, is necessary in all sports. Equilibrium is measured from side to side as well as from front to rear. As a horse loads in a trailer, he experiences a weight shift to his hindquarters and then to his forehand. This should happen smoothly and without exaggerated head and neck movements. Some horses have lateral balance problems. If a horse longes in a smooth arc with freedom of movement to the right, but stiffly and awkwardly to the left, he is not naturally balanced. Horses that routinely take the counter lead or canter disunited when longed in a 20 meter circle have balance problems.

Toughness of joints and tendons is necessary for any work on deep, hard or irregular surfaces. Hunters and event horses, especially, need this type of durability. Long, sloping pasterns may provide a more comfortable ride to a certain degree, but may be associated with weak joints and tendons. Watch a prospect play in a deep sand pen, in a hard surfaced paddock, or in a pasture with uneven terrain. In each case, watch the flexion and extension of the joints and the horse's overall freedom of movement.

Physical relaxation is necessary for maximum athletic achievement. A horse that does not release tension is working against himself during performance. Muscles are essentially involved in a give and take situation as they contract and relax (agonist/antagonist). If a horse cannot relax completely he is creating a drag on one of his muscle groups because the reciprocal group cannot release its tension. Horses must breathe regularly throughout a workout and need to be relaxed in order to establish a rhythm. Watch a young horse in training on the longe line when he is asked to collect himself or extend; look for signs of tension when there is pressure exerted on the bit during long-reining.

Employing a few simple tests and making some observations can help when selecting a young prospect for a particular sport.

For more info on evaluting horses see: Horse For Sale

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