Training the Mature Hunter

Like people, horses need to “use it or lose it” as they age. Hunter rider and trainer Julie Curtin shares simple exercises to help keep aging horses strong, supple, balanced and interested in their jobs.

It’s an inconvenient truth for all of us: Aging is not for the faint of heart. The hard realities of aging and the need to stay in a disciplined program of good fitness are just as true for the horses we love as they are for ourselves.

Most good show horses enjoy their jobs. But once they get to be 10 or 12 years old, the normal wear and tear on their bodies starts to catch up with them. As show hunters mature, we start stepping them down to the lower divisions, from classes with 4-foot fences to 3-foot-6 and all the way down to 2-foot-6.

It’s nice for horses in their mid to late teens to have a second career and it gives us steady, experienced mounts who are perfect for a new rider or an older adult. If we give seasoned horses the right care and age-appropriate training, they can have many, many years of happily doing their jobs.

The key to this is fitness—keeping the horses active at least four to five times per week. As horses age, they tend to lose muscle fitness and jumping becomes harder on their joints. Standing in a stall is the worst thing for them. They need to stay fit and strong and keep the whole body working. The training doesn’t need to be intensive but it needs to be active.

The following simple exercises, when done regularly, will help you keep your mature horse supple, strong, balanced and interested in his job. And who doesn’t want that in their equine partner?

Buying a Mature Hunter 

There is an old saying, “Green plus green equals black and blue.” If you are a novice rider, you should always consider buying a seasoned horse—a horse who has the knowledge to cover up your mistakes. Learning is easier when your horse knows his job. Work with an established trainer whom you trust and look for a “Steady Eddie.” Search for the horse who has had consistency in his training, day in and day out, over many years; one who has a good heart, who is a doer. Be aware that buying a mature horse is not an investment. I always make it clear to the buyer that the value of a mature horse is going to decrease monetarily over time. But knowing that every time you get on him, you have a safe and knowledgeable partner in the ring is priceless.

Building a Baseline Of Strength 

The treadmill is a critical piece of equipment at New Vintage Farm. I bought one five years ago and found that with consistent use my horses became stronger through their core and hindquarters with a much more developed topline. Every horse in the barn now walks on the treadmill five days a week for 30 minutes. This type of conditioning lays a foundation of strength for a horse to more easily do his job. The idea is for the horse to push himself along rather than pull himself along. We preach leg to hand and everything is generated from the hind end. So the hind end is the starting point for engagement—in most horses it needs to get stronger and this is particularly true as horses age. We start with the horses walking on the treadmill on the flat, then progress to walking on a slight incline. Over time, the core and back become so much more developed. The range of motion through the shoulder improves and the horses step up underneath themselves more easily. That type of strength- building is hard to replicate with riding. If a treadmill is not available, the next best thing is a consistent program of gently increasing hill work. The footing has to be good so the horse is taking consistent strides. Start with five to 10 minutes of hill work and you can build from there. You should be up in a half seat, off your horse’s back with a light feel of his mouth. Have him walking at a reasonably fast speed to get him to engage his hind end. When you turn around to walk back down the hill, keep your horse tracking on a straight line to make him continue working his hind end. Sit deep in the saddle with your shoulders back and eyes up. Keep that light feel of his mouth.

About Julie Curtin

Julie Curtin is a well-known hunter rider and trainer on the Southeast circuit. She started riding at age 5 and was a junior catch rider in the late 1980s for partners Danny Robertshaw and Ron Danta, both successful trainers and judges from Camden, South Carolina. After college, she worked for Atlanta trainer Claudia Roland and then launched her own business in 2004. At her New Vintage Farm in Woodstock, Georgia, Julie’s program includes a mix of young horses in development and mature show horses for her amateur-owner and adult riders. She is a regular rider and trainer on the indoor and derby circuits with several U.S. Equestrian Federation and zone Horse of the Year and championship ribbons over the years. Her hunter and equitation clients have also been consistently successful at the indoor shows. On any given Sunday, she can be found at the barn or at a horse show with her cherished Jack Russell, Jackie.

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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