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.

I am riding Tasty, a seasoned 17-year-old show horse owned by Rebekah Warren. If we give horses like him the right care and age-appropriate training, they can have many years of happily doing their jobs. | Amy K. Dragoo

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?

Exercise 1: Active Walking Warm-Up

WHY IT WORKS: Older horses can come out of their stalls with stiff muscles. Like older athletes, they need more time to loosen up. You don’t want to immediately start pushing a stiff horse. This exercise gives you a series of incremental steps to warm up a mature horse.

GOAL: A gentle but deliberate warm-up that creates a relaxed, attentive and flexible horse.

1. Tasty has been an athlete his entire career, but he sometimes comes out of the barn a bit creaky, so I take care to warm him up slowly. I start by walking him around the full arena on a loose rein for at least two to three minutes, avoiding smaller circles. As I focus on staying balanced and sitting lightly in the saddle, I let him stretch out his neck. After a few minutes of walking, I ask him to engage his hind end by adding my leg in rhythm to his walk and to lengthen his step. As he reacts, I can feel more energy and purpose in his stride. | Amy K. Dragoo
2. Still walking, I lightly take up the reins and turn down the centerline of the arena. I ask Tasty to move laterally off my left leg to the right so his whole body moves forward and on an angle away from my left-leg pressure. I squeeze my left leg as he engages his left hind leg, which is when his right shoulder moves forward. At the same time, I squeeze lightly with the left rein to take his nose slightly to bring his focus to the left. You should see only the inside of his left eye when you move laterally to the right. Any more than that and you are overbending the front end of your horse. My outside aids—right leg and hand—are neutral. | Amy K. Dragoo
3. As we return to the straight track, Tasty is continuing to drift just slightly to the right and I am quietly correcting him by sending him forward at the walk first, then using my right leg to correct the drift. I walk briskly forward with engagement on a straight line for several strides. Then I will ask Tasty to move laterally off my right leg: I apply my right leg and squeeze lightly with the right rein until he moves forward and on an angle to the left and bends. Then I’ll come back to walking forward on a straight line for several strides. I’ll repeat this exercise three to five times on each side, working to get Tasty’s attention to my aids. | Amy K. Dragoo
4. Tasty is lagging on my leg a bit so I need to remind him that my leg means business and when I apply it, he needs to react quickly. I ask him to move forward from my leg, and if he doesn’t respond, I use a cluck and a light tap of the crop behind my leg. If he still doesn’t respond, I repeat with another cluck and a firmer tap. | Amy K. Dragoo
5. As Tasty and I warm up, our partnership is being created. We are beginning to communicate. As he responds, my aids become lighter. Tasty has loosened up his back and his shoulders. He has an active walk and has softened his jaw into my hands and moved up into the bit. His ears are forward. My heel could be down a bit more here but I’m happy with his walk. | Amy K. Dragoo

Exercise 2: Ground Pole to Vertical to Ground Pole

WHY IT WORKS: Many mature horses are helping to bring along riders who need repetition to learn. But you don’t want to “use up the jumps” in a mature horse. This simple exercise gives you practice seeing a distance to the fence and maintaining or adjusting the pace. But it’s easy on your horse—the jump is low and he doesn’t have to correct for bad distances. The repetition sets up both of you for success.

GOAL: To create a consistent pace through the exercise, making the striding in front of and after the vertical match. 

SETUP: Set a simple vertical fence. Place a pole on the ground approximately three strides in front of the vertical and another three strides after the vertical—about 42 to 45 feet depending on the size of your ring and your horse’s stride. 

1. I picked up a medium-paced canter on a 12-foot stride and approached the first ground pole in a medium seat, hovering over the pommel of the saddle in a three-point position with my seat lightly touching the saddle. With my legs and a light contact on the reins, I made sure Tasty was straight. We are both focused on the jump. As Tasty begins to easily step over this pole, I maintain my medium seat. My leg-to-hand connection is intact and I still have contact with his mouth. | Amy K. Dragoo
2. As Tasty jumps this little vertical, I keep my eyes up and forward, focusing on a point at the end of the ring. I still have my leg on him, but I am allowing him to quietly jump the fence. He is so athletic, he is just taking a big canter step over this small vertical. I’ve kept our pace consistent from the first pole to the fence and I will maintain it over the final ground pole, where I will make sure to look up and ride through the corner. | Amy K. Dragoo
3. Once we are comfortable working on the distances for a 12-foot stride, I moved out the two poles by about 4 feet. I lightened my seat just a bit, loosened my arms and leaned slightly forward. That allows Tasty to open up his stride. We are cantering to this pole with more pace. Once we’re over it, I will press him forward to create three longer but even strides to the vertical, then to the final pole. | Amy K. Dragoo
4. To practice riding a tighter line, I move the poles in by about 3 feet from the original distance of 42 to 45 feet. I have compressed Tasty’s canter stride by sitting up a bit and dropping my seat into the saddle. I am using both leg and hand to ask him to shorten his stride. To keep this shortened stride throughout the exercise, my leg-to-hand connection stays consistent. | Amy K. Dragoo

Exercise 3: Land on the Correct Lead

WHY IT WORKS: Seasoned horses usually have a pattern. They may always land after a jump on their left or right lead. But if only half the body of an older horse is working, you risk overloading certain muscles and that can create unnecessary injuries. 

GOAL: Encourage your horse to use both sides of his body by landing consistently on the correct lead.

SETUP: On the track of a 20-meter circle, set up a small vertical that can be jumped from either direction on the circle. The jump should be only about 2 feet high. If it is larger, your horse may revert to his dominant lead.

1. Cantering to the right on a circle as I approach a small vertical, I have my inside leg slightly on Tasty to bend him and prevent him from falling in on the circle. I have a direct feel of the inside rein to bend his head slightly to the inside. My outside aids are a barrier to prevent him from drifting out and my weight is evenly distributed in both stirrups. | Amy K. Dragoo
2. I found a quiet distance, helping Tasty stay balanced. A long distance may cause a horse to reach for the fence and be thrown off balance, making it harder for him to land on the correct lead. I’ve turned my head to the right and brought my inside hip back slightly. Tasty is so scopey that he is just stepping over this small jump—I’m not worried about his jumping form in his exercise. He is clearly preparing to land on his right lead. Then we’ll canter away and I’ll apply my inside leg and maintain the bend as I circle and approach the jump again. We’ll ride the exercise to the right three to five times, then reverse the circle and jump the fence on the opposite lead. | Amy K. Dragoo
LANDING ON THE INCORRECT LEAD:In another pass over the jump, Tasty lands on the left (incorrect) lead, so I immediately ask for a downward transition to the trot by taking a feel of his mouth with equal pressure on both reins. Once he trots a few steps, I promptly pick up the right lead canter on the circle and head to the jump again. | Amy K. Dragoo
THE FIX: If Tasty continued to land on the incorrect lead, I would drop the vertical down to a pole on the ground to encourage him to canter over it and maintain his lead. After cantering over the pole a few times, I would raise it up on the left standard only. This blocks Tasty’s left side and encourages him to shift to the inside in the air and take the correct lead. |Amy K. Dragoo

Exercise 4: Add Interest by Jumping Bounces

WHY IT WORKS: Sometimes when older horses get bored, they will trip or lose track of where they are placing their feet. We need to keep them mentally and physically engaged. The sequences in this exercise encourage the horse to pay attention to his foot placement.

GOAL: Keeping your horse’s timing, balance and agility in play without wearing him down. 

SETUP: Set up five simple verticals in a line: a bounce to a one-stride to a bounce to a one-stride. The distance between fences may vary depending on the size of your ring and your horse’s stride. Keep the height low—about 2 feet high—to reduce the impact on your horse. 

1. I picked up a medium canter and rose into a half-seat, keeping a light contact with Tasty’s mouth to ensure he is balanced and straight. One stride away from the first jump, I push my hands up his neck into a crest release. This allows him to focus on the exercise and the test we’ve set up for him. My job will be to stay balanced and centered in this position throughout the exercise and let him figure this out. | Amy K. Dragoo
2. This different view gives the feeling of the exercise. Tasty jumped up to me nicely over the first bounce in the exercise. Over the second fence of the bounce, my weight is in my heels, my eyes are up and my focus is straight ahead. For both horse and rider, the second fence of the bounce will come up quickly, so you need to be careful not to get ahead of or behind the horse’s motion. | Amy K. Dragoo
3. Cantering the one-stride, Tasty is focused and alert. He is balanced and interested in the task at hand. I keep my leg on him to encourage him to jump through the combination at a steady pace, but otherwise I am a passive partner. If you need to grab a little mane to steady your position as you go through the exercise, that’s OK. | Amy K. Drago
4.Like the first bounce, this second one comes up quickly. I focus on staying with Tasty’s motion and not get left behind. It’s my job to be a consistent, balanced partner for Tasty as he navigates the elements of this exercise. He’s relaxed and looking to finish the last two fences of the exercise—the out-fence of the bounce to the final one-stride. We’ll practice this exercise three or four times to let him figure out the puzzle and rhythm. | Amy K. Dragoo

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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