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Basic training for Icelandic horses

Junger Islaender im Galopp

Anyone who owns a young horse will sooner or later be faced with the exciting stage of breaking in. Questions that arise are, for example, who takes over the training, how long the basic training of (Icelandic) horses lasts and what a horse should actually learn during this time. In this article we would like to take up this topic and deal with the question: What does basic training actually mean and what is part of the basic training of an Icelandic horse?

In her book Basic Training of Gaited Horses, Icelandic horse trainer Kirsti Ludwig compares a young horse to a blank canvas. "Both are blank, open to everything."

We find this comparison very fitting.

When you buy a new horse, you usually have an idea of your dream horse in mind. This is not only true for trained riding horses, but also for the purchase of a young horse. You know, for example, whether you want a stallion, a gelding or a mare, and you certainly have a concrete idea of whether you would prefer a four- or a five-gaited horse. Accordingly, you are also looking for a young horse that corresponds to these ideas.

It is up to you which focus you want to place in the training, whether you want to bring home a gold ribbon with your horse, gallop with friends in the forest or work on free jumping and lying down from the ground. You are both undescribed and open to everything.
However, one point decides whether your path can really lead you to your goal: the quality of the basic training (as well as, of course, the genetic conditions, which play a role especially with regard to gait quality).

Basic training: The horses are undescribed and open to everything.

"The aim of basic equestrian training is to develop a horse that is pleasant to walk, obedient, willing, capable and skilful. Through familiarisation, careful training and gymnastics, the horse's natural dispositions are maintained, improved and made usable for the rider in certain situations. Dressage training serves as the basis for this. It is the prerequisite for further training in all equestrian disciplines" says the FN in the first volume of the series Guidelines for Riding and Driving, which deals with the subject of basic training for rider and horse. And even if this paragraph contains a lot of must and little may and ability, it summarises well what basic training is actually about.

The basic training of the horse: What does it mean?

Basic training means that your horse learns the basic skills it will need in its later riding horse life. If we want to transfer it to us humans, the foal ABC with halter handling, tying up, grooming and hoof giving would be kindergarten. The basic training is more or less the elementary school period, in which your horse learns the basic fundamentals - in other words, arithmetic, writing and reading for horses.

With a rucksack full of basic knowledge, you then go on to further school - here you can help shape and decide in which direction your horse's specification should go and what skills it really needs in the end. So before your horse can carry you around the oval track in a tactful tölt or in traverses across the riding arena with the reins crossed over (this would be the goal after successfully graduating from the equine university), he must first learn the most basic things.
The basic training of your Icelandic horse lays the foundation for your future together.

If something goes wrong, it will always catch up with you - or rather your horse. If he learns to fear the whip right from the start, you will have a hard time using these aids later on. If the horse's first contact with the bit is made with a hard hand, it will certainly take a long time until it stretches trustingly to your hand. Or if the horse uses compensatory movements right at the beginning because of insecurity or lack of muscle strength and, for example, toots with its back held tightly, this gait can become entrenched and you will later have trouble getting rid of these initial riding patterns.

Somethimes it's easy: Anna Kesenheimer and her 5 year old stalion Vidar von Möllenbronn

What is part of the basic training of an Icelandic horse?

If you ask ten stable colleagues what belongs to the basic training of a horse, you will hear ten different answers. When we as #teamsportsfreund think of relevant aspects of successful basic training in general, the following points spontaneously come to mind:

  • The horse can be led from the ground from all positions and stopped at any time.
  • The horse can remain standing - even next to a mounting aid.
  • The horse knows the most important equipment such as halter, cavesson and bridle as well as the saddle.
  • The horse knows the world outside the paddock - through walks and rides.
  • The horse has come into contact with supposedly frightening things such as poles, tarpaulins and cones and has learned that nothing will happen to him.
  • The horse knows the whip and the crop and knows not to be afraid (here we report in detail about riding with a whip).
  • The horse knows how to walk on the lunge (whereby by lunging we do not mean centrifuging, but walking in an oval or square at different tempi with increasing bending).
  • The horse knows the rider's weight and has learned how to balance and move with the rider in the (gradually) different gaits as well as on the straight and on the curved line.
  • The horse understands the meaning of the rider aids (weight/seat/reins) and can implement them.
  • The horse can balance itself under the rider.

For us, the most important thing is that the horse has learned to trust the human being and that it develops joy in working together with the human being. Because only when the horse learns in a trusting and motivated way is it able to develop mentally and physically and to move healthily among us riders.

Marleen Stühler training a young horse

At this point we would like to recommend our small series on the learning behaviour of horses .
Besides all these generally valid points, there is another "subject" for us Icelandic horse sport lovers that plays a role in basic training: gait distribution.

Are tölt and pass also part of the basic training?

As a rule, a young horse is first worked at a walk and familiarised with the aforementioned basics such as rider aids, halting, walking in a straight and curved line and backward direction. When it comes to the next higher gait, the one that the horse offers of its own accord is usually taken: Trot or Tölt. With a horse that has mastered the trot, it makes sense to use this first - especially in the preparatory work on the lunge - because the trot is the gait that strengthens the trunk carrying apparatus. If your horse is a natural tölt that shows tölt instead of trot in every situation, it makes sense to use tölt during the basic training. However, if your horse shows gait salad when going faster than walk, the focus should be on balance.

For the tölt, your horse must first learn to balance himself under your rider's weight and have developed the ability to carry and collect. It must also be able to move freely under you. A horse that is not yet strong enough to carry the rider and that loses the balance in the faster gait that it has already acquired in the walk will often react with tension in the tölt, become forward-heavy and run passively.

In Reynir's Icelandic Horse Riding School- the Basic Book says: "Reynir thinks it is right not to delay too long, but we must not start until the horse carries the rider safely in all basic gaits, i.e. walk, trot and canter in balance, and when he knows and understands the basic aids. To wait too long with tölt training would mean, for example, to ride a horse only in trot for more than a year. Even if this gives the horse a good sense of balance at the trot and carries the centre of gravity correctly, it doesn't necessarily make it easier for it to do the tölt, because it has to get used to carrying itself differently if it is to keep its balance in the tölt."

And further: "Riders who want to tolt well with their horses in all tempi can only achieve this if their horses are properly collected. They must be able to carry themselves just like a dressage horse trained in the High School."

As you can see, the answer to the question of whether tölt and pass are part of the basic training is not a universal answer. The genetic disposition of your horse and the question of whether it has to learn the tölt or is a natural tölt play an important role. If your horse has to learn tölt first, tölt belongs less to the basic horse school and more to the secondary school. Before that, your Icelandic horse should know all the relevant aids and be able to react adequately to them as well as walk balanced under the rider.
The horse needs sufficient strength for the pass. Therefore, in our opinion, the pass is not part of the basic training of an Icelandic horse, but should be added later.

The duration of the basic training

The points we have mentioned can be divided into two areas:

  • Ground work (for safe interaction between horse and rider and for the first muscle building training before riding)
  • Riding (familiarising with the rider's weight, giving aids, finding balance, beat)
    Both areas are so complex that it is actually clear: horse training takes much longer than six weeks or three months - even if trainers offer to ride horses in this time span.

In classical horsemanship, horses in basic training were (and still are) called remounts. Basic training here lasts two years. The horse's first year of training is about lunging, getting used to the rider's weight and riding straight and curved lines. The horse's body can thus adapt healthily to the training stimuli and become stronger.
The term remonte has meanwhile fallen into oblivion - not least because many horses are seen at shows and competitions at a very early age and no longer get the time to be remonts.

Even if most of us are leisure riders and do not work with our Icelandic horses at classical riding centres like the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, where the tradition of remounts is still lived today, we should always remember what horse training was like in past years or centuries. Today, very few horses are allowed this time. Those who live off the sale of horses cannot train them for two years first and then offer them on the market. The horses would - rightly - be very expensive and would not be bought. Anyone who owns a young horse and gives it away to be broken in would not want to do without their horse for two years so that it can learn the basics in peace. Not to mention the costs.

Minning and Johanna are both in basic training

In other words, if you give your horse to be broken in for six weeks or three months, you should not expect to get a fully trained horse. If a trainer promises you that, you'd better keep looking. What you will get after three months is a horse that has learned the absolute basics: Ideally, training on the lunge line, getting used to the snaffle, saddle and rider's weight, as well as the aids for going off, going faster and stopping.

The rest, which is just as much a part of the basic training of a horse as the clear separation of the gaits, the tactful tölt, the balanced running on curved lines or the conversion of thrust into carrying power, will only come in the further course of your training. Because your horse needs time for that.

Besides the mental aspect, training is also a physically very demanding time: Your horse has to use muscles that it did not have to use before in its young horse life on the pasture. Muscles can only grow properly if they are given breaks. For the first visible build-up of muscles, a time of eight to twelve weeks is usually estimated. Fasciae, the connective tissue structures that run through the horse's body like a spider's web, take about two years to adapt to the stress stimuli.

The best way to offer the horse a relaxed learning and training basis for mind and body is a small-step exercise structure. This prevents excessive demands, gives plenty of room for praise and thus promotes the horse's motivation and ultimately also its self-confidence.

Reading tip: In our article Injured: Keep your horse's muscles and brain fit with ground work you will find many ideas and suggestions that can also help you in training your horse and with which you can, for example, actively organise your break days.

Worth Reading
Abschwitzdecken von Sportsfreund Studios
Sportsfreund Studios

The Sportsfreund Studios blog contains numerous tips on dealing with horses. From fitness training to the learning behaviour of horses - you can read it all here. The blog is written by Karolina Kardel from 360 Grad Pferd.

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