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Setting up for success

- showing with Laura Thomas -

Preparing a young show horse for its first outing can be a daunting experience. Show Circuit Magazine sat in on a schooling session with one of Australia’s top show riders and regular producer of young horses, Laura Thomas, as she prepared Farleigh Solveig for her first show.

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Words and photos: Show Circuit

You want to be producing horses that will win into the future, and there is no rush.

Get it right on the ground

Laura places enormous importance on the groundwork of her young horses. “I’m lucky to have my dad on the ground to help with long-reining. He drives everything for me. No horse here is just put on the lunge and sent in circles! Driving gives them fantastic mouths.”

By the time Laura gets on, the horses are well-prepared and ready to go. “I would rather allow them to have an extra two weeks of being driven than rush the process, get on and send them downhill. They need to be consistent, happy and confident in their work.”

The horses are already doing transitions and changing the rein while being driven at this point. With that important foundation established, Laura can get on and make relatively quick progress as they head towards their first show. “Each horse is unique, and they are all treated that way. This is not a factory where a new horse must come out every six weeks!”

She is always prepared to give more time to the ones that need it, but Silver took to her work like a duck to water and Laura has been able to make quick progress with her.

© Show Circuit Magazine

Be clear with your aids

Watching Laura ride, it is obvious how important clear aids are to her. “If I ask for something and I don’t get the reaction I want, I ask for it sharper. The horse needs to respond, or at least try.” Laura also makes sure that it is not her aids that are confusing. “You have to use the same aid each time and not be wishy-washy. You have to mean it. These horses might go on to be ridden by children or less experienced riders with weaker aids, so they must be well-schooled.”

Although she has only had about six weeks of consistent work so far, Silver looks ready to carry a child. “I would happily put a child on her now. She carries herself so that the child could concentrate on their hands and upper body position. She’s light to the aids so I feel confident that she could carry someone round without too much trouble.”

All of these attributes shine through in all Laura’s horses. Show horses are often advertised as being “a great rider class mount”, but in Laura’s eyes, all horses should be capable of being a rider class/turnout horse.

“I have done rider classes and turnouts on most of my horses, including Newcomers. I don’t have the luxury of having a horse specifically for a rider class or turnout, so they all need to be a little bit versatile. And if we are at a Royal, it gives them an extra class, rather than having them sitting in their box waiting for the open.”

Keep it simple

At this stage of a young horse’s training, Laura keeps things reasonably basic. The horses are taught to move forward off the leg, carry themselves in a light frame and respond to transitions between and within the paces.

“As they improve in their schooling, I increase their workload and begin working on leg-yielding, shoulder in and lengthened trot.” Silver is naturally a lovely mover, so half of Laura’s job is already done. “She has a great hind end and natural balance and rhythm so that she will take to lateral work easily, but she is not quite ready for it yet.”

Laura will start introducing the lateral movements as Silver progresses in her schooling, but she feels that the mare is ready to go to a show now. “I would be happy to take her out to local Agricultural shows as she is. You learn a lot about them when you start taking them out. You determine whether they tense through their back and poll, whether they get hot, or whether they are dull.

“It’s hard to know what to work on if you’re not sure what you will get on show day! So once they can do a simple workout, I am happy to take them out. That’s where we make our discoveries and can make a plan going forward that is tailored to that horse’s needs.”

© Show Circuit Magazine
© Show Circuit Magazine

Practice standing still

It’s easy to get into the habit, particularly when working with young horses, of getting on, getting the work done and then getting off. Laura likes to spend a lot of time onboard her young ones, giving them a break, then another small lot of work. “With the transport depot being right here, we have people coming and going all the time. The truck wash is right beside my arena so I’ll often pull up alongside and have a chat to one of the drivers. It is so good for the young ones – they learn to have patience, stand in their own space and wait for me to be ready to continue.”

Laura has had horses in the past that hate standing at shows, something that there is a lot of when it comes to the Royal shows and other big events. “You can be standing in a line for half an hour or more while others do their workouts, and there is nothing worse than a horse that won’t stand still. At some of the Royals over here, you can even be kicked out of the ring if your horse won’t stand still, so it’s a real requirement.” 

They need to be consistent, happy and confident in their work.

At the show

Give them what they need

“It is common for me to take up to 10 horses to any show, but I make sure that I have enough hands on deck for the horses to get what they need.”

Laura’s more seasoned horses will get to the show and go straight into a yard or tie up. But when she takes the young ones out, particularly to their first show, she likes to give them time to settle in their new surroundings. “A lot of purpose-bred show horses have already done a few seasons of led classes, so going out under saddle isn’t all that different. With off the track Thoroughbreds, it is a different story, and they can take a long time to learn to settle. Silver spent the first six years of her life on the farm where she was bred and didn’t go out at all, so although she is Riding Pony-bred, she will no doubt find her first outing a little bit stressful.”

The plan of attack for Silver’s first show will be a relaxed, calm one. “We will let her have a walk around and a pick of grass, and then Dad will drive her. In a new environment, their schooling goes back a few steps because there is so much to distract them, so we take our process a few steps back too.” Just like at home, the driving refreshes those important early lessons that her horses have had.

“I don’t just jump on and hope for the best. There is a process to follow, and it’s the same as it would be at home when they are learning. Don’t think that just because they are good at home, that you’re going to have the same horse when you get to the show.”

It is common to see a lot of lunging of young horses at shows, but Laura tries to avoid it where she can. “Putting a horse out on the lunge with no gear tends to wind them up instead of settling them down. They are not thinking about working correctly, so they think about all the things going on around them. Their adrenaline levels rise, and before you know it, you have an out of control horse at risk of hurting itself.”

With the driving gear on, the horse is working – it is thinking about what it’s doing, it is taking out some of the excess energy, both in body and mind, and it gives the horse the chance to have a buck or a spook without then associating it with the rider. “Imagine jumping on, having a terrible ride and then at every show after that, the horse is thinking negatively as soon as it unloads from the truck!”

If you have done the correct work at home, Laura believes that it is a small step from there to Agricultural shows, and then on to bigger shows. Her horses learn to take everything in their stride, as they trust their rider and are confident within themselves.

© Show Circuit Magazine

Keep classes to a minimum

“From what I have seen of New Zealand shows, there seem to be a lot of classes with all of the same horses in them. I tend to do as few classes as possible with the young horses, maybe one led and one ridden, plus a championship if they make it through. You want to be producing horses that will win into the future, and there is no rush.”

Silver is a six-year-old who hadn’t been off her home farm until she came to Laura. “At this age, she is physically and mentally mature, and she is ready to take the work. But you see a lot of horses and ponies come out under saddle as three-year-olds; they do their share of winning at the Newcomer shows, and then seem to disappear. I want my horses to be around for the long haul, and I think waiting until they are physically ready to take on the demands of competition life is an important part of that.”

One of Laura’s top show horses, On Fire, started showing at the age of 12 and is still a consistent winner in the Hunter ring despite now being 18 years old. As this issue went to print, Laura and On Fire had yet again claimed Champion Show Hunter at Adelaide Royal, a title they have now won on several occasions – including in 2013, under New Zealand judge Dorothy Lennard.

Be realistic in your goals

Laura stresses that it’s essential to have realistic and achievable goals with young horses. “There is no point in setting yourself up for failure and putting unnecessary pressure on yourself.” For Laura’s horses, the goal at their first few shows is to simply have a calm horse that will look forward to its next outing. “I want my horses to enjoy their job, and any winning we do in the early stages is just a bonus,” she says with a smile.

Once she has established the horse’s weaknesses, found its strengths and discovered what needs to be achieved to make the horse as successful as possible, she can start to work the horse’s talents to her advantage. “That’s when the goals start changing. That’s when we want to be more competitive and aim for the flowers!”


Make it fun for the future

By doing your homework, taking your time and not skipping essential steps in the education of young horses, Laura believes that you are setting yourself up to not only have a successful horse but one you really enjoy riding.

“At the end of the day, this is supposed to be an enjoyable sport. So spending a bit more time in the beginning, getting things right at home and at smaller shows, will lead to a lot more fun – and hopefully a lot more winning in the future!”

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