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Winning with a Backyard Horse

Training the show horse for the hunters, jumpers or equitation from a small stable or back yard.

· Horsemanship

"The key to a happy horse is variety. Use a combination of flat work, trail riding, trot sets in an open field, galloping, cavalletti, gymnastics and whatever else seems logical that will make your horse better prepared. Keeping your horse fit and changing his training routine will give you a big advantage over the horse that never sees the outside of a ring​." ~ Shane Ledyard, USEF 'r' judge & USHJA Certified Trainer

It can be a difficult task to successfully compete your horse out of a small stable or
backyard without the constant supervision of a trainer or the motivation of other riders.
That being said, with the right mind set and plan, a “backyarder” can be just as
competitive as the riders from the big barns. It just takes a little different recipe. The
following are some of the ingredients that you will need to make it happen.
Cooperation. If you decide to have the horses at home, the last thing you want is for
your passion to be a source of stress. All of the family members in the household
need to understand the demand and dedication that good horsemanship takes, which
includes things like mucking out on holidays and treating colic instead of going to a
sibling’s baseball game or dance recital.
• Horse selection. Often overlooked, selecting the appropriate mount for the job that
you want to do is mission critical for success. Be sure to consider who will be
handling the horse as well, if it is a non- horsey spouse or a child that will be leading
the horse to and from the turn out paddock you will want to be double sure that your
horse is quiet and easy to handle.
• Trainer selection. You will need a qualified trainer who will meet your needs.
Whether you ship out for lessons or if he/she comes to you, be sure that your goals
are aligned and be certain that you stay on the program that he gives you. Without
him there every day to stay on top of you, it is really easy to go off your program.
You should believe in the program that he gives you and stick with it. You pay a
trainer for their expertise, and often times they see things that you do not. Through his
experience, a good trainer knows that what you do in a given week is part of a long
term plan for both the horse and rider.
• Ring footing and arena size. There are many factors to consider here and size is
definitely one of them. When you practice with your horse you want the setting to be
as close to competition standards as possible. If, for example, the ring size is so small
that the horse can’t jump a line and canter on for his lead change, that’s a problem.
He will learn bad habits from a small ring—like shortening his step too much or
perhaps getting nervous about the end of the ring--anticipating an abrupt stop or
rough change. This could defeat your entire purpose and leave you very frustrated in
the process. When it comes to footing, my rule of thumb is that it should be soft
enough that you wouldn’t mind falling in it, but not so deep that your horse has to
labor. You need to look after your footing as part of a weekly routine. That means
regular dragging and watering if necessary. This will keep your horse comfortable
and help prevent tripping in lumpy conditions. Good footing also encourages horses
to jump and move their best and will keep them sound much longer than if they are
hitting a hard surface like sun-dried screenings.
• Training program. Keep your training program fresh for your horse. The key to a
happy horse is variety. Use a combination of flat work, trail riding, trot sets in an
open field, galloping, cavaletti, gymnastics and whatever else seems logical that will
make your horse better prepared. Keeping your horse fit and changing his training
routine will give you a big advantage over the horse that never sees the outside of a
ring, and you will be a better rider for it as well. You can do a lot of your flat work
out in the country—and this will make your horse brave for the show ring while
keeping his mind fresh.
• Turnout and feeding program. Be sure that you maintain a consistent schedule every
day with your feed and turn out schedule. Staying within the same hour is fine, but
your horse does not understand that it is Saturday and that you wanted to sleep in.
Irregularities in a program can cause a horse to stress, which can lead to things like
ulcers and colic. With your feeding program it is essential to remember that horses
are grazers and are in search of food the majority of the day. Because of this, horses
should have good quality hay or grass available 24/7. (Provided there is not a certain
diet restriction to that horse). Clean water should also be in constant supply, along
with a mineral block in the field and the stall for the horse to supplement on. Trying
to achieve an ideal body condition with grain alone is extremely dangerous. Grain can
be very useful for delivering the right nutrients to your horse, but it is better to
maintain the horse’s ideal weight through quality roughage, as that is the easiest and
most natural thing for the horse to digest. Re-evaluate your horse’s weight on a
monthly basis and adjust your grain amounts accordingly. Any adjustments made
should be slight and gradual. Supplements are OK, but should be carefully evaluated
and cross referenced with your hay and your grain for nutritional content. A
conversation with your veterinarian about nutrition is always a good idea to help stay
on track. Turn out is also very important for the competition horse. While it may be
difficult to keep the horse in good flesh with constant turn-out, a healthy mix of stable
and paddock time is my choice for most competition horses. Again, a regular
schedule is key here, with an “in during the day and out at night” program for the
summer, along with an “out during the day and in at night” schedule for the winter
months as a good rule to live by.
It is so easy to let the little things slide at home when there is no one around.
However, you must remember that good horses are made and maintained through good
horsemanship and nothing else, so be sure never to cheat on your horsemanship. Here are
some more tips that come from my list of pet peeves to help keep you sharp and safe at
~Make a horse turn and face you before letting him go at turn-out time, just as you should
do when you put him in his stall. This will help prevent you from being kicked by a horse
running from the gate or pinched by a horse rushing through the doorway to his stall.
~Keep your horse groomed well—rubbing on him for a shine instead of relying on sprays
and tricks to get a coat to gleam. This is both healthier and less expensive.
~Always buckle the halter when leading a horse—not only is it lazy and tacky but it is
really dangerous as well.
~Always use a lead rope when handling a horse. No exceptions. Never wrap the lead
around your hand or lay it across your shoulder while you walk. This can get you hurt or
~Dry a horse’s legs after he is hosed off. It will help prevent fungus and rubs.
~ Grease his feet before a bath to help his feet to avoid drying out.
~ Rub a sweaty horse with a towel in front of a fan rather than watering and bathing him
several times a week. This technique is much better for his coat.
As a judge, trainer and competitor I can assure you that good horsemanship is the only
answer to long term success. If you choose to keep your show horse at home rather than a
public barn, you must be prepared to discipline yourself and make personal sacrifices
while doing it, if you want to truly do it right. Once you make that commitment you
better be tough. I can assure you that when it comes time to horse show, no one likes to
get beat by a backyard horse.
Shane Ledyard is a USEF ‘r’ judge, and USHJA certified trainer and clinician from Bucks County,
PA. He specializes in hunters, jumpers and equitation. You can learn
more at

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