The 2023 show season is on a steady climb toward the pinnacle of year-end events in the industry. Unlike with more broke, seasoned horses, now is the time that owners and trainers are making determinations as to which individuals will be a part of the show string and which will sit it out until next year.
We spoke with World and Futurity Champion trainer Mike Hachtel of Espuela Ranch to get his perspective on what to consider when planning the career of a two or three-year-old prospect.
Perhaps one of the more obvious considerations when determining whether to push a youngster comes down to their physical maturity to hold up to the job you are pursuing.
“When I talk about physical maturity, I’m primarily talking about bone structure and muscle substance,” Hachtel explains.“While the physical capabilities of the animal are always an important consideration, they become especially important with young, green animals,” he clarifies. “Specifically, you need to begin with a horse that has ‘good bone’ and good feet. If the horse is lacking in either department, chances are they will struggle to hold up physically to the job of a pleasure horse.”
Many people think that height is a major determining factor as to whether a horse is ready as a youngster, but that is only a part of the picture. Obviously, if the individual is very small, size will have to be a factor in whether they need more time to grow. However, Hachtel says that substance tends to be more critical.
“A 14.3H horse with a good body that can hold up to work can still be a candidate for futurity events. The primary concern is whether it can take the work and sweat and still maintain its body mass.”
Hachtel believes, “The smaller animals tend to draw down with training, so muscle mass and ability to maintain mass in work goes a long way. Whereas, the bigger animals may deal with growing pains and joint issues associated with the work. So there is no set ‘size requirement’ for a futurity prospect.”
Ultimately, Hachtel says, “A horse must be strong enough to do the job you want it to do. If they can’t hold up physically, it will have a direct impact on their mentality and willingness to work, which can be a much bigger hurdle to overcome in the future.”
Another critical consideration to whether a young horse will make it in the show pen is the individual’s mentality toward work.
“If you have a two-year-old and it gets upset whenever you ask them to do something under saddle, then that is a telltale sign that they aren’t mature enough to go out and show as a young animal,” Hachtel chuckles.
“For a two-year-old to make it, they need to be good-minded, and willing to go through the process. The mind can really get in the way of talent. You could have the most talented, physically capable youngster in your program, but if they don’t want to do the job, they won’t ever make it until their mentality changes. And it’s possible it never will.”
While Hachtel agrees with the adage, “You can’t ride the papers,” he also believes the bloodlines can be very helpful in giving owners and trainers an idea of the genetic potential and history of the animal in a way that helps establish a plan for them.
“The papers can give you an insight into the genetic height potential of the animal – will they grow a lot after two? Do the parents tend to make smaller animals? They also can let you know whether the parents were successful show horses at a young age such that getting their offspring out there earlier seems reasonable.”
He adds, “The breeding can also help predict mentality. If the sire or dam was hard-headed, but worked through it, maybe you can push the animal a little more to get them past that.”
Incentives have played a major role in the industry moving away from the two-year-old classes and more towards trainers and owners setting their sights on three-year-old events.
Hachtel admits, “In recent years, the three-year-old events have become more lucrative for novice horses. This has had an impact on the decision-making process for owners and trainers. Many end up deciding not to push their two-year-olds to show, in hopes that they will be ready to peak at three. But, those three-year-old horses are so fine-tuned…they come broke and ready to compete. So, on some level, there is more pressure in that three-year-old division.”
Foundation Still Matters
Due to the incentivization of three-year-old events, Hachtel believes there can be a false perception amongst some trainers and many non-pros that the two-year-old year doesn’t matter as much. He feels this couldn’t be further from reality.
“We trainers still need to make two-year-olds; the industry depends on it. Simply because there are fewer incentives for showing the twos, doesn’t mean that year is unimportant to the animal’s development,” Hachtel explains. “Every three–year–old was a two-year-old first and they deserve a good foundation on them before you expect success in the show pen.”
“If people think that you can let an animal sit through their two-year-old year and then put them in training at three and go win a major futurity, you’re asking for failure. The lack of two-year-old classes shouldn’t be a reason to do nothing, but a reason to allow the horse to come along a little slower, with a little less pressure. But, they aren’t getting show broke sitting in a field.”
Hachtel is a firm believer that horse showing rarely goes as planned, especially with youngsters.
“Young horses can be affected by growth spurts, hormonal changes, and injuries. On top of that, every horse learns at different paces,” Hachtel elaborates. “I’ve brought some two-year-olds in and thought that they definitely wouldn’t be mature enough to get out at two, and they surprise me. I’ve had others that I think would be fantastic two-year-olds, and they have training delays for whatever reason.”
“I’ve found that the owners with the mentality that they want to allow their horse to come along at their own pace are also the ones who are more willing to rely on my judgment of when the horse is ready to compete. And these are the horses that tend to find the most success,” he smiles. “But the owners that are dead set on their animal showing at a specific event in a specific class tend to be the ones who are disappointed. Young horses just don’t work that way.”
Communication is Key
Hachtel is a firm believer that the trainer is the captain of the ship and it is especially important that they provide the client with updates on the animal’s progress in order to set reasonable expectations and build trust.
“Young horses can be less predictable in their progress and, therefore, plans come about a little more organically for them. If you don’t keep the client in the loop about where they are at and where they can be successful, you are setting them up for disappointment or unrealistic expectations,” he cautions.
“The best way to ensure a happy client when dealing with young animals is to keep them updated and involved in the process so they can make well-informed decisions about their goals and finances.