Photos by Tricia Booker
There's Hope For Young Horses In America, written by Tricia Booker, was originally published in USHJA's In Stride Magazine.
Maplewood’s Young Horse Trainer School is for people who are passionate about learning how to develop young sporthorses.
Imagine a place where an Olympic Games course designer and young Jumper specialist, a renowned USEF R-rated judge and sporthorse breeder, and a top sporthorse starter and horseman all get together each year to share their knowledge. Intrigued?
Well, for the past seven years, Linda Allen, Julie Winkel and Jose Alejos have combined forces each September for Maplewood’s unique Young Horse Trainer School. And each year, attendees leave inspired, invigorated and more prepared to help train the country’s young sporthorses for successful careers.
“The program is an oasis—one gets to ride well-bred and -raised youngsters in a relaxed, yet very correct environment that always puts the horse first,” said Justin Wynne, a professional from Virginia and past participant in the YHTS. “It’s a surreal privilege to be taught by Linda and Jose, and to receive input on the side from Julie, who herself is one of the finest horsemen I’ve ever been around.”
The three developed the YHTS gradually over time after Allen and Alejos worked together in Mexico. Alejos was already well known for training horse in South and Central America when he crossed paths with Allen. She realized his gift in starting sporthorses and asked the Guatemalan to travel to the United States to start horses and share his techniques.
“I had been working with Western horses in Texas most of the time, but then Julie asked me to start some of her Jumpers in Nevada,” Alejos recalled. “Then, a few years later, the three of us decided to do the YHTS, because there was a big need to train those who wished to start young sporthorses.”
Allen, who has been a trainer in the sport for decades and designed the show jumping courses at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, noted that every country has the same problem today—a limited number of people specializing in training young horses and following that career path in the industry.
“Our school is a very special program, but it’s not for beginners,” said Allen. “It’s for people interested in young horses who maybe have dabbled in working with them through regular riding and being in the sport. We have many professionals attending, as well as amateurs who have found they enjoy developing young horses.
“Justin is a perfect example,” she continued. “He’s a professional colt starter, works with sporthorses and has lots of experience but wasn’t confident about starting a young horse over jumps. This program is great for riders from any discpline, even the Dressage horses. We introduce natural terrain and obstacles. People like Justin take what they learn here and integrate that knowledge into their own programs.”
The Young Horse Trainer School is held at Maplewood Stables in Reno, Nevada, where Winkel has a ready supply of homebred youngsters to work with. In addition, those who attend may bring young horses to start. If space allows, Alejos will also accept problem horses to restart.
Attendees and auditors observe Alejos starting the 3-year-olds under saddle, and then the attendees ride them through the week. They also work with foals, yearlings and 2-year-olds, including halter breaking, groundwork, trailer training and free jumping.
Each morning the group gathers for a classroom session and discussion before heading out to the round pen and rings. In the classroom, they talk about what they learned the previous day from the horses they worked with, and the clinicians answer questions and provide input on the horses and the day’s next steps.
“It’s really a meeting of the minds. It’s not just lectures, PowerPoints and videos,” said Winkel. “We do have guest speakers, and we talk about conformation and career placement for the young horses. It’s an intense week that’s always different because of the different horses and people who are participating. We’ve had many repeat participants because it’s never the same school twice.”
Winkel noted that over the years they’ve had many different guests clinicians, but the tie that binds them is that they all seek to learn more and improve human-to-horse communication.
“The goal for Young Horse Trainer School is to give these young horses a foundation to have a successful future as someone’s partner and not their slave,” said Winkel. “We as clinicians are all learning all of the time, too. As horsemen, we want to better understand how horses are designed in nature, learn how they respond, think and understand. Through their reactions, we learn when to take and when to give. It’s vital to be able to read the horses, their reactions and if they understand what’s being asked of them. If not, instead of losing your temper or getting emotional, it’s figuring out another way to communicate with them—think outside the box and think like a horse.”
The school also addresses marketing young horses in the United States and what makes it different from Europe and other countries. Here, the market revolves around Juniors and Amateurs competing, while in Europe it’s more about developing Jumpers at the highest levels. The differences matter in young horse training and development and, ultimately, in producing a successful business model for the professionals in the sport.
“We’re good at showing horses and good at buying them already going, but plenty of breeders here are producing nice horses,” continued Winkel. “The reality is that there’s not a continuum from the breeder to the show ring. We want to bridge that gap. There should be people interested in that part of the industry and that could do it, but they just need a place to see it done and to learn.”
Jose Alejos, left, works with attendees and the 3-year-olds. Julie Winkel, above, provides insight into the traits some of the young horses share while riding their sire, Osilvis.
The YHTS encompasses a full week, and Alejos believes that’s the ideal time- line for the attendees and young horses to become confident but not overwhelmed. The first day, Alejos gets on each 3-year- old for the first time, and by the end of the week most attendees and 3-year-olds are comfortable together at the walk-trot- canter and jumping small obstacles in and out of the ring.
“I learned from Jose to get the youngsters out of the round pen as soon as possible and let them see the world at a brisk trot,” said Wynne. “Linda taught me to go on and let them pop over small, varied jumps long before the flatwork is where I’d like it to be. The shared message is, ‘Let them figure it out on their own. Don’t micromanage their experience or allow your expectations to get in their way.’ This approach has made the youngsters that I get to start at home more confident in themselves and more joyful in their work.”
Alejos concurred. “When people are introduced to this system after having a different experience, it really opens their eyes, and they can’t believe this much progress can be made that fast,” he said. “A week is good—horses are smart enough to understand and progress at this pace.”
-"People like Justin (Wynne, above, jumping 3-year-old Cosmopolitan by Cartouche Z) take what they learn here and integrate that knowledge into their own programs," said Linda Allen.
Alejos seeks to produce confident young horse trainers with a feel, meaning they don’t have to go step-by-step in a program but instead learn to understand the individual horse. One horse may need more of a challenge to remain attentive, while another might need to take a step back to build confidence.
“Often, the people who get the most out of the YHTS aren’t the ones in the show ring winning the grand prix classes,” said Allen. “It’s the ones who are truly interested in horsemanship, maybe those who are breeding horses and want to attend and bring their employees to better learn how to start their horses. It’s not a riding clinic, though. Riding is a part of it, but it’s more about horsemanship and not for people who can’t talk horse all day.”
Soaking up knowledge and filling up notebooks is the primary objective. While Alejos works with the horses, he keeps a running commentary for the attendees. He explains what he’s trying to achieve, the aids he’s using and the reasons. At some points, he does fully focus on the horse and allow the attendees to observe and “let the horse speak for me.”
Alejos also believes that starting sporthorses successfully requires a specific skill set. “I think the weakness here in the United States is that people take their youngsters to someone to start who’s used to starting Quarter Horses. But the two types have different conformation, energy levels and react differently,” he said.
“We’re trying to build a system [at YHTS] where quality and capable young horse trainers will learn to start sporthorses and become marketable. A lot of people don’t want to pay much to start their young horses, but once they see the results from a skilled person, they realize it’s an investment. They might not mind spending money on a new pair of boots or the latest horse trailer, but they do mind spending $1,000 on starting a 3-year-old, which is unfortunate. Starting a young horse properly is the best investment you can make in that horse.”
Justin Wynne, left, works with the yearling On Point (by Osilvis), and the 3-year-olds conclude their first week under saddle with a group trail ride around Maplewood.
MAKING THE GRADE
Part of the school also focuses on the physical and mental development of young horses and how important it is to not work youngsters too hard or too soon. Clinicians provide their expertise on conformation and skeletal analysis, mental and physical maturity and other observations they’ve made after seeing many horses over time, so attendees receive a broad range of input and not just one clinician’s opinion.
Similarly, a continuing theme of the school is to treat each horse as an individual. All three clinicians believe in tailoring training—and eventually competing—not specifically to the owner’s goals, but based the horse’s physical maturity, natural ability and mentality.
“Training a young horse goes well beyond just getting on and riding,” said Winkel. “It’s more about understanding the individual horse and what’s best for that horse. At the end of the day, it’s not what’s good for the rider and not what’s going to make the most money for the owner. And if more people can learn to think that way, then maybe we can put the horsemanship back in the sport. It’s really a passion for horses instead of passion for money.”
Allen has spent a fair amount of time in Europe and South America, observing the differences between those countries and the United States and fine-tuning her educational goals for YHTS.
“Getting positive remarks from Julie, Linda and Jose has made the lean or difficult times in the business easier to take,” said Wynne. “Before I met them, I often felt like an imposter with 20 years of experience. Now, no matter how poorly a day goes with the horses or the owners, I can remember that Linda Allen thinks I’m good at this.”
USHJA In Stride is published bimonthly, each issue of In Stride is THE magazine for the most recent and informative news for the hunter/jumper community. It is packed full of useful tips to promote equine health and well-being, training and competition articles, full-color photos from events and awards ceremonies, and much more. With an audience of more than 40,000 USHJA members, In Stride reaches a vast group of riders, trainers, owners and more. The magazine is a benefit for members only, delivered right to their doorstep every other month.
The annual Maplewood Young Horse Trainer School, which benefits the Goodtoknow Horses 501(c)3, has now become a sought-after educational opportunity for people from all disciplines who seek to learn more about training young horses. From halter breaking foals to backing 3-year-olds to preparing sport horse prospects for the show ring, the school offers a variety of educational opportunities, both in the classroom and in the arenas, to expand your horsemanship and training knowledge.