Preparing Young Horses for the Show Ring

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Chris Wynne and Crack

Trainer, rider, and judge Chris Wynne shares his keys to success

Preparing young horses for the show ring is an effort that involves nearly countless variables. For Chris Wynne, a Virginia Beach-based hunter rider, trainer, and judge, giving young horses a confident start has become something of a specialty.

When Wynne was a junior rider, and during the first part of his professional career, he mainly worked on converting off the track Thoroughbreds into show hunters. Thoroughbreds were the dominant and most accessible breed at the time. As the years progressed, he found his niche in importing Warmbloods from Europe and bringing them along to be some of the top show hunters in the country.

“The principles I use in my program are based in large part around what I observed growing up from my mentor, and perhaps one of the greatest horsemen of all time, Olin Armstrong,” Wynne tells The Plaid Horse. “While other professionals may have gotten their young horses to the show ring faster, Olin got them there better.”

Chris Wynne and Harbor Master

Welcome to America

In recent years, Wynne has shifted the type of horse he imports.

“I used to focus on six- to eight-year-olds who were already jumping around 1.20 meter courses,” says Wynne. “But I was finding that it sometimes took longer to ‘re-program’ these jumpers into hunter mode, than it was to just start three- to four-year-olds from scratch.”

Either avenue presents its own set of challenges.

“I work with trusted partners in Europe who send me videos of prospects that obviously have the talent needed to be a nice hunter,” says Wynne. “But videos don’t always tell the full story about temperament, and typically the riding style in Europe isn’t the traditional light hunter seat and light contact we utilize in the United States. It’s hard to assess how much time will be needed to convert those prospects to the traditional way of going that is rewarded in the hunter ring.”

If a rider decides to go the route of importing a young horse to bring along, Wynne has a few tips to prepare for the journey.”

“Europe’s established horse riding stables with higher-level riders are extremely different from the ‘horse farms’ we have in the United States. There’s not as much activity at the horse riding stables in Europe,” says Wynne. “Some of the young imports I’ve had can be on high alert if they can see other horses turned out in fields while they are being ridden in the ring. The facility layouts here are very different from Europe. Again, there’s simply a big difference between Europe’s controlled riding stables versus the horse farms or boarding facilities in the United States.”

Wynne adds, “Ponies also tend to really throw some of the young European imports for a loop—especially if the ponies are paints, have a lot of chrome, or are appaloosas.”

When Wynne’s young imports arrive at his Breckenridge Manor Farm, they are given a few days to adjust and decompress.

“The young ones from Europe tend to be a bit more sensitive to corrections. They always seem to think something might be about to happen. So we spend a lot of time handling them to get them used to the wash rack, blacksmith, and being turned out,” says Wynne.

“My barn manager, Angela Bievre, does a great job assessing their behavior and knowing exactly how each one needs to be handled. If we have one that’s still nervous after a few days, we might tack it up in the stall. We never hook them up in the cross ties right off the bat. We also don’t stuff ears until the ears have been clipped out so as to not pull on the long ear hairs.”

Chriss Wynne and Superlative Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography

Ode to the Round Pen

Wynne finds that establishing a good mouth on a young show prospect is the most important key to success. The young horses from Europe, Wynne notes, are ridden with much more leg to hand connection than the way people typically ride in the States.

“When you start to let go of them, they feel abandoned,” says Wynne.

If a young horse needs to learn how to carry itself without constant connection, Wynne turns to his best friend—the round pen. The round pen serves a lot of great purposes. Wynne’s round pen is 72’ in diameter. Horses are never chased in the round pen or made to gallop. Wynne lets them canter at ease. The round pen work pays off well for the horses that might need to lunge for a few minutes at the horse show.

“Armstrong was the first professional to really utilize the round pen for a variety of training purposes with show hunters,” says Wynne. “I canter horses in the round pen a lot to help them learn to balance without a rider holding their mouth.

The round pen is the litmus test for Wynne to determine when his young horses are ready for the next step. “The round pen acts as a comfort zone for young horses. I make sure they are strong and balanced, jumping small jumps in the round pen before I move them to the big ring,” says Wynne.

When the youngsters graduate to Wynne’s large outdoor ring, he very slowly incorporates cantering random single jumps into the horse’s daily flatwork.

“In the course of a horse’s daily exercise, I won’t start jumping until they are rideable,” says Wynne. “If they are quiet and relaxed, I’ll jump single after single—maybe the ins of some lines, maybe the outs of some lines. When they relax and take a deep breath, I’ll go to the next step.”

When the horses are relaxed and confident enough to start jumping full lines, Wynne always practices the add step. And logically, after this becomes routine and boring for the young horses, he will start practicing lines and courses on the real step.

Some riders may get a bit nervous when it’s time to introduce a combination to their younger show horses. Wynne actually finds the combinations to be one of the easier parts of the show course for young horses.

“I will introduce combinations at home by doing gymnastics. When done correctly, young horses tend to be quite relaxed and patient through gymnastics at home—I often won’t even introduce cantering combinations to them until we are at the horse show,” says Wynne. “Combinations tend to hold their focus and require them to pay attention a bit more than a regular line.”

Horse Show Dress Rehearsal

Wynne is very methodical in making sure young horses are exposed to all the elements they will experience at a horse show. His ring is decorated with lots of banners, and he uses colorful jumps with overflowing flower boxes that mimic what the young horses will need to jump at shows.

In addition to starting young horses, Wynne and fellow Breckenridge Manor Farm rider/trainer Sarah Tyndall are often teaching lessons to their junior and amateur riders while young horses are being schooled in the ring. This helps get the young horses used to the commotion and traffic that they will encounter at shows.

Wynne purposefully built his outdoor ring next to the road to acclimate horses to vehicle traffic. His horses observe a lot of action in everyday life at home. There are often families at picnic tables around the ring, kids playing with dogs outside the ring, or jackets and coolers hanging on the fence around the ring.

Young horses at Breckenridge Manor Farm become very used to noisy environments quite quickly, as Wynne’s farm is located near the Oceana Naval Air Station and an antique airplane museum. Furthermore, Wynne’s farm is in a rural farming community where crop dusters often fly overhead.

When it’s time to head off to the show, Wynne is careful to introduce the show environment slowly. Oftentimes, the young horses who ship to the show on Mondays or Tuesdays will get to go home on Thursday afternoon once they are either done showing, or have seen enough from their maiden “field trip” to a show. This keeps their brains fresh, so they don’t sour on horse show life, living in stalls for days at a time.

Wynne on Grace Owens’ Superlative at the 2022 Washington International Horse Show

Slow and Steady

Wynne emphasizes that riders can’t make a quick judgment on how a young horse is going to turn out.

“We see talent and get in a hurry. There’s so much more that needs to be done,” says Wynne. “Some of my most successful horses to date were major challenges when they were five and six years old. I kept thinking that I’d really messed up by purchasing them. But through slow and steady training, they turned out to be some of my top horses to date when they were nine and ten years old.”

“Five-year-old horses are like 20-year-old humans. They can be wild and make poor choices. The horses that are nine and ten years old are like 40-year-old humans. They tend to have life figured out,” says Wynne with a laugh.

THE EXPERT

Chris Wynne

Chris Wynne is a Virginia native who competed as a junior under Pam Baker at Hillcrest Farm. He started his own business, Breckenridge Manor, shortly after graduating from James Madison University in 1986. Wynne is also a sought-after USEF ‘R’ judge who has judged the most prestigious shows in the country, including The Devon Horse Show, the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, and the Washington International Horse Show, among others.