Starting Young Horses at StartSmart
An exclusive report about the first session of StartSmart
Academy, the young-horse starting program at Judi Gerhardt's Blue
Moon Equestrian Center in Covington, Louisiana.
By Judi Gerhardt
StartSmart Academy founder Judi Gerhardt (at left) presents a three-year-old
filly for the entrance evaluation and vet assessment to lead trainer
Helmut Schrant (center) and Dr. Gary Greene (right).
StartSmart Academy's inaugural three-month session (January to April
2004) provided a wealth of data for the continued evolution of this
young horse starting program. We successfully met our goal -- to
begin to develop a standard for progressively starting young American
Participating in this first-of-its-kind-in-the-US program were four
three-year-olds, four four-year-olds and three five-year olds. Eight
of the 11 youngsters had never been backed, while three had experienced
minimal backing elsewhere. All the horses were American-bred/born
and held papers from one of the sporthorse federation member registries.
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A cornerstone of the program is attention to the individual horse
-- its mental and physical development and its personality. This
was provided by veterinarian Dr. Gary Greene, myself, and lead trainer
Helmut Schrant. We were able to collect information throughout the
program on each horse via veterinary assessments, evaluations by
Schrant, rider scoring and daily management monitoring. This information
not only defined the specific needs of each horse for the duration
of the program, but it will also provide owners with a basis for
future reference as each horse continues its career.
One very important part of the program that was modified during
the vet assessments was the guide Dr. Greene developed. In discussions
prior to the launch of the program, Dr. Greene and I thought we
had analyzed and finalized the items to be considered for each of
the three vet exams. However, as the first evaluations began we
all realized that we wanted to and could record even more valuable
We assessed all horses with the expanded list of items and now have
consolidated a truly thorough guide of physical attributes by which
to evaluate the horses in future sessions. The entrance vet assessment
includes a health history; body condition score; check of heart,
lung, eyes and mouth; a detailed listing of conformation items;
detailed analysis of limbs -- joints, tendons, hooves. Then we recorded
observations of movement (walk/trot) in-hand. Temperament was also
scored by the veterinarian, trainer and barn manager.
All of this was re-evaluated after 45 days under saddle and again
at the conclusion of the program -- with the horse's movement also
observed and noted while under saddle. Videotapes and still photographs
were taken of each horse's examinations, as well as randomly while
working throughout the program.
Riders worked with each horse six days a week and scored each one
every day on character, temperament, ability to work, willingness
to work and ride-ability. Two riders initially worked together in
the round pen with each youngster, longeing first without and then
with a rider. The initial riding was done by the same rider. As
the horse progressed and became more confident the riders would
alternate their horses if appropriate, as well as take them outside
on the trails and share in the grooming. Free-jumping was introduced
as a recreational activity and change of pace.
A final video was made of each horse being ridden inside and outside.
The riders provided an overview of what to expect and the level
of work to continue with. Owners were offered time with the riders
and horse at the end of the program, however, none of their schedules
allowed for them to come and ride their horse at the end of the
Helmut travels frequently between the U.S. and his native Germany.
Regular conference calls and videos enabled him to keep up with
the progress of the horses. The bump in the road to completing our
session almost flawlessly was me! As administrator for this first
session I generated copious forms and drafts and copies. Compiling
the information was easy and a real learning experience as I dealt
with unreliable technology. Again, having gone through the process
we know the paper part of it will improve.
The mission of StartSmart Academy, to merge two equestrian cultures
to provide a progressive, systematic gymnasticizing start for young
American sport horses, was accomplished for these few youngsters.
The process has been a start... a smart start, we hope.
The fall session will begin October 1, 2004. Looking at the mountain
in the rearview mirror is a delightful perspective -- it doesn't
look so impossible after all and makes the journey forward much
Read leading U.S. dressage trainer Scott Hassler's column on the
need for programs targeted to young sporthorses in the July 2004
issue of Practical Horseman magazine.