By Julie J. Bryant
Futurity season is one of the most anticipated three months of the performance-horse competition year. These months, typically October through December, are filled with the exhilaration of witnessing the results of what is hoped will be a winning formula. It begins with a well-calculated breeding combined with choosing the right trainer and riders who “gel” with the horse’s personality to reach the height of its talents and challenge its limitations.
The weeks and months following the futurities, however, are a time of assessment and regrouping for owners and trainers.
Two-time National Reining Horse Association Futurity champion Jason Vanlandingham and 2013 AQHA cutting world champion and 2018 National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity intermediate open champion Clay Volmer have advice on what the next steps are with young prospects.
Lesson #1: Rest Is Crucial
After the push of futurity season, a horse will do best with a vacation that might last a few weeks to a few months, depending on the individual, before work picks back up again.
“The 3-year-old year is one of the most taxing for these horses,” says Jason. “It’s not that they’re getting ridden too much or overtraining, but it’s because this is the first time they’ve been trailered a lot and they’re being shown a lot of new things. I will take my 3-year-olds with me when I am showing older horses so they can get used to the sights and sounds around them. After the futurities are over, they really need that time to decompress.”
This is also a good time for a checkup with a veterinarian.
“You’ll want to see if the horse has any muscle soreness, take a look at their hocks and check for any bone spurs, things like that,” says Jason. “We routinely have a vet look them over once we’re ready to get started again to stay on top of their health and get ahead of anything that could be a problem.”
Lesson #2: Reassess
The pre-futurity and futurity season itself helps trainers and owners understand a horse’s ability level, and requires honest communication between them. Determining where a horse will be pointed to next is a big question and one that ultimately is the decision of the owner.
Jason says not many horses will stay in his barn that did not do well at the Futurity.
“I’ll have some owners who will want to ride their horses in the non-pro that are not really suited for open competition, so not many of them will stay with me,” says Jason, who typically trains 20-25 horses at a given time. “I don’t keep as many horses as other trainers who can have 80, 90 or 100 horses at a time. So, if a horse is not up to standard for open competition, it moves on.”
Lesson #3: Find His Place
Your horse might need to move divisions, like from open to non-pro, find a new owner or even find a new career or discipline. Futurity season is a prime time for prospective buyers to find a new addition, and many take advantage of it.
Clay notes that because so many horses get sold in the last few months of the year, many of the horses he has in his barn for the futurity move on, but he also has an opportunity to take on horses considered “late bloomers,” as the next season begins.
“There are horses who need more time to develop mentally and I do get those,” he says. “I’ll try them out at small weekend shows just to see what they’ve got, and some of them turn out to be phenomenal athletes.”
Lesson #4: Ease Back Into Training
Once a futurity horse has had time to vacation and refresh, it’s time to go back into training for its derby year.
It’s important to start them back gradually and make sure the horse is “locking on” to the trainer, meaning it is as attentive and responsive to the rider as it was or better than before the layoff.
“I try to take all the pressure off of them,” says Clay of the first few weeks after starting the horse back. “I’ll take them back to letting them do stuff they did when they were first started, just letting them track and lope around. I don’t do any turns and no hard maneuvers.”
The horses who were superstars on the futurity level often still want to be superstars as they advance into aged competition. Knowing what will work with a horse’s personality is absolutely a must, Clay says.
“When I have a horse that is a busy-minded individual, I will spend a lot of time just hanging around with him,” Clay explained. “Some horses I really have to ride down, and others don’t like that. They know their job and they don’t want to be messed with. The less I mess with them, the more successful they are.
“Knowing my animal and knowing what they require to be successful is my job, because I want every horse to be as successful as he can be. That’s my game plan, that’s all I want to do.”
Lesson #5: Feed Them Properly
Young athletes are still growing, and it is important to assess their nutrition for their level of development.
“Keeping a good fat content in our feed is important,” Jason says. For his feeding program, he feeds alfalfa cubes for consistent nutrition and to reduce worries that the hay is too “hot.”