Johnny is my third personal 4-year-old—Ella came to me at age 5—and as different as they all are now and were at the same age, they all have a few things in common. They tend to follow a pattern, and as such, I have a loose pattern on my approach to them.
First, I figure out what to feed them. In this, Johnny and Fender are alike, and Midge was the outlier. Johnny came to me SKINNY, and certainly not from lack of care. His previous owners, and now I, just can't seem to get the calories into him. Midge at 4 was a little heifer, a fairly easy keeper. But Johnny now, and Fender at that age, both got all the tall spring grass they can eat, all the Fibregized Omega I could justify (for Johnny, it's about 8 pounds a day), plus Uckele's Cocosoya oil and Tri Amino, a muscle-building supplement. I certainly don't want Johnny fat, nor do I expect (or desire) him to have the muscling of a stallion or of one of the horses prepped for the World Breeding Championships—I care that he is a Grand Prix horse at 11, not a World-Beater Second Level Horse at 5. But I would like to do all that I reasonably can to support his growth, and so that's been my protocol for Johnny, and for his predecessors.
Then I figure out what he needs as far as management. In the beginning, as I got to know him, I'd longe him for a few minutes before I got on. What I've figured out about Johnny is that even if he's a total dingbat on the longe (which is rare), it has yet to occur to him to be remotely naughty under saddle. I shudder to write that, as now I'm certainly going to get unloaded tomorrow, but it's true—he's a delight. Fender and Midge were not always so delightful: Fender was really pretty good, but he could get a little twitchy as a kid; Midge had a nasty propensity to get light in front, if you knows what I means.
For probably a third of my rides on him thus far, and the last two rides in a row (including one after three days off), I haven't longed Johnny, just gotten straight on. And bingo, no issues. Hoorah!
Something he has gotten cheeky about as of late is standing at the mounting block. He'll line up to the block perfectly but then step back from it as soon as I've climbed onto it. My solution to this is that, no matter what, I am NOT getting down off the mounting block. Even if I have to circle him around the block a dozen times, take 20 minutes, whatever—he does not get me down off the block by moving, and I am getting on, by myself, end of story. Today, after probably two sessions lasting 5-10 minutes each, I got right on. Good, smart boy.
Then there's what to do under saddle. Johnny is undoubtedly the greenest of the three boys I've had at age 4—he's even less organized than Midge was at 3. But there are also things he does better. He's much more responsive to my leg than Fender was at that age, and he's much more responsive to the hand than Midge. Things all work out in the end, and I prefer the underdeveloped young horse to the overdeveloped one. But I work him for about 25 minutes, four days a week, sometimes two days in a row, sometimes not. Three days in a row tends to kill him, but he is going to horse show in June, so at some point he'll have to gear up for that.
I work on getting a response to my aid, even if the response is wrong. If I push him forward in the walk, and he breaks to trot, I let him trot a few steps before asking him to walk again. If I ask him to turn and he just. can't. turn, I'll walk or halt, then ask for the turn again until he gets it.
And then I work on challenges to his balance in baby ways—baby leg yield, shallow loops, and opening and closing lines. He can't sustain a circle much smaller than 18 meters, but that's something I play with a bit as well.
And Johnny, like Midgey but unlike Fender, is struggling to feel comfortable really stretching at walk and trot, so we work on that quite a bit as well. None of it worries me—his job for this year is to learn how to walk, trot and canter in balance and on the bit, go away from home and not be a ninny, stand on the crossties and on the trailer, stand at the mounting block, turn out like a gentleman, etc. Life skills. Big D Dressage training comes later.
Last but not least, I figure out what tack he goes in. He's like Ella in that he thinks that hind boots are going to eat him, so he wears them every day. I put him, and everyone else, in a double jointed loose ring snaffle (it's actually a bradoon), not too thick, not too thin, with the center piece shaped like a bean or a lozenge, and go from there. Fender really liked the eggbutt version of that bit for a while, though he's since gone back to the loose ring; Midge, who's REALLY strong, quickly graduated up to a french link. But both Johnny and Ella, to this day, are in that simple KK-knock off snaffle.
When I tried Johnny they rode him without a flash attachment, so I've kept that up. I do ride him, and everyone else, in a crank noseband because I like the padding on them better. Fender briefly went in the drop noseband, and both Ella and Midgey went in a flash right away, because they needed the support. Johnny doesn't so far, but I'm not married to it. They dictate to me what they like and don't like, and that's what I ride them in, within the limits of the USEF Rulebook (which are really quite generous), but I like to start as non-weird as possible. And for saddles, I have a wonderful wide baby saddle that I'm riding Johnny in at present; my policy on saddles is that a horse doesn't get his own until he stays the same shape for six months. He's still a long ways from that, which unfortunately means he has a brown bridle and a black saddle—oh, the humanity! He'll tough it out.
I keep things simple with these baby horses, and I've found that the more I ride them like they're non-weird upper level horses, the more they go like non-weird upper level horses. Johnny still definitely does not feel like an upper level horse—he feels more like an octopus on roller skates. But that's par for the course. And I like that he's non-weird. A great trainer friend of mine once said that horses tend to go like we expect them to, so I make my expectations very clear—good behavior, good basics, sort the rest out later. So far, it's produced two Grand Prix horses and one well on his way there. I'd call that a success!