As we discussed in last month’s column, the more you properly handle your horse prior to getting started, the easier the first ride will be for both the horse and rider. The best time to start your colt depends on the breed and also on the intended use — is the training for a specific performance? Build a strong foundation? A longtime companion for trail?
Frequent short workouts are easier on the colt, which not only strengthens him mentally, but helps build his muscles for carrying a weight-appropriate rider later on. I have started hundreds of youngsters in a variety of breeds and ages from age two to 12, and I can say it is much easier and safer working with the 2-year old that has been appropriately handled prior to their arrival. Injuries occur when the colt has not had proper pre-training, handling or frequent exercise, or is asked to perform extreme, unnatural and repetitious maneuvers. I generally work a colt five days per week, 20 to 30 minutes per session. Each colt is different — some colts are easy to start or what I term as “born broke,” while others are more difficult because of issues that need to be addressed first, like aggressive, fearful or disrespectful behaviors.
Breeding also plays a role in how easily the youngster sails through a training program. Some colts are bred for an even temperament and a kind demeanor, while others have more fire to their personality — they are more reactive and will challenge your leadership role. It’s important to be thorough and take the time that the colt requires to understand each lesson. Remember: Whatever you skip today will show up later. Be patient, but don’t rush the lesson. It isn’t about working the colt to a point of exhaustion, because if you push to this stage, you’ll run the risk of injury and, at the very least, the colt will become an unwilling participant. It’s about working their mind.
Lady, a 4-year old Friesian/Thoroughbred has come to me for starting. For the past two years, she has been in a large, flat pen where handling has been limited to grooming, haltering and being held for the farrier. She has not been led outside her pen or trailered off property. She is strong, assertive and lacks respect for the owner’s personal space. The last attempt to lead her resulted in an injury to the owner; Lady bolted while landing a kick as she made a dash for freedom.
The first week was round pen work, asking for both inside and outside turns to be performed at the specific speed and place I requested. I also spent time backing her from the ground, both inside the round pen and around my property. Respecting my space was imperative. She was a willing student, so we were able to move along nicely. I was able to sack her out to the lead rope all over her body and legs, introduce the saddle pad, surcingle and then move on to the saddle — all within the first couple of weeks. She was completely accepting and calm at each stage and moving out nicely under saddle at a walk, trot and canter. After a visit from my vet to float her teeth, I introduced a snaffle without reins attached and just allowed her to pack it around. At this point, I brought in some poles and placed them in various positions perpendicular to the rail of the round pen. I sent her over the poles and requested both inside and outside turns in between the poles.
By having her navigate over the poles as well as the turns between them, we were building her attention span and ability to maneuver over uneven footing. Once she was able to easily maneuver the poles, I brought in a couple of barrels and laid them on their sides, end-to-end, with a space of two feet between them. There was ample room for her to pass through them, yet they were close enough to touch her legs and move about. Each time she went through, I’d decrease the space between the barrels until there was just about a foot between them. As she approached, she would have a choice: Walk between or navigate over the barrels. Eventually, they all choose to go over. This movement allows the stirrups to flop about will teach how to easily maneuver over the barrels without feeling the need to launch into thin air.
The owner would like to ride Lady out on trail, and this prepares her well for stepping over trees or logs. Specific groundwork prepares the horse for both the first ride and their intended use. Determine your goal, breakdown your training into steps and together you will reach the finish line safely.