How to give your young horse the best start to riding. by Cynthia Cooper
‘Starting’ a young horse is a more positive than ‘breaking’ so I will use this term rather than the traditional ‘breaking-in’ that has become common language for training a horse to be ridden.
After all, who wants to end up with a ‘broken’ horse? Sadly many do have their spirit, and sometimes their bodies broken during a process that has been universally accepted for a very long time.
What I’d like to propose with the trend now towards more compassion for the horse, that this can include a totally different approach to ‘starting’ them under saddle.
To begin with, lets forget about the ‘correct age’ for a horse to be started – traditionally this has been at around 2-3 years although in the racing industry it can be as young as 18 months.
Physically, young horses’ bones and muscles are not strong enough to carry any weight for any length of time until they are 3-4 years old, and then they should be carefully built up with short periods of slow exercise. Harder work and competition shouldn’t be considered until they are least 4-5 years old and for some slow maturing breeds like Arabians and warmbloods, 5-6 years is a better time to start.
Realistically, horses can be started under saddle at an older age, although there is perhaps an optimum time when they can be easily developed mentally and emotionally and that is usually under the age of maturity (7-8 years).
Ideally, a young horse is being ‘started’ right from birth and during the daily handling/checking they should receive, especially for the first few months of their lives. This will give you a trusting, trainable and confident young horse who knows how to do all the basics for survival in a domestic situation such as be easily haltered, led, have hooves trimmed, be wormed, load /travel on a float/trailer and begin to tie up for short periods under supervision.
It doesn’t hurt for them to be ‘turned out’ occasionally and have periods of little human contact providing they are checked and maintained properly, and that the often negative events of worming, gelding and medical treatment are not the only contact they have with people – this will definitely erode any trust you have developed.
So as yearlings and two year olds, it is possible to prepare them for being ridden by exposing them to all types of situations, especially if you are not going to be doing the starting yourself.
Weaning from their dam, especially if done gradually, will help them learn about separation from their bonded pair or group. But this needs to be extended for short periods (with company to begin with) so the youngster learns they can leave the comfort of their own herd and pasture.
This can be done for pleasurable events such as feeding, grooming and playing, then extended to more challenging things such as going for walks (led by a person or from another horse), loading and travelling.
Young horses who are taken to shows get a good education in all these things but even if you don’t show, you can take your youngster out to visit a friend, to a play day, or to look around at a small show or event without competing – something I’d recommend before you do actually compete. Of course, you would take them with an older calm companion who can help give them confidence and show them the way.
Then it’s a gradual process to ask them to leave the herd on their own, beginning as mentioned above and gradually increasing the time and distance they are comfortable being away from their herd or friend.
If you’re starting your own young horse, this is still an ideal preparation so that when it comes time to ride out alone, your horse has confidence in you and the situations you’re asking them to cope with.
Starting your own horse to be ridden is the ideal situation. You have a relationship going already – your horse will trust you more than anyone else so why would you want to send them off to learn new things from someone they don’t even know?
I think many people lack the confidence to start their own horse, and that really just indicates they need more horsemanship education themselves.
There are so many good horsemanship programs and clinicians running ‘colt starting’ courses plus easy access to information, that we can increase our skills for being able to start a young horse.
After all, that’s what you’re going to be doing when the horse comes back from being started by someone else anyway. If you don’t have the skills to carry on their work, then you will face problems and that will most likely instigate either selling the horse or if you love them enough, learning more yourself anyway.
The most important factor in successfully starting your own horse is to forget time frames. This is one of the biggest problems with starting young horses – and why I don’t agree with short ‘colt starting’ workshops or spectator events such as ‘Way of the Horse’ where Horsemen are judged on their starting skills. It puts these often un-prepared young, frightened horses into overload and you see them ‘shut down’ emotionally just to be able to cope.
Does it really matter if it takes you a year to start your horse under saddle? If you’re both progressing and learning within your comfort zones, then enjoy the journey.
If you want a horse to take out for a ride or to a certain event by a certain time, go and buy one that is ready for that.
Horses don’t forget what you did with them last – whether it be a day, a week or a month ago. In fact some good trainers have realised that giving a horse ‘soaking time’ which could be for as long as 3 days after learning something new, is the ideal way for faster progress.
However, I know there will always be people who want someone else to start their own horse. In that case, it’s your job to prepare your horse for the situation as I outlined above. This would include getting them used to being handled by different people (preferably those with the same philosophies on horses as you), taking them away for short stays at friend’s places where there’s no pressure, and having them cope with leaving their herd.
Then it’s a matter of finding the best person to start your horse so ask around for what others have experienced then go and see your prospective choices working with other people’s horses. Some trainers will even travel to your place to work with your horse, and that is ideal if your philosophies on horses are similar. At least then you can watch and learn, and intervene on behalf of your horse if you think its necessary.
Most good young horse starters will allow you or even invite you to watch them work with your horse because they have yours and the horse’s best interests at heart.
Listen to your ‘gut’ or instinctive feelings about the person you choose to work with. Just because they have a good name in the industry, doesn’t mean they will align with your beliefs.
Go and watch prospective trainers working with other people’s horses and get to know their philosophies on horsemanship. Make sure they ‘walk their talk’! Ask other experienced and respected horse people who they would get to start their young horse.
Once you have chosen your trainer, communicate to them what you want – many think the process must be as fast as possible, but if your horse’s confidence and spirit are important to you, then you can let them know that time frames can be flexible.
Ask them to allow the horse to have at least a week to settle in to their new surroundings before they have to cope with training.
Take the feed and hay your horse is used to eating so a gradual transition can be made to the trainer’s feeds if that’s what will happen. This will reduce the risk of digestive upsets or even colic. Ensure your horse has been recently wormed, hooves trimmed and teeth checked. Only send your horse to be started if they are in good physical health – there’s no point in the trainer working with a horse that has physical issues hampering their ability.
Visit your horse as often as you can, especially during training sessions and to have some riding time under the trainer’s supervision once your horse is going nicely.
When you get your horse home, its ok to give them some time off to ‘recover’ from the moving and adjust back to their home. If you are unsure where to start at home, then ask the trainer to come and give you some lessons at home on your horse, or go out for a short ride with you to help give you confidence that will then transfer to your horse.
If you’re afraid to ride your newly started horse, then maybe a young horse is not for you. Remember, you need to be the confident leader to show your young horse the way.
My final word of advice: Give your young horse the best start under saddle by developing your horsemanship and leadership skills with an older horse first.
I recommend Parelli level 3 minimum is ideal. To find out what that involves, go to www.parellli.com and look into the Levels Pathway.
Here is an excellent article that outlines the negative repercussions that horses possibly suffer at a young age, or when they are in their teens from being started too young and too hard.
Why People Start Horses Too Hard, Too Young By: Laura Phelps-Bell
Cynthia on Manny with Zach at her Young Horse Starting Course April 2004.