How can I start my young horse? What do I need to know?

Max chewing gateQuestion: On your site, the bigger one, (Horseman’s U) you talk about going slow when starting young horses. Can you give me a bit more information about what you mean by what you said, slower is faster. I am having problems with my yearling I started her this fall but she is not very smart. Could I be going too fast?

Answer from April Reeves: Please tell me you are not trying to ride a yearling! If so, get off and give her until the top of her third year to try again. Yes, you are going too fast – WAY too fast, too soon. Let your yearling hang out and eat grass, play with the others and grow strong bones first. It’s like you starting grade one at 6 months old, and packing a ten pound knapsack at the same time.

Horses are smart. We need to figure out how to work WITH them as opposed to against them. We must teach the horse to use his brain before his brawn. You must set up the conditions that allow his thought process to take over before his instincts. In their natural state, horses use instinct first, as a matter of survival. If the horse were to stand and ponder his predicaments, he is likely to be eaten much quicker than if he were to react and move.

When first starting a horse, the first 4 to 6 weeks is crucial to basic fundamental aids and foundation. This is where the horse either reaps the rewards of good training techniques and patience, or spends the rest of his life in abusive hands, or expensive training trying to rehabilitate and reprogram him. Many horses pick up habits along the way, but the first 90 days will be most influential. (sounds a lot like us, we either had good homes or spend the rest of our lives in therapy).

Youngsters vary in their progress and learning abilities, depending on breed, or ‘built in’ character often acquired from the mare or stallion.

As you start each youngster, you need to be able to feel how he is taking in the information and how he is processing it. Is the colt able to handle pressure? Can he calmly accept each new lesson? Each day you ride, you must let the horse dictate how fast and how far the two of you are going to advance. It is not up to you; it is up to the horse. Rushing or forcing a horse to do anything before his confidence is up will only turn into a pressure cooker down the road. A forced training regime will not make a dependable mount.

Going slow means – start from kindergarten and move through each grade. Many riders jump from grade 2 to grade 10, and wonder why the horse isn’t getting it. When working with young horses you must understand each level, how to proceed to the next level, and when it is time to do so. Starting youngsters is not a process for a green or beginner rider.

I am not going to get into how to start a horse in this article as it would be a ‘book’. I will tell you that you need to teach simple maneuvers like suppling and bending (nose, neck, ribcage, shoulder, hip), voice aids, rein and leg aids, standing quietly, good ground manners, really good stop and go buttons, how to stay between the reins, and stay in each gait quietly until asked to change. Those are basic foundation skills all youngsters should know by 90 days.

It’s important that they don’t know specific things, such as bucking, rearing, bolting, head tossing, kicking, biting. You need to be able to keep a young horse from experiencing these vices, and you need to be able to do it with proper training and the ability to deal with these problems safely and quietly as they occur. If your training is sound, very few should ever occur.

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