Getting Started

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That colt in your barn turns two or three in 2008—what does it take to begin his lessons? Whether your own horse or a client’s, plan his basic education for his future career.

To transform a baby into a good riding horse, the colt should learn to work for the rider, and the trainer should listen to the horse. We’ve talked with expert trainers across the disciplines, and share their guidelines for starting young horses.

Matching Goals and Taking Time

Starting a young horse takes time—at least six months for a solid foundation in the basics.

Stanley White, from Citra, Fla., has trained champion Arabians for 45 years. “People put a horse in training 30 days and want it to go to a horse show. It takes quite a while to get a horse to do what you want in the show ring. A good trainer can make a horse look good in 6 months—it takes about a year to get the horse into physical shape, and then keep it in shape.”

Training is stressful for the young horse, both mentally and physically. “A good trainer is a psychologist,” says White. “You figure out their head, their mental ability and their athletic ability. Usually when you have trouble with a horse, it’s because physically he can’t do what you’re asking.”

Calendar age is a guideline—and the trainer sees how the horse responds to first lessons. Mike Goebig, a Morgan trainer for 37 years in Kutztown, Pa., starts young horses in longlines. “We usually start the longlining at 18 months, and then decide after 60 days where they are. Is the colt mature enough to work physically, and up to it mentally? We may continue on, or come back when the colt is three.”

To start colts on the longe line, Katrin Burger, a trainer from Verden, Germany, explains typical schedules for warmbloods. “With the young stallions, start riding them after the licensing in the fall, when they are two and a half years old. With mares or geldings, start at the end of the second year, in the winter.”

Every trainer adapts to the individual, and may teach the basics differently, but all agree that the first month forms the foundation of a horse that’s willing to work with the rider.

Groundwork and Conditioning

Training on the ground teaches the horse to respond to aids. In longeing, he learns to respect the trainer. In the natural horsemanship method, the trainer spends time free longeing in the roundpen. John Lyons and Monte Roberts have made this training popular.

Trainer Traci Riddle, Los Lunas, N.M., explains, “It’s working with the horse and allowing the horse to communicate through body language. They communicate through pressure.” She uses roundpen work to encourage respect. “I drive the colt around the pen, free longeing. I stop him at the shoulder and have him look away, then come forward to me. I want the horse to start thinking about working for me. I can walk up to him and he will want to respect my space.”

Riddle practices groundwork as taught by California cutting horse trainer John Holman. In the roundpen, she uses a flag—a whip stock with a plastic bag fastened to the end. “Flag the horse out, so he is comfortable with flagging all around his body. Then teach him pressure on the head with the halter, so he is soft and you can bend the nose around, and you can disengage the hindquarters.” By disengaging, she means moving the hindquarters to the side—as in a turn on the forehand.

This schooling teaches the horse to give to pressure, which is basic in learning to stop and turn. Another California trainer, the late Jack Baker, emphasized this lesson. In one of his last interviews in 1986, he said, “The system of teaching the horse to give to pressure is the most important thing—and just about the only thing—you’re going to teach him in his lifetime.”

Longeing in a snaffle bit with side reins helps the potential jumper or dressage horse carry its head and neck, loose at the poll, to prepare for the hands of the rider. The horse learns to accept saddle and bridle.

At a clinic which this author attended, Jürgen Hoffmann, a German-trained horseman now based in Encinitas, Calif., began by explaining, “Start with the side reins loose. The horse should stretch into the contact. You want a nice soft contact as in riding.”

He demonstrated longeing a colt at trot and canter, pointing out safe use of the longe whip. “Put the whip under your arm, not on the ground. If you have it on the ground, the moment you reach down to pick it up, something can happen.” Ponying is another method to teach the young horse, and increases fitness. Most trainers ride a horse and lead the colt, so they can ride outside the arena. White explains his approach, using a four-wheeler and a racetrack: “To get them in good shape, I run them behind the four-wheeler—let them run as fast as they want to go.” He adds, “I start that right away. I do it with the young ones before I ride them.” Horses go from barn to track, and then on the mile track.

First Rides

The first rider should be an expert horseman who maintains consistent position, to help the young horse find his own balance. To help the horse get used to the rider’s weight, the trainer sits with a soft, light seat, and posts the trot.

For example, during his clinic, Hoffmann demonstrated the first ride, with one person holding the horse while the rider gradually settles in the saddle. He said, “It’s very important to have an assistant on the ground who knows the horse.” As the rider lies on the saddle, the assistant walks the horse slowly.

When the horse accepts the weight, the rider sits normally while the assistant longes the colt at a walk and then posting trot. “Let him balance,” said Hoffmann. “Help him as much as you can with your balance.” From riding on the longe, the rider can start communicating with the horse with seat and legs and light rein signals. The next step is the first ride off the longe. Progress can be swift; watching the rider, Hoffmann said, “He is listening well to your rein and leg aids already.”

Clear communication is key. Riddle says, “The first couple of times you ask for something, it has to be very clear.” She explains riding with light pressure, to make the colt soft from the beginning. “Reach out with your pinkie and ask the horse to come around. Then increase the pressure till he responds.”

Baker describes how very light hands can avoid upsetting the horse, whose natural instinct is to push into pressure. “You must be aware of how much pressure you exert, and you want to be light and fluttery when you signal, rather than pushy.” Realize that riding in a round pen, the fence turns the colt. Ride outside the pen, too, so the colt learns to work for you and handle himself in a new environment.

Riddle starts colts outside after a day or two in the arena. She teaches the colt to give to leg aids, without resistance. “If you want to start a colt to be a balanced horse, you start to soften the ribs and the shoulder—and then you get soft in the face.”

Riddle explains using subtle aids so the horse “hunts that release.” To disengage the hindquarters, she cues with rein and leg aids. “You need a rider with consistency and timing, to give the release in the right place,” she says. “Timing is hard—you can always improve your timing. You hunt for the horse’s goodness, and you anticipate him giving you what you want. Then the moment he begins to think about it, you can start to respond.”

First Month under Saddle

In the first 30 days, the horse adjusts to new requests. Riddle says that realistically, he will know “how to turn, maybe stop, and wear a saddle.” She calculates that 90 days is the minimum for these. In these weeks, the trainer looks for consistency and establishing the colt’s work ethic. The colt isn’t always coordinated, and can feel wiggly like a rubber band. Riddle advises to keep the colt between the reins while teaching him to move in balance, on circles and straight lines.

The young horse often “tests” the trainer after a few weeks, resisting cues. The seasoned colt trainer expects the horse to rebel at some point, and is ready to respond to keep the youngster on track. “There is a fundamental shift in a horse’s attitude when he’s asked to work,” says Riddle. “The first couple rides, it’s easy. Then you push him a little, and you feel him brace. He might get a little spoiled-acting, but you just work through it.” Here you insist, without overreacting.

You also don’t expect your colt to meet specific milestones at 30, 60, or 90 days. By not pushing the horse too hard, you listen to his responses to guide him. Riddle describes tuning into the young horse: “You should feel the life of that horse through the reins, through your legs, and through your heels. You should be able to feel that topline, and know what the horse is thinking.”