Training Our Young Horses AND Our Young Child

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Training young horses is one of the most rewarding challenges in our sport. it's a fascinating exercise to figure out what makes them tick (and not tick), and it's fun to see them learn and understand the behaviors and skills that they?ll need for their lives.

I've been finding it similarly fascinating watching our son, Wesley, who's now 31 months old, learn to walk (he actually runs more than walks), to talk and to learn and understand his own needed behaviors and skills.

We visited Heather?s parents in Reno, Nev., for the Fourth of July, and on the holiday we took him to a neighborhood park. He climbed up the steps to the slides and slid down them (one of his favorite activities); he crawled through tunnels; and for the first time I watched him climb up an unsteady rope ladder, which he did again and an again, calling it ?big climb.? It reminded me of teaching a young horse to longe or to work through a complicated set of gymnastics.

Wesley has also helped me clean tack at events, and he loves to feed cookies or hay to two of our kind mares, Alba and Freckles. He's learned how to say some of the things he wants to do??Go feed Hop? means he knows it's time to feed his rabbit; ?OK, read book? is what he says when he brings a book to you; ?OK, need help? is what he says when He's having trouble doing something.

And he often becomes very proud of himself when He's done something, smiling, clapping his hands, and exclaiming, ?I did it!?

The young horses often act similarly, except for the talking part. We have four 3-year-olds (two of them are homebreds) getting started under saddle right now, and I'm currently competing two 4-year-olds (one a homebred) and a homebred 5-year-old, each of whom we started under saddle and whom I taught to jump. The 3-year-olds remind me of Wesley when he started Montessori Fun School last fall at age 2. Like Wesley then, they're just learning about the world and how to work with people.

We started two of the 3-year-olds, Bill and Tiny, under saddle two weeks ago, and they're now transitioning from the pony ride stage to trotting on the longe line. it's fascinating to see their different personalities deal with these new requirements.

Tiny, a warmblood filly, had been indicating for several weeks, in every way she could, that she was ready to do something more than longe or pony. If she could talk, I think she would have said, ?I want to be ridden like the other horses here?I've got places to go and things to do.? I'd longed her over cavaletti three times, and she?d never swerved?she looked at the little jump and went over it every single time. I can't recall another young horse who's been that confident and positive about jumps before, even the 4-year-olds and the 5-year-old, who are all excellent to fabulous jumpers.

Bill is more of a challenge because He's a sensitive, far less confident sort. When he came here as a long weanling, he was absolutely feral, so it was satisfying to see him stand with his eyes at half-mast the first time he was mounted. I hope we're tapping into his soul, helping him understand that this is what he was meant to do. He too can leap?we put him down a jumping chute last summer, and he just sailed over the jumps, in slow motion, like the show hunter He's meant to be.

The other two 3-year-olds, the homebreds Piper and Bella, are taking the slower route, mostly because they're ours?no client is paying us to turn their baby into a riding horse. Plus, they're bigger than other two, and we're expecting further growth, especially from Piper.

Piper by same sire as Tiny, but we're guessing the size difference comes from their dams, because Piper could end up being four to six inches taller and 400 or so pounds heavier than Tiny. Right now Piper is like a 14-year-old boy who just skyrocketed to 6?2? and doesn't know where his feet went, but his friends and family are telling him he should play basketball. So we're letting him grow while doing lots of ponying on hills to build his strength and coordination.

Fortunately, Piper is like a giant lap dog?we think he?d come into the house and watch TV if we asked him. He's always the first one to the gate, and he loves to have you hug his head. We just hope He's not TOO quiet under saddle.

Bella may end up slightly taller than Piper, but sHe's got a much, much finer build. If she weren?t a pinto, you?d swear she was a Thoroughbred just like her dam. SHe's very coordinated and is always aware of herself, and sHe's the most naturally forward young horse I've ever ponied. SHe's always right there by my leg.

The two 4-year-olds?Boogie (Bravo?s First Class) and Ianto (Phoenix Torchwood)?remind me the most of where Wesley is in his development right now. Wesley has figured out how to climb things, and He's figured out how to play real games (he has several sets of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends, and you can see that He's making up stories with them), and he knows how to play games on his iPad or his mother?s iPhone. (He can find the games on these devices too.) But he still has a lot to learn.

Boogie and Ianto can do leg-yield, shoulder-fore and counter-canter, and they can do pretty complicated gymnastics. This week I set up two gymnastic lines that crossed each other on the ring?s two diagonals?one line is two bounces separated by two forward strides, and the other is two vertical/oxer one-stride combinations separated by two forward strides. Three or four months ago, if I'd presented these lines to either one, I'm sure they?d have stopped or run out, because they were confused and unsure of what to do with their feet. But this week it was really encouraging to feel them work out both lines, to shift their balance and lengthen or shorten their strides to perform the exercises.

I find it really rewarding to feel young horses

use what you?ve been teaching them, and they each sure acted proud. If they could talk, I'm sure they?d have shouted, ?I did it!? just like Wesley.