Young Horses Need A Leader, Not A Friend

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People seem to either not make time to handle their young horses at all or go too far with the admirable ”let-them-be-horses” philosophy. Yes, young horses absolutely should live outside, as naturally as possible, as they grow physically and socially. But it’s so vital to teach them, while they’re young and small, to interact with and to respect humans, because it has a direct effect on everything they do later in life.

And too often people approach horses with a belief that ”he’ll be good for me or perform because I’m his friend.” Well, certainly our horses must trust us and have confidence in us, and we must always be honest to them in our training. But they’re bigger and stronger than we are, which means we must be their ”pack leader,” just as with dogs, a status largely achieved by the correct use of our voices, body language and artificial aids for either reward or reprimand whenever necessary.

Clear Communication

Most often when a horse refuses to jump or to perform an exercise, it’s because he’s confused. It could be because it’s a jump or an exercise he’s never seen before and for which you may not have prepared him, but more commonly it’s because the rider is giving the horse either incorrect or uncertain aids, usually because of fear or uncertainty. And the horse can sense this and can sometimes even panic because of it.

Expect Compliance

Training, especially with horses age four or younger, starts in the barn and when you lead them to the field or back to the barn. And it’s never too early to teach foals to lead alongside their mothers. To introduce foals to leading, attach a long lead to their halter and pass it behind their hindquarters, bringing it back to your right hand under their chin. Using this method, you can pull them along from behind instead of pulling on their heads, and they usually catch on in a few days.

Simply expect (or insist) that the horse (at any age) follow you, stop and stand, and that they let you put a halter on and off without fuss. Approach and handle them with confidence and purpose, not with fear or wishy-washiness. Walk up to them and put their halter on. If they protest by shaking their heads up and down, attempting to pull away, or biting, make a habit of putting their halters on them every day, even several times a day, until they stop protesting.

Next, insist that youngsters stand quietly for grooming, trimming and medication. Always insist — with reprimands as mild as possible but as sharp or strong as necessary — that they respond to your commands to do things like move over or pick up a foot.

Later, these ”commands” will become your aids, to make transitions, to move forward with regular rhythm, to lengthen and shorten stride, to speed up and slow down, to jump or negotiate obstacles, or to stand quietly. If they don’t respect, and understand, your aids on the ground, they probably aren’t going to respect them when you’re riding.

The Young Horse

So you don’t have a foal, but you do have a young horse, let’s say a three-year-old. You bought him as a yearling or two-year-old because you liked his type and because you couldn’t afford an older horse who already knew the basics of the job you have planned for him.

And now you’re wondering how to get him ready for riding. Unless you’ve broken youngsters a time or two or have a trainer you can work directly with, consider sending him to a trainer, preferably someone who has a background and interest in training young horses, especially for your discipline.

This may not be possible, though, depending on where you live and on your budget. If you send your youngster to a trainer, you should be prepared to spend $600 to $1,000 per month in board, training and associated costs, like trimming/shoeing and veterinarian, probably for two to six months, depending on the horse and on your experience. And the cost and duration will increase considerably if you want the trainer to introduce your horse to competition in your sport.

Yes, this is a sizeable chunk of change for almost anyone to spend. But it’s not because horse trainers are trying to soak you. The costs of maintaining a training stable are high and getting higher — they have to pay rent or mortgage, they have employees they have to pay; and they have to pay for the necessities of feed, hay, bedding, manure spreading or removal, and pasture and fencing maintenance.

Longeing

If you’ve worked regularly, preferably daily, with your horse in and around the barn (and not just let him wander like a mustang around the field ever since you owned him), your first step toward riding is to teach him to longe. Again, if you’ve never learned how to properly longe horses (as opposed to just chasing them around a circle at the end of a long lead rope), you should take lessons with someone who can demonstrate the technique of giving aids (commands) from the ground in a way that the horse can understand and that will translate to him when you sit on his back.

Your goals in longeing are to reinforce to the horse the necessity of obeying your aids and to teach him to go forward (that means using his hindquarters and back to develop strength and a forward-thinking attitude) in a calm, confident manner.

Start on a small circle (5 to 8 meters) at the walk so that you can easily control him. Then expand the circle to about 20 meters as the horse becomes more attuned to your aids to trot and then canter. We start longeing young horses in an enclosed ring or round pen so they can’t get away if they spook.

Once they’re longeing in a relaxed manner, it’s time to introduce them to the saddle. Start this process in a stall, after longeing, for a few days. And when you start longeing them with the saddle, either take the stirrups off or make sure they’re secured to the saddle and not flapping. After a few sessions, put the stirrups down and let them flap to accustom the horse to movement on his back. For flightier types this can be a big deal, but most horses, if you’ve proceeded quietly and confidently to this point, just accept the flapping stirrups as the next step in their education.

You can begin to accustom them to the bridle (using a rubber ”D”-ring, hollow-mouthed loose ring or soft plastic bit) at this point. It’s usually best to introduce the bridle for the first time after you’ve longed them, when they’re more relaxed and a bit tired. Some people like to put an old bridle on them in the stall for a couple of hours each day, and that’s a good idea for horses who are fussy about their mouths. (Use an old, leather bridle so you won’t care if it gets ruined and so that it will break if they catch it on something.)

Once they’re going quietly at all three gaits, on a regular circle, in both directions, you can start to longe them with both the bridle and saddle. Keep the sessions short (maximum of 10 minutes) for the first several days because young horses have short attention spans and will likely become naughty when they get tired. And it’s best not to longe them every day — let them absorb what they’ve learned and not get bored.

You have four longeing options once you’ve put the bridle on them: You can place a longeing cavesson over the bridle, you can pass the clip through the inside bit ring and over their head to attach to the other ring (remember to reverse the longe line when you change direction), you can clip the longe line to the inside bit ring or you can use a bit attachment. This is a matter of preference and of the horse’s temperament.

Once they’re confidently accepting your directions on the longe line, we like to start longeing them in either elasticized or sliding sidereins or in a chambon, adjusted loosely at first and attached to either the girth or to a longeing surcingle.

These artificial aids have two primary purposes. First, they accustom the horse to rein contract and start him associating rein contact with your aids. Second, they begin to develop youngsters physically by encouraging them to stretch their necks, raise their backs, and bring their hindquarters underneath them — useful in pretty much every discipline.

Now comes the question of how much do you want to or need to teach them before you sit on their backs. Your mandatory goal is to teach them to obey voice commands and the whip, and the way you do this is by frequently asking them to make transitions. Tell them to ”w-A-l-k,” to crisply ”trot!” to ”trot ON,” to steadily ”can-TER,” and to ”stea-dy” within gaits, and keep doing it until you get immediate or at least quick responses. Don’t be afraid to cast your whip to send them forward or to hold it in front of them to slow them down, and point it at their shoulder to keep them out on the circle (often the toughest lesson to learn).

How long should you longe them before you take the big step of sitting on them' It depends largely on the horse, but you should be prepared to spend a minimum of three weeks to develop enough fitness to hold you on his back. There’s no need to hurry.

Remember, the aids you’ve introduced on the ground should carry over when you ride. You’ll initially use voice commands to teach them your leg, seat and rein aids.