Some believe the only way to truly know a horse is to train him oneself for trail riding. Others go further, insisting on training and raising their future trail horses from foal, weanling stage or even from the time of conception, starting out by breeding a favorite mare to a stallion of choice.
Although I have an outstanding horse trainer available, I find great satisfaction in bringing a colt from his earliest days - when I encircle the newborn foal with my arms, holding and stroking him until he's calm - then training him all the way to his stature as "complete trail horse."
But when others express a desire to bring a youngster along the same way, I find myself voicing many cautions. Here are three:
• Time to the saddle. According to equine physiologist Deb Bennett, PhD, horses reach physical maturity when they're between 5½ and 6½ years old. Tack on a year for gestation (technically, 11 months, 6 days), and you're looking at a long wait from breeding to saddle. Even if you buy a weanling, you're still looking at two years before serious saddle training begins and several more before the horse is mature.
• Your age and physical abilities. Youth and athletic ability aren't requirements for raising and training a horse, but some physical capability is necessary, and the more, the better. Be realistic. Young horses are by nature rambunctious, wanting to run, wanting to break free of whatever restrains them. Regardless of the training methods you choose, there will be bumps in the trail, and some of them might hurt. You'll be a couple of years older when that youngster challenges you under saddle, and he'll do so, count on it, no matter how kind you've been to him. Will you be up to it?
• Your horse knowledge. As our population has modernized and urbanized, fewer of us grow up with horses. Fewer of us have had a gentle mentor, the farm grandfather or ranch grandmother for whom practical equine knowledge was second nature. There are many helpful clinicians and instructors, and studious reading of good books and magazines certainly helps. But, as with our physical abilities, it's best to be realistic.