Sarting a horse under saddle can be expensive, but doing it right is a necessary investment in the horse's career and in his life. Experienced owners and riders can guide their horses through this big transition by themselves or with a little bit of help, but most owners prefer to send their babies to a trainer. This early schooling can be a serious financial investment.
If you have your horse reasonably prepared for the experience, your money will be far better spent than if you just push a feral beast out of your trailer and tell the trainer, ?Good luck!?
Think of sending your young horse to a trainer as sending your child to kindergarten or first grade. Your child should respond to basic instructions, should be able to feed himself, needs to be potty trained, and should be able to interact with other kids. With those skills, he or she can be taught to read, write and do math. Without them, he or she is just a disturbance.
it's not much different with your horse. If he or she is reasonably well prepared to start school, You'll be less likely to get a call from the trainer saying, ?We?ll have to keep him two more months ? we haven't been able to put a saddle on him yet.?
And the trainer will be better able to teach your horse skills, instead of simple discipline ? just like the teacher who can't teach the class how to paint because one child is throwing the paint around the room.
While some trainers will become frustrated if they have to deal with a 17-hand 3-year-old who?s half wild, good trainers will accept that they have a lot of work to do and start from scratch to teach respect and trust to the recalcitrant project. If you?ve sent him to a good young-horse trainer, that's good news in the long run. But in the short run it means the horse's progress will be slower and, likely, more expensive.
The Six Basics
If you want to send your 2- or 3-year-old to a trainer to introduce him or her to work (longeing and ponying) and to having a rider sit on him, here are six skills the horse should have to get biggest bang for your buck, presented largely in order of importance:
1) He should be respectful (but not afraid) of humans and obediently respond to simple commands (such as moving away when you push on his side and waiting to be led out of stall or turned loose in a paddock, not just charging). A good indicator of this skill is whether he leads confidently and obediently. Here's a bonus skill: If you can lead him from both sides, it will make teaching him to longe easier.
2) He should stand on the crossties to be groomed. Almost all young horses have panic moments on the crossties, when something surprises or frightens them and they rear up and leap backward, breaking the crossties or their halter. But this shouldn?t happen every time you attach him in the aisle or the wash rack, and the ability to stand comes from experience. Part of the grooming regimen should be that he willingly lifts his legs so you can pick out his hooves.
3) Similarly, he should have been introduced to water flowing from the hose so he can be bathed without excitement, preferably attached to crossties.
4) He should stand calmly for the farrier to trim him, although not necessarily while on the crossties. He should also accept topical medication, shots and deworming paste.
5) Your horse's experience will be much happier if He's confident with other horses nearby and around him, just like a child who can interact with his peers. Many trainers will also appreciate it if He's used to being turned out with other horses.
6) The training experience will start off well if he loads on the trailer reliably to be shipped to the trainer?s farm. If He's comfortable loading in a trailer and shipping, it will also give the trainer considerably more options to provide him with training experiences.
Don?t despair if you haven't had the time or the ability to teach your horse these skills before you send him off to school. Unlike your child?s kindergarten teacher, the trainer shouldn?t send him home with a note telling you He's incorrigible. The trainer should work with him to develop the skills He's lacking. But understand that not teaching your horse these basics is going to delay teaching him how to read and write.
The Older Young Horse
Now, if your horse is 3 or 4 (or older), and you're sending him to be started under saddle and begin basic training, for his sake, for your checkbook?s sake, and for the trainer?s efficiency, you can do even more to have him ready.
To begin with, the trainer will appreciate it if this older young horse has all the skills we?ve just described. And here are three more ways to prepare him:
1) He needs a comprehensive dental appointment prior to putting a bit in his mouth. The veterinarian or equine dentist will remove wolf teeth, shape the bit seat, and file sharp edges so that contact with the bit doesn't cause discomfort and, therefore, disobedience.
2) He should be fully conversant in longeing, either as a result of your efforts or the previous efforts of this trainer or another trainer. That means he can walk, trot, canter and halt in both directions, preferably wearing a saddle (or longeing surcingle) and a bridle with bit.
This is largely a matter of time efficiency. If your horse doesn't know how to longe correctly, it will take the trainer two to six weeks to teach him, which for most trainers is mandatory prior to riding. You have to be a very brave trainer to get on a horse and try to teach him the mounted aids (leg, seat, reins) if He's never learned to obey any aids at all.
3) For time efficiency and to make the new task of carrying a human being on his back as easy as possible, your horse should have a base of fitness from ponying and/or longeing regularly, preferably during the previous 60 days. If He's just been standing around, especially if He's been standing in only a small paddock or a run off his stall, the trainer will want to spend about 30 days just getting him fit enough to work. Usually completely unfit horses also don't know how to longe ? both because no one?s done a thing with them yet.
Fitness is especially important for small horses and for particularly big horses.
Small horses need basic fitness to start to work because the weight of the rider is a high percentage of their own weight. If, for instance, a Quarter Horse or Arabian filly weighs 750 or 800 pounds and the trainer weighs 150 pounds and adds 15 or 20 more pounds with the saddle and equipment, that's 21 percent more weight sHe's instantly going to have to carry around. How would you react to having to carry a 30- or 40-pound bag of grain on your back for 20 or 30 minutes, with no fitness preparation'
On the other hand, if your warmblood or draft-cross gelding weighs 1,400 or 1,500 pounds, that same trainer is adding only 12 percent to the weight he normally carries around. But ? it's hard work for him to just wander around with his own poundage. If you want him to be able to trot and canter with you, he needs an exercise program, just like a human couch potato.
A good trainer can and will deal with a completely raw recruit sent to him or her to learn the basics of equine performance. Your horse can progress even faster, though, if you're able and knowledgeable enough to spend 30 to 60 days preparing him for his new life.
But, if you don't have the expertise to properly work with a young horse, don't try. Almost all trainers would rather work with a completely uncut diamond than try
to retrain a spoiled onion.
To read more about longeing, refer to our January and March 2011 issues. To read more about ponying, refer to our October 2010 issue. To read more about starting young horses under saddle, go to our September and October 2007 issues. Go to http://www.horse-journal.com/.