I love babies…horse babies that is. They’re just so darn adorable and impressionable and fun to work with. Every step you take is a huge achievement, which for me makes training them all the more rewarding. To me, the right start in life can save you a whole lot of hassle down the road, as most issues with horses are created by humans, and a lot of damage can be inflicted in those first months or years of riding experience.
Starting young horses isn’t for everyone, as you certainly have to possess a larger than usual amount of patience, and you have to be very conscious in the way that you train. Famed trainer Gordan Wright said, “Every time you ride, you are either training or un-training your horse”. And never has that been so true as it is with baby horses. You are their first everything, and how you behave can shape the way that they interact with all riders in the future, which is quite a lot of responsibility.
With young ones, as pretty much with any horses, first things first: they must learn that no matter what, I’m fair. I might have rules they don’t like, and I might ask them to do things that seem scary, but in all situations, I never behave in an unjust manner.
After that, they have to learn that there is always a release, and that when they find the right answer, the praise they receive is above and beyond the feat they accomplished. There is nothing quite like a horse that understands the game of “finding the right answer” and builds their own confidence by playing correctly.
I have a young mare in training right now, a half sister to my big horse Nyls. Her name is La Perle Noire, and she’s been relatively laid back to start. She’s a quick study, and in the beginning could be persuaded to do just about anything for a cookie.
Now that she’s got the basics down, and we can walk, trot, canter, steer and stop, I want her to learn some of the less obvious skills that kick in when you really need it. Upper level Eventing is full of horses with a sixth sense and a fifth leg, and that is something you can cultivate from the beginning.
I want her to learn bravery and curiosity, so even when she’s unsure, and if something looks scary, I tell her that she has to go check it out and realize that everything is cool. I need her to learn how to take care of her own body, so we do lots of easy pole work that teaches her foot awareness, and then we go out hacking on all kinds of terrain.
She might not have the muscle to do anything crazy, but she can certainly walk up and down and all around, and figure out how to balance with me on her back. We all want a horse that is “obedient” and I want a certain amount of that out of Perle, but I also want her to learn to think for herself, and to not rely on hand-holding her whole life.
Anybody can put sixty days on a horse and call it trained, but they tend not to think about it as a long term project. Yes, I want my young horses to do all the right “tricks” eventually, but I also want to cultivate their minds in a way that teaches them to learn correctly for the rest of their lives.
They should know from the beginning that learning is fun and rewarding, and most of all, they should go forth into the world with a cooperative attitude towards their riders. And if patience and a sense of humor isn’t your cup of tea, send your young ones my way!