Trial and error is always a big teacher when it comes to young horse training. Sometimes, what you discover will surprise you.
For many years at Halcyon Acres®, young horses were lucky to get a day off each week once training started. Probably a big part of this thinking came from the racetrack, where young horses ship in, get pumped up with grain & supplements and are denied turnout time to release the energy their youth and diets are struggling to contain. Many owners are afraid to pasture Thoroughbreds even on the farm, concerned about injuries.
Imagine how much fun it is trying ride out the exuberance that explodes after a day or two off with this combination of high energy feed and confinement. It’s more fun to watch than do – at least once you get out of your 20s, learn you break where you used to bend and lose that thrill for the challenge no one else can master.
On the trial and error front, fortunately, when you’re working with your own horse, you can experiment with him in ways that might be difficult to justify with a paid assignment.
Buster provided one of these learning moments, more due to neglect than intent.
Better young horse training approach discovered by accident
About the time we were ready to start Buster under saddle, a large number of client horses shipped in. So, when time ran out in the day, Buster was the one who lost his turn.
Curiously, he progressed much faster when not ridden daily. With Buster, three days off to one day on proved to be the best approach for his pleasing personality and somewhat simple mind.
Given the chance to process lessons longer, Buster was able retain everything from prior days (instead of getting frustrated with poor progress). When we switched to two training days a week, he eagerly tackled each next training session ready to understand and enjoy a new challenge.
That experience held the key to new thinking contrary to precepts held by a majority of young horse trainers.
We started trying a day off for every day of training with dozens of young client horses. As we tested daily and less frequent under saddle training, we found most learned faster and enjoyed training time more with an every-other-day approach. Of course, these horses had ample time to frolic in the pastures between riding sessions.
While each horse is different (yes, this is an important consideration with everything you do to bring a youngster along), it’s worth experimenting to see if daily or a less frequent training schedule works best for your horse.
Remember, he’s still a baby
Young horses don’t have the attention span, nor the mental and physical capacity to train like an older equine. They can only process a little bit at a time. If you are able to teach your horse one new lesson with each training session, great! Quit and congratulate both of you for the achievement. You won’t get lasting success, nor a happy horse, if you try to cover too many things in too long a time period. Your horse will start to push back or shut down and resent training time.
In most cases horses are started long before their bones are done growing. Giving them a day or more in between riding trips gives their young bodies time to recover. Going slow keeps them comfortable enough to get excited about the next ride.
Are you wondering how you can you achieve that bonding experience promised from chasing a foal around the perimeter of a round pen and not risk soundness (of mind and body)?
Young horse’s soft tissue in particular, but bones too, are at risk anyway. This circular, prolonged pounding speed is not natural. There’s a better way to encourage your horse to do what you want – by helping him discover it’s what he wants.
Protect your horse’s mind and body with restraint
Spending daily hours in the saddle will undermine proper physical development of the young horse as well. Bones are still soft, the horse is still struggling to balance himself while carrying your weight and soft tissue is fragile. Keep lessons short and give his young body and mind time to recover and process his experiences between rides.
There’s no reason you should need to spend more than 20-30 minutes at a time riding in the first couple or few months of training, even if you’ve adopted an every-other-day or less frequent approach that suits your horse’s learning style.
Unless, of course, you’re dealing with a true alpha (most are mislabeled and misunderstood) where it’s critical to finish what you start. It’s best to choose your battles carefully with these types.
On those days where you wind up in an unexpected battle of wills, do plan to schedule time the following day for a (hopefully) short ride. If you can get past the prior day’s challenge without incident, quit quickly and give her a couple of days off to reward her “understanding.”
If you’re starting a horse under saddle that’s less than 5 years old, realize his mind is going to take longer to absorb what you’re trying to teach him than a more mature horse. Also know, his body is still growing (some breeds mature more quickly, others, like the Irish Draught, take longer). That means you can do a lot of damage to his long-term soundness if you push too hard. An every-other-day approach with short rides can help his body heal and mind catch up.
Be happy and he will too
Test your horse to see if he learns best with daily training time, every other day, or more days off before you tack up again.
You can still do training on the ground in between. This doesn’t have to be formal training time. You should be thinking about helping your horse understand how you’d like him to behave with everything you do. He’ll retain learning from leading to grooming to how you respond to his behavior at feeding time with your next lesson under saddle.
Give your young horse short lessons, time to process between training sessions, praise the moment he does what you want and a chance to be included in the training conversation and you’ll find him nickering when he sees you, running to the gate and excited to tackle new challenges come riding time.