I’ve been asked a lot lately about creating a schedule for young horse training. People want to know the exact age certain task should be started, and when they should be finished. It’s hard to try to explain to some people this is question that can’t be answered without involving the horse in the conversation.
Yes, of course, there are age and related growth issues. Staring too early or moving too quickly can create damage that can’t be undone. But so can discounting the equine mind in your training regimen.
Some horses are smart. Others need a different engagement approach to understand. There are those that will test you at every step – and you better be sure what you’re asking is reasonable before you decide to make an issue of it.
Some young horse training starts with a horse’s request
Certain young horses beg to be brought into the training process earlier than we plan. Judie (our 2007 Registered Irish Draught Sport Horse mare)was one of them. We knew she was going to be big and didn’t want to begin under saddle training until late in her three-year-old year at the earliest. She had other ideas. So we honored her request and did some very light training with her early.
Ground work didn’t satisfy her as she had been watching other horses being ridden. It’s funny how some horses seem to see the world. Judie’s been a fantastic learner and eager pleaser with every under saddle request we’ve made of her since. Just being included when she asked seemed to solidify her conviction that training was fun. Her response has been to try even harder to do everything right.
Certain horses will easily accommodate your schedule
Leah was another one we started early. This wasn’t due to her expressing a strong desire to begin training, but more because we needed her for a job. This is a remarkable little filly that we grab for a variety of farm needs. Most horses – no matter what age – wouldn’t be able to do what she does around here without angst or injury. In this case, we had a green employee who was providing help with client horses coming in to be started under saddle, but wanted the learning experience of a project she could do on her own. There aren’t many young horses I’d entrust with the schooling project (the horse did a lot more teaching than the human), but Leah’s special.
Boys often need more time to mature
There have been a number of times I’ve sent client horses back after some preliminary training because they were just too young to process or physically handle the demands of riding time. Fortunately, my clients care about their horses and trust my judgment, so are willing to give their equines another year or two to grow up before beginning career training. This seems to be a guy thing as these equines are almost always geldings or colts.
Starting a horse too soon is a mistake. If he’s too insecure, underdeveloped physically or confused about simple requests (this is often human error, but some horses do need to grow up to be mentally ready to respond as requested), he’ll come to see training with resentment, fear or avoidance tactics. That’s no way to start a horse that will be asked to partner with humans for a lifetime.
Young horse training decisions should include your horse
So, when people ask me “at what age should I be introducing my horse to tack,” my answer is always “it depends.” I get some industries put tremendous strain on young horse bodies at a very early age. Some breeds take years longer to mature than others, requiring more time to physically mature for long and healthy career. Usually, though, no matter what the breed or career he is intended for (that’s a subject for an entirely different blog post), the horse will tell you when he’s ready.
Of course, there’s lots of things you can do from the ground while you’re waiting.
If you find your young horse doesn’t relish the training time you spend together, consider stepping back to try to figure out why. Maybe he’s been rushed to a point where he’s confused and concerned. Return to ground work in an effort to establish a better foundation. Perhaps you don’t have the confidence or understanding to instill courage in him. This might be a good time to seek out help. Alphas can be particularly challenging because they’re usually clever, willful and watching your every move to determine if you’re worthy. Too many people try to dictate to these horses, or recoil in fear; neither approach works very well.
Or maybe, he’s just not ready. Everything you do today will shape how your horse experiences riding time for the next twenty years and beyond. If you’re going to take on a young horse training project, you owe it to the horse to listen to what he’s trying to tell you. This is the time you set the stage for a horse to spend a lifetime enjoying his human interactions – or dreading them.
If you find yourself challenged with training issues you’re encountering with your horse, we’ve created some e-booklets to help. These are available on this website and as Kindle Editions for only $2.99 (there’s about 20 pages each). We’ve also created these as audio books available on Amazon or iTunes and a number of other popular venues. Reaching Alpha Horses and Bringing home and off-the-track Thoroughbred are fun reads with stories, tips and ideas you can implement immediately. If you do pick up a copy of any of these titles, please consider leaving an Amazon review. Thanks!