Starting under saddle – how long is too long?

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Friday’s Opinion

It seems the older I get, the more I’m inclined to ask the horse how he wants to proceed. Years ago, I’d relish the opportunity to engage a horse in a battle of wills that demonstrated my mettle and glue.  Granted, it’s hard to know how much of my collaborative approach comes from the wisdom of age, or the pain of aging injuries borne from younger and dumber years, but I have found the changes in my technique over the years seem to make training a lot more fun for the horse.

Of course, there’s the occasional alpha that’s already had a good deal of mileage schooling humans who chose to confront them with demands vs. understanding that requires staying power and athleticism, but most horses will choose to be agreeable if you listen to their concerns, spend the time required to ease them into new lessons and fortify your riding time with ground work.

Short is better with early horse training

One of the things I’ve learned when it comes to starting horses under saddle (or working through issues that have developed as a result of an initial bad start) is brief is best when it comes to the duration of lessons.

Sadly, most seem to feel the more time you spend riding a young horse (or, even worse, round penning him to exhaustion in preparation for carrying a mount), the faster he will learn. It upsets me to see people pushing young equine minds past engagement and enjoyment toward a resentful and frustrated state of resistance – or a mindless submissive obedience trance.

Ten to fifteen minutes of training time seems to be the sweet spot for most young horses being introduced to a rider (and this includes ground work done in preparation for this moment too). Usually this can be an easy goal to reach if you spend enough time getting to know your horse so you can gauge his mood, choose lessons that will appeal to him and quit after a request is met. Sure, there are horses and days when your quick lesson plan turns into hours of persistence when wilfulness and attitude surfaces, but these are rare situations once you learn to hear the horse.

Some horses respond better to daily lessons; others need days to absorb what they learned so they can start the next training session ready to progress. Professional trainers and novices who try to make every horse fit into their formula training regimen create unnecessary roadblocks to building a happy partnership and an eager performer. The learning process accelerates exponentially when you customize your plans to respond to the horse’s input. Done right, this reduces the time in the saddle and makes each session a fun and collaborative game for the horse (this doesn’t mean you allow the horse to do whatever he wants – but does require a process that shows you are listening to what he is trying to tell you). Babies just don’t have the mind or body to handle hour-long drill sessions. If you can make each day fun, easy and rewarding for both of you, your horse will come to relish the opportunity to work and you’ll be amazed at how eager he is to learn and please as a result.

Longer prep time leads to better equine performers

I cringe when I hear people boast they “broke a horse in seven days.” These horses fear new situations, don’t trust people and expect every new experience to be traumatic. Who can blame them? Or, with some of the colder breeds, they’ve had their heart yanked out and have succumb to a life of submission and servitude.

Common sense should say that early preparation done patiently and thoroughly makes for an easier and better horse when performance training begins – but that doesn’t seem to prevail with many focused on the clock or calendar.

If you start the training of a young horse with the aim of building trust and rapport, most will strive to please you with responses that exceed your expectations. They also handle new situations with a confidence and interest that you don’t get from a horse that has been rushed or forced. Whether you’re a trainer seeking to put the basics under a horse as quickly as possible to please your client with your speed or a novice following a rote agenda prescribed by someone who’s never even seen your horse, you’re missing out on rewarding opportunities to engage and excite your project. If working with a horse that loves to train doesn’t grab you, you’re also putting early barriers in place for the horse to be the best he can be in the future.

It’s not a matter of losing a few weeks’ time with a slow and easy initial approach, but instead, a method that saves you months or years of time and sometimes a lifetime of frustration for you and/or the horse when you adopt a training approach that incorporates the horse’s particular penchants and responds to his expressed issues. Of course, you can’t get there if you don’t consider the horse as a participant in the process and allow him to give input.

How long is too long with a horse?

If you’re staring a young horse under saddle and he’s done what you first asked then becomes belligerent with subsequent requests, the lesson went on too long. Don’t be tempted to push harder because you’re having a good day (or a bad one and you just want to turn that screw a little further once he’s answered your initial request because you want to establish who’s boss).  Take the win and quit early, knowing you’ll have a willing and responsive horse tomorrow for giving him immediate credit for his efforts.

Foundation work for horses intended to be great performers takes time. A quick early start usually leads to problems later. No horse should be expected to be ready to start career training in a day – or a month. If you’ve spent 60 days with a horse, however, and are getting nowhere, that’s a bad sign. In fact, if you spend a few weeks with a horse and aren’t making any progress, you should probably look for another who may be more adept at reaching the horse. Each horse is different and some come with issues, are slow learners or cannot adapt to your style. Most, though, won’t be able to retain what you’ve taught them with comfort, confidence and the understanding to move on to more refined training demands in much less than a couple of months.  Rush them in the early starting training and you’ll usually pay later.

Make horse training fun

I’ve had a ton of fun lately having the luxury of letting the sport horse farm-bred horses tell me when they’re ready to start training and taking a leisurely approach to lesson frequency and demands. This is rarely an option with client horses, but it’s been a great learning experience to watch how this has played out with the herd. It’s been amazing to see how eager and interested these horses are when training begins when they say they’re ready and are allowed to express how frequently they’d like to train. In fact, all the young stock (along with the older horses in career training) are so eager to train, they express their annoyance with my busy schedule and associated inability to train them all daily. It’s a competition each day at the gate as to who gets the call. The chosen ones are eager to perform and learn and often ask to continue the lesson after its intended end. I’m having a ball working with horses that relish training so much they are determined to progress faster than asked. They seem to appreciate the fact that I’ll skip training plans on a horse if she doesn’t seem eager to come in.

If your horse (or horses) aren’t eager to see you coming and excited about the opportunity to work, you’re probably making the lessons too long, too structured, too demanding, too formula or too about you. Once you start responding to your horse’s requests, you’ll be floored by how eagerly they comply with yours. Try it. And let me know how it goes.

If you have a challenge with a current horse you’re starting under saddle, have questions about young horse issues, ideas to add to help others starting a young horse or want to shout about one of your proud successes, please comment below. Thanks.

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