Want to bring along a young horse that loves to train so much he nickers when he sees you coming? It’s not that hard if you’re willing to hear the horse. Below are some easy ways to ensure your horse is excited about performing the jobs you request.

  1. Keep the sessions short. When starting young horses, 10-15 minutes is plenty. Five minutes is fine too. Pick a lesson they can easily understand, enjoy and accomplish quickly.
  2. Hear your horse. Sometimes they don’t want to train. With a young horse, it’s better to recognize this and offer a day off rather than forcing a session when they’re not receptive. Other days, it might be best to choose a simple (or complicated) request as a goal. The more you get to know what your horse is trying tell you and the better you are at reading such cues, the easier it will be to end each day with an accomplishment that makes you both proud.
  3. Customize lessons. No two horses are identical (contrary to some of the popular ‘horsemanship methods’ of the day) and offering flexible training approaches that incorporate his proclivities will help your horse appreciate and respect you and his job immensely.
  4. Include the horse in the conversation. Too often, trainers (professionals as well as novice experimenters) craft a lesson plan that’s all about them and then wonder why the horse objects. If you let your horse participate in the learning strategy instead of trying to apply formula approaches, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the horse gathers, retains and applies what you’ve requested. Plus, you’ll find you’ve helped create a partnership that’s richer, safer, more rewarding and more fulfilling than you might imagine.
  5. Always be confident and clear while recognizing the horse with kindness and understanding. Horses melt when they find a leader and a teacher who sees respect as a two-way street. Sadly, some have interpreted the herd mentality using bossy, aggressive and demanding Alphas as the behavior model. Watch and you’ll see these horses aren’t the leaders – they’re avoided. Leaders of the herd are followed by choice, not according to water and feed pecking order. These are the heralded Alphas.
  6. Stand your ground. While combative or aggressive behaviour doesn’t usually encourage a horse to enjoy training, backing down once you encounter an issue often leads to a difficult and obstinate horse that views you as a pushover and/or inappropriate guide. There’s a big difference between unflappable insistence and ‘teaching a horse a lesson.’ If a horse turns into a drama queen over a simple request, keep your cool but make it known that in a battle of wills, you have the staying power to quietly continue asking for cooperation until it happens. Some young horses (particularly strong-willed fillies) will test your mettle to see if they can intimidate you (and if they are successful, your productive training days are probably over).
  7. Ask your horse what he likes to do and reward him at the end of the training session with a task he relishes. You might be amazed at what you discover. There’s no right answer to this one as it depends on the horse. Some view the trails with joy; others want to jump; maybe there’s an area they love to be rubbed; it could be time with a special companion; or a grazing place that’s not usually available. Funny thing is, most horses who love to train want to do something they find fun under saddle. Figure out what that is and you’ll have a horse that gets excited about doing right so they can continue the riding time.
  8. Be patient. When young horses act out, it’s usually because they don’t understand. If you react to this with escalating pressure or demands, they’ll learn to resent you. Give them the time they need to figure out what you are asking before you punish them for confusion or move on to another lesson.
  9. Appreciate the smallest attempts to respond to your requests. Don’t expect the horse to be perfect the first time. If you’re asking him to move forward and he takes a step, recognize and praise the effort. If you’re working on steering and he turns his head or moves off your leg for a moment, stop pushing and give him a reward and a break.
  10. Strive for fun. If you make training something your horse anticipates with joy, you’ll have a ball. As you work with your young horse each day, remember that anything you do to make his job interesting, engaging and enjoyable will encourage him to want to please you and come running when you call. Include him in the process and you’ll be awestruck by his eagerness to learn and perform.

3 Responses

  1. One observation on #6, Nanette–

    For those who might be starting a stud colt–never-but never–lose any battle of wills with them. There will be a constant challenging of “whose are the biggest”-it’s the nature of being an intact male. They never stop-not once. With geldings and mares, you can establish that you are the leader in their lives, and other than a test now and again, they’ll live with it. Not an intact male. Whether you intend him for breeding or not, he will challenge you and you need to be his leader-or things will go down the sewer in a heartbeat.

    I’m not talking beat them down, or manhandling them, or subjugating the horse-far from it. Just being their leader-they know who is ‘in charge’-who gets to make the decisions and who doesn’t-and it isn’t them.

    My little boy is a model of behavior-and he’s all guy. Not a thing beaten down or submissive about Buddy-he’s a rockin’ and rollin’ bring ’em on kind of boy. But I can literally start to walk into the pasture-with a mare in tow-and tell him to back off-and he will move off a good 100 feet. Now, I’ll grant you that I don’t stay in there for the fireworks-I respect their ability to communicate their wishes too much to do that. But my point is-he respects ME enough to do what he’s told.

    It’s a delicate balance of ‘hey, you-under those ears-I’m speaking to YOU!’ and getting too rough sometimes. But better that than getting myself hurt or maybe killed by this guy. You try for just enough to get the point across-and with colts-that can be considerably more than most people ever thought possible.

  2. Ellen, thanks for commenting. I’m a big believer in standing your ground vs. asking for a fight. Personally, I haven’t found all colts to be engaged in a constant battle of wills, but imagine that behavior can be breed specific. The bloodlines you are familiar with may be more prone to such behavior.

    Sure, we’ve worked with some doozies, but the majority of TB and IDSH colts we see (and those coming in for training usually come with issues) are less combative than some of the strong-willed fillies. On the younger colts with too much attitude, we’ll let a mare handle the humbling before we try to fight with them. It saves a lot of time and frustration (for both horse and human).

    I agree with you, if you have one that is testing boundaries, it’s important to enforce the rules.

  3. I agree with your tips and all of training with horses basically comes down to a very basic principal of leadership and in the horse’s world of leadership – who moves whose feet? Coupled with being really clear on what is the required benhaviour and being quick enough to positively re-inforce or negatively re-inforce if it’s behaviour you don’t want. Very often though we get into battles with our horses and their not necessarily “playing up” but rather responding or mirroring us. I wrote an article on leadership and that basics of horse training:

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