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

Young Horse Training Tip #3
Good young horse training requires you remember he’s still a baby.

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)?

You can’t.

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.

5 Responses

  1. not just for young horses, i found that working with my 40 years old stallions is easier and more pleasento for both if we ride each other day, and if we do ludic things, like if all training is just a funny horse-day-out with me on his back…
    “horse-day-out” is what we call when we spand a whole morning ou afternoon with the horse, riding and letting him eat grass too.

    1. Karina,
      So true! Thanks so much for taking the time to stop in, read and comment. It’s not just young horses that respond well to training that’s fun and not too often. People often wonder why a “made” horse turns sour. If they’re not having fun (whether it’s the routine, a soundness issue, not being included in the conversation or merely a matter of not enough time to recharge), there’s no wonder they stop preforming as enthusiastic teammates. Glad you’ve found an approach that pleases both you and your stallions.

  2. Thanks for writing this article. i am just starting my 4 year old. hes already done all the basic’s and accepts tack no problem and lunges in walk trot and canter and will stop when asked, i have ridden him a handful of times, but our last ride i had an unexpected dismount due to another pony entering the arena and turning my pony into a rodeo, i did get back on and ended on a good note though. Due to me having a baby last August he had a lot of time out in the field as it was too risky for me to do much work with him, now i find myself short on time with always having an 8 month in tow but i think i will try the every other day approach as it will work better for me time wise and im sure he’d prefer it to being worked every day as well.

  3. Nikki, I was a firm believer in daily riding of young horses for a long time (mostly because that’s what everyone else was doing). With increasingly challenging cases and some farm-owned horses who tended to be last on the list for training, I began to experiment. Honestly, I was a bit surprised to find less was more with young horses (short training sessions with days between had them learning faster than those with daily, longer workouts). Turnout is key – if young horses are stalled without a decent amount of daily pasture time, they’ll go crazy if you don’t get them out daily for mind-engagement and exercise. If pastures are part of the living experience, though, I’ve found a few days a week is plenty to move a young horse along quickly. That unexpected dismount is normal. Glad you decided to hop back on to finish. That probably gave your pony at least as much added confidence as it did you.

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