Welcome to our new blog series 'The Right Start', a 5 part series covering the major stages of the training of young horses. This series is based on a set of articles we wrote for The Scottish and Northern Equestrian Magazine back in 2011 and knowing that Spring is the time of year people think about starting their young horses, we thought we'd edit and republish the articles in the hope we can help you in your journey.
How to Start
Owners often ask me whether they should send their baby horses away to me straight from the field with little handling and no familiarisation with tack, lunging or long-reining techniques or should they spend a few months getting their horse into a routine, used to being tied-up, stabled, daily grooming, and being tacked up. I always find this question difficult to answer without knowing the horses or owners.
Whenever we work with a horse, despite all our plans, always at the forefront of our mind is that fact that he or she is an individual with his own personality, abilities and life experiences that completely shape how his training will go. Added to this are his owner's abilities, lifestyle and depth of knowledge and experience. On the whole, most young horses come to us having had some sort of handling but we've met horses from both ends of the spectrum.
In this article, I'll briefly look at the pros and cons of starting your young horse at home or leaving them un-touched for the professionals, plus a look at some of the approaches and techniques we use at the yard and some tips to help you work with your young horses at home.
Some of the most challenging horses we have met are those that have had little or no contact with humans or those at the other end of the scale, those who have lots of the wrong kind of contact.
Alfie was a 13hh, 3 year old New Forest pony who came to stay initially for 6 weeks to be backed and quietly ridden away. He had recently been purchased by his new owner straight from the hill and was essentially feral.
Alfie was terrified of us, and because of difficulties catching him, he stayed in for the first 2 weeks of his stay. That meant we could talk to him constantly while we were working, let him watch us groom, tack up and work with the other horses, gradually getting closer and closer to him. Before long he was tentatively allowing us to groom him and take him for walks in hand. Introducing Alfie to tack was not easy, but by remaining calm, patient and in control we were able to reassure him that tack, then ultimately a rider was something not to be feared.
Although progress with Alfie was comparably slow (5 week to get a rider on his back), the biggest issue we had to face was one of trust and that always takes time and cannot be rushed.
Quite often, owners get in touch to discuss their young horses and due to them having had little or no handling, I'll suggest some homework to do with them before they arrive here with us. This might include getting the horse into a daily routine where he's brought in from the field, taught to walk nicely beside his owner, be tied up to be groomed and fed then turned back out again. That could progress to accepting a bridle and a saddle then learning the concept of lunging, but most owners, if they haven't already got to that stage, prefer us to tackle those parts.
Reuban was in equal doses naughty and adorable Having had a very different start in life to Alfie, Reuban was, I'm sure his owners won't mind me saying, completely spoiled from the day he was born. He had bags of personality which shone through as real flare in his work, but as a youngster he proved cheeky, bargy and without any respect for you or your space. His owners struggled with him and did their best to keep on top of him but the bigger and stronger he got, the larger the problems became.
The complete change in routine and environment put Reuban on the back hoof for the first few weeks when he came to stay and we wondered if he was really that difficult to handle but as he became more comfortable in his surroundings, the old behaviours started to come out. We would immediately correct any bad behaviour and train him to stand still by tying him up in his stable and keeping the door open so he learned not to barge out whenever he thought he had the chance. We also did a lot of leading work with him, taking a few steps forward then halting, only to move on again when we asked him to, in order to not pull when being led.
We stabled him next to well behaved horses so that he could see how they showed manners and we rewarded him with praise, The same disregard for authority was shown under saddle and although very straight forward to back, Reuban had an inherent belief that he was boss and would go wherever and do whatever he wanted all the time. He was never nasty and although he would throw in the odd buck here and there and spin around to go in the direction he'd want to go, we couldn't help but develop a soft spot for this self-assured young man!
Consistency is key when working with all horses at any stage of their training but with this one it was essential. We had to be completely determined about what we were doing and insist upon it; any degree of psychological weakness on our part would confirm to him that he was indeed, the boss.
It's difficult to say whether if Alfie had had human contact in the earlier stages of his life, or if Reuban had had none, would they have been easier to back and school on? Or perhaps, more importantly, happier? It's the age old nature-nurture debate, but certainly, their experiences have to some degree, shaped their personalities and ultimately the challenges we and their owner had trying to work with them in harmony.
Tacking Up - Bridles
About 50% of the young horses that come to sty with us have never had tack on. For those who have been shown in-hand as yearlings and 2 year olds, they will have already have been used to a bit in their mouths, but we rarely come across real issues with those who haven't been bitted before arrival. We tend to use ordinary bits when bitting young horses, rather than a bit with keys as it allows them to become quickly acquainted with the equipment they'll be wearing every day.
We will often use a single jointed snaffle or one with a losenge. Most horses will allow us just to put the bit and bridle on in the normal way for the first time but with some, they've found it easier if we un-do one cheek-piece from the bit, put the bridle on then slip the bit into their mouth from the side and connect the cheekpiece to secure.
Generally, within a few days, the young