The Right Start Part 1 - Groundwork and Lunging
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 horse will quite happily slip the bit and bridle on without any issue whatsoever. We have met a few that needed a little extra persuasion however and we've had to resort to dipping the bit in molasses (very messy!) and using a bucket of feed under the bit to entice them to open their mouths. For the first few times, we will remove the reins from the bridle and just allow the horse to stand in their stable and munch on hay with the bit in their mouth, this way they get used to the sensation of the bit moving in their mouth and as long as they can eat, they seem quite happy.
Tacking Up - Saddles
Teaching a horse to accept a saddle on their back is for most, quite straightforward. We start by sliding a saddle cloth onto their back then off again, on again and off again. We do this while grooming so that they become used to the idea that something will be put on their back.
Once they are happy with this, the next stage is to place a lunging roller on top of the saddle cloth and slowly secure the girth, a little at a time. Always do this for the first time in an enclosed arena with a lunging cavesson and lunge rein attached; it is far safer this way as the horse may react by leaping away.
We would always recommend having an assistant to help you but make sure they stand on the same side of the horse as you incase the horse moves suddenly and violently. It always amazes me however, that the vast majority of horses we meet are completely underwhelmed by this. The lunging process can start at this stage or if the horse is completely comfortable, we will try on their first saddle.
Sheepskin girth covers are fantastic for young horses as you avoid cold leather touching the underside of their belly and giving them a fright. We the young horses, two of us will prepare them for work so that one person can reassure the horse while the other places on the saddle and bridle. Anything you can do in the beginning to make tacking up stress free and enjoyable will pay off and avoid any nasty habits arising.
Teaching Horses to Lunge
Horses do not instinctively know how to lunge. If you think about it, up until the point of asking them to lunge, you've always insisted they walk quietly by your side and not pull away, so the concept of running around you in circles is something new.
We we lunge our horses during the backing process, we do so with a bridle on and lunging cavesson to which the lunge line is attached. After a few lunging sessions, side-reins are attached to the bit rings.
Assistants come in very handy when teaching horses to lunge - it has been known for us to use the 'lunger' and 2 assistants walking half a circle each at the horse's head so that they understand what to do. Slowly but surely, the assistants can hang back and let the horse take a few steps alone, only to be met by the next assistant for another few steps. It doesn't take long at all before the horse is walking and trotting around by themselves.
In the same way that horses might not like the roller at first, side-reins can also upset them, so we often attach them to the cavesson first and let the horse become comfortable lunging like this before attaching them loosely to the bit rings and gradually shortening them so that they are comfortable.
The purpose of lunging at this stage is not only to exercise the horse and get them used to their tack, but to teach him the voice commands for 'halt', 'walk', 'trot' and 'canter' which will in turn be used to teach him the leg and rein aids when he's ridden. For some bigger horses, we have sometimes introduced the canter loose-schooling in the indoor arena so that they have the confidence to canter with the feeling of more space.
We can never under-estimate the scale of what we are asking our young horses to accept from us. The horses who have come to us for training are plucked from what is normal to them, whatever that may be, and dropped off with us at this strange new yard with unfamiliar people, a new routine, curious neighbours in the stables next to them, hay that probably tastes a bit different and then we ask them to put this metal thing in their mouth and run around in circles while attached to a rope!
For animals that cope best when they're kept in a good routine, they have well and truly been taken out of their comfort zone. For this reason, we always make sure we find out the routine they've been used to and give them time to adjust. Patience, consistency, understanding and quiet assertiveness will without doubt help guide a solid early education for your horse and as always, keep learning - the more knowledge we can gain, the better our decisions will become. We are constantly learning new things, developing new theories and techniques with every horse we meet.
In Part 2, we'll look at how we back our young horses and will try to explain the use of some techniques to solve the most common challenges we face during the process.