Welcome to our series 'The Right Start', covering the major stages of the training of young horses, 'The KA Way'.
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. If you missed Part 1 about preparing horses for backing click here to read, and Part 2 about helping horses accept a rider, can be read here .
So, we're on our horse and tentatively taking steps forward with an assistant on the ground to reassure and direct. Our horse is accepting us on his back and we're using our voice commands of 'walk on' and 'and stand' at the same time as our assistant is encouragingly walking and halting by his side.
How do we get from here to being able to walk and trot around the arena independently with use of our leg and rein aids as well as our voice? As with everything we do with horses, the process differs depending on the individual but for the purposes of this article, we'll look at a number of horses we've started over the years and how we approached their training....
Moving away from the assistant
Wherever possible, we like to allow the horse to decide when they no longer need their assistant on the ground. We practice walking and halting, using voice commands that the horse learned on the lunge and that are consistently used around the yard when leading. The rider has also, at this stage, started to use their leg and rein aids in conjunction with the voice commands so that the horse begins to associate them with the desired reaction.
Repetition is the only way to successfully teach this aspect of their education and the assistant on the ground is there to reassure and praise the horse and walk and halt with them.
Quite often, as the assistant is walking with the horse, the horse will start to walk off confidently, leaving the assistant behind but if not, after a few successful sessions like this, with lots of transitions up and down from halt to walk to halt, we'll 'test' that the horse is truly learning and making the connection between the combination of the aids and the movement.
In order to test this, we'll be walking around on the horse, assistant beside us and we'll ask 'and stand' while the assistant keeps on walking. Hopefully the horse will listen to his rider and stand and we'll offer huge praise. The same exercise will be repeated going up from halt to walk (the assistant will stay in halt) and this means, with practice the horse is starting to listen to the rider and ignore what the assistant is doing. It's not the end of the world if this isn't perfect the first time, the horse is just learning and may doubt himself. Again, repetition and praise are used to ensure the lesson is established.
The 'semi-independence' stage
Once your horse is happily walking and halting without the need of assistance from the ground, the assistant can take a step back and position themselves in the middle of the arena. Though we often do it without, if necessary we can use a lunging whip to encourage the horse in a virtual lunging position. Without actually being connected to the lunge rope, this semi-independence stage is like a virtual lunging session where the horse and rider will walk around the assistant and by using the lunge whip as they would on the lunge, the horse is ushered forward and is reassured that this is what is being asked.
Many horse will at this stage, offer a few steps of trot and I always ask the riders to make no correction, allowing the horse to go forward and immediately rising to his trot to ensure they help the horse to remain balanced. Quite quickly, we'll bring them back to walk by using the voice command 'and walk', taking a light seated position and using slight pressure on the reins. This is a good first experience of trot and one that we'll repeat over the next few sessions and encourage the horse forward by using both the rider's aids, and when needed, the assistant's lunge whip. As the horse begins to feel confident in his understanding of the rider's aids, the need for the assistant and their whip becomes less and less.
A good way to practice this new trot work is to have short bursts of trot and lots of upwards and downwards transitions. It's also a good time , in order to work both sides of the body and to keep things interesting, to start developing your steering by making frequent changes of rein and attempting some circles.
Sharp vs reluctant horses
Some horses, even if they are not particularly sharp, will offer their first few steps of trot before we ask for it and we'll always praise this rather than reprimand for it shows eagerness and that's what we're in the business of producing. Others however have different reactions to going forward and we need to tackle them accordingly.
Keira, although otherwise very easy to do, was particularly reluctant to go forward - life for her was all about conserving energy and wasting any of it on such things as trotting were not worth considering. In the beginning we'd ask with our voice commands, aids and additional help from the assistant with use of the lunge whip for trot and we'd get nothing so we'd ask again and again and eventually get some half-hearted, lethargic trot steps before she'd fall back into walk.
It is always in our minds with lazier horses that we don't over-use our legs and thereby make the horse 'dead' to them. We questioned whether she properly understood what we were asking and took her back a few stages to make sure, but although she would offer something when we asked her up the gaits, it always lacked enthusiasm.
After making sure she was getting enough nutrition and calories in her feed, and that she wasn't uncomfortable in her mouth (as can be quite often the case in young horses when their teeth are changing), her back or feet, and feeling certain that she was safe and sensible enough, we took her out hacking with a forward-going older horse to open her up a little and hopefully encourage her to become more forward in her work. It worked! Keira, although never going to be a candidate for a racing career, began to enjoy herself in the process and found the will to put more energy into her work. The majority of the rest of her training was done out on hacks and in the fields.
Of course, we've also met a few horses on the opposite end of the spectrum, proving to be far more sharp and sometimes overly willing to go forward. Without wanting to reprimand a young horse for showing enthusiasm, we will always ride with the movement and work to ensure we don't lose our balance when they offer a big upwards transition or an abrupt downwards one. The opposite of the lazy horse who we need to keep our legs off, the sharp horse we need to find ways to put our legs on to desensitise them to them.
We can do this by applying leg up and down the transitions and quite early on we can start a little basic leg-yielding to teach the horse that legs don't always mean forward! As with all of these things, time and practice makes all the difference and over time, balance in the transitions and indeed the work within the paces improve.
Next time, we'll look at introducing pole work and teaching your young horse to jump.
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