Don’t get stuck in a rut! Understanding training cycles keeps both you and your horse progressing.
Colt starting has always been one of my favorite activities. Young horses, like puppies and kids, look at the world with wide-eyed wonder. They take nothing for granted. They help you remember what it was like to be a child, to see everything as new and exciting.
Young horses don’t yet know how they fit into the world. They have not learned how to mask their responses, so they’re easy to read. Their responses are an exaggerated version of what a more experienced horse might do. A wide-eyed colt unloading from a trailer may jump like he is clearing an oxer, or may step cautiously, one foot at a time. Both are exaggerated responses that give you a good idea how the colt is feeling.
Another thing I love about colt starting is that the progress is so much more tangible and easily measured than with later, more refined training. One moment the colt has never been haltered, and then he has. One moment he has never been bridled, and the next he chews away at the bit in his mouth. When the cinch has been tightened for the first time, when you take that first step into the stirrup – each is a marker along the way to getting the colt started. When a day’s work is done, you know what you’ve accomplished.
I think it is these very tangible steps that people find attractive, but you should have planned steps in place for every horse that you ride. Whether you’re colt starting or riding the older horse, your training program should have a plan.
Plan Your Ride
What are your goals? Are you heading out on the trail, planning for a weekend of riding, or preparing for a show? Your schedule needs to take into consideration your plans for the year, your horse’s current fitness level, and your availability to ride (how often you can ride each week). Once these questions are answered, you can begin to form a plan.
Your training schedule is going to change depending on whether your horse is just being started, or if you are preparing for an extended trail ride over a weekend, or a competition. The thing I want you to get out of this article is that no matter what your goal, there is still a cycle to the training.
Breaking Down the Training Cycle
Consider the training schedule for one of my older horses, Popcorn. Each workout consists of cycles – a warm-up period, stressing (working) muscles, rest/recovery, and a cooling down phase. These are the components of each workout routine. If I’m planning a long routine, the stress and rest periods will repeat multiple times.
For example, I would warm up with a walk and jog and by doing some bending exercises and moving Popcorn’s hips. Next, I would lope some circles, working on steering and speed control – the first stress cycle of the routine. Then we would stand and walk to cool out. Then I might work on Popcorn’s spins – the second stress cycle, followed by cooling down. Popcorn is in shape and I use him during my clinics as well as in my demonstrations. He needs multiple stress cycles in his workout routines. The routine for a young or out-of-shape horse will often have fewer stress cycles, such as groundwork (cycle 1) followed by light to moderate riding (cycle 2).
Overall Training Plans
The concept of cycles applies not only to individual workouts, but also to overall training plans over weeks and months. For example, for a weekly plan, Monday may be an easier day than Tuesday or Wednesday. Thursday may be the peak of the week, and Friday will be easier – similar to Monday or Tuesday. The weekend can be used as recovery time, for the body to rest and rebuild. On an even bigger scale, looking at a month or several months, the training should have cycles in which week one is easier than weeks two, three and four. By week five, you might be heading back down the scale.
Having a plan, and planning with cycles in mind, will ensure you have an aim each time you work your horse. Even if you only ride three times a week, you should use a training cycle.
Mix It Up
You might be asking, “How do training cycles apply to me?” Well let me ask you a question – has your training flat-lined? Is your routine the same every day? Consistency is good, but we need to remember to challenge our horses, both physically and mentally.
My husband Jesse often says horses are like kids – if you don’t keep them busy, they will keep you busy. And that may mean doing something like bucking or generally giving you a hard time.
A horse that is ridden several times a week, with a routine that never changes, will often become more difficult because he has reached a plateau of fitness and is not being challenged either physically or mentally.
Stacy Westfall is one of the most popular and sought-after clinicians in the horse industry. She developed her natural horsemanship techniques through years of training horses for reining competition. Stacy is an AQHA and NRHA Freestyle Reining Champion who impressed the horse world twice by winning while riding both bridleless and bareback. Her famous Freestyle Championship ride, seen by millions on the Internet, led to an appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. In addition to her accomplishments within the reining arena, Stacy is the only woman to win the Road to the Horse colt starting competition. In 2012, she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. With her husband, Jesse, she presents clinics at venues worldwide to inspire and teach people how to build better relationships with their horses. WestfallHorsemanship.com