He’s bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and full of curiosity – but he needs to be trained! Here are some valuable tips to help you shape your young horse into a well-rounded individual.
You’ve just bought a new young horse. You look at him, see nothing but potential, and are excited for your future together. At the same time, you might be a little anxious. You want to have a good relationship with this youngster, and you know the formative years are extremely important, so how do you get started?
Begin by writing down all your plans and timeframes on paper. Then, crumple the paper up in a tight little ball and throw it in the trash. This is because you’re going to need to be flexible. Every horse is different, and young horses in particular operate on their own timelines..
I’ve worked with countless young horses, including newborn foals, and have a few tips that might help.
1. Get some help
If you haven’t worked with a young horse before, working closely with a trainer is imperative. A green horse combined with a green rider is usually a recipe for disaster. Working with a young horse is a different ball game from working with a more mature, experienced horse. Whether the little chap is five months or five years old, he’ll be genuinely curious and naturally quite willing, so you don’t want to stifle that. You need to get your message across effectively, and with a clear communication system in place, if you want to have a successful future together. Having an experienced trainer guide you through this process will be money and time well spent.
2. Start with ground work
Even if your horse is old enough to be ridden, training should start on the ground. The moment you get near your horse in the pasture, you are training him. This can go in either a positive or negative direction. Everything — from how you lead him to how he stands at the mounting block — will determine your relationship with your horse, both in and out of the saddle. It’s important to pay attention to little details concerning space and respect. My trainer once told me to “train every horse as if you are training him for a nine-year-old girl or a 90-year-old woman”. This means if your horse is encroaching on your space or moving his body recklessly into yours, it’s unacceptable and needs to be corrected.
Everything, from how you lead him to how he stands at the mounting block, will determine your relationship with your horse, both in and out of the saddle.
3. Reward the smallest effort
Similar to a toddler learning to dress himself and getting praise for putting his shirt on correctly, your horse is going to need the same encouragement. Don’t let small progressions go unnoticed. Make sure your little one knows he is on the right track, even if he hasn’t quite got the hang of the situation yet. Rewards will encourage him to keep trying for years to come. It’s so easy to get trapped in a cycle of only correcting your horse’s mistakes, but not acknowledging and praising him loudly and clearly when things are going well. A release of pressure, a short break, a treat, a kind rub and a gentle tone of voice are all great examples of rewards that will speak volumes to your young horse.
4. Know that slow and steady wins the race
You can’t rush when it comes to working with horses of any age. If you’re expecting to steam roll along, both of you will only end up frustrated with one another. Not only do you risk mentally exhausting your horse, you also risk wearing down his undeveloped body with too much work. Remember, there are no shortcuts to correct training. Time, patience and consistency are always the answer.
5. Find humor, not frustration
A young horse, especially a foal, really doesn’t know any better. Other than what his dam and the herd taught him, he is a blank slate, so it’s up to you to show him what you want. If he makes a mistake, try to look at the situation with patience and humor. He will not always have the right answers to your questions, so you must help him learn, and that will take time. When you think of the whole training process as a way of trying to help the horse, rather than mistaking his resistance for disobedience, things will go much more smoothly.
6. Expose him to handling sooner, not later
Don’t wait until you have a 1,500-pound giant on your hands before teaching your young horse manners and simple tasks. Handling his ears, working with his feet, teaching him to load on a trailer, be tied, and to stand still for fly spray are all excellent things to do with your impressionable equine friend. Explore new places by taking him for walks, or expose him to new objects like plastic bags, tarps and balls. Load him up in the trailer and go on a field trip for fun; this will help make your first competition or emergency situation more seamless. These experiences will build his confidence and make life much less overwhelming.
Handling his ears, working with his feet, teaching him to load on a trailer, be tied, and to stand still for fly spray are all excellent things to do with your impressionable equine friend.
7. Keep it short
Drilling exercises over and over is never a good idea with horses, no matter what their age. You will want to keep your time together mentally stimulating rather than physically exhausting. If you push too hard for too long, mental and physical fatigue start to set in, and this could land you both in a bad place. Short consistent sessions are much better than long exhausting ones. Young horses tend to have a short attention span, so less is often more. Try to accomplish just one simple goal each day, but don’t worry if you can’t quite achieve it. Save it for tomorrow and remember that training horses is a lifelong journey, not a sprint.
Just remember, there is no one right way to train a horse, so do your best by continuing to educate yourself and be open to thinking outside the box. The best training foundation is built on trust, so teach your four-legged friend that when he is nervous or unsure, he can look to you for support. Anything worthwhile takes a long time to develop, and your journey with your horse is no exception.