Starting young horses under saddle can be an unsettling experience for the novice horse person. I remember when I first began to try my hand with the young ones. I wasn’t a trainer in those days but I had been competing in rodeos. I worked the steer wrestling event and had started riding bareback horses. I thought that I knew quite a bit so I would kindly lend a hand to friends and get their mounts lined out if they misbehaved.
One day, a friend came to me and said “I have this two year old that I got as a gift. I really want to start riding him, but I’m afraid to put on the first ride. Can you please ride him for me?”. I quickly reminded myself of how I had fixed a few older horses before and surely riding this young horse would be no different! After all, he had been handled and really loved people. So I said to her “no problem, when do you want me to start him?”
My First Two Year Old Experience
I showed up to the farm and there he was in the paddock with two other horses. He was a big 16 hand appendix quarter horse sorrel gelding and he walked right up to me. There was no round pen on the property and given my lack of experience, I didn’t think anything of it. I put the halter on and said “bring me the saddle, this will be a piece of cake”. I walked him to the middle of the paddock and put the pad on. He stood there like a perfect angel. Next, I put the saddle on and he didn’t bother to flinch. I thought….I am making myself look really good right about now so I tightened up the cinch! He stood there and looked at me, took a deep breathe and just dropped his head. This was getting ready to be great I thought. Starting a two year old is easy!
“I’m about to get on”, I yelled. My foot entered the stirrup and I hoisted myself up. All of a sudden, the horse that had been so quiet came to life! Before I could swing a leg over, he had just about jumped over the moon and I didn’t book a return ticket to come back with him!! It must have been the sound heard around the county! “BOOM!!!” was the noise I made hitting the hard ground in the dirt paddock and “Oooooh MY BACK” was the sound I was making as I was laid there! When I picked myself up and caught my breath, I got up with a different opinion of just how easy starting this two year old was really going to be!
That was the most difficult horse that I have ever started up to this very day. Where in the world did I go wrong? I think back to that experience often, and I finally have an answer. My mistake was not 100% due to my lack of experience. The mistake was having a lack of experience coupled together with having absolutely NO plan!
I did not understand that being given a young horse to start is much like being a contractor hired to build a house from the ground up. There is nothing to fix or to remodel. There is only a beautiful piece of property waiting for the proper foundation to be laid and construction to begin. In order to do this properly, you must have a plan!
Much of the defeat that we experience on the backs of our young horses could be resolved if we simply spent more time on the ground before riding them. This week, I want to give you a few tips of how to go about getting your horse going smoothly!
3 Tips for two year old success
1.) Come into your sessions with definite and clear goals! Why?
-Your prospect has begun nursery school. His attention span is not developed enough to focus while you are feeling out your way. Keep it short, sweet and to the point.
-Respect from your horse is earned, not automatic. Would you respect a teacher that forced you to come to class and floundered through each class period? I didn’t think so.
2.) Know exactly what you want!
-Not knowing exactly what you want is a bit like fighting with a shadow. It’s not fair to your horse, and no one is really going to win.
3.) Say what you mean and mean what you say!
-Your prospect needs to know that saying “no” isn’t the best of options. This can be down without intimidation. Simply increase the pressure of your request and release the pressure once the horse tries to give to what you want.
Where do I start from then?
You start by laying the foundation and that foundation is forward motion! Any construction that we do on these two year olds will be building on the forward motion that we have established from the beginning. Nothing is done apart from it. I begin this process by free lunging in the round pen. Free lunging could be an aimless process of simply wearing your horse’s energy level down, or it can be the beginning of establishing a good work relationship.
What am I after when doing this?
For a young horse to start riding well, he must be able to move his feet. In order for his feet to go anywhere, he has to be responsive to my cluck. He needs to know that my cluck means let’s go now, not later. The only thing that I will need to get this done is myself and a handy dandy lunge whip for reinforcement.
The very first thing you want to do is step behind you horses shoulder, ribcage and position yourself directly across from your horses hip. The pressure from you merely standing at the horses hip should be enough to drive your horse forward. Notice in this image above, you can see my horse, Enrique, owned by Q Stud Farm of Potchefstroom, is being driven forward.
If your horse doesn’t move forward, simply cluck. If your cluck isn’t enough to drive your horse forward, then crack your lunge whip. If the cracking of the lunge whip isn’t enough, then you will have to put the lunge to his backside. This isn’t about intimidation, but clear communication. Your working relationship with your horse cannot be built on the basis on unclear communication.
Once your horse goes forward, you can back off the pressure. The release of pressure let’s your horse know, yes I did the correct thing. You must be able to keep your horse forward at all three gaits. Just because his legs are moving, doesn’t mean he is actually going forward. Your needs to move with intent.
When I want to change directions, I change the direction of where the pressure is coming from. If pressure from standing towards the hip is driving the horse forward, then stepping in front of the horses shoulder will drive him back the other way. Sometimes, when you first begin changing directions, the youngsters can get a bit confused. That is okay, just be consistent. Stay in the same spot and allow the horse figure out where to go.
Once your horse figures out to draw back and change directions, don’t wait around twiddling your thumbs. Get going and send him out. Notice in the middle picture that Enrique is loading up his hindquarters.
In picture number three, his front end is lifted and he is powering out into the new direction. Depending on the type of horse that you have, this could come very slowly or very quickly. Either way, be consistent and know what you are after. I recommend getting the forward motion buttons working properly at the free lunge before attempting any other progressive steps. This is going to cause your horse to become focused on YOU! This is the basis to building a good working relationship from day #1.
Stay tuned for next weeks article- Starting young horses: Building from the ground up- Pt. 2 (Ground Driving)