Young Horses; Tamed Passions
By: Natalie Rietkerk
I’m not a professional trainer; I was self-taught by years of observing others, learning from mistakes and listening to horses and my intuition. I owned seven horses in 10 years because I was an impulsive buyer on a relentless search for my dream horse. I grew up in the shadow of a hunter/jumper barn where all the girls had A-Circuit show horses and parents with seemingly endless checkbooks. I didn’t have the money to be in a lesson program, go to shows and have imported Warmbloods. In my price range, I could afford horses with good bloodlines that were limited by injuries or ones with behavioral issues people were looking to unload. With no trainer, I was left to figure out how to deal with my problematic horses all on my own. After years of exhausting rides, countless vet bills and dealing with damage caused by previous owners I decided to do something different. The only way I was going to be able to afford a quality Warmblood was to buy it as a foal and say good-bye to riding for a few years. This is the best decision I have ever made.
I bought my current horse as a yearling and successfully taught him how to be a willing, confident and extremely sane four year-old. If you’re thinking of buying a baby or if you already have one and aren’t sure of what you need to teach him/her, I will share my experiences with the goal of helping you mold your dream horse.
When working with young horses, especially hunter/jumpers prospects, you mustn’t extinguish their natural curiosity and desire to play. Unlike older horses, babies are a clean slate, and they don’t have negative associations or unpleasant experiences to complicate training. It is our job to give them confidence while simultaneously showing them how to be good citizens. This is a fine line. Young horses can’t be treated like puppies, which can be difficult since they are adorable and frisky, but they also shouldn’t be handled like a loaded gun – although they can seriously harm you, on accident of course.
The single most important thing is to treat a young horse with fairness and respect. If you don’t start off with a positive relationship, the foundation of their training will be cracked from the very beginning. You must understand, they don’t know what you want from them. They weren’t born knowing how to cross tie, walk on a lead line, lunge, trailer and stand quietly—so don’t expect them to master it quickly.
Don’t “punish” for something that happened any longer than three seconds ago, they have long forgotten what they did “wrong,” but they will not forget that you caused them fear, confusion and pain. As a result of continued harshness, they will lose confidence in you as their leader and could grow leery of people all together. In a herd, horses don’t follow a bully stallion; they fear him and share no connection with him. They do, however, follow the lead mare that fairly lays down the rules and looks out for them, ultimately bringing them a sense of peace and allowing them to relax. Replicate the interactions of the lead mare to gain your young horse’s loyalty and trust.
As hunter/jumpers, we want our horses to be unwaveringly brave and confident in us as their rider. We expect them to fearlessly leap over fences that they have a hard time seeing and believe us that their doom isn’t waiting on the other side, this takes a tremendous amount of courage and teamwork between horse and rider. To prepare your young horse for its dazzling future in the show ring there are several basics you must do before you even think about getting on their back.
For yearlings, you need to work on building their confidence by exposing him/her to a variety of potentially scary situations and obstacles such as: tarps, dogs, umbrellas, water, plastic bags, trailers, traffic and other noises. With each success, your baby will become more desensitized and will have more faith in you as their leader. Always end on a good note and I promise you will be able to see how proud your baby gets after each achievement. I have found that if you act like it’s no big deal your horse will think the same, and this is especially true with yearlings as they haven’t experienced much and will follow you around blindly. You know how scary show grounds can be, try replicating the sights and sounds. I had a lot of success taking my horse on hikes and hauling him around to go explore different hiking trails. Recently, I had a hauler tell me that my horse was the best young horse he has ever loaded and unloaded, and I largely attribute this to all the good times he had as a baby hauling off to go on one of our fun hikes. Another thing to work on is flexing their head from one side to the other—this will translate into turning, stopping and bending when you get on their back in a few years. Treats are an excellent tool for encouraging a baby to flex and work well to praise a horse for conquering their fear. I mean, how scary can crossing a tarp be if they get a carrot on the other side!
At the age of two, you now have a goofy “tweenager” who should be able to cross tie, hard tie, stand for the farrier, clip, be blanketed, lunge and walk nicely on the lead line. It’s now time to start getting them used to saddle pads, carrying a saddle and wearing a bitted bridle. I removed the stirrups when I first turned my horse loose in a small round pen, while fully tacked up, to not frighten him with flailing irons. I was utterly disappointed, yet proud that he didn’t go full bucking bronco on me. I would free lunge wearing the saddle once a week for about six months and occasionally throw in some ground poles to have him get used to picking up his feet. When you notice your young horse is completely un-phased by the saddle you can start putting your foot in the stirrup and progress to draping yourself across their back. Another fun and helpful activity is to use a long line to teach your horse how to steer before you ever get on. You should also work with them in-hand to compete in Hunter-Breeding classes and start racking up show experience to add to their value.
By getting your horse half-way broke and desensitized you are making your job, or a trainer’s job, much easier when the actual riding begins. I chose to send my horse to a young horse starting specialist and the trainer was blown away with what a good mind and solid foundation he had.
As I said earlier, buying a young horse is the best decision I ever made. Owning a horse from the time they’re just a baby and molding them into a strong, confident and good natured riding horse is incredibly rewarding. The non-riding years will fly by and you will have created your perfect partner.
Follow Natalie on Twitter @NatalieRietkerk
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