Scrolling on my cell phone, I see exuberant tweets and Facebook posts about riders working with their young horses during the free time created by the COVID-19 pandemic. With so many shows cancelled, there’s no time like the present.
I too have been using this time to work with my young horse. A few weeks ago, I finished the process of starting my four-year-old gelding. It was magical the first time I felt Chuck’s bright bay shoulders lift up into his natural, cadenced canter. Yet, I was also a little terrified he’d do something dangerous.
I am an amateur rider who comes from a family of professionals. From a young age, I’ve had the privilege of watching horses get their riding foundation from highly skilled trainers; the kind of trainers people ship their colts to from two states away for their specific skill set. So I’m fortunate to have plenty of professionals willing to offer support in my training efforts. I’m also keenly aware of the risks if I get it wrong.
In truth, all this colt starting hype on the internet makes me nervous. Schooling a young horse is tremendously different than riding an older, already-educated horse. Most of the professional riders I know have little to no experience doing the groundwork and first rides on a young horse. I know from experience that the first time you put your seat in the saddle, you better be darn sure that every preliminary step was done thoroughly and correctly in an effort to avoid mishaps.
I’ve been working with Chuck since he was two years old and each step in his training presented unique challenges and risks. I found the key to working confidently together was proceeding at my own pace and constantly checking in on our progress. I’d ask myself daily, what’s the next thing I’m moving towards, and the steps to get there? Starting a young horse is a massive time commitment, but I knew rushing things would not help either of us. I had break every skill into baby steps and be ready to face challenges along the way.
Chuck was expertly handled as a foal, which was a huge advantage. He’d been taught to lead, pick up his feet, and knew not to crowd people. Often we want to pet, cuddle, and hand-feed adorable young foals as if they are dogs, but this lack of “personal space” opens up the possibility of perilous behaviors as they grow. My family believes in teaching foals to never bite, push, or be “in the handler’s lap.” It’s amazing how easily a 200 pound foal can be shown to respect us; it gets much harder when they’re full-size.
First, Chuck learned to be groomed and safely tied up, then to move away from a whip on the lunge line. I repeated these steps until he was an expert at them. Once he was calm and understood the routine, I knew he was ready for a saddle cloth, eventually a bridle, a saddle, and much later (after months of being ground-driven) a rider on his back.
By the time I climbed into the stirrups, he was so nonchalant about the whole thing that he just stood there casually.
That’s the goal, right?
Good training is so patient, so methodical that it can seem uninteresting. Maybe that’s why three-day colt starting clinics and the throw-a-saddle-on-and-break-the-darn-horse-already method are so popular. If something goes amiss, it makes the process more exciting, a more engaging sport for spectators. I can’t speak for others, but I’m perfectly fine with boring horse handling. In the interest of my physical safety, boring is fantastic!
It also helps ensure the longevity of the animal you so dearly love. The best gift we can give our equine companions is a solid education. Well trained horses are desirable horses, and desirable horses are much less susceptible to abandonment and neglect.
I never plan to sell Chuck, but I ask myself every day if I am capable of teaching him well. There’s no room for my pride when it comes to his education. I’ve seen far too many “problem horses” created by their handler’s lack of familiarity with successful schooling techniques.
My greatest hope for Chuck is to someday stroke his elderly grey muzzle and know in my heart that I did right by him.