Training a young horse is such a rewarding experience, especially the first time around. But the question of when to start training a young horse typically centers around the moment that the rider first hops on the horse’s newly saddled back. Inspirational horse movies and the long-standing tradition of “breaking” horses seem to indicate that the moment of truth is when a completely green, sometimes wild horse faces its first saddle and rider all at once.
However, the reality is that a young horse’s training starts nearly the moment he comes out of the womb. If you read my previous article, you know that you can start handling your foal right away. Truthfully, your horse’s foundation under saddle does not originate from riding itself. Instead, it comes from partnership, ground work, and familiarity with all of the aspects that riding eventually entails.
In this article, we will be outlining what you can do in the pre-riding stages of training, as well as the ideal age to start training your horse under saddle.
Training Your Horse As A Foal
As with any animal, horses start learning from the moment they come out of the womb. It is important to keep your foal in a herd for the first couple years if you can, because lessons learned in the herd will teach your young horse about the principles of submission.
Your interaction with your foal during the early months of life can impact him for years to come. While his attention span will be short, you can still work with him on haltering, desensitization to touch and foreign objects, and moving away from pressure. Foals can also learn to pick up their feet, and eventually how to walk in and out of a trailer calmly.
Believe it or not, you can actually start teaching your foal by pressure and release right away. Their instincts are the same as a grown horse, and possibly even more acute. You can use this time of imprinting and discovery to instruct and reward with pressure and release.
Pressure and release can be as simple as moving with him when he moves away from your touch, and stepping back when he finally stands still. Likewise, if you’re teaching your foal to move away from intentional pressure, step back (“release”) with their first attempt to submit to that cue.
Consistent, short lessons will introduce basic principles of human partnership without stress or pressure, which could take months off of training in the future. Remember in this stage that though small, your foal is still a tiny horse. You will most likely experience dominance struggles and moments of fear towards you at the beginning. Just be encouraged that your patience and persistence in this season will pay off in spades later on.
As your young horse moves out of the foal stage, he will be mature enough for you to start introducing some more advanced principles, as well as the tack you will be using come riding time. This is an exciting phase, because you will see all of those small moments that you saw at the foal stage unfold in these new lessons.
Horses bred for the racetrack are ridden and raced at the age of two, which is on the early end of the spectrum for horse riding. Some trainers will begin training under saddle as early as 18 months, however the horse’s bone structure is not even close to mature. Many horse trainers today will wait until the horse is four or five years old, when the horse’s bones are fully developed.
However, while their bone structure develops, you can start introducing your horse to different forms of tack. An easy first step is simply a cavesson, which will familiarize him with the feel of the bridle before introducing a bit. As you introduce the full bridle, saddle, surcingle, and other items, remember to take things in stride. Trained horses know what to expect and how to respond to tack and cues, but your young horse still will not.
Now is the time to desensitize and educate your young horse without the stress of riding. This is a great time to teach your horse to stand quietly with all of his tack at the mounting block, walking up to it and away from it. Even laying on his back and then releasing could do wonders for your horse around the mounting block.
In-hand work is a great transitional tool for young horses that directly translate to riding when the time comes. Anything that you can make boring and routine instead of scary will benefit you later.
Though opinions will range between two and five years to start riding your young horse, it is a good idea to have your vet do an examination first. Most importantly, your horse’s knees need to be fully closed. Riding before the knees have developed could lead to soundness issues for the rest of your horse’s life.
When the time comes to start riding your young horse, keep in mind that so much is still new. He’ll still be learning to carry your weight and move his body differently. His muscles will be underdeveloped for this type of balance at first, but will eventually increase in stamina and strength.
If you have applied the time to lay a good foundation of trust during his earlier years, training under saddle will simply be a next step instead of a dramatic event. No matter your discipline, you can radically inform your horse’s experience with training and riding by laying an early and consistent partnership foundation. Training a young horse will surely come with its challenges and surprises. But tackle them with patience and persistence, and you will surely end up with a fine horse.