As the mentalities and priorities of fellow horse people have evolved, so has their verbiage from “breaking a horse” to “starting a horse.” The original “breaking” term was used to break the horse’s physical resistance and limit his ability to think. Depending on the confidence, fear, and history of the horse “breaking” could vary from tying a horse to a solid post in the middle of a round pen, blindfolding them, “sacking” them out, and then hopping on and hoping to survive their bucking spree until they finally gave up and tolerated being ridden. This could have happened a few or many times until someone finally had the nerve to ride the horse “out” (in the open) – all too often this is where usually running the horse until he was too exhausted to fight the rider would create the “broke” horse- remember that term “wet saddle blankets?” Over time it would take “less” drama and the horse would give up and tolerate being ridden… But there were always the “all of sudden moments” from when these sorts of horses pushed for years and carrying tons of emotional and mental stress, fear, and insecurity would “act out.” More dramatic versions of the breaking could include blindfolding the horse, “tripping” or “throwing” (literally) him down to the ground and tying up his legs while he was covered with tarps, blankets, and a saddle, tying up a leg to get the saddle on, and much much worse scenarios.
Nowadays the public has grown a conscience and “starting” horses has become popular. Though many people with good intentions end up causing damage due to their lack of education and understanding. You can’t open a horse magazine, newsletter, email, or attend an equine expo, etc. where you don’t hear “colt starting clinic,” “colt starting demonstration,” etc. I believe most mass commercialized horsemanship "programs" decrease the quality of information presented in an attempt to be easily accessible for the masses. Yet every human/horse combination is a unique pairing. One-size fits all training programs don't work.
All too often owners don’t realize the “damage” they have done until it’s too late and the horse is pretty confirmed that people are not a good thing… Then because the horse’s behavior has reached a point of dangerousness, they usually find someone like me- who is there to clean the slate and pick up the pieces.
I once watched a clinician “talk the talk” about calm, quiet, feel good, etc. and within 20 minutes he had taken a relative calm and confident filly and had her racing in circles around the round pen as he continuously created spatial pressure by casting his lariat at her; she was lathered, fearful, and panicked by the time he was done.
So the point of this post is to encourage you to trust your instinct. Too many times people can “smooth over” a colt starting session because the colt doesn't have the confidence to resist. A young horse may take and stuff his emotions about what he is being exposed to until one day “all of a sudden” (usually at age four) he purges all that has been contained. I’ve seen weekend colt starting where the riders are literally “stealing” a ride but don't realize it until they get home where they are alone, and get seriously hurt by their fearful horses. It’s such an unnecessary shame that these young horses have gone through these initial experiences as to what interacting with humans is going to be like.
A few thoughts:
If this horse is going to be your “long-term” partner what is the rush in how quickly he progresses? Many times a horse may physically look mature but is mentally and emotionally immature for a very long time. Put it into people's terms- how much would you ask of a small child to learn, participate, and perform? No different from your horse.
If you don’t understand what or how the gradual evolution of working with your horse from the ground to working him from the saddle- YOU need to take the time to educate YOU. If you are working with someone who cannot help you understand that crucial factor of how your groundwork prepares your horse for the ride, then you need to find another instructor. A trainer, clinician, or any other professional should be able to explain why they are presenting what they are and the short and long-term education. If the trainer’s interactions with the horse do not match their words- this is a red flag.
You are your horse’s voice. Speak up if you have a problem with how someone is treating your horse. At the end of the day it’ll only be you and he- everyone else goes home and doesn’t have to “deal” with any mess, stress, or fear they may have instilled in the horse. For your horse’s sake- why even go to those “bad” places- why not stop it early on?