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Colt Starting Crimes

The idea for this blog came as I was asked to play with a neighbor’s 1 1/2yr colt. The horse hadn’t been handled much, and when he was it was in a “man handling” sense of “dragging” the colt around with the lead rope. Responding to pressure, spatial respect, communication and thinking were not part of the owner’s or the horse’s thought process. My goal was to get the horse to first be able to just slow his brain down so that he could focus on one thing (literally) at a time. The first priority was for him to focus on and address me. When I did something, it would mean something to him- this being the beginning of long term two way communication. Then by asking him to “search” for the right answers- rather than micromanaging and directing his every movement- this allows him to participate, gain confidence from trying out his “options” and learn trust once he finds the “ideal” answer and gets to “let down” with me. But as I worked with him I considered briefly some of the alternatives to what he was currently experiencing…

As mentalities and priorities of fellow horse people have changed many people have changed their verbage from “breaking a horse” to “starting a horse.” The original “breaking” term was used in my opinion to break the horse’s spirit, try and 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 happen a few or many times until someone finally had the nerve to ride the horse “out” (in the open) – all to 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 was 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 blind folding 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.

So nowadays the “aware” public with a moral conscientious has taken a liking to the thought of “starting” horses. I’m sad to say how many times people with good intentions wind up causing a lot of damage because of their lack of education and understanding. I can’t open a horse magazine, newsletter, email, or attend a horse expo, etc. where you don’t hear over and over “colt starting clinic,” “colt starting demo,” etc. And although it’s unfair to group them all into one, for the most part, the people that seem to be the most commercialized make my stomach turn because they have decreased the quality of information presented in return for an increase in profits by “easily” accessing the masses. Every horse is an individual and needs to be treated like one.

Just because someone uses the “right” terms, does not mean what they are doing with the horses is best for that horse. Many people put on a time limit (demo, clinic, etc.) are feeling a pressure to produce results, no matter the cost it may be to the horse. And that’s the problem; it’s the horse that has to deal with the long term consequences. 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 happy filly and had her racing in circles around the round pen as he continuously cast his lariat at her, she was lathered, fearful, and panicked. As I looked around at the audience of about 1000 people leaned forward in their seats watching, I could just imagine them going home and trying out the same “torture” on their own unsuspecting horses. Because here was someone, nationally recognized, “respected” of course you could trust them, right? Another time I watched a clinician work a colt to the point where the horse had given up so much that he actually laid down with the clinician on him. The clinician then proceeded to kick and yank on the horse until he got back up again. And no these aren’t just “a few” bad clinicians- they are the people most who use the terms “natural horsemanship” are turning to- how to DVDs, thousands of dollars clinics, “special” equipment, you name it, they are promoting it.

So the point of this blog is to say WAKE UP people. Trust your instinct even if you don’t have much experience with horses or starting a colt. Too many times people can “smooth over” a colt starting session because the colt still has a relatively “clean slate.” A young horse may take and stuff his emotions about what he is being exposed to, until one day “all of a sudden” he acts up. I’ve seen weekend colt starting where the riders are literally “stealing” a ride. There’s enough chaos and distraction that the colt gets swept along with the masses of horses and doesn’t seem to act up.

But the clinician is never there on Monday morning when the horse owner heads out to work with their colt again and finds a “totally different horse.” 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 terms- how much would you ask of a small child to learn, participate and perform? No different with 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 connect the “dots” from the ground to saddle- take it as a red flag. 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. BUT LISTEN CLOSELY. If the trainer’s actions 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, because 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?

Slow learning never hurt any horse or person, and taking the time to focus on clarity in communication from the start will influence the entire relationship you have with your horse. Good luck and have fun!

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