Preface: A week's "tune-up" with young horse in training

I was emailed a notice that another “Road to the Horse” has finished although I didn’t have a chance to watch any of it yet, then I read an article in Western Horseman about the final phase in a colt starting series, and within the last few weeks have noticed the general discussions on the social media sites I visit has everyone excited to get “going” with their young horse as spring gentle peaks out from behind the gray and cold weather in most parts of the northern hemisphere! 

So on that note, I thought it might be fun for you as the reader to learn about a mare I started last winter, she is an Arab/Warmblood cross and will be four this year and is in for a week “tune up.”  I thought it would be interesting if I kept a bit of a daily journal as an example of things I present, address, etc. when working with a young horse…  Before I get into that (Day 1 will begin in tomorrow’s blog) I want to give you a bit of a preface to keep in mind so that as you read my daily entries perhaps it is with a slightly better understanding of my approach when working with a young horse.

Many times I start young horses and help their owners participate in understanding how to work with the horse, but as I watch the trailer lights disappear I rarely get to see that horse again… So it is always nice when I do get to hear about a young horse I’ve worked with and how they are coming along. 

In this mare’s particular case the good news for me was that there has been no other professional “influencing” the horse since I last saw her.  Weather here in the desert plays a huge factor with the scorching summer heat limiting time people spend outdoors, and although the owner was able to work with the mare mostly building confidence in their own relationship and focusing on ground work for the first few months after I left, for the most part the horse was left alone.  (Again, with youngsters, many times I prefer this scenario as it allows the horse time to mentally and physically start to mature.) 

In my opinion I know you “can” start a horse in two days and do “amazing” things with it, but that is an in-the-moment goal, without much foresight into the horse’s future. I truly believe every scenario with a horse needs to stay “appropriate” for that particular horse.  The problem is that “horse time” and “human time” are motivated by really different factors. 

The horse is focused on survival prioritizing eating to do so.  He spends hours and hours (if given the choice) slowly meandering about foraging.  Humans on the other hand mostly operate in a “time is money” sort of fashion and all too often hurry their way through life, including the time spent with their horse.  This can be especially so when someone has bred, raised and “waited” for several years to start their youngster, they are really ready to “get going” with their horse by the time is two or three years old. 
As a side not, about 50% of all Ask the Trainer questions submitted to me are in regards to issues with young horses between two and five years old.  I feel this happens because people forget to maintain an appropriate perspective in their goals for their particular horse.  Again, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. 

Not all horses are created equal; starting from birth there are some horses that are naturally more confident, physically capable and mentally interested in life, and others that are not.  I don’t want to be breed specific, but there are some horses of certain breeds whose young minds can be overwhelmed by “too much information” too quickly causing stress, insecurity, fear and defensiveness.  Then there are other horses that all too often are considered “dull” or “slow” and can “go through the motions of training” but are too mentally immature to process or understand what has been presented to them, and so they learn to just “tolerate” the training as oppose to participating in it.  And then of course there are others that you show something to once, they get it, and it seems as if they ask, “What’s next?”  Of course we all dream our youngster is going to be one of those!

If you take a moment to think about how you personally learn, or maybe how your kids learn, you’ll know that everyone has a different learning “style” and that everyone responds to different teachers and how they communicate.  If we grouped our kids together and said, “You will understand this,” and present a learning situation in only one manner, and if we had no willingness to consider working with each child in a manner that they could understand, many of the kids would probably “miss” the lesson.  But if we were able to help them learn in a way that allowed them to mentally process and then physically do what we asked of them, rather than challenging them “get it right” the child would not only learn but would gain confidence rather than confusion as he did so. 
Take for example the subject of math.  How many kids nowadays are weak at basic addition, subtraction, arithmetic, and division?  If a teacher ignores the fact that the child lack a basic understanding of math, how can we expect that child to be successful in future more advanced math topics such as algebra, geometry, etc.  And looking farther down the road, how would we expect that same child to later in life as an adult work competently at job if it required the usage of those initial math skills, let's say such as a job in construction?

Imagine a futuristic scenario with the child who never learned or mastered basic math; let’s pretend that he was writing to an “Ask the Construction Consultant” Q&A in regards to framing a house.  The person may write in saying that no matter what they do, they just can seem to get the frame of the house “square.”  But if instead of the consultant answering by suggesting or focusing on tools as ways to layout the lumber itself to get a square frame (with horses think equipment solution or exercises to  practice), what if he suggested reviewing the construction worker’s basic math skills.  If those skills were reviewed and it was found that the problem with framer's lack of understanding of basic math then affected his ability to cut the proper length of wood in order to design a square frame because his layout and design calculation would always be inaccurate due to faulty math.  (Think in horse terms problems someone who complains about difficulty with getting clean flying lead changes without addressing the ability to have quality, balanced and light transitions between and within each gait first.)

So you get my point.  Too many times horses much to my own disbelief can figure out how to “manage” with their riders, for years without even really understanding, AND are somewhat successful in their chosen discipline.  As an instructor, when you take someone who has ridden for twenty years and ask them to ride a round circle, or to vocalize how they physically communicate a specific aid to their horse, or if they have ever wondered why over the years it takes more “activity” to get less response from their horse, and they are unable or have not considered any of the above, this is an indication that there are holes in their own awareness, understanding and communication with their horse.

The point of the above examples is to remind you that “colt starting” has become almost a buzz phrase that everyone gets excited about.  Honestly after you watch a hundred horses started, you start to realize many times it is a bigger “deal” to the person than the horse.  I have no idea why horses accept us strapping a foreign object onto them and then allowing us to climb on, but they do!  But what most people forget about is the quality of their horsemanship AFTER they are able to physically get on their horse.  Too many times, the first few rides are “great” (i.e. uneventful) and then “all of a sudden” the horse starts doing things the rider doesn’t want, (again translate the horse’s unwanted behavior as a lack of his understanding rather than him trying to be “naughty”.)

So instead of focusing on the “excitement of the first few rides” if we focused more on offering quality and clear communication after those initial sessions, both humans and horses would probably benefit a lot more in the long run.

So with that said look for the next blog this will be about “Day 1” after not riding the young mare for six months. 
Stay tuned,

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