Starting horses under saddle
Many horse owners are unsure when it is the best time to start their horse under saddle.
Unless you are a racehorse owner or are training your horse for the futurity (both of which I don’t condone!), I don’t see the need to start two-year-olds (or even younger!) under saddle and put them into full training.
I’ve seen too many horses that are started under saddle when they are barely two years old, then put into a heavy training regimen and ridden way too hard, often by a trainer who weighs 200 lbs. or more.
The result is often a horse that breaks down at eight, nine, ten years old, an age when a horse is just starting to come into its prime! Horses can have a useful working life of 20 or more years, but if we put a lot of pressure on their young bodies, that most likely won’t happen. So waiting until they are three, or even four or five years old (some breeds such as Arabians are late maturing) may add five or more years of usefulness to your horse’s life. Riding horses at a young age is not only hard on their growing bodies, but often also on their minds. Keep in mind that these youngsters are just kids, not only physically but also mentally, and have a very short attention span. Too much too soon not only puts unnecessary pressure on their body, but also on their mind, which can cause them to mentally shut down.
As well, growth spurs can temporarily render the horse conformationally incorrect, and adding work on hard surfaces and work at speed or in tight circles makes matters worse and puts even more strain on the colt’s joints.
A few years ago, I was working for a dressage coach and trainer, and we were asked to start a group of then not even two-year-old quarter horses. While we were both not too happy about the horses’ young age, we decided to take them on rather than the owner sending them to someone else. Both my coach and myself are fairly light women, and this way we could control how they were started – very carefully and lightly. After about a month of groundwork (the horses came off the range and were practically wild), we spent four, five days a week riding them for very short periods of time, five to ten minutes of riding at the beginning, and maybe 15 minutes towards the end of their two-month training. Most of it was at a walk and jog, very little at the lope.
Having a choice with my own horses, I prefer not to ride my colts at all until they are three years old, or at least later in their two-year-old year, IF I feel they are mentally and physically capable of some light riding AND I feel that some under saddle work will help improve their work ethic. I will, however, only put a handful of rides on them at a walk and a little bit of jog, no lope at all, then put them away until the following spring. When they turn three, I start working them more regularly, while still keeping the sessions short, with very limited loping/cantering.
Some years I am so busy with lessons, clinics, and training clients’ horses that my own colts get put on the back burner, so it happens every so often that they don’t get ridden until they are four or five years old. I’ve never found that to be a problem. I have several Arabians and Arabian/quarter horse crosses, and since Arabians are later maturing, I prefer to let them grow up a bit longer anyway and become mentally and physically more mature. But even with other breeds I’ve never found that starting them later was more difficult.
A few years ago, a 10-year-old Arabian mare was sent to me for training. She had been turned down by other trainers because “she was too old to be started under saddle”. She had a little bit of groundwork done with her (mostly lungeing), but nothing else. She was one of the easiest horses I have ever started under saddle. On the other hand, I also worked with a seven-year-old Arabian mare who had been used as a broodmare for most of her life and otherwise didn’t get a lot of handling. Now this horse was a totally different story, and one of the most difficult horses I have ever worked with. She had a very strong sense of self-preservation and couldn’t handle any type of pressure.
It’s never too late to start a horse under saddle, but how easy the under saddle process is going to be, will, to a large extent, depend on the quality and amount of groundwork that has been done with the horse as well as the horse’s disposition.
So while I prefer to start horses under saddle rather later than sooner, that doesn’t mean I don’t work with them when they are young, as in my experience exposing them to a variety of things at an early age and teaching them about work ethic creates a mentally more mature and willing horse. My colts also see me work with a variety of other horses, and most of them are curious and rather interested in what is going on in the round pen and in the arena and want to be a part of it.
All the youngsters at our place are handled on a daily basis, from day one, haltering, leading, having their feet picked out, grooming, tying. They are also taught boundaries. I introduce them to tarps, flags, plastic bags, whips, whatever I can think of.
I pony the youngsters on the trails.
I introduce them to carrying a surcingle, a saddle (I use a light English saddle at the beginning), a bridle and bit, and work them in the round pen and on the lunge line with and without tack. I keep the work in the round pen and on the lunge to a minimum though, and preferably mostly at a walk and jog/trot, so as not to put too much pressure on their joints and tendons. I also make sure that whatever work I do with the horse, that the horse is in a correct frame. So no running around on the lunge line inverted (high head and hollow back) and/or counterbent (ribcage bent towards the lunger, instead of around me). That would be counterproductive and place a lot of stress on the horse’s joints.
I then progress to long-lining/ground driving, first off the halter, then with a bit, again helping the horse to find its proper shape.
I also introduce the youngsters to going forward into contact, first in-hand (through in-hand leading), then through lungeing, and eventually through long-lining. They also learn verbal commands such as walk, jog or trot, lope or canter, whoa, and back.
By the time I am ready to get on their back, the transition to riding is just another step and usually uneventful. I keep the sessions as short as possible, and the youngsters don’t go into full training (five days a week, 45 minutes to an hour) until they are four.
I like to do the first couple sessions under saddle with the help of an assistant. We start out with the assistant walking slightly ahead and to the side of the horse, with the horse following the assistant’s drawing energy. We then progress to the assistant round penning the horse at a walk, maybe asking for some turns, while I am a mere passenger, and maybe even do a little bit of jog, depending on whether the horse is mentally ready for it. This gives the youngster a chance to get used to my weight, which is the only new component, as he is already used to being lunged and round penned and carrying tack. During the first ride, I don’t ask for much from the colt.
(See a short video of a first ride: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkO6gWUc9Cg)
Starting horses of any age requires us to be athletic and fit and at the top of our game. We need to be able to sit centred and well balanced, without having to rely on the reins for balance, know how to ride a horse from back to front with our seat and legs into receiving hands that never pull, and know how to ride with consistently centred riding aids that are supple and as soft or as strong as necessary. We also need to know how to properly shape our horse’s body, as a horse’s frame of body equals its frame of mind. The more we know, the more willingness we can get from our horses with greater ease and less resistance. Consistency, patience, calm, compassion, empathy, awareness (paying attention to the horse’s body language, our body language, as well as what is happening in the environment), focus, assertiveness, and setting firm, but fair boundaries no matter what we are doing with our horses, will go a long way in getting the horse’s body, spirit and mind ready, able and willing to say “yes” to whatever we want it to do and develop a happy, healthy, willing horse-human relationships.
Here’s a short video of the first ride I put on FS Firewater (aka Shooter) in the fall of his 2-year-old year. The entire ride lasted about seven minutes. I put two rides on Shooter in the fall of his 2-year-old year, and then he was not ridden again until he was three years old, when he was lightly started.
I do not believe in putting a colt through all the paces on a first ride, but will not stop him either by pulling back on the reins if he does have the need to go faster. As a matter of fact, I don’t do anything with the reins (which is just the lead rope of a rope halter in this case). With my right hand, I am holding on to a nightlatch (which is basically a piece of leather like a dog collar) buckled around the fork of the saddle. This prevents me from inadvertently pulling on the reins should the colt spook, buck or bolt and allows me to (hopefully) ride out whatever he throws at me without pulling on his face and scaring him even more. I’ve rarely had to make use of the nightlatch, but it is a nice piece of insurance to have (on top of a helmet and safety vest!).
It is also very important that the body language of the person on the ground is very correct so she can assist me and the colt and help keep the ride calm and smooth and uneventful. Giving mixed messages at this stage of the game can be disastrous.
As a sidenote: Shooter is slightly inverted at the jog (high head and hollow back), and as a general rule, anytime a horse is inverted, the rider should be posting (rising trot). However, on a first ride, I don’t generally post as I am in a very vulnerable position if I am in the posting phase of the trot and the horse decides to buck or bolt or spook. Safety first!