Training a young horse: when to start?

A horse’s learning begins the moment their feet hit the ground. The learning of how they should perceive the world they are born into, listening to their instincts and following the behavior of their mother. They are being shaped by their environment and their experiences.

Left in this process to grow up with other horses in the field or in a free stable with other young horses, they will develop perfectly with the natural instincts that a horse will need for nature. All knowledge and skills that would suit perfectly for a horse who’s future was just to be a horse in the wild.

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But through this common process it becomes a huge disadvantage for the horse and the human when the time comes that the horse is plucked out of the safety of the group and introduced into the real world he was born into. That is being the human world as a riding horse and not the instinctive horse he has been working so hard on mastering.

Usually this happens at the age of 2.5 or 3 as the horse is leaving the free stable and the herd to begin the “real” training to become a riding horse.

So when should the real training ‘really’ begin?

Normally at a few hours old the horse is old enough to stand and when he’s old enough to stand, he’s old enough to learn. Horses are learning from the beginning instinctively. They do not need time to develop a part of the brain for learning. Teaching the foals a state of relaxation and trust around humans from the beginning is the perfect foundation for setting a positive mindset for the future.

3 key things to teach a foal
There are 3 key things I always start with when working with the foals in the early training.

First is the ‘approach’ that the horse can approach you confidently and you can approach him confidently. Start with touching the foal from all angles and all over the body. When the foal moves, move with him. When he stands still, move away from him. In the stable together with the mare is a good place to start the approach and touch.

The second step I like them to learn is to move away from pressure this is where I start the first pattern from the TRT Method, giving the foal the understanding of the when, how and why he should move from pressure. It is the beginning of a greater body awareness for the horse and better coordination. The third step is following pressure and the beginning of leading, to follow the rein or a rope.

Movement, touch and sound
After a few weeks when these controls are well understood and established, I then introduce the 3 main elements that trigger the flight reaction in the horse, which are movement, touch and sound. Introducing these elements at an early age gives them the knowledge from the beginning of what things they will encounter later in life.

From this point on the young horse will go into the field together with the knowledge of the basics, what not to be afraid of and with a good level of trust and understanding around humans. This makes all the necessary routine care of the young horses before riding, like the farrier, worming and maybe a visit from the vet, an easy and stress-free experience.

The basics of understanding body control and groundwork, how to respond to pressures for guidance and how to respond to pressures in the environment are repeated through the years 1 and 2. This way you’re giving them the information that they will need leading up to the day that they are strong enough physically for the riding. They are prepared for their future.

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Take time to save time
Taking the time in the early years to prepare the horse and give him an understanding that there is nothing life-threatening in a human world and relieving them of the fears of survival imbedded in their natural instinct, is in preparation for when the riding process begins.

Taking short amounts of time to teach the horse in the years before the age of 3 means they have all the information of how to respond to the steps necessary for the riding when they are 3. When the horse has the knowledge of what to do, he is not forced to use his instincts of flight. And the process of starting a horse under saddle will a smooth, stress-free process for both horse and rider, giving the best possible outcome for the horse to be successful.

If a horse is left to “be a horse” with little to no training until he is 3, you will have to deal with all the flight survival ‘natural’ reactions the horse will give when trying to ‘break him in.’ You’ll be spending a large amount of time struggling with a much more mature animal that is fighting his 3 year developed flight survival instinct.

Breaking in
The process of breaking in will then take a lot longer with greater risks of injury for the horse and trainer. There’s also a greater risk of a bad incident or experience that could leave the horse difficult with problems or totally unrideable.

Often in this process we fall into the pattern of lunging, putting unnecessary km’s on a young horses’ muscles and joints. Some horses in this process can have 2 to 3 months on the lunge to tire the natural flight instinct or to suppress it by a process of getting used to the situation and environments.

Just breeding a good horse does not, of course, mean he is naturally going to be a good riding horse. A horse to be comfortable in our human world will need to learn more than just to wear a saddle and have a rider on his back.

If we want a horse to reach his full potential to be well-mannered and happy in his work, it is our job to prepare them and teach them all the things they need to know before they are faced with these tasks.

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