Following is the reply from me to someone who wrote in to Todays Horse when I wrote for them as an "expert":
Hi Laura -
I have an 18-month-old gelding that I have had since he was 5 months
old. He was raised in the pasture with a quiet, older gelding. He is
really a fairly calm-natured little sweety. I have recently moved him to a
pasture by himself for training purposes to have his sole attention, with no
distractions. So far it's worked very well. He is very attentive to me and
eager to do what I ask. We mostly work on ground manners with some light
lungeing. Lately however, he has developed the irritating, and potentially
dangerous habit of running past me and kicking up his heels as he does. I
realize that he is being playful with me, but very possibly testing me as
well. He has also, a couple of times, turned his rear to him when herding
me hasn't worked. (This happens as we are walking into the barn together.)
A friend suggested carrying my crop and popping his butt when he does that
but I have my doubts. What suggestions do you have?
Since your youngster does not have anyone else to play with in terms of horsie friends, he's choosing you as his playmate. He's simply acting like a young horse and is seeking an outlet for his playtime and although the older gelding may not have played much with him, any kind of playing was in fact better than nothing at all. He's now shifting his focus to you and it is time for you to teach him what is acceptable and what is not when interacting with humans because even though what he is doing is just play, a well-placed kick could really hurt, or kill, you. Although I'm sure your youngster wouldn't mean for anything bad to happen to you because he does sound sweet, you'd be injured or dead just the same. As the self-appointed leader in this twosome, you have a responsibility to provide leadership in a consistent, clear, confident way and to teach mutual respect so that you may then have trust as well. Only then can we go on to having a "true" friendship with our horse.
I call what I do with all horses "positioning" because that's exactly what horse's do with each other. Anytime we interact with horses, we are "positioning" ourselves (the horse and us) in whatever spot we need to be in to work in harmony, partnership, and also safety for us. Often, when watching my Mustang mares interact, I've noticed we have the clear, consistent and confident leader, but every so often, another mare might attempt to "re-shuffle-the-deck" and change her positioning in the herd. The leader mare usually very clearly and quickly "explains" things to the other mare about their "positions", maybe by body language and expression, or maybe with a kick or a bite, and then all is well again because the other mare again knows what her position is in their herd.
Horses do the same thing when interacting with us. Quite often, the mutual respect is in place, with the human in the position of leader and the horse very high up in the chain-of-command, but right below us. However, every so often once again, the horse may decide that they wish to re-position themselves in our twosome, or "herd-of-two", and then it is up to us to clearly and quickly let them know that we are not interested in giving up our leader position. Most horses just kind of shrug and go "oh, ok, just thought I'd try" and then everyone resumes the harmonic relationship. However, if the human isn't confident, clear and consistent on "explaining" to the horse that they aren't interested in giving up the leader role when the horse makes a slight indication in that direction, the horse takes that as a signal that they may be able to "re-shuffle the deck" and will become persistent in their attempts. Being confident, consistent and very clear are the keys toward harmony and if the human isn't willing to take the top-spot by exercising those qualities, the horse will take that spot instead. It's usually not a big deal to horses whether they are first or second in their interactions with humans, but if the human is wishy-washy and the lines are wavery regarding their leadership, the horse will become insecure and disrespectful of someone that isn't being confident and they will take over. There must be social order for the horse to feel secure.
Horses know that I'm not a horse and I know they're not a human, but we still have our "positions" in our herd during interaction. Starting when they're babies, (which is the position you are in now with your gelding), they learn the horsie social order from the other horses (as when your youngster was a baby with his mommy and then with the older gelding), including how it works with adults, their playmates, horses younger then they are, etc. They learn how to play, how to show respect, what happens when they don't show respect, etc. Our job as the leader-human is to teach them the human social order. The acceptable and unacceptable behaviors when they are around humans. Afterall, horses find themselves living in two societies containing different acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. The most well adjusted horses I know are the ones who get along well with other horses (either in with them, or living beside them) because they were raised until a decent age with other horses (hopefully until at least two, but longer if possible), and horses that also know the rules when around humans. But just like when a horse is with other horses, they do seek to establish their "position" when with humans. That's where I feel the genetics of the herd instinct comes into play with them. It doesn't matter to them that you're not a horse. What matters to them is their "position" when around you. If you are confident, clear, consistent and the horse respects you, you will take the top-spot. If you lack the above, the horse will seek to take the top-spot. Very cut-and-dried to them I believe.
Every single colt I've raised has never been a problem with nipping, pushiness or aggressiveness of any kind and I've not taught them to behave by continuously smacking them, yelling at them or anything. It just takes once or twice of being clear and consistent and they know what's OK with me, and what is not. They are raised with other babies and adults and are taught things by them, and they also have an outlet to "be a horse" and play and engage in rough-play, so that when I take them out (or go in the corrals with them) and interact, they are more focused toward learning what I'm teaching about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. I can run and play with groups of my horses and they don't buck and kick my direction because they've been taught that "mommy-leader" doesn't like that and they will get in trouble (maybe BIG trouble! <G>) if they do it. That trouble from me might come in the form of me using a driving whip as an extension of my arm and hand so that I may correct them by "tagging" them with a stinging touch if they kick at me as they go by, or if they disrespect me by presenting me with their backside. If I do "tag" them, they will probably behave in a fearful or anxious way for a few moments, but believe me, since I am in fact a great source of fun and reward for them (lot's of scratchies in the youngsters favorite places!), they approach, stop at a distance and "ask" me with their body language if they may return to be with me. Since I've at that point already did what I needed to do by "tagging" them, I of course invite them back. However, sometimes you must be prepared to follow through with a reminder that kicking at the human-leader is never acceptable. Be aware, be consistent and clear and then welcome them back after you've imposed a negative and they will learn readily what is acceptable and what most certainly is not. It's developing the awareness and timing to apply negatives, and most certainly to apply positives, that is important during interaction with your horse. You're raising a child (although a large, potentially harmful child), so you must act in a way that is responsible AND fair to the child.
What a horse will learn from you being consistent, clear, direct and confident is that if they feel the need to run and buck and kick out at others, they know its acceptable to do so when playing with other horses, not with the breakable and fragile human who happens to be leader. I guess what I'm saying is that I respect the horses and what they are capable of because of their size, strength and instincts, and they respect me because I'm always consistent in my "positioning" within the herd that we form with our twosome, even though they of course know I'm not a horse.
I would offer one more suggestion: if you can, perhaps you could move him back in with the older, gentle gelding. Although you can form a good and respectful bond and interact effectively with your gelding even though he is kept by himself, horse's are herd animals and when you are not out there interacting with him, the older gelding will provide horsie social interaction and companionship. Although the gelding is older, he may also provide just enough stimulation and receptiveness that it would take the more rough-play-edge off your young gelding. He can then be taught by you the difference between playing around humans, what is acceptable and what is not, and playing with other horses that won't get hurt as easily by a kick or bite from him. The older gelding will also put him in his place if necessary and teach him about respect.
By providing your youngster with clear and consistent boundaries and social standards when interacting with humans, you will develop mutual respect, understanding and trust which then opens the door and invites a "true" friendship. The foundation is respect and the structure that is built upon it is made of understanding, trust, affection and friendship.
Good luck and have fun with your youngster!
Making Stall Time More Interesting
By: Laura Phelps-Bell
If you’re horse is confined to a stall, here are a few ideas on how to make his/her stall time less boring and more interesting. First and ideally, a box stall with a run is the best circumstance in this situation. If your horse is in only a box stall with no outside run, make sure that she has as much ventilation and light coming into her stall as possible. Often, light deprivation can lead to a horse that is mentally not feeling well and can become depressed, which may manifest as anger. Lack of good ventilation/fresh air can lead to upper respiratory problems, so even if the horse doesn't demonstrate symptoms of problems such as coughing, or labored breathing, they could still be feeling "not well" and perhaps feeling a "heaviness" in their lungs/chest, which could contribute to an "under-the-weather" feeling. All of these things can make your horse cranky because just like with humans, if we're just generally not feeling well but can't quite put our finger on what is wrong, we may just be in a bad mood because of it. Set it up so your horse can at least stick her head out over the stall door instead of being totally confined in her little "box" looking at four walls only. If the stall has slider doors with affixed grillwork up top which prevents your horse from looking out, for a reasonable price, most barn companies have stall screens that can be hung in the doorway and that have a U-shaped cutout so that the horse can stick their head out, but can't reach the outside barn walls on either side of their door and perhaps scrape the walls with their teeth, damaging the outside barn walls. However, it will allow them to stick their head out and look around and watch the activity around the barn area. Horses like to look around, especially the more active-minded horses, or horses which are a bit more dominant, or horses that are used to living outside most of the time. They get so much sensory input by listening, seeing, smelling, that to lock them in an area where they can't at least look around and observe those things which they can smell, hear and maybe catch glimpses of, at the very least is depressing for them. Often, this sadness and depression can lead to fear, frustration, anger and downright hostility. Rather then have that happen, I'd just as soon see a horse be out in a deeply muddy corral with access to a shelter if they care to use it. So if your horse doesn't already have a box stall where she can at least stick her head out and look around, make arrangements to buy a stall screen with the U-shaped cutout (or some variation thereof) so that she can at least look around the barn area and not have just a limited view from behind a stall door. They also have nylon or cotton stall guards/webbings to put across a door, but some horses will paw and stick a leg through and get hung up in them, or if they really want to leave the stall, they'll just press had enough with their chest to "pop" the eye-hooks right out of the doorway and will leave the stall. Something a little more sturdy may, or may not be in order for your mare.
Next, I would provide your horse with plenty of "chew time" by giving her access to plenty of grass hay. Don't do this with alfalfa hay because it is too rich and could cause problems with fermentation in her cecum, which will then disrupt her guts microbial population which could possibly lead to colic and/or laminitis/founder. Grass hay is very safe to feed in quantity, and since most horses don't gobble it down like they will "candy" alfalfa, they have something to nibble on for longer periods of time. The grass hay will keep her busy and help relieve boredom and in addition, if it's cold where you live, the process of chewing and then digestion will help create warmth, especially during cold nights.
The next step would be for your horse to perhaps have some "toys". Now, in my experience, many alpha-type horses, especially if they are not babies, look at you like you're a fool if you think they are going to play with a stall-ball, or a tether-ball hanging from the doorway. However, I have in fact caught these same mares "playing" with a regular plastic ball (with no handle like a stallball has) and kicking it around the stall. Another good "toy" is the rubber feed tubs made by Fortex that come in various sizes. They like to pick them up and move them around (like redecorating their stall perhaps?). Another thing I've noticed that works good as a "toy" are car tires. If a portion of her hay is put in there at feeding time, she will have to move the tire around to get all the food out from inside and also underneath. This will keep her busy for far longer getting to every little bit of food there is and that will help keep her mind occupied. If you use the car tires though, make sure they are not steel radials, or tires that have gouges out of them; we don't want your horse injuring her mouth on the steel belting, and we also don't want her to rip off a hunk of gouged tire, swallow it and end up with an obstruction. There is a photo that I have in my files from off the Internet of a 2-year-old horse that was found dead in a large tire feeder, but I'm not proposing you use a big tire feeder (mostly because it would take up too much room in the stall). I'm suggesting just a standard truck or car tire, mostly so she'll keep her mind occupied getting to her food in and around the smaller tire. I just go down to the local tire store and select the best of the cast-off tires. Most tire stores have to pay to take them to the dump and get them hauled off anyway, so they are usually more then happy to give them to you. I have sometimes seen even the most "serious" mares play with the Fortex feed tubs and also the car tires too.
Another interesting "toy" I've used is to hang a gallon plastic milk container by its handle from the center beam in the stall ceiling and put either small rocks in it, or alfalfa pellets. The sound of the rocks moving around when the horse bounces and swings it with their nose seems to entertain them. If you put alfalfa pellets in it, be prepared for a horse who will have many hours of bouncing and pushing it around to tip it enough to dump some pellets out of the open top if they manage to push it hard enough so it turns upside-down for a second on the end of it's rope!
Sometimes, I believe it's just the need to be able to move around and also be carrying something in their mouth as they wander around the stall which makes a horse as happy as they are ever going to be when confined in a stall. And also having grass hay to munch on satisfies the grazing need they have by having grass hay down at a lower level where they are extending their heads and necks down in a more natural grazing position. Sure, they may make a mess and there might also be some waste of hay, but that’s far better then having their minds messed up instead through anger, hostility, depression, etc!
Lungeing-With-Purpose For Starting Or Re-Training Horses
By: Laura Bell
"Lungeing-With-Purpose" involves teaching the horse a set of cues that will then transfer to the mounted level later on. It also involves lungeing with LONG sidereins and allowing the horse to "self-teach" "giving" to the pressure on their mouth that they themselves create. I usually start, and restart horses for my clients, using my lightweight western cordura saddle or my close contact huntseat saddle and a fullcheek frenchlink snaffle and the sidereins for lunging purposes only. I prefer the fullcheek frenchlink snaffle because the mouthpiece will not have the "nutcracker" effect and the effects on the horses pallet that a regular snaffle will have, and if the horse decides to frolic on the end of the line, if they pull, the bit won't be pulled through the horse's mouth because the full cheek pieces prevent it from doing so.
I also balance the bit in the horses mouth, and set it up so that the horse will apply poll pressure from the lungeline if they play, bolt or pull, by running the lungeline through the ring on the snaffle, up over their poll and then down to snap on to the top of the snaffle ring on the opposite side. This way too, the contact from me to the horses mouth isn't just working from whatever side I'm on in a direct pull on only one side of the horses mouth. The line going through the ring and over to the other ring on the opposite side creates more balance and even contact between myself and the horse. It will also apply poll pressure on the horse's poll if they pull because the lungeline will tighten as they pull, but release and loosen from the pressure if they don't pull.
I don't use sidereins after I have a horse going under saddle with a rider up. I find that by putting the long sidereins while lungeing on with the green horses that are just getting their start under saddle, and also on the horses that I am restarting because of man-made problems and big holes in their training, it allows them to work through some issues in a way in which they are the ones deciding on where their comfort zone is and how they want to feel. The sidereins are adjusted very long so that the horse has to really overextend up, down or out with their neck and head before they come into contact with the end of the sidereins, and thus, the bit. As the horse tests the boundaries, they discover where they are most comfortable and they also learn that by yielding in their jaw and their poll and rounding their neck and back slightly, instead of trying to run through the pressure they are creating, they find relief and a comfort zone because the sidereins go back to contact or slack when the horse relaxes their jaw and poll.. I use sidereins that have the elastic insert, rather then the rubber "donuts" on them. At the trot, I feel the rubber donuts create too much bounce on the bit in the horses mouth. If a horse wants to overextend their neck and head in any direction, that is their choice. If they don't mind the discomfort of tension and pressure on their mouth that they themselves are applying with over-extension in any direction, then they can carry themselves that way. Most horses however choose a comfort zone and seek to create contact or slack sidereins, rather then dealing with tension on their mouths. By putting the sidereins on very long, they are in no way being restricted or pulled-back into a "frame", they really have to overextend to come to the end of the sidereins Even being adjusted long however, until the horse is more conditioned, the sessions should be short so as not to cause sore muscles. Every single horse that I've ever started this way (numbering in the hundreds at this point) have made the choice, or decision, to loosen their jaw and "give" at the poll, thus going to contact or slack reins. The purpose or goal is not the horse coming into "frame", the purpose is for the horse to learn to go forward and then "give" to the pressure they are creating if they are trying to "run through the pressure" and learn not to fight the pressure instead. Unlike humans, who may make errors in their timing of when to "give", or release, when the horse "gives" at their poll and jaw, sidereins are either "there", in pressure or tension, or they are not, as when they are just in contact or are slack. "On the bit" is not my goal, the horse learning to go forward, loosen their jaw, "give" to pressure on their mouths, relax at the poll and round their topline slightly is the goal.
The other positive aspect of this method is that there is no conflict or combat between horse and human. The person isn't put in the position of being the villain atop the horse if they accidentally don't "lighten" or release with their hands at the precise moment that the horse "gives". The horse has a chance to think things through, find their comfortable parameters depending on the length of the sidereins, and decide how they wish to feel.
Once the horse has learned these basics and also understands the various sound cues for walk, trot, canter (going forward) and then the sound cues for the transitions back down through the gaits, then we are ready to add the rider, but without the sidereins. I'm able to act as ground support for the rider (the owner usually) who is typically the first person to ever ride the horse in the case of the young horses. With the full understanding of lungeing, the horses progress very smoothly and positively in whatever direction their riding careers are headed-in. This also holds true for most horses that I re-condition/restart too. There is a lot more education in place before we ever get on the horse.
A key issue here is that I never progress to the riding until the ground training is correctly in place. We are building a foundation that will last the horse's lifetime, so we are in no hurry and we don't skip steps or move on in training until each level of the training is in place and flowing seamlessly. Lungeing sessions are usually about 25-30 minutes long, with shorter sessions when we are in the conditioning phase . I'm working on the mental aspects more then the physical with my method of lungeing. I also rarely use lungeing to "work a horse down" or to "take the edge off" before riding. The only times I put a horse on the line without tack, or with just a saddle and bridle, is for a few minutes at the horses first shows if they are a bit over-excited in their new surroundings, or for a pre-purchase or lameness exam. Otherwise, once we do the "lungeing with purpose" in the beginnings of under saddle training, or during restarts on older horses, we won't be using it very often after that, maybe just as a refresher course if the horse has been off work for a long time due to broodmare duties or having been turned out and not ridden for a long while. It's a great foundation training method and makes the whole starting or restarting process a lot more simple and positive, and with no confusion in the mind of the horse and no danger to the human because of green horses antics or maybe dangerous evasions on horses that are being retrained such as rearing, bucking spooking, balking, etc.
To start the horse off, I use "walk-walk" and a few soft clucks. To move up to trot, clucking and "show" the horse the whip. I utilize the whip in a sweeping motion a few feet off the ground. When lungeing, the lunge line simulates the hands of the rider and the whip simulates the legs motivating the horse forward, moving from back to front. I place the horse between the "legs" (whip) and "hands" (lungeline) by forming a V-shape with me at the point, with the line going out to the horses head and the whip pointed toward right behind the horses haunches and me facing the horses flank and staying slightly behind the horse. I walk a smaller circle within the horses larger circle so that the horse is not stressing themselves physically and/or losing their balance on too small of a circle. I also never snap or crack the whip. Snapping or cracking the whip continuously will cause the horse to become unresponsive to those sounds. Similar to when a person continuously clucks when they are riding. After a while, the horse no longer pays attention to the sound, it means nothing to them anymore because it is so continuous. To canter, I kiss and slightly raise my line hand. Downward transitions are: from canter to trot I say "terottt"-softly, drawn out word "trot", and then "waallk"-softly drawn out word "walk" and then soft whoa for halt.
I also do things a little differently when I stop the horse and prepare to go the other direction in that I don't allow my horses to face me when I stop them.
Three reasons for this:
Safety--If I allow a horse to stop and face me, as I reel in my line and walk toward them preparing to make adjustments and turn them the other way, if they hear a noise or perceive movement behind them (even if there isn't even anything there) if they spook or bolt, they will usually just run in whatever direction they are pointed or facing, maybe mowing me down in the process.
Psychological--some horses use facing the handler on the lunge-line as an evasion to not wanting to lunge anymore. They'll continuously get the handler reeling them in, pointing them the correct direction again, getting them going again and then will face up and the handler starts all over trying to get them going the correct direction. Some horses will even face-up, challenge the handler to get them going again and then take the evasion farther if the handler pressures them to go and will either come into the handler (perhaps charging them), or they might turn and run the wrong way. So now there are more issues to deal with then we originally started with. If we teach the horse right from the beginning that facing-up is not allowed, then they will not use the evasion of facing-up, and/or charging the handler, or turning and running the incorrect direction on the lunge-line because they know it's not allowed.
Adjustments-- I have to make adjustments to my lunge-line and maybe even my sidereins, so I have to go to their head anyway and can't just reverse them out on the lunge-line anyway. Since I rarely lunge a horse "naked" (with no tack except the halter and lunge-line) reversing a horse out on the end of the lunge-line is not even a consideration.
This lungeing approach is a wonderful start for horses at the ground level that then transfers to the ridden level in terms of the education the horse possesses in regard to knowing how, and becoming more conditioned to carrying themselves in a round frame, being relaxed in their jaw, poll and over their whole topline from nose-to-tail, and also not trying to run through any pressure of the riders hands on the reins. The rider (with ground support lungeing them on the horse if desired) can then begin to transfer verbal or sound cues that the horse knows from the lungeing, to physical cues from the rider via the hands, seat, legs and weight. The rider will apply the sound cues at the same time that they apply the physical cues and are eventually able to phase the sound cues out entirely as the horse begins to understand what the physical cues are. In this way, the rider will be the only one communicating with their horse via physical cues when in the show ring or on organized trail rides for instance because the horse won’t be tuning it to what sounds (signals/cues/commands) the other riders are making to their horses. This avoids a lot of confusion and produces a horse/rider team that work in total harmony with one another.
This methodology and approach for starting young horses, or re-training horses, for any discipline of riding or driving has proven to be very successful for me for over 25 years and produces well-adjusted, trusting, and also physically and mentally relaxed and comfortable horses.
Starwood Farm and Bell Star Mustangs
Silver Springs, Nevada
Clinics and Training
Why People Start Horses Too Young, Too Hard
By: Laura Phelps-Bell
I've been a professional trainer/instructor in the horse industry in many different disciplines, including competitive dressage to the upper levels, hunter/jumpers, western pleasure and western riding, trail trials and trail/pleasure riding, for over 30 years. Following are a few of my own opinions regarding starting horses too young, too hard and the negative repercussions that these horses can possibly suffer at a young age, or when they are in their teens: In my opinion, many people that are involved with horses, and this goes for hobbyists as well as professionals in the industry, are in it for themselves, not for the love, or the consideration, of the horses. When deciding when to start a young horse in mounted training, people need to be brutally honest with themselves and examine and determine what their motivation for starting a two or three-year-old horse in heavy under-saddle, mounted training is.
For some owners, the motivation is to be competitive in the reining, cutting, western pleasure or pre-green hunter futurities. Maybe it's because they want to send their 3 year old Warmblood stallion prospect to the 100 Day Testing and the horse must be able to free jump, jump under saddle, perform a dressage test and gallop a distance in a certain amount of time. And then of course, there is horse racing where the horses are racing heavily as two and three-year-olds. More and more, the big money futurities for performance horses are for three-year-olds, so in order to be competitive, these horses MUST be started as two-year-olds, and sometimes even when they are long-yearlings (18-24 months old). Because of this, many of these horses end up with bowed tendons, Navicular Syndrome, bone spavins, bone chips, stifle injuries, blown-out hocks, hairline fractures, arthritis, severe back problems, sprained necks and a myriad of other problems and conditions associated with stress and strain to young, developing bodies. Many horses will end up with debilitating problems at only four or five-years-old and already are receiving anti-inflammatory medications and/or painkillers on a daily basis in their feed, or in the form of injections. Some older horses, in their teens, will develop problems that can be traced directly back to being started too young and too hard. It will take 10 or so years for the stresses they experienced when younger to appear as problematic (this I learned from Dr. Robert Miller who was my vet in So. CA beginning in the mid-'70's).
Another motivation is the false assumption that if you don't "get to" these horses when they are very young, they will become difficult to start under saddle because they are getting bigger and stronger and also developing more "attitude" psychologically. Many people refer to how difficult horses seem to be as four-year-olds, but I haven't experienced this at all in the hundreds of horses that I've started. This might sometimes be true if the horse has NOT BEEN HANDLED AT ALL, or had barely any handling to speak of, from the time of birth until under saddle training begins and had been pretty much left alone in a pasture. If the horse is brought in from pasture at four or five and someone tries to get them started immediately under saddle, with no ground-level training in place and no trust or understanding between horse and human in place, the horse will be understandably confused, scared and lacking trust and may "act-out", creating the illusion of being difficult because they were started late. In most of these cases, this is not the problem at all. The problem is in not receiving any, or hardly any, early ground-level training and developing mutually respectful and trusting relationships with humans from a young age. It's a fact that the younger the horse is, the easier they are to manipulate and intimidate from a psychological standpoint and also being not yet fully developed physically, they can also be "pushed-around" a little easier. However, an educated horseman does not train from a position of intimidation or strength; they instead train from a position of establishing a bond of mutual respect, trust and understanding with whatever horse they are interacting with. A wise horseman knows what each and every horse "needs" and applies the appropriate training for that individual horse. Once the correct foundation has been laid, you can start a horse at eight, ten or over 12 years old and still be completely successful with mounted training. A "true" horseman also develops a spiritual relationship with their horse and really knows and cares about how they are feeling.
Through the use of a systematic approach, technique and establishing mutual respect and trust and also establishing your "position" with the horse in your "herd-of-two", all things are possible. The age is not the huge factor in under saddle training, the previous history of training/handling, or not, and the type of relationships that the horse has had with humans previously are the critical factors to consider. Because of my systematic approach to training, I'm always puzzled why some people seem to be impressed by these "trainer challenges" where some trainers take a so-called unhandled 2 or 3 year old horse and have them saddled and ridden in 2 or 3 hours. What does that prove as I sure do know many non-professional and professional trainers (myself included) that could get a youngster saddled and ridden with minimal hassle in a few hours but where's the foundation for the training structure? There is no foundation by taking this route, so most everything unravels in a hurry without a foundation in training. To me, it's just showing off at the expense of the horses physical and mental well-being.
One other VERY BIG motivation for starting horses very young under saddle is the human's impatience and haste in wanting to "just get on and ride". As a species, humans do tend to be impatient and some people do want everything to happen NOW. Is this fair to the horse that is started in heavy, "serious" training at two-three years old? Absolutely not! Most parents of four or five-year-old children would not have their children participating at that young age in full-contact tackle football, or intensive gymnastic training.
There would be major concern that their child could perhaps be irreparably damaged physically (and mentally) from the stresses and rigors of these activities on young bodies and minds. The problem here is that human children "look" like children, whereas many young horses "look" mature on the outside, but in reality, they still only mature structurally at the same rate as a less mature looking horse for the most part. Appearances can be very deceiving in the case of horses!
I feel the same way about horses as I would about putting a human child through rigorous activities because I truly love them (even the ones who try to act unlovable) and horses sense when a human really cares about them and will respond to that caring and love. A horse that is devoted to their human will try-their-heart-out to accomplish that which they are asked to do. It's for this reason that humans must never forget the huge honor that is given to them by a horse that loves them. I don't ever want to be the cause of a horse being rendered with physical and/or psychological problems when they are young, or when they get into their teens, because I started them too hard, too young. I always ask myself "what would I do if this horse were my human child?" By asking this question, I always get the best answer; go slow, be patient and wait until the horse is developed adequately both mentally and physically for that which I will be asking them to do. My advice for people who are contemplating buying a young horse, but they are also wanting to do "serious" riding sooner-rather-than-later, is to buy a horse that's a little older (and hopefully not started too young themselves) and spare a young horse the possible physical and mental negativity of being ridden too hard, too young.
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with starting a horse lightly under saddle at two-three-years-old if they appear to be well-developed (even though NO horse develops completely skeletally until they are at least 4, with some horses vertebra not completing development until they are 8 years old!). However, when I say "start under saddle" at that age even with good muscular development in place, what I mean is to already have the leading, tying and basic handling aspects in place and then accustom them to the tack and equipment, moving with the equipment in place during leading, light lunging (no galloping in a circle!), and perhaps ponying and ground driving if you're so inclined when they are a mid-long two-year-old. Very light exercise, that's all. At three, get a rider up (someone lighter) and do a little light walking and maybe a few steps of trotting/jogging here-and-there, but no cantering/loping and absolutely no riding that will stress their joints such as jumping, rolling a horse back over their hocks, galloping relentlessly around in the round pen, etc. If a person can force themselves to wait, then I prefer to not start a horse in mounted under-saddle training until four. Horses should not be in "serious" training in my opinion until at least four at the earliest, if not five or six-years-old depending on their physical and mental development. By "serious", I mean the horse is beginning to be trained for their "career" in life, such as dressage, jumping, reining, cutting, endurance riding, pleasure trail riding, etc. Of course, all of the above are just my opinions for what they're worth!
After reading what I have to say on the subject of starting young horses under saddle from a trainer's perspective, I would hope that it will cause people to think long and hard before doing things that are not appropriate for the horses level of physical and/or mental development. After all, if we don't protect our horses, who will?
Filtering Information When You're Learning To Train Horses
By Laura Phelps-Bell
While I too did train my first horse Star (beginning when I was 13 and she was just a year old and me never having worked with any young horses before) in the fundamentals such as I knew them (and before there were videos, clinics or even a good variety of books that were readily available) I definetely wouldn't have learned what I know and applied successfully in dressage and hunter/jumpers just based upon trying to watch others, or practice what I thought was right.
I galloped TB racehorses at a training/breeding/rehab farm when I was 14 and 15 years old, so by the time I began working at the dressage/hunter/jumper barn when I was almost 16, my equitation was very messed up and not correct (kind of the chair seat and "hand riding" syndrome). Without the help of a good instructor and not just attending clinics once a month, or with even longer periods in-between, I'm sure without the "eyes on the ground" to correct me, I would have continued on practicing bad habits. I had been riding bareback alot all over the mountain trails even during the time when I was younger and taking english riding lessons on school horses, so for trail riding purposes, or low level showing, Star and I would have been absolutely fine on our own with no help from anyone. However, since I already knew I was going to be a trainer and instructor, I sought out quality instruction, worked my butt off at training stables to trade for lessons and board for Star and stayed with a particular instructor until I perhaps felt I had reached their limits on being able to teach me more. I've always been more or less a natural in riding, but that still would not have taken me to the levels I wished to achieve unless I sought out great instructors to help me reach my training and showing goals. I did learn myself how to train for western pleasure, trail class and western riding and was quite successful. However, when it came to wanting to learn reining and reined cow horse events, I once again sought out a good instructor who I had to drive 4 hours to take lessons from.
I'm going to stick with my previous statements regarding a lot of peoples inability to filter information and end up doing what I call "guinea-pigging" their horse as they try out yet another approach when they do not have a correct foundation in any of them. These opinions are also based on having people come to me for help after they and their horse/s are so thoroughly confused that the relationship between they and their horse is broken down to the point where there is no trust because there is no proper leader in the twosome. For there to be harmony and safety in a herd, whether a herd of horses, or horse or horses and a person, there must be trust and confidence in the herd leaders ability to lead. If instead of behaving like a confident leader who is secure in their position and confident regarding their decisions, the human instead portrays a posture of being confused, inconsistent, wishy-washy, unclear, etc, the horse rightly will not be in harmony with that person, will not feel confident in their positioning in the herd (of two with the human) and will usually either become more assertive in order to take over the leadership role (because afterall, someone needs to be the leader, so if the human isn't going to do it, a lot of horses will), or will become frightened because they don't feel safe and don't know who to trust to be the leader.
Since moving to No. NV over 19 years ago and interacting with many, many Mustangs my husband and I have adopted, I have learned volumns regarding true herd behavior that you won't learn from a herd of domestically-raised horses. I currently have 13 formerly free-roaming Mustangs, several that have been with me for many years now, and it is still fascinating to watch their interaction, mannerisms, how the mares teach their now adult children and how my 12 year old Mustang stallion interacts with his children and his "wives" over the fence (no more breeding around here! lol).
I've pretty much always been the leader in any herd of horses I'm in, but actually feel extremely honored to have these once wild horses trust me enough to be their leader based on me proving to them that I am worthy of their trust and their confidence in my abilities to make good decisions that affect their welfare every day.
Starwood Farm & Bell Star Mustangs
Silver Springs, Nevada
"A closed mind is a terrible waste of space!"~~Laura Bell
Following the Bit
By Laura Phelps-Bell
First, we want the horse to be in a place where they are trusting with the riders hands on the ends of the reins and also that the horse responds to "go forward", or engagement cues from the rider. I don't ride very hard driving as many of the dressage riders do because I also ride huntseat /hunter’s where the balance of the rider is more forward, but more importantly, I've trained a lot of Thoroughbreds and Arabians, the so-called "hotter" horses, and they will have a tendency to try and “squirt” out from underneath the rider if driven too hard with the seat and legs.
In dressage training, when we are starting, (or retraining), horses under saddle, much emphasis is put on the horse having a soft jaw. I'm convinced that it's not really horses either having a hard or soft mouth so much as it is horse’s having a hard/stiff or a soft jaw, and also more so of them having an educated or uneducated mouth. When I begin riding the horses I train, I mostly give them the freedom to go forward from my legs without attempting to put any barriers to where their neck and head will be. Once they know to go forward in response to my cues, then I will begin to establish a barrier with my length of rein and hand position. At first, some horses will try to push through the barrier, which creates pressure of their own doing on their mouth. Failing at pushing through the barrier, they often will slow down or try to stop because of the pull that they are creating on their mouth by trying to push through. Finally though, (and of course it varies from horse to horse), and with me vibrating the inside rein in a pressure-to-contact, pressure -to-contact in what is called "softening the jaw, they usually give the littlest "give" to the pressure and I immediately release for a second. I then go back to contact with a certain length of rein and if they try to push through the barrier I will also "soften their jaw" too. After that, they learn to "give", not minding the contact after the release I give them as a reward for the "give". It's the pressure or pull they seek to avoid and light contact is the "handshake" contact I was speaking of in an earlier post. So now that we have established roundness and comfort in contact with the rider while still going forward, I can simply have the contact, soften the horses jaw and then give the reins by 1/2" and see if the horse will lower their neck and head "following the bit" as it drops out of the corners of their mouth. The slightest "follow" and I can continue to release and horses will follow almost to the ground at a walk, trot or canter if that's how far I continue to release. It's mostly establishing a trustful relationship with the horse, teaching them to move forward from the legs and the horse not being worried about being "snatched" or jammed in the mouth if all they are trying to do is be in contact with the rider (IOW, not leaning or lugging on their forehand. Building roundness in a horse does take a long time because we are asking them to develop muscles over their topline from their nose, over their poll, down and across their neck and back, and then down their hind legs involving their rump and gaskins. These areas are typically not already well developed for the horse going more round. That's why I'm so against draw-reins (which are usually used improperly and as more of a "torture tool" then a training aid in my opinion), short side-reins and other devices used to force a horse into a frame they aren't developed enough to be in for any length of time in the beginning of training.
I do need to preface the above information on "following the bit" by saying that I do extensive ground training with every horse that I train, or retrain, especially using what I call "lungeing with purpose". It’s a very good read for starting horses in a correct, respectful and trusting way at the ground level first.
Starwood Farm & Bell Star Mustangs
Silver Springs, Nevada