It is one of the most important topics in the horse world: How to start a young horse (under saddle)? And it is one with a lot of prejudices, misunderstanding and abuse.
Not for nothing, starting a horse is also called "breaking a horse" and this goes back far and deep in to the not so kind, dark history of humans domesticating horses.
But we don't want to go there now. It is however, very important to start at the very beginning: the development of a young horse and why we choose to start one.
Why do we start a young horse?
Theres something we equestrians must ask ourselves over and over again. We must look critical towards our motivations and intentions before we decide to take an animal and make them behave like we want to and even get the right to let them carry us.
The answer to this question is your own and no one can or should answer it for you. But beware, that your answer is one you're okay with even if the roles where reversed. This is your moral compass that needs to stay active when you're an equestrian.
Your horse is not a toy, a bicycle, a tool, an object of prestige or a way to sportive success.
But if you're a horse person and you really truly love being around horses and you believe this partnership can add good to this world, read on.
Horses are in our world and they are domesticated. Even more so, theres no room on this planet to let them roam free again (God knows mid Western European countries tried and failed).
They are here and they need our care. Period.
How we care, however, couldn't differ more from people to people. There are so many ways, ideas and believes why and how horses should be cared for as there are horse people. And there is no black and white, right and wrong either. Just everyones own little moral compass. So heres mine:
As we can't release horses into the wild and let them just be, we must provide the best possible horse worthy life to them as we can and as our circumstances allow. And in many countries and regions that means horses have to put up with a lot of human stuff. And they will be confided for their whole life. But horses do need to move and see the world. They aren't pleased by seeing the same 500 square meter of grass every single day. For me, the most horse friendly thing to do is to make it possible that horse can go outside and move freely.
And for this we need to prepare and train a horse. And I believe, if you do a good job, the horse will enjoy this life.
Thats always my ultimate goal in horse training. To help a horse live in a human world and make the most of it. I therefore have to adapt to their needs and walk in their shoes to be able to see whats important to them and how they experience the world.
When I start a young horse, I know that he will probably be afraid of a lot of weird stuff. I know that he would rather run than "breathe through it" and that he can't consciously think wether its wise to bolt or not. That he doesn't know what an umbrella is and that a street can be pretty dangerous but a motorcycle won't eat you. I know that he has to put up with a lot of unknown, ambivalent weird looking and smelling things that make absolutely no sense in a horses eye.
I know that he know that I am not a horse. And that he doesn't speak "human" naturally and that I don't speak "horse". I know that we have to find a common language through mutual respect. And I know that he values the dignity of his body just as I value mine.
And, I know his body and mind and what I can ask of him and when he is ready. So I know, when and how I can start to teach a horse to become an assertive partner in a human world.
At what age can we start a horse?
Starting a horse is not equivalent to riding in a youngster.
The first part of this sentence can mean a lot, while the end is most of the times not a good idea.
In most countries it is still very common to take a foal by young age from its mother, put it in a big group of other foals and let them roam outside until they are 2-3 years old and ready to be ridden in.
I have a problem with that in two important regards:
a 2-3 year old horse is not physically and mentally old enough to be ridden in
this 'putting away' and then 'taking out' of young horses is not a friendly nor healthy way to help horses put up with the human world. Further more, with same age groups they don't even learn to put up with the horse world.
It all starts with the mare and the foal. In an ideal world, the mare is already member of a healthy, stable herd where she can give birth to the foal into. The foal can then stay with the mare and the herd to learn all the essential horse things he needs to learn - from young and old.
You don't need to wean off a foal at all actually. That happens naturally and it has no disadvantages - except for the convenience of the human of course.
Anyhow, from around the age of 6 month to 1 year some people start their foals instead of sending them away into exile just to brutally take them away from there again.
Yes, you can start a foal. No not under saddle of course. But to let them get used to human touch, care, groom and handling, human smell, sound and all the other funny stuff like cars, tractors, halters, farriers etc.
Only then, with the safety of mum and the herd in the back and no pressure, a foal can make positive associations of being handled and the human contact. Its the same you do with a puppy or a child that gets to know kindergarden. Its important to keep the threshold low at all times and let the foal habituate its human surrounding at its own pace.
Imagine, a young horse that has lived with the friendly daily life of its mother and other horses at a busy stable for two years - and a youngster that just has been taken away from its buddys in the semi-freedom of the field, not knowing anything else, not ever having seen or smelled any of this. Who'd be more calm and complying? Who'd have the best chance to learn new stuff and become a reliant partner?
The development of the equine body
The foal training is a light training that doesn't require physical strength. It's always from the ground, at hand. Be sure to keep the sessions short and simple. Aim for a yes and not for a no. But respect a no when it comes. Thats on the basic of foal and yearling training.
But when can you put the saddle on for the first time?
The saddle should be introduced as any other tool or tack with only positive associations as in positive reinforcement. Make the saddle casual and rewarding. Start with seeing, smelling and touching it. Only put it on the back when the horse is fully accustomed to the saddle as an object.
This happens way before we put weight on the horses body and can be introduced at any time.
I recommend from age 3-4. You can then build up everything you plan to do from the ground, like bending, core strength, all the tack, leading and going outside.
Before you regularly and intensively put weight on the horses back, like in going for competition and work (dressage, jumping, cross country, endurance, etc.) it should be at least 6 years old and physically and mentally ready and trained.
Essential basics to begin with
As I mentioned above, the basics, the foal ABC, can be introduced from the very beginning. The foal ABC is the getting accustomed and positively used to human touch, a halter, leading, giving hooves and standing still. But lets say you have a 3-4 year old horse that you want to start. Or an older horse that needs to be started over again.
Then there are a few basics you can start with that build the foundation of the training for riding.
Standing still is an active behavior because we teach the horse to not do anything else, to not follow its needs for grazing or moving at this moment. You can cue this behavior with a word or a certain place or target. The most handy thing to teach from the beginning is standing at the mounting block. I also teach the horses to stand still while I brush or tack them - as I move around them I cue 'stand' or 'whoa'.
Tack and objects
Let the horse get used to all kinds of tack and objects. We underestiment the horses needs for smell and touch to examine things a lot! Let them explore the world on their terms and let them get the chance to meet everything you will ever encounter first in a safe and relaxed environment. And I don't mean 'spook training'. With introducing tack and objects we never want the horse to worry or get anxious. If you reach the threshold, back up and let the horse calm down. Never ever aim for the "just go through"!
I let the horses get used to objects and tack first on their own terms, which means freely and without any consequences. I let them touch and smell the saddle a lot of times. Then, step for step, I let everything touch the horse everywhere over and over again, always respecting any 'no' and boundaries. If the horse moves away - the objects moves away and we will try later again or go a step back, to smelling again.
Now the horse can stand still and relaxed while you put a saddle on. It knows the saddle and the feeling of it on its back. The horse trusts you and always had a positive experience with you and the tack. Thats half the work.
This process takes half a year to secure a stable bond and positive association - depending on the horse. Now, your horse is around 5 years old and you can start physical training to shape and strengthen muscles and tissue. Work your horse from the ground and make sure they find balance and can carry themselves. If your horse is fine with saddling, movement on cue and has sufficient strength you can repeat the proces of introducing tack with yourself: introducing human on the back. Mounting can be done one step at a time with the same positive associations and relaxation. Take your time with this proces!
At around age 4-5, your horse is ready to be 'ridden in', although you already did most of the work getting him used to everything that this includes - step by step, continuously and smoothly. No need for bucking and bolting. In this case "riding in" takes around 2-3 years - not 2-3 weeks.
All the things that come before riding
If you buy a young horse, 2-3 years or even longer can seem a long time before you get to the fun of riding. But the body and the psyche of your horse will thank you for waiting. And there are a lot of fun things you can do with a horse besides riding.
Not only for young horses but all horses! For me, riding is a privilege I need to earn. So before I ride a horse I do all the things that come before riding.
I could write a whole article about that (coming soon) but for now, heres a list:
Walking/Hiking Go outside and see the world! Make sure your horse doesn't have separation anxiety first. You can take your horse for a walk or go hiking together everyday. Its strengthen the body and hooves and let them get to know the outside world from the safety of your grounded presence. Make sure to introduce traffic and noise with kindness. Behold the threshold. But if you plan to go riding outside this is an absolute must - just like introducing tack and rider. Always start at hand and make sure your horse feels safe.
Hand grazing If you're outside just go grazing! Its lovely time consuming, relaxing and rewarding for your horse. And it can help with seperation anxiety. Start with just outside the stable and increase the distance step by step as long as your horse feels safe and relaxed.
Spending undemanding time together Go do nothing with your horse. Just be there, become part of the herd. Its a good way to observe your horse and general horse behavior. You will learn a lot and the horse will bond more easily with you.
Playing in the field Same as above but add a little bit of spice! Some horses, young horses most of the times, love to play! Run with each other, change directions and catch each other - its also a good way of learning about boundaries. By the way, nibbling, grooming and playing with the mouth, is an important social game for horses as well.
The following game In the field or the arena, following on the ground is good for bonding and mutual understanding. Read each others body language and make a stable connection.
Active lunging Not as in letting the horse run circles. Lunging should be freely, at liberty and relaxed. Its a good place to train balance and a carried back.
Poles Get creative, use the jumping poles on the ground for core strength and shapes to back up in.
Agility Poles, blocks, balls, cones ... whatever comes to your mind!
Trick training Trick training is very good brain training - and it looks great in photos!
Target training Start with clicker & target training for fun and hands cues!
Introducing tack and objects As above
Scent-work Did you know horses could scent track? This is a another big topic (coming soon).
Stretching and bending Learn your horse to stretch properly to keep them smooth and agile
Halter en leading training Also a basic that should be repeated regularly to maintain polite and safe handling
Farrier training Your farrier will be thankful!
Medical treatment training Same for the vet ;)
Trailer loading And for yourself. This is an absolute must for any worst case scenario. You will need this eventually so be prepared!
Also traumatized horses need to be "started anew".