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 Post subject: How Do You Train A Horse?
PostPosted: Mon Mar 17, 2008 11:26 am 
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Joined: Wed Mar 21, 2007 3:57 pm
Posts: 195
Location: Iowa
I was recently asked this question, so I'll share my answer here. I know there are entire books on this subject which still barely scratch the surface of horse training, but this answer will just include the basic steps to starting a colt, or getting on a horse for the first time:

When I start a colt from scratch, I make sure they're completely gentle first: I can touch them all over, brush them, rub a saddle blanket over them, across their head, neck, back, hindquarters, under their belly, front legs, chest, back legs, behind their tail, all over....if they jump, spook, or flinch, I just work a little more slowly with it. I don't overly-desensitize my horses, because I like them to stay sensitive to light commands and move from pressure. But I do want to work with them until they understand that I'm there with them, I won't hurt them, but I might do some strange things they've never had a human do before (like eventually climb on their back).

I make sure the horse is easy to catch. You can do this with a join-up method if you're working with a spooky horse that just runs from you. (See my description of join up in this section of's forum.)
If the horse isn't wild, but just won't let you catch it (more of an ornery horse than a scared one) then work on following it around at a walk until it just doesn't want to play games anymore. If it learns you will eventually always catch it, it will give up the running away. Always approach a horse by walking to it's shoulder and touching its withers or neck. Grabbing at a horse's head makes it draw back or shy away. Pet it first, then slip an arm around its neck while you get the halter on.

Work on saddling your horse and getting it used to having the saddle pad rubbed over it, feeling the weight of the saddle, and the cinch under its belly. After you get the saddle on securely, turn the horse loose in an arena or pen. Use a longe whip to free longe him and watch what he does. If he bucks with the saddle, he has the propensity and natural instinct to buck with a rider, but it doesn't necessarily mean he will buck when you ride him. Often a colt will buck a few times when you first saddle them up, and then will sort of figure out that bucking is a lot of work and still doesn't get rid of that saddle, so they settle down and sometimes never buck again. It's always good to get that first buck out when they're carrying just the saddle, not you!

If the horse doesn't buck at all, then you can proceed. If it bucks a lot, you may want to think about hiring a trainer for him, or else go back to groundwork and work on that a lot. Saddle him each time you work with him, and work him in the arena or round pen, and the repetition may help him get over bucking.

Around this time, I like to introduce the bridle and bit. I always start with a plain ring snaffle and a very adjustable bridle. You want to be certain you fit the bridle to the horse's head. It should be loose enough to slip on over the horse's ears once the bit is in his mouth, but not so loose that the bit hangs low or clinks his teeth. Usually you can see one or two folds of skin at the corners of the horse's mouth, right behind where the bit fits. One wrinkle is great, two is alright usually. If there are no wrinkles, you might need to tighten the bit, but see how it fits--it needs to be right in the corner of his lips, not further down toward his nose where his teeth are.

After you get the bridle on, a horse that's never worn one will really slobber, chew, open his mouth, and work with his tongue to get that bit pushed back out. That's all the horse will focus on for awhile, so I usually tie my reins up loosely (or remove them from the bridle if that's easier) to the saddle horn, and turn the horse loose in the pen to worry about that bit. You can longe him (put a halter on over the bridle, or else free longe him--I wouldn't longe with the line connected to the bridle/bit unless you really know what you're doing) and get him to move out wearing the saddle and bridle. Work him a little in all gaits, both directions, and ask for a whoa, pet him, let him relax a little. If he is really mouthing the bit, leave him wearing it for an hour or so, while you do something else, but keep an eye on him, especially if you've tied your reins to the saddle don't want him catching a rein on something or stepping through one and getting jerked hard. With a spooky horse you might just work on these first things for a few days, with gentle repetition and keeping things as calm as possible.

After saddle and bridle are comfortable on your horse , you can start getting on. I like a mounting block or small hay bale since it enables you to mount without really pulling on the saddle or off-balancing the horse. I usually stand beside the horse on the block or bale, and lean on the saddle. You can step up in one stirrup and sort of hang over him, petting his neck and shoulders and behind the saddle, to get him used to someone being up there. If he jumps or spooks, you can hopefully slide free, or drop quickly to the ground and not go with him. The idea is to just introduce having a rider in that space and feeling some weight on the saddle. If all that goes well, go ahead and swing your leg over and sit in the saddle.

Some horses will "freeze up" when a rider first gets on them, and will refuse to move, which you don't want. So you want your horse to move out calmly, that's a good sign. A little squeezing with your legs, or directing his head to one side in a turn will often prompt him to move. Use one rein to pull in an arc, which will help if he really takes off or tries any funny business. If you can pull that one rein around, he will hopefully turn in a small circle and not buck you off or run off. You do want some movement, but a nice gentle walk is ideal. Once you complete a few turns of the arena or pen, you can stop him, pet him, and take both feet out of the stirrups and slide off. Getting off sometimes spooks a horse way more than getting on...since it happens suddenly and they are surprised to see you there beside them again. So always remove both feet from stirrups so you don't get hung up if he shies sideways or runs. Then repeat the whole process. Lots of petting all over, stepping into the saddle, walking both ways around the pen, getting off, getting on, more petting. If you can leave the reins alone, great. The only reason I'd pull is if he jumps, goes to bucking, or tries to run. And then just pull on one, in a tight circle until he slows down, then release the rein. You aren't going to expect the horse to turn very well, so just leave him alone at first; all you're asking him to do is accept the saddle and rider and bit, and get more comfortable wearing and carrying them.

The next ride on a colt, I would start asking for turning, left and right. Some trainers will pull their horse's head around clear to their knee and do that until the horse stops turning and just stands there. It gets a horse more flexible and soft, so that when you do start turning and asking the horse to bend, he will actually turn well, not just plow on straight ahead.
I usually work on just getting a nice bend, leaving the other rein loose, pulling directly on the side I want him to turn towards.

At this point, you can progress to faster gaits, especially if you're in a round pen/arena. But be prepared to pull him in a circle if he wants to go faster than what you asked. You want him to learn to respond to rein pressure, but you don't want to always be pulling back on the reins to slow him down, that's why I turn in circles so much. It gets the horse to slow down without making him hard mouthed. Give the horse lots of work to do, turning, stopping, backing up, etc. Try not to be too demanding in your cues. What you should do is ask first with the proper cue (slight pull on the rein and a little leg pressure against the shoulder to get them to turn) and then wait (give the horse time to think through the situation and understand that these cues mean something is being asked of him) and then encourage him to obey with a little backup (harder squeezing with your legs, stronger pull on the rein, etc.) until he does....then RELEASE all pressure when you get the desired result. (Stop squeezing, loosen the reins so there is no contact with his mouth, relax your body in the saddle a little, etc.) It is very important to release at the exact time that he obeys...the release tells him "That was the right thing to do! Good job!" Without the instant release, he will not get a clear understanding of what is being asked of him, so whenever you give him a cue, watch him closely and wait for the perfect instant to release all pressure and reward him for doing the right thing. That's how horses learn.

Hope my description is definitely doesn't cover all of the bases on what to do if your horse does ______.....but it is just a basic step by step process of how to start a colt out right. Every horse is different, and they will respond better to different things, but these basics are usually effective on a colt that has a good mindset and isn't too mistrusting.

Any other ideas or comments? Please reply to this post!


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