Ed Dabney Gentle and Natural Horsemanship Confidence Course. Step by step obstacles to develop confidence, trust, agility, awareness on part of horse.
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"Colt Starting "

There is much controversy about when and how to start training a young horse. Sure, you might be able to have a green horse saddled and put the first ride on him within an hour, but why? What’s the hurry? “Starting” should not be equated with “riding”. Ideally, starting to teach a horse should begin at birth. Correctly applied imprint training and early desensitization will accustom the horse to the human and greatly reduce the training time and effort that is required later.

If you bring a young horse along slowly and teach him everything he’ll need to know on the ground first you’ll have a dependable, safe partner for years to come. After all, what is an extra 30 or 60 days to really develop a trustworthy, confident, responsive horse in light of the next twenty years of enjoyable riding? You can spend lots of time trying to fix problems later or take the time in the beginning to do it right.

The early education process, usually practiced on a two or three year old horse, is commonly referred to as “colt starting” or “breaking”. I just don’t like the term “breaking”. It smacks of the old, rough ways of restraining a horse and forcing oneself upon him rather than the more enlightened ways of working with a horse’s nature.

My training philosophy is based on Care, Communication and Consistency:

Care for our horses not only includes providing for their needs of food, water, medical care, exercise and companionship but it also includes attempting to understand the horse culture and see life from their perspective. This includes educating ourselves regarding the horses’ instincts and social structure, respecting their concerns and appreciating how they perceive us and the requests we present to them.

Communication involves discovering how horses learn and how they communicate with each other. We can then adopt their own language to open a bridge of communication between the human and the horse. By employing techniques of visualization, body language, posture, expression, pressure and release and focused energy we present our requests to our horse in a way he can easily understand and gradually accept.

Consistency is the key to becoming the type of leader who is worthy of our horses’ respect and trust. Our responsibilities as a good leader for our horse are: (A) Be confident and emotionally stable, never displaying reactions of anger, frustration, fear, confusion or violence. (B) Set the rules for respectful behavior and always enforce those rules. (C) Set high expectations for performance from our horses and help them in every way possible to achieve those high standards. (D) Pursue light requests from ourselves and light responses from our horses. Only in lightness is there dignity for the horse and the human.

Many owners of young horses have asked me, “When should I start riding my horse?” The answer is found in the physiology of the horse. Consider this; the horse’s skeletal structure is not fully developed until age six. During the horse’s early years the skeletal growth plates slowly convert to bone. This process begins from the ground and goes up, thus the vertebrae are the last bones to close. The bones of the leg are stacked on top of each other forming a fairly strong column for weight bearing however to place the weight of a saddle and rider on the “weak bridge” of underdeveloped vertebrae will seriously jeopardize the soundness of the horse in years to come.

We would do well to heed the age-old ways of some of the finest horsemen in history. A study of the methods of the master horsemen of Europe during the “Golden Age of Equitation”, the 16th and 17th century, would reveal that they brought young horses along in training very slowly to allow the horse to fully develop physically, mentally and emotionally.
The Spanish School of Riding in Vienna and the School of Versailles near Paris represent the pinnacles of horsemanship. The masters of these schools developed a training program for their horses which allowed the horse to learn at his own pace without being rushed or overwhelmed. The lessons were gradually presented to the horse in a logical sequence, teaching all the riding cues and maneuvers from the ground first for years before the first rider ever mounted.

A horse taught in this way displays a willing attitude and is happy and content in his work. He performs advanced maneuvers with refinement and grace from a foundation of understanding. He is not forced into performance through intimidation and mechanical gadgets.

Ask yourself if there is really any compelling reason you need to ride your horse before he is three or four years old. Those on a futurity or competitive schedule are on their own agenda with little regard for the long term soundness and welfare of the horse. When I was living in Wyoming and training horses for ranch work, we would do lots of ground work with horses at age two including everything up to actually mounting them. When they turned three we would start riding them on very short, easy rides in flat country. At age four they would go into limited cattle work in corrals or flat country. Horses were not worked hard or ridden in the mountains until age five. We put a lot of time and effort into training these horses to ride, pack and drive. We wanted them to work well and be strong and sound for many years, so we paced the training to match their physical development. This is one reason why working ranch horses are some of the best all-around horses you’ll find.

Don’t be so eager to ride your young horse that riding becomes your only goal. If you start your horse out right you should have a long checklist of fun and important items to cover before you ever mount up. To stay on track and be able to measure your progress you should have a systematic approach to training. Have a plan that makes sense to you and your horse but don’t have a time schedule in which the plan must be accomplished.

Here is a sample checklist you might use to determine if you’ve covered the essential fundamentals on the ground with your horse:

- Stands and faces me when I go in the pasture or corral to catch him

- Lowers his head into the halter or bridle

- Yields from my touch, look or rhythmic pressure anywhere on his body

- Stays respectfully out of my space when I’m leading him

- When leading from the ground or from another horse he does not drag behind, he stops when I stop and backs when I back

- Leads calmly through gates or doorways without rushing

- Respects my personal space and never touches me with any part of his body

- Allows me to touch him anywhere on his body including mouth, nose, ears, sheath/udder, tail and feet.

- Picks up his feet to give them to me on cue

- Walks in the horse trailer when I direct him towards the open door and backs out calmly

- Stands quietly without being tied while saddling

- Fluidly performs the following exercises as directed by my body language cues from the ground: backing (straight with energy), lateral flexion, turn on the haunches, turn on the forehand, lunging at all gaits, side-pass

- Allows me to make all decisions concerning speed and direction

- While ground driving with long lines he follows my focus and cues with willing, fluid movement in turns, stops, gait transitions and maintains gait with steady rhythm

- Is confident with ropes, slickers, bags, flags, tarps, traffic and is not easily spooked by anything

- Crosses water and other obstacles without resistance or hesitation

- Leaves the barn and other horses without resistance

- Stands tied patiently without pulling back or pawing

- Stands with me after the halter is off until I walk away

When you go out to work with your horse, leave your watch at home. Also leave behind the cares of the day, regrets of the past and worries of the future. Be like your horse, live in the moment. Your concentration is your horse’s best cue. Be focused on your horse and the job at hand. Visualizing the successful completion of the exercise will convey clarity of thought, confidence and a positive attitude to your horse. It never ceases to amaze me that when I really concentrate and focus on what I want my horse to do, he does it.

Through this concentration you’ll develop feel, timing and balance which are essential to being successful with horses. Your goal should be to achieve harmony with your horse, on the ground and mounted, and to become the type of leader who is worthy of your horse’s respect and trust.

"Now ask the animals and let them teach you that in the Lord's hand is the
life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind."
- Job 12: 7, 9-10