Training by the Milestones

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Fair warning, I am going to express some ideas here that maybe at odds with your own. There are many reasons, including maturity, that a horse may not reach certain milestones by the ages I have outlined in this article. However, whether you agree or disagree with when a horse should be started or even what skills should be taught at what age, I hope that after reading this we can agree that all horses should have at least some basic skills.

Except in rare instances where there are extenuating circumstances what value does your horse truly have to someone else if he is left untrained? Think about it further. Would you, as a potential buyer, want to spend time training an aged horse basic skills when you could be training them to a young horse that you’ll likely have much longer? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy just looking at my horse in the pasture just as much as the next person. But here is the issue; none of us know what the future holds.

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As scary as they are to think about, consider these questions: What if something happened to you and your horse suddenly needed to be sold? What if your career took a turn for the worse such that you could no longer afford to keep your horse? What if your life plans changed such that your career became busier or you had a baby and no longer had time to spend with your horse? What if you, through accident, injury, or aging, could no longer provide the care your horse needs? Would your horse have at least the basic skills necessary to help him find a “good home?”

If you are at all concerned about the answers to these questions then read on to find out just what skills, depending upon his age, your horse should have. Just because your horse was originally destined to have another career path, such as brood mare or perhaps a companion animal, doesn’t mean you should stop thinking about putting a solid foundation on him. Careers, like plans, have a way of changing. Your horse, just as you would, needs other options.

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What Skills Should My Horse Have?

As a both a parent and a teacher I know that as a child ages and grows, he or she is expected to acquire certain skills that will continue to lay the foundation for additional ones they will acquire in the years that follow. Just as this is true for children, it is also true for horses which is why many of the horse owners that I know are concerned about, for a variety of reasons, what skills their horses should have by the time they reach a certain age. There is a genuine desire for their horses to be, as the saying goes, “solid citizens” but in terms of skills what exactly does this mean?

This appears to be a common area of confusion for many horse owners because increasingly, while indulging in the hobby of perusing many of the web sites and social media pages dedicated to the sale of horses, I have begun to see a number of aged horses advertised for sale as only being ready to start but not actually having received the bulk of their training.  A friend who shares my hobby recently lamented that to her, accrediting basic skills to an aged animal equates listing reading and writing as skills on a college or job application. From my experiences as well as those of my friend I started thinking, depending upon his age and understanding that there are certain variables, many owners are simply unsure as to what skills a horse should have that make him or her not only a more valuable animal to them but also one that potential buyers are likely to give serious consideration. Another way to look at it is what skills should your horse have to help insure that he lands in the best possible scenario should you ever find it necessary to re-home him? Whether you’re trying to sell you horse or simply want to improve his skills, here’s a look at what your horse will be learning and should know by the time he reaches the end of each age milestone.

Even foals should have many skills from which a solid foundation can be laid. While it is important early on that foals spend time bonding with their dams both alone and as part of a herd, basic halter training and ground handling are essential skills which ideally should be taught just after the first few weeks of life. In fact, in the many months that will pass before your young horse is ready for more advanced training, any number of short, safe, easy to process lessons designed to teach your horse new skills is acceptable. All with the security of their dams at their side, foals should be taught to be caught, accept a halter, be led at both the walk and trot, and to stand quietly no matter the situation. An early lesson can and should be to learn to what is acceptable and what is un-acceptable in their interactions with humans, for example no nipping or rearing should be allowed and teaching the respect of the personal space of their handlers should be paramount. In addition to this basic halter training, as they advance, foals should learn to both load and unload on different types of trailers with their dams as well as to travel on short, safe distances specifically designed to accustom them to new sights and sounds.

As the foal continues to grow their education should be continued with the introduction of obstacles that may be encountered while riding.  For example, they can experience being led over such things as tarps and bridges of a trail course obstacle type. They should slowly begin being introduced to potentially scary sights and sounds such as dogs and other animals, bags, vehicles of various types, umbrellas, chairs, loud noises, etc. This can first be introduced with their dams at side and once mastered done independently while their dam watches on.

In addition, while still with their dams close by, foals should be trained to be bathed, to accept the sound and feel of clippers all over their body, accept having their feet picked up and manipulated as well as having all parts of their body, including their mouths, handled. Foals should also be trained to be blanketed to help get them used to one day carrying a saddle.

At this stage, foals should also begin to learn basic voice commands such as “whoa,” “walk,” and “trot.” All of these skills should continue to be refined as he transitions from foal, to weanling, to yearling, to young horse and beyond.

David Brewer, owner of Morning Star Farm Equestrian Center in Monteagle, TN takes a slightly different but still very effective approach with his training. He specializes in the breeding, training, and showing of Pony of the Americas (POA’s). Ponies that he has bred and trained have been National and Regional champions. Mr. Brewer believes in allowing the mare to do most of the training of foals. At his farm, foals receive basic imprint training for the first two to three weeks of life and he allows them to grow up without much interruption to their day. He and his family do however give them daily attention to keep them comfortable with human touch and will also pick up their feet to get them ready for the farrier. He doesn’t worry about getting them completely halter broken until they are weaned at which time they are taught to lead, stand quietly for bathing and grooming, having their feet trimmed, etc. which will carry on into their yearling year.

Danny Thompson of Bella Vista Equestrian Center in Eagleville, TN offers another perspective. Mr. Thompson is an Arabian horse trainer for a variety of disciplines including Western, Hunter, English, and halter with show ring success at the Local, Regional, and National Level. He too believes in imprint training at birth along with continued human interaction. He adds that handling, especially in sensitive areas such as under the tail, between the front and back legs and feet, can be beneficial as the horse grows older and begins to prepare for his career. In addition, Mr. Thompson begins early lessons in learning to tie at the weanling age and indicates that a weanling that has learned to understand poll pressure is ready for this lesson.

Some potential owners who have the both the advanced skills as well as the necessary time will begin looking to obtain training prospects as a horse reaches his yearling or perhaps two year old year. Quality young horses can sometimes be obtained more inexpensively than those who are already in training or those who are considered nearly finished. These owners should have a great deal of experience and a comfort level with starting their own horse because; even with a solid background on the part of both human and horse things can quickly get out of hand. Perhaps later they will either complete the animal’s training themselves or will consider sending them to a trainer for finishing. While the exact timing for training some of the more advanced skills will vary depending upon an individual horse’s mental and physical maturity, during the yearling or two year old year the horse should not only continue to refine but also begin to advance upon the skills gained as a foal and weanling.

For instance, a yearling should be able to stand tied, under supervision, to a variety of safe objects in addition to learning to safely stand in crossties. Although the time spent performing these activities will be limited by their physical maturity, well trained horses of this age should be accustomed to free work in a round pen as well as longeing at all three gaits; the walk, the trot, and the canter. He should also know how to stop. As the horse nears the end of this time period he should have begun limited work on the longe line over ground poles, a useful skill no matter his intended discipline.

In addition, these young horses should have been trained to accept a saddle and bridle or perhaps a harness even though this is well before the age in which they will be actually mounted, ridden or driven. They should also be accustomed to work in long lines and start the process of becoming familiar with aids coming from the bit and reins, often accomplished through the use side reins attached to a saddle, harness, or surcingle.

Mr. Brewer believes that by twelve months of age yearlings should be able to accept clipping, bathing and farrier work with little to no issues. As the horse moves later into the yearling stage, around 15 – 24 months, he begins teaching them to longe. At this stage, Mr. Brewer is adamant that the young horse not spend too much time doing hard work on a circle. He believes that this can lead to not only lameness issues later in life but also a sour attitude which can carry forward into riding.

In consideration of the horse’s breed, intended discipline, etc. and unless there is some specific reason for the delay such as injury, most horses will begin their formal training under saddle somewhere between the ages of two and four.  In the early stages a horse should slowly start his under saddle work learning about transitions to and working in all three gaits as well as learning some but not all of the aids he will need for his discipline. It is mandatory that a horse of any age know how to stand still for both mounting and dismounting from both sides as well as how to have both his forward as well as any backward motion rated. Generally speaking, potential buyers want to know and consider it helpful if the young horse can perform these gaits calmly and consistently in both English as well as a western tack.

As the young horse’s training progresses he should continue to refine his skills with the addition of learning to back up while under saddle or in harness, a skill that should already be well established using a halter and further developed with his other training. He should also learn more difficult aids such as those used when a rider asks for a particular canter lead, lengthening of stride or requests that he perform a leg yield.

All of these skills are important, even if your horse’s intended purpose is to be your pleasure and trail mount or perhaps compete at a few local shows. As appropriate, he should also be receiving more discipline specific training such as negotiating more complex trail obstacles, including water crossings, than those initially introduced. In addition he may begin to receive more advanced instruction with ground poles and cavelleti, jump single fences of a low height to later be followed by a simple course of low to medium height fences or advance his skill level while performing introductory level dressage movements. As the horse continues to age and progress he should learn, for instance, the elements of self-carriage and begin to refine and polish the more difficult aspects of his specific discipline. This process can take years and there are always more skills that a horse can learn and improve upon as he furthers his education.

During the two to three year old year Mr. Brewer’s approach, if the pony is mature enough both physically and mentally, is to start them packing a saddle around at least of couple of months before he ever gets on them. He typically waits until they are age two and half before he rides them for the first time and he doesn’t believe in expecting young horses to behave like mature animals.  He says that if preparatory ground work has been done well, most of the time you can expect no issues the first time you sit in the saddle. His best advice is to take it slow, making certain to master one step well before moving on to the next. He believes that free turnout time between training sessions is a must allowing the young pony to process what he has learned. Usually during a pony’s three year old year and after a pony has mastered basic maneuvers, Mr. Brewer will start work on body position, carriage, and gait. In his experience a basic foundation must be laid before a trainer can start fine tuning skills needed for a certain discipline.

While both Mr. Thompson and Mr. Brewer agree that starting a young horse under saddle should be determined by their physical and mental maturity, Mr. Thompson uses a slightly modified approach. Though he has started horses as early as two, most horses are age three and half before he begins their under saddle work. He starts by having them the wear tack on the lunge line, working them at the walk, trot, and the canter while also reinforcing the command of “whoa.” Over a period of several days, he starts with only a bridle then advances to a surcingle before adding side reins and finally long lining them. He feels that this teaches the young horse to flex and steer off the bridle before putting a rider up and beginning the more advanced training that will occur under saddle.

In addition, at some point during the early stages of a horse’s training, there are skills that are extremely helpful to acquire. These fall into the ‘other’ category and include being trained to be handled by other people, not just the animal’s owner, trained to not only work alone but also in the presence of other horses, and to be able to perform not just in the arena but also out on the trail.

Reasonably, a horse’s training should continue to progress beyond the age of four years. Depending upon his physical and mental ability to advance a horse this age should be seeing a continuous increase in the complexity of the training and questions presented to him. For example, a horse being trained for the hunter/jumper disciplines should be introduced to not only increased height but also increased depth in the fences he is asked to jump. A horse being trained for dressage should continue to advance through the training pyramid. If qualified, theses skills may be added by you but can also be added a trainer.

Mr. Brewer’s opinion is that a horse or pony can be considered trained when you can get consistent results without resistance when asking him to perform within his skill set. However, even if your horse is not cut out for more advanced work he still has value as long as he can perform what is asked of him consistently and without resistance. There are plenty of opportunities for horses well trained in the lower levels, particularly if you have reached your own personal goal for advancement or if your horse should need to be placed with a beginner level rider who needs to learn solid foundational skills before advancing to another mount.

Mr. Thompson states that depending upon what discipline the horse was bred for and the owner’s goals for the animal, his discipline specific training can start as early as the initial under saddle phase. He feels that a horse can be considered as being near the end of his training, for some disciplines, at age six but that there are still many different things he can learn beyond this age to keep him fresh and not bored.

By modern standards, a horse is considered ‘aged’ when he or she reaches the age of sixteen. While there are many factors to consider and many animals can and do live much longer, sixteen is the age in which many of today’s owners consider slowing down their horse’s activity level. In consideration of this, an animal advertised as ‘aged’ should be expected to know much more than, for example, a horse that is age four to six. There are some exceptions to the rule where some buyers may be willing to overlook deficits in a horse’s training in their search for a perfect fit but in most cases a seller, no matter the reason, should not expect to find placement or command a good price for their animal if his age indicates that his training should be much further along.

Luckily, it is possible to rectify many of the gaps identified in a horse’s training by either continuing it yourself or by hiring a qualified trainer to do so. If you too are reading sale ads and are hoping to make a purchase a final thought in the process should be about your ability level as a rider. It is an especially important time for you to be honest with yourself about your skill level as it is very easy, depending upon a horse’s age, training level, and personality type, to become over or under mounted. Particularly if you have been out of commission for a while or are relatively inexperienced, care should be taken to bring along a qualified professional such as a trainer or riding instructor who is not only familiar with you and your riding skills but who also has a good grasp of the type of horse you are looking to purchase in order to make certain that all parties are accurately represented and that the horse who finally comes home with you meets everyone’s expectations.

Mr. Brewer never pairs a beginner or low intermediate rider with a young or junior horse regardless of how well trained the animal may seem. He believes that there is simply too much opportunity for confusion not only on the part of the rider but also of the horse. He continues by offering the advice to new riders to take several months up to a year of riding lessons as well as learning about horse care and management from a seasoned veteran before taking the plunge into ownership.

When Mr. Thompson is helping a client to horse shop he makes every effort to keep both horse and rider on the same level. He also makes it a point to ask if the animal has any health history such as colic, lameness, hock or stifle injections and if there are any behavior issues such as cribbing.

Perhaps one day my friend and I, keeping this advice in mind, will no longer just peruse sale ads for fun but will find and bring home another horse that meets our needs as riders and that can truly be called, regardless of the approach taken with his training, a “solid citizen.”


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