When to start working with a young horse and how much should you do?

Hello, and welcome back to the blog.

Today I would like to share about the importance of starting a young horse correctly without asking too much of them. Quite often, we ask too much too soon of a young horse and, as a result, we damage the horse either physically or mentally. Horses need time to mature, to simply be a horse.

This topic is in my mind right now because as you might have read, I have recently bought a youngster. When I bought Bryni, she had not yet turned 2 (she subsequently turned 2 on 11th September 2022). Bryni can lunge, knows lots of groundwork and is largely desensitised to a lot of things.

However, it was not until I got her home that I learned she actually does not know how to behave socially within a herd. She does not respect her place as the youngest in the herd and she is extremely bossy and a bit of a bully to some other horses. This is abnormal for a horse so young.

Therefore, although Bryni has learned a lot from her human, she has suffered in a more natural sense because she struggles to communicate effectively in a herd. Communicating and being part of a herd is so important for the development of a young horse and this can never be substituted by the work we ask of horses.

This made me reconsider my plan for Bryni. Of course, I want to work with her, but equally I feel that my work can wait. What is important for her right now, is to learn to find her place in a natural herd setting. You can see more about her current training plan here.

So, when should you start working with a young horse then?

Well, this is very dependant on the horse. Some people say that you have to work with them as early as possible otherwise they will be really difficult later. Some insist horses ‘need’ to be working. I largely disagree. It is not in a horses nature, when they know no different than a field and herd, to want to do work with a human. They might like the interactions but they don’t crave being lunged or worked with. That is not to say that later on they might become a horse who benefits from regular work, but as a young horse they are not looking to be worked.

But I digress.

Here is my opinion on what a horse should be doing at what age. Please note this is a very generalised approach. Every horse is different and some may need to wait an extra year (especially some breeds who are late bloomers). Remember all horses are different and you should always consider if what you are doing is for your horse or because you are impatient and want to be doing something with them. There is of course no harm in doing little bits and pieces at different ages, where appropriate. This guide is not strict, but it does provide a framework which takes into account the physical and mental capabilities of young horses. Bare in mind too, that young horses have different attention spans. Some can only manage ten minutes of focus, others might focus for half an hour or more. Overall, it is best to have regular short, focussed sessions though it is also beneficial to work with your horse, and then leave them for a day or two to digest and then repeat and move forwards. This allows them to process their learning and it will not overwhelm them or make them sour.

Phase 1- Learn to be a horse
This first phase is where a horse is still very young. It is important to emphasise the importance of equine socialisation in this first year and a bit. This will be vital for all future training. It is great too if horses can play with other young horses, but learn their place from older, more mature horses.

Halter break
Pick up feet
Get used to rugs
Largely live out with other horses and learn to socialise

All of the above
Touch all over body
Largely live out with other horses and learn to socialise

Phase 2-Learn the basic groundwork
This is where the work can commence. Depending on how well the first year has gone, will depend on how much is done in this year. Some may need more, some may progress quicker, it is horse dependant.

Two Year old
All of the above
Lead correctly
Groundwork basics: back up, HQ yields, move away from pressure
De-sensetising exercises
Trailer training
Perhaps take them to events to let them get used to an atmosphere at a show if this is in your plans
Largely live out with other horses and learn to socialise

Two and a half
All of the above
Introduce lunging
Introduce roller and saddle pad
Introduce obstacles/ poles in lunging sessions
Regular walks (traffic/ new places)
Once lunging is established, can long-rein

Phase 3- Learn about tack/ having a rider
At this point, I would be considering backing the horse very lightly. At 3, horses bones are still not completely fused and there is still a lot of growing going on. Research shows that starting ridden work too early can affect the physical health of the horse later in life. Keep this in mind when starting your horse.

All of the above
Bit (if that is your choice)
Introduce saddle and bridle
Walk out with saddle and bridle (in hand, not ridden)

Three and a half
All of the above
Back them lightly
Short block of training under saddle to learn the basics (halt, walk, turn, trot, canter)
Turn away for a period which suits you and the horse (controversial but I feel beneficial)

You can see Millie is not quite sure here, we were careful not to push too far here.

Phase 4- Begin ridden career
At this phase, the horse is likely to be ready to start work in their ridden career. This is where you can start to translate all of the groundwork you worked on previously into the saddle, as well as introduce hacking and the finer elements of the discipline(s) you aim to work within etc.

Four/ four and a half onwards
Bring back into work and begin ridden career.

So there you have it. A rough guide on the very basics to bring a horse through from a little baby to a ridden horse. Although this is a general guide, please remember to get to know your horse and consult a professional where necessary. Every horse is different and it is important that we remember to always do what is right for the horse and not to just advance them because we want to move the training along. Horses work on their own schedule and we must work with them and not against them.

Happy Horsing!

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