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How Young Is Too Young?

By Jeffrey Rolo

While there is a minimum span of time that should pass before you consider saddle training, it's never too young to start building a solid training foundation with a filly or colt. Training should ideally begin during the first hours after a horse's birth via imprinting. Many horse owners wouldn't consider imprinting to fall into the category of training, but I would beg to differ since the entire goal of training is to show a horse that you are not to be feared, but rather to be respected as an alpha leader. Imprinting does just that!

For the first few months I don't go beyond imprint training and daily socialization with a young colt or filly. I like to see a kid be a kid, and horses are no different. The most I will do is chastise the youngster if he nips or performs any other undesirable behaviors.

The weaning period can be a very stressful time for a young colt or filly, but if you have started developing a bond since his/her birth you can make it a lot less stressful with your presence and reassurance. With the absence of his mother, the young horse should now be looking towards you as his new leader and protector.

After the stresses of weaning have been alleviated I will generally start providing focused halter and lead training. It's a rare horse that won't spook and dance around at least a bit during the first few lead lessons, so you can imagine it's far easier to handle a panicked colt of a few months rather than a grown gelding of a few years! The earlier you can expose your horse to disciplined leading and the wide, wondrous world of cars, noise, squirrels, shadows and more, the quicker you will desensitize him.

There is some debate among horsemen as to whether a colt or filly should be longed. When you longe a horse you attach a longe line to the horse's halter and direct him to move in controlled circles around you. Although longeing in itself is not a harmful act when done properly, it does place stress on a horse's joints, particularly when the circumference of the circle is small. If you're going to longe a young, developing horse make sure the diameter of the circle is significantly large a minimum of 60 feet or so. The tighter the circle, the more balance a horse requires, and the balance stress compounded with the already existing movement stress can really do a number on the colt's joints.

If you really must longe a young horse, make sure the sessions are short (under 30 minutes) and not intensive. Don't let your horse get out of breath or strain. Watch his legs carefully each day and ensure there is no inflammation or heat. Caution can mean the difference between healthy exercise and a young horse going lame.

Personally I do not longe my horses, but I will do some low intensity groundwork with the younger ones in a generous round pen. My goal during this round pen work is not to drive them heavily, but rather to continue building the foundation for all future training. Most of the time spent with younger colts is controlling movement and defining cues and behavior, and in fact the horses rarely break a sweat during the lessons.

Once a horse reaches about two years of age I will introduce some very light saddle work to his regimen. This consists of getting the horse used to a saddle and girth; it does not consist of intense riding. Unless the horse is very developed for his age I won't even sit atop him for another 6 months to a year. Of course a child or light woman could safely sit atop most horses in this age, but even so the physical work should be kept to a minimum such as a gentle walk.

I envision training a horse to be the same as cooking a hearty beef stew. If you attempt to rush the stew by stoking the temperature in one intense hour, you may be successful in creating the stew, but it will not have the hearty taste and goodness that comes when you allow a stew to cook slowly and simmer. Like a stew, you can attempt to rush training and you may even succeed in putting a horse under saddle safely. But in your haste, you'll pave an inferior foundation and potentially harm the young horse in the process.

It's very safe and beneficial to start training a horse from day one, but be patient, be slow and be sensible. Allow a horse to grow to a healthy adult before you place the stresses of hard work and riding upon him. Don't risk inflicting bucked shins, lameness or unhappiness upon your horse just to start riding a year or two earlier such a rush could potentially haunt you and your horse for many years to come.

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