Although a horse’s bones and joints aren’t mature enough to carry a rider until 2 to 3 years old, there are many important skills that can be taught to a horse before 2 years old. If you are raising a young horse to be your next trail, hobby, or show partner, it can be a rewarding experience to invest time in advanced ground training. Before your horse is ever trained to ride, you can develop a relationship of mutual trust and respect that will lead in two years of enjoyment under saddle. In this article, we’ll be exploring basic training for young horses and a few of our favorite advanced-training techniques for young horses that have learned the basics and are ready for advanced ground training.
To Handle or Not to Handle? Changing Thought on Young Horses
Many horse owners, particularly those from previous generations, believe that training with horses under two years old must be very limited.
In the past, it was common for young horses to be allowed to be “wild” and completely untouched until their second or third birthday. Back then, training these nearly feral two-year-olds often resulted in trainers using force and aggression to tame the “wild” young horses. Thankfully, it’s rare to find on farms that operate that way today (although some farms still allow young horses to remain most-untouched, there is usually some handling of young horses and more trust-based methods used in saddle training).
Typical Training of a Young Horse: Basic Ground Manners
Most young horses do get a basic course of training, usually revolving around what are collectively called “Ground Manners.” For a horse, ground manners include the following:
- being led by Halter
- yielding to pressure
- tolerating being tied to a hitching post or fence
- lifting feet when asked (for hoof cleaning and trimming)
- loading and unloading from a horse trailer.
If your young horse has learned these skills by age two, they are well prepared for the next phase of training when their bones and joints mature enough to begin saddle training at around 2-4 years old.
Advanced Training for Young Horses
For many people who take on a young horse as their project and work with them regularly, these basic skills are complete within a few months. The rest of article well be talking about creative ideas for working with a too-young-to-ride horse to prepare them to be trusting, confident, sound-mind mounts when they do begin saddle training.
“Desensitization” is a popular word to describe the type of training that exposes a young horse to lots of “scary” things, so they’re less likely to be easily spooked. As a dressage-focused breeding program, we don’t love the term “desensitization”. We never want to train our horses to ignore sensations or their surroundings (that may dull responsiveness later in performance training), but try to expose young horses to many experiences while they are young that help them learn that “new” and “strange” things are not scary. Learning to explore the world with curiosity – which young horses have in abundance – can help create confident, sensitive-but-not-reactive horses who are less likely to “spook,” when exposed to new things.
Learning to explore the world with curiosity – which young horses have in abundance – can help create confident, sensitive-but-not-reactive horses who are less likely to “spook,” when exposed to new things.
Desensitization with young horses can take countless forms. Whether it’s exposing them to random objects (flapping tarps, umbrellas, plastic bags, etc.) or novel experiences. A great way to expose your horse young horse to a wide world of experiences is to enter them –as yearlings -in horse shows (where they can exhibit Halter/In Hand classes), or to trailer them to a bridle trail and lead them down and back a section of trail, preferably with obstacles such as mud, puddles, or sticks/logs.
Some trainers actively approach horses with, or attach to the horse, typically frightening things like flapping tarps and plastic bags. In order to build trust, on our farm we let the young horses take the lead: for example, each fall we attach a bright blue tarp to a corner of the yearling’s shed where a harsh draft enters during the winter months. Intentionally left with enough slack to flap about, the yearlings- left alone with the tarp- curiously explore, retreat, and prance about for an afternoon as they process the new experience. By early spring, the wind has shredded the tarp and the yearlings have learned to be completely unflappable by billowing fabric.
Although clicker training has not exploded in popularity with horse trainers as it has with virtually all other kinds of animal training, clicker training offers a positive-reinforcement based way to train novel-behaviors.
Using clicker training you can train useful skills, like picking a hoof up on command, or laying down on command (a skill that may come in handy when they are eventually trained to ride), or you can train tricks and fun behaviors on command. Horses can be taught to fetch, to square-up (i.e. adopt a halter class stance), or do various tricks via clicker training. All you need is a clicker and instructions for click training horses.
Starting as yearlings, you can begin training your young horse to accept a saddle, having a girth tightened, and even tolerating a bit being placed in their mouth. Although lunging regularly should be avoided due to still developing bones and joints, you can begin to teach your horse the basics of lunging or moving, turning, and training in around pen starting at a young age.
Many horses will naturally brace when pressure is put on their body (for example: rebalancing weight into a leg you are trying to pick up, or leaning back against pressure exerted on a flank) this is an innate behavior that normally helps a horse stay balanced and upright, but a behavior that should be retrained prior to saddle training.
A horse that braces against pressure won’t respond sensitively to leg cues or half-halts later in their training. To begin creating this soft and responsive yielding-to-pressure that will create a easy-to-ride and flexible horse, begin training your horse to move in response to pressure on various points of their body:
- backing up when a hand presses on their nose or their chest
- stepping all four feet sideways when the center of their side is pressed against
- stepping front legs or hind legs to the side independently if the shoulder or hindquarters are pressed
- lowering the head in response to a hand on the poll (top of head) pressing down
Each of these cues begin building the responsiveness that later, when adapted to under saddle use, will create a performance horse that a rider can maneuver like a sportscar, a pro trail horse that can be moved out of dangerous footing via rider’s cues, and a healthy horse that will be less likely to panic and pull back if ever entangled in downed fencing.