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Starting the Young Horse Under Saddle: The Buck Stops Here

A horse’s first time under saddle needn’t be a stressful or dangerous occasion — and it won’t be if you lay the proper groundwork first, says Kristen Pierce.

Top photo by Jessica Drake of Drake Photography.

From Kristen:

So many people have it all backwards.

Starting your young horse will mold and frame his future. It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, and a lot of waiting to get the right response from your horse. Too often, I see people send their young horses off to trainers for 60 to 90 days in some other state where they don’t even get to be a part of this process. You need to be able to continue the training as it doesn’t stop after the first 90 days. If I had to define “colt starting” it would be “the ongoing process of learned behaviors in a horse between the ages of one and two years old from their handler.” Now, I didn’t specify positive or negative behaviors in that definition… you’ll see why.

Most of you have probably seen someone put a saddle on or get on a 2- or 3-year-old horse to break them out. What happens next? Horse starts going all bronco status on the handler, right? Right.

Exhibit A: This guy. There are many, many things wrong with this video and not surprisingly the “trainer” finally gets what’s coming to him, right after boasting, “That’s how you break a horse.” Poetic.

It’s not because the horse is bad, or the rider is bad — it is because the horse knows nothing about this and it becomes a complete surprise. A complete surprise of a predator jumping on their back while cinched up will result in a young horse doing everything possible to get the predator off. Horses are prey animals, and very simply — prey animals don’t like surprises. When people don’t take the time it takes to do it right, they are only setting their horses up for a long road of distrust, confusion and dead ends.

I got my horse when he was a yearling. I broke him out myself when he was of age, without the help of a trainer. Granted, I have an extensive background with horses and did have at least a clue about what I was doing, but I didn’t know everything. I am no professional. I educated myself as much as I could. I researched different trainers (particularly natural horsemanship based), did my reading, attended clinics, spoke to others who are experienced in breaking and training and above all, I kept the process slow. I tied together bits and pieces of information, methods, and ideas from natural horsemanship trainers as well as traditional trainers. I found what worked best for my horse and that is the best thing anyone can do for their young horse. Get on their mentality level and you will be able to figure out what works and what doesn’t work for them.

The first time my horse was saddled and backed, his feet never once left the ground. He never bucked, reared, crow-hopped, none of that nonsense. He stood quietly until I gave him his next direction. If you want to start your own horse, have a relationship with them first and keep the training sessions short and simple.

• Spend time with them.

• Understand them.

• Let them understand you.

• Don’t push for more than they can handle.

• Reward every effort!

The positive and/or negative responses will be a result of the relationship you have with your horse. Seeking help from a professional for breaking and training your horse is never a bad idea, just make sure you do your research and be a part of the process. The relationship you build with your horse during this time will be the foundation for a positive and successful future. It is up to you to maintain it!

Ride Smart!

Kristen is a versatile equestrian who grew up as a western pleasure rider. Since then, she has expanded her interest in almost everything from (but not limited to) barrel racing, hunter/jumper, eventing and her newest feat, extreme trail. Plainly speaking, her life revolves around her two horses. Kristen’s youngest horse, Ace, is a 4-year-old Quarter Horse/Haflinger cross who she trained herself since he was a yearling. Kristen is also a huge rescue advocate for all animals. You can bet that both of her horses are rescues as well!

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