If you have ever owned a young horse getting started under saddle, you know that it is a delicate process requiring a careful and systematic approach. There are many considerations to account for in order to ensure their physical and mental development, safety, and wellbeing.
Mistakes are inevitable (we are only human, after all!), but by having a plan for training, you will be prepared and then be able to adjust as needed to your individual horse.
Here is our equine physiologist-approved protocol for starting young horses in training. Of course, this is just a template. We always recommend that you work closely with your trainer, veterinarian, farrier, and other care team members.
Let’s get these babies started!
Step 1: Assess and Evaluate
Before starting any training, we recommend conducting a thorough assessment of the young horse’s physical condition, conformation, and any existing or potential issues. This involves observing the horse’s movement at the different gaits, evaluating flexibility, and checking for any signs of pain or discomfort.
Young horses have a special ability to experience “growing pains,” and they may also be more susceptible to injuries and scratches resulting from playfulness. Always be aware of their physical condition, so that you do not create a mental association between pain and training.
Step 2: Establish a Relationship Through Basic Handling
Spend time building trust and a positive relationship with your young horse. This can involve gentle handling, grooming, and spending time in the horse’s presence without demanding anything. A solid foundation of trust will make the training process smoother.
Step 3: Start With Groundwork
Start with basic groundwork exercises that focus on teaching the horse to respond to cues, yield to pressure, and move with you on the ground. These exercises can include leading, stopping, backing up, and yielding the hindquarters and forequarters. Groundwork helps establish respect and communication between you and the horse, while also teaching them basic commands such as “whoa,” that you want them to know once they start under the rider.
The Equiband Pro system can be especially useful during the groundwork phases. Start your young horse with the bands during groundwork. The bands can be used with a surcingle (if youngsters are used to wearing one) or after the horse has been started under saddle (more below).
*Please note: While it is common to see young horses started with side reins, we discourage this training practice at this age. It is much more valuable in this stage that the horse’s neck remains free in movement to ensure vision, balance, and dynamic stability. This also allows the thoracolumbar spine to move freely, and the neck-trunk connection (thoracic sling) can go through full range of motion, without restrictions. This is an optimal way to promote stability in movement, and reduce the risk of injury, starting at day one.
Step 4: Introduce Body Awareness and Flexibility Exercises
Introducing exercises that enhance your horse’s body awareness, balance, and flexibility at a young age can put them ahead of the game. These exercises might include gentle stretches, activations, lateral flexion, and yielding exercises that encourage the horse to engage its muscles and joints.
Using the Equiband Pro system in conjunction with some of these exercises, such as baited activations and isometric balancing exercises, is highly recommended.
You can even take your young horse to do in-hand work outside the arena and use the Equiband Pro system across different terrains. This helps build strength and adaptability, both physically and mentally.
Step 5: Introduce Tack and Desensitization
Gradually introduce the young horse to tack, such as a saddle and bridle. Make sure the horse is comfortable and relaxed with these new sensations before proceeding. Use desensitization exercises to help the horse become accustomed to various stimuli, reducing the risk of overreacting or panicking.
Many trainers will begin a young horse by introducing tack and then ponying them from another horse to let them adjust to the view of having a person above their head. You can use the Equiband Pro whilst the young horse is being ponied, too! Just move slowly through the process and make sure the horse adapts to each part of the system before putting too many new pieces together.
Step 6: Progressive Training Under Saddle
Once the horse is comfortable with tack and groundwork, start introducing ridden work. Begin with short, easy sessions that focus on forward movement, steering, and stopping. Pay close attention to the horse’s response and comfort level.
Most young horses have limited attention spans and it is imperative to have great experiences under saddle, especially early on. Let your horse guide you, take it slow, and be patient through the process.
Step 7: Cross-Train and Add Variety
Incorporating a variety of exercises and activities will help keep your young horse engaged and mentally stimulated. This might include light trail rides, natural obstacles, and different riding environments. Cross-training helps prevent boredom and enhances the horse’s adaptability.
The Equiband Pro can also assist in cross-training to help build dynamic stability and strength across different exercises, locations, and terrains.
A Few More Training Tips
Remember, every young horse is unique, and the training process should be tailored to his individual needs and abilities. As you train your young horse, keep these considerations in mind as well:
- Young horses, especially before the age of three, are still growing and developing. Their bones, joints, and muscles are not fully mature, so excessive physical demands can lead to long-term issues.
- Avoid heavy riding or training sessions for very young horses, as this can stress their developing bodies.
- Gradually build up either the intensity or the duration of training sessions. Start with short, low-intensity sessions and gradually increase the workload as the horse becomes stronger and more experienced.
- Pay attention to the horse’s mental and emotional state. Young horses can easily become overwhelmed, fearful, or stressed by new experiences. Create a positive and encouraging learning environment to build trust and confidence.
- Young horses benefit greatly from regular turnout and social interaction with other horses. This allows them to develop socially and physically, reducing the risk of behavioral issues and physical stiffness.
- Be aware of any physical signs of discomfort or pain. These might include changes in gait, stiffness, resistance, excessive tail swishing, head tossing, or pinning ears during training.
- Ensure that young horses receive a balanced diet that supports their growth and development. Consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to provide appropriate nutrition for their age and activity level.
Overall, we know that your young horse has the best chance of success when you are patient and consistent. Always seek professional guidance and your baby will grow up into a thriving adult before you know it!
→Highly Recommended: The Equiband Pro System can be used at any age. In fact, we believe that the younger a horse gets started, the better! Add to your training program today here.←