I think I’ve written about this before, because it comes to mind every spring. The snow clears, shedding starts and we see eager young equine athletes emerge from the fields, in search of a higher education.
Or rather, their terrified owners hope they can manage to transport their suddenly huge monsters to the trainer of choice without getting killed.
The trainer of choice, not wanting to get killed themselves, responds in several ways depending on their experience and ethics.
The only response that makes any sense at all–unless the trainer is truly an expert in the business of breaking horses, and being hired for that job–is to ask that the rider/owner mount the horse and show it in all three paces.
Wili Schultheis taught me this, slyly reporting, “It is the only safe way–the owners, they will put you on anything. . . ”
And that is sadly true.
If the owner has taught the horse that “plan B” exists, and cannot in a strange, but safe, environment show the horse in all gaits, then it should go to a specialist in horse breaking until it can politely stand for mounting, walk off nicely, steer with reliability and go forward in any circumstance. We are not talking dressage–just manners.
Plan A: Junior doesn’t have to have a frame, he does have to go forward on command: “Yes ma’m!”
With “blank check” forward there is something to work with.
The problem with most riders, who may not have not ridden many young horses, is that they put too much in front of the horse (hand and frame) before the horse is really in front of them. What does “in front of them” mean to a young warmblood? Some breeds tend to rush, and though you do get that issue with wambloods, to a letter they all at least once will try to slide out behind you. Plan B.
To the rider, the start of Plan B feels like the front of the saddle drops and a large and ominous hesitation occurs. Most riders have felt that sensation with a horse approaching water for the first time, or a jump that looks scarey. A warmblood may trot out that behavior for the first time when they have to change their breathing strategy–a bit tired–or when they see something they are frightened of. And if in that moment the rider does not change direction and hurry them on with the great diligence, the seed of a nasty little habit has been sown. For once the horse figures out that sucking back frightens the rider and leverage is to be had, a very serious mistake has been made. And of course the hesitation is not the problem, it is what happens right after the hesitation that will get your attention in a way you won’t easily forget. And if they get the habit, you’ll never again want to ride a young horse who thinks it’s okay.
(Experience is another word for knowing when to be frightened–and take seriously small moments that will likely lead to ugly things. Corrected strongly the very first time presented, the small thing will go away. But I don’t want to be the one up on the horse that has figured out plan B works and will have a tantrum when the rider is not as impressed as they had come to feel normal. Upping the ante is also a warmblood trait.)
So the experience of having to go forward on command, even if it is new or strange like a stream (or the horse would simply prefer not to) is of essence. And of course that means hundreds of firm “go now” commands in non threatening situations so the horse becomes accustomed to that behavior and responds both obediently and without much thought. This is the golden rule of young horses. They must be in front of you.
But, young horses can be scarey at first. Most dressage riders pull back too much anyway, are a bit afraid to go forward. And I hear of late that reliable horse breakers are hard to find.
I hear things like, “They might hurt him, or press him too hard.”
Then I think to myself, “Perfect. Better they frighten that young thug, before the horse comes to frighten me.”
The problem of course is not with pressing too hard–it is with knowing when to stop with “Yes.” firmly in the horse’s brain. And some folks do not realize what they are getting into with a young warmblood.
Most folks in fact.
These folks probably did. Remember cannons and war horses and such?
Mind you, I don’t have any trouble with trusting the people I have start my horses. I’ve used the same team for many years now. The program is the beast is kept with them out at pasture for at least two years, sometimes three. And worked with in planned sequences.
Babies go to “the ranch” after being basically halter broken and weaned–something I like to do in two adjacent stalls with a peep hole between them. Put mother and baby next to each other, but separate. This is something most of the babies know about already as the mothers are almost always riding horses who when the foal is several months old have had brief periods away to start work again–the kid in a safe stall. Provide feed and water and ignore the inevitable fuss. Mom will like it if you let the foal nurse once or twice. This helps her dry up without so much discomfort.
Why not just throw the foal in a stall alone?
Alone in an isolated stall foals often get depressed or panicky. Next to their mother they get angry and frustrated–and learn how to deal with it. Much like a 12 week puppy had learned something from its mother saying “No more nursing!”
Isn’t it nicer to give it another friend to keep company with?
Another foal at weaning takes away a valuable training experience–surviving alone but with company near. This might not be natural to horse in the wild, but it is necessary for horses who must be stabled during periods of their lives.
A week in a stall alone but with company next door coming and going, teaches the baby that this will happen during their lives. They do not like it, but eventually they learn to cope. Any interaction with humans should be matter of fact and to the point. Put on your halter. Pick up your feet. Thanks very much, goodby.
Then, of course turnout and life with another weanling or two. A horse the same size and age, and then “off to the ranch,” where occasional well-timed lessons will be taught by humans, aided by other horses.
All transactions have a point. Put on your halter, face me nicely for this, please, here’s how to be ponied, yes, the blacksmith exists–and is bigger than you. Sometimes you’ll be in a paddock with bigger horses. They are nice–just don’t test them. Do run like crazy if one lays its ears back. Here is a blanket. Here is a tarp. Here is a trailer. Here is a stream.
These are all training opportunities. They take two people, and a horse or two of seasoned nature.
But, you the owner might say, I paid a lot of money for that stud fee, and sometimes out in the open horses get hurt!
(Reventon Oldenburg. Corina X Regazonni) disciplining Wilson, Azteca. from Andelusian Romancero De Evelon)
I am not such a snob as to think a warmblood is the only horse that exists, but look again at the tape of the size difference and mass of these two horses. One might not always WANT a warmblood. You can see the attraction of both. And look at that neat roll back Wilson did to avoid the larger horse?
So, yes. The youngsters do get chased. If they don’t run they get bitten or kicked. Sometimes they tangle themselves in fences and gates. Parasites exist–even with a good program. But guess what? Horses have been living with horses for eons. Fences are a new project, but trees and logs are not.
We harm our ultimate training strategy by not allowing horses to teach horses valuable lessons in social conduct. And we need skilled people to teach horses that the respect and attention they give the lead (and mean) mare is the minimum due to every human that crosses their path. And contact with clueless humans who think youngsters are cute and adorable and suitable to be played with are forbidden. Sure in periods young horses ARE cute. Don’t stand so close to the fence please, it teaches them to nip.
(By the way, I’m picky about how you play with my dogs too.)
If you insist on leaping around like a baboon trying to excite them, I will ask them to go stay on their mats until you get bored and leave. Dogs are very much more easily influenced to good behavior than strange humans.)
Back to horses–one of the cute baby phases:
Ripple (Kumitage) is indeed adorable (now a four year old and equally so) but at six months she went to the ranch and has lived out. She crosses water, climbs hills, stands tied, leads well. Has she been kicked–you bet. Do you think this is a breeding I am not excited about? Ripple from Ricarda, (Regazonni) by Cord (Peron). How many Peron son stallions were there? And her sire is sadly deceased as well. But I’d rather have her injured than with the idea she can rule the world, because with that she is useless to me. I don’t want a princess. I want a respectful and willing partner.
Marley the Klein Poodle on a down stay–at six months. She will wait an hour parked on a mat in the shade while I ride. Good breeding. Some basic training. Makes life more fun.
Anyway, I have a dog trainer. I also have a horse trainer. And I talk with both regularly about ideas and strategies for the young horses. Melynnda and I work together almost every day if we have the young horses in training–which only happens at certain times of year.
Why all the folk? Because you cannot do a good job on a young horse alone–nor will you do a good job on your dog in isolation from feedback. Without support everyone makes compromises. Without other ideas our training gets stale.
So, back to the barn in spring, with the youngster arriving that has now grown to proportions rivaling an economy car, and whose protective, thrifty or inexperienced owner has failed to give it the basic lessons:
You will never jump on me.
You will never bite me.
You will never lay your ears back at me.
When I tell you to go you will do so in a hurry.
Before we do ANY dressage, the young horse must know this for sure: you will do things you are unsure of (or might prefer not to do) and the outcome will be safe for everybody. There is a question and it has an answer.
If your horse knows this they are easy to ride and handle: A question has been asked, here is the answer. Good, let’s go on.
But, the inexperienced owner, not trusting that the too-precious horse will survive the growing up process at “the ranch,” perhaps attempts this young horse project on their own–often with the disastrous goal of “being friends” with their young horse. Or, with good intentions and some experience, they take on the project, but lack of necessary backup and help. Dealing with an ignorant hulk of a teenage horse is completely different from dealing with a mature working animal. (With these you CAN be friends–as long as boundaries are set.) Dealing with young horses takes a team.
Sure, any good rider can probably ride a young horse–for a time, until it occurs to the beast to say “Not my job.”
Knowing the danger points and reacting promptly is another matter from just riding. Thinking because you can ride, and do sometimes, that you can break a horse properly by yourself is about like learning this:
And expecting to best this:
I can do a forward roll.
I don’t take my Aikido to the worst bar in town and think I’ll just give it a try.
That’s why, at 55 years, having stood three breeding stallions, raised close to fifty foals, background eventing, packing, Grand Prix dressage, I insist on help that far less experienced people would shy away from. I don’t need my young horse team to know every detail that I know. They have their own skills, which I value highly.
So, you all know how I love words, and here is ours for today:
Just like I don’t expect to go to the bar and pick fights (that would be stupid) if your horse has learned to threaten the rider, rear, buck or suck back, if it does not know how to stand in a stall or on the cross ties, if it bites, lays its ears back, shoves or attempts to kick at us, we will probably decline to get on it.
Melynnda and I have plenty of very nice horses to ride.