Learn the Basics of Colt Starting
Get your young horse started right with these horse training tips.
By AQHA Professional Horseman Dick Pieper in The American Quarter Horse Journal | February 8, 2015
Whether you want to ride a winning performance horse or train a nice horse that you can enjoy, you’re going to need the basics.
What I’m going to talk about isn’t new. Xenophon talked about the basics of using your body correctly and teaching your horse to use his body correctly when he invented dressage in the 12th century.
I’m going to use his principles and work in order. I won’t move forward until the horse has grasped each basic - lateral softness, collection and hip movement - thoroughly and completely. My goal is to produce a horse that is so conditioned to do what I ask that I could pull him out of the barn in
the middle of a snowstorm in the middle of the night after a week off, and he would respond correctly to the cues I give him. I want him calm, with no distress, just an automatic response to my cues.
Here’s how I get started with a 2-year-old, right after I have gotten him started in the round pen and he has quit trying to buck me off. I start with Basic No. 1, lateral softness.
Soft on the Reins
Ultimately, no matter where or how we’re going to ride our horse, we want that horse to be soft on the reins.
Starting a young horse can be exciting and challenging. Learn important training basics including standing still and backing your horse from a distance in AQHA’s “Fundamentals of Horsemanship” program.
I start by taking a position with my arms. I’m going to take just a little bit of slack out of one rein, then I’m going to put my elbow tight against my rib cage. If I’m going to be taking the slack out of the left rein, I’m sitting on my right hipbone. My right leg and right foot are against the horse’s ribcage, and my left foot is away from the horse’s body.
Then I’m going to wait as the horse walks around the pen. I’m not going to pull more, and I’m not going to pull less. I’m just taking a position and presenting an obstacle for the horse to think about.
Now when I first present this, the horse is going to try everything he can think of to get away from the pressure. He’ll toss his head, put it in the air, drop his head down or shake it. He might try to go the other direction. He’s going to try every option there is to get release from this constant, steady pressure.
The minute he tips his nose in and gets a little soft on the rein - releasing the pressure on me - I give him a big reward: I drop all the slack to him, rub him on the neck and let him know he reacted the right way.
After a few minutes of walking around, I’ll take hold again. The important thing is that I’m not pulling on the colt. I’m taking a position and holding it, and he’s pulling on me. When he gives me the release and I give him back the slack, I make his reward big. I need to make sure he knows he did the correct thing.
The reason it’s important not to pull on the horse is because if I pull on the horse and he pulls back, then I pull harder and then he pulls harder, then suddenly he gets soft - well, then the next day we’ll have to do it all over again, and the horse will associate lifting the slack from the reins with having a fight. He’ll also get hard in the mouth, which is something we don’t want.
I want to make it a lifelong habit for the horse that when the slack is lifted from the reins, the horse gives to me.
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I don’t want the horse to stand flat-footed and do this. I want him moving. As long as he’s moving forward, he’s learning something that he’s going to be able to use in maneuvers later on.
I work on one side of the horse for 10 to 15 minutes, and then I work the other side. I don’t like to switch sides back and forth. To the horse, that’s something completely different, so you’re trying to teach him two different things at the same time. As long as I make this a lesson in being soft on one side, he’s going to pick it up and get the idea.
After he has the idea at the walk, I’ll do it at a trot. It’s the same idea: I trot along, and as we trot, I’ll take the slack out of the reins and ask the horse to follow my hand.
After I get it really good at the trot, I do it at a lope.
Again, I don’t move forward with anything else until my horse is completely solid in Basic No. 1. It could take a month, or it could take more time.
I want to take all the resistance out of a horse. I’m training a horse’s body, but more importantly, I’m training a horse’s mind. I like a horse that you can show in reining, you can rope on him, you can drag calves to the fire or you can take camping to a cabin in the woods. I like a horse that’s going to be there for you tomorrow. A horse that is rock solid in the basics is halfway to being that horse.