Training a young horse can be a daunting task. Your horse’s first experiences with training can have a lasting impact on their behaviour. So it is important to get things right and give them as many positive experiences as you can. But by taking things at a steady pace and following some of this advice, you should give your young horse the best possible start to life as a riding horse.
What is the best age to start training a horse
People often ask at what age they should start training their horse and in reality the answer is from birth. As soon as your horse is born, they are learning. So you should be making sure you are teaching them skills and behaviours you want them to have as a riding horse. In the first few weeks to months of a foals life they should be learning to be comfortable in but respect your space. They will be learning how to walk alongside you, tollerate being groomed, having their feet picked up. All of this is training your horse to do things you will expect them to do in later life.
Even when we look when to start training more specific riding behaviours, there is no one right answer for when to start training your horse. Some people prefer to leave them completely until 3/4 when they start preparing them to be backed. Whereas others will start introducing some groundwork at 2. It really is personal preference a lot of the time.
We can look at when different growth plates close. Before growth plates close, we can change the bone. With correct training we could strengthen the bone, making it more suitable for the horse’s future career. But over training or overloading the bone can cause perminant damage. It really is a balancing act.
How to start training a young horse
Training a young horse can feel scary. We all hear horror stories about when it has gone horribly wrong. But in my own experience, if you take it slow and build it up once the horse is comfortable with each step, it usually goes really smoothly.
Training a young horse starts with groundwork
No matter the age of your horse, training a young horse should always start with groundwork. You should use groundwork to get the horse used to all of the tack and start teaching them what the basic aids are. Teaching your horse to respond to voice aids while leading early on can really help you later on.
I personally really like leading and long reining for starting young horses. Your horse should have been handled regularly and already be leading nicely. You can then easily start to build on this. You can walk a lap of the arena. Then you can introduce a roller or saddle, loosely doing up the girth. Walk another lap then tighten the girth a hole. Walk another lap and maybe tighten another hole. Just as an example.
Once your horse is walking nicely with a saddle/roller and has started to accept a bit, introducing weighted sidereins can be a really good way to get them used to pressure on the bit. Lead them off of a headcollar or caverson with a bridle over the top, so the only contact to the bit is with the loose side reins. Once they are comfortable, you can start introducing stop and turn aids to the bit. This is a good time to start introducing long reining.
Lunging should be kept to a minimum. Circles put a lot more strain on a young horse than straight lines. Lunging is a great thing to introduce just before you start introducing a rider.
Starting a young horse undersaddle
Once a horse is comfortable with their tack and are responding well to voice aids, I like to introduce lunging just before the backing. I personally feel that they don’t need to do much on the lunge. If you can ask them to walk, trot and stop on both reins, that is all you need at this point in time. But equaly, this can all be done in hand if you prefer not to lunge.
The next step once you have your voice aids down is to start getting on. It can be helpful for whoever has been doing all of the ground work to keep on the ground, giving these aids. But this isn’t vital. Everyone has different methods of getting on. But one of the most used is to start by leaning over.
Have someone holding the horse and ideally an extra person to leg you up. Just lean your body over the top of the saddle, putting a bit of weight in the saddle, then get off again. Repeat this a few times, staying in the saddle a bit longer each time until the horse is happy and relaxed about this. The next step is to lead the horse forward while you are leaning over the saddle, so they are comfortable moving with the weight.
When the horse is happy walking carrying the weight, it is time to sit up. Next time you are legged up, slowly swing your leg over so you are sitting in the saddle. Some people try and keep their upper body small the first few times. If they are comfortable, lead the horse forward again.
Once the horse is happy with the rider sitting up, it is time to combine the groundwork with the riding. Either in hand or on the lunge, the handler should work them as if the rider wasn’t there. Every time the handler gives an aid, the rider should quietly introduce the ridden aids. This helps the horse learn new aids to commands they already know. Eventually, the handler can start taking a backseat. Either walking further away from the horse or taking the lunge line off, so that the rider is giving all the aids.
Now it is just a case of riding away. Getting out hacking with another horse is a great way to do this. They naturally want to follow the other horse and you can slowly build them up.
Other things to do with young horses
If you have decided to give your horse more time before deciding to back them, it doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you could be doing to prepare them for their future. Here are just a few things you could do with your horse which could make backing and riding them in the future a bit easier:
- Hacking in hand
- Teach them to stand still
- Teach them to stand at a mounting block
- Lead them over poles
Rough young horse training plan
Don’t be tempted to create yourself a training plan using dates for when you are going to start the next step. (Ie: week 3 get on.) While every horse can follow the same flow of training and exercises, every horse will need a different amount of time in each step. Don’t think about how many times you have done something, think about how relaxed and happy your horse is with that step before moving to the next. The worst thing you can do is rush your horse.
But for those looking for a rough flow to follow for your horse, this is how I start:
- Have the horse leading nicely, responding to voice and pressure aids to stop, go and turn.
- Horse has been introduced to some key tack such as bridle, bit, roller/saddle and side reins. They are happy with these things.
- Horse is starting to work off voice & pressure aids with more space between them and the handler. Either long reining, in hand or lunging. They can stop & go on command.
- On the lunge or in hand, rider has leant over and sat up on the horse. They are starting to take over some of the aids.
- Rider is in full control of giving the aids and horse is ready to start riding away.
My top tips for starting young horses
- Take It Slow
The worst thing you can do is rush your horse. All the experts will tell you that the basics are key. If you skip or skimp on the basics then you will likely run into problems down the road.
- Never Be Afraid To Quit Will You Are Ahead
Following on from above, if you have had a really positive session, there is nothing wrong in leaving it there, even if you haven’t progressed at all. It is better for you to end on a positive than ask for more and it not be a good experience.
- Keep It Simple
Remember, everything is completely new to your horse so keep things simple, especially at the beginning. You want a forward and willing horse. Remember your scales of training, rhythm and relaxation are the first two blocks. Don’t worry about where their head is. This will all come with time.
- Ask For Help
Make sure you have a great team of friends and/or trainers around you to help you when you need it. There is no shame in asking them for help or advice.
- Enjoy It
Starting and backing your own horse is a hugely exciting and rewarding experience. It will be hard work and there will be bad days. But make sure you still find a way to enjoy it.
Last Updated on 14/06/2022