When starting a horse under saddle there are many different things that are involved in the process. Although every horse is a little individual in how things need to be presented to him there are fundamentals that are necessary to instill in a young horse to make him safe and reliable. Historically starting or “breaking” was a rough process. It did not often consider the horse’s ability to learn willingly. Although it was not the kindest way to work with a horse it was often the only way that those doing it knew how to get the job done. The horse world was dominated by men that had to get a job done with that horse so there was no time to teach it to be gentle. Things are considerably different today. The horse world is now dominated by women and the horses are primarily for recreational use. Women are generally less aggressive than men and we now have more time and access to more information about how horses think and behave.
Natural horsemanship has given many people the tools to start their own horses but misinterpreting part of the process can cause things to stop progressing. There are step by step methods that will work fairly well on an average horse with no problems but does not allow the versatility to get exceptional results from a horse, especially if the horse did not read the same training book as the person doing the training.
Over the past several years my methods have changed from getting the job done to mostly “natural horsemanship” methods to combining conventional methods to prepare the horse for a specific job. That job is to be willing, to be soft and relaxed in mind and body, to be light in my hands, to be balanced and forward. Over the evolution of my training I have been fortunate enough to have learned from outstanding trainers in disciplines from colt starting and reining to jumping and dressage. Input from these different disciplines has led to improved understanding of how the horses need to perform after they are started. The different breeds used for different disciplines learn in different ways. Quarter horses and warm bloods learn differently and English and Western trainers train at different speeds. Having a specific goal for your horse at the end of the starting process can help dictate the process you use to get it started. The fundamentals are the same but the details are slightly different.
When I start a horse I do it is stages, the first stage is establishing leadership. This is generally a round pen exercise but can be done on a line. This involves controlling movement, setting boundaries for personal space, parameters for pressure, getting and keeping a horse’s attention, and expectations for behavior. The second stage is introducing equipment including saddle, bridle, longe line and one side rein. Other equipment I use would be a lariat, a training flag, and a longe whip. Stage three is mounting and dismounting, carrying a rider comfortably, basic steering and a few exercises to regain control if a horse gets scared and possibly becomes violent. By stage four I am usually out of the round pen and into the arena, where I start to incorporate all the previous stages to build confidence and slowly improve responses towards pressure. Stage five is teaching basic body control under saddle, bending and softening, improving forward movement, and balance. Stage six is upward and downward transitions through the gaits, shortening the horse’s stride and working towards going on the bit.
Throughout the process there is always overlap of stages and how long I stay at a particular stage is based on the horse’s progress or lack of progress. There are always problems or issues that arise and I deal with them when they occur. Any difficulties take precedence over the stage of training that I am currently working on. Only when the problem has a satisfactory result will I continue or progress. A satisfactory result with a problem does not mean it is fixed but that it is improved upon to the best of the horse’s ability on that day. By the time I get to stage six and the horse has comfortably understood all that I have asked the horse should be well on his way to becoming reliable and ready to progress to intermediate training levels. The process that I follow will change if horses are extremely difficult to deal with or if a client has different requirements for their horse when it goes home. Any process is simply a guideline and does not need to be followed to the letter. I modify as I go and I would encourage you to do the same. A specific process taught by any trainer is an accumulation on things that worked for that trainer. That does not mean that all those things will work for you.
The method I use is just that, a compilation of things that have made starting a horse easier and faster for me with more consistent results. What works for me may not work for you but you won’t know until you try.
© 2006 Will Clinging