training a colt

Training your OWN Horse

Me? Start a colt? Train a horse? Absolutely!

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna has practiced for more than 450 years. Riders at the School require discipline and commitment. When a student reaches candidate status, they are presented with a young stud and are responsible for their entire training.

A stallion at the School begins training at about 4 years of age: “It takes an average of six years until a stallion can be used in the School Quadrille and thus finished his education to School Stallion.” [1]

sparre, Spanish Riding School ViennaCC BY-SA 3.0

One statement really resonates with the style of horsemanship we practice at Amazing Horse Country:

“The task of the classical horsemanship is to study the natural movement predisposition of the horse and to cultivate through systematic training in the highest possible elegance of the high school. In training people and horses are at eye level at all times and the horse determines when it is ready to learn the next lesson. The result of this approach is an incomparable harmony between rider and stallion…” [2]

I’d like to unpack this statement in the context of my philosophy of horse training, because it’s full of meaning.

  1. The natural movement of the horse. Just like humans, the extent of our athletic ability is contingent on using our bodies in the way they were designed to work. We call this bio-mechanics: the study of the structure, function and motion of the mechanical aspects of biological systems. This involves natural balance, muscles and bones working together to produce athleticism without brace, in conjunction with the horse being mentally engaged and free of anxiety. Of course, this means not forcing or holding the horse in unnatural positions during motion.

    If you want to view natural, athletic body postures, watch a horse run free in the pasture.

  2. People and horses are at eye level at all times. There are two very important pieces in here. First, this speaks to the posture of the horse. We ensure that the horse be in a posture supportive to their physical health. A vet or equine body worker would be more than happy to explain the detrimental effects of a horse that has their head tied down, is required to break midway down their neck or moving with their nose between their knees.

    The second is about honor, respect and metal well being. It is our desire that the horse feel and move like an athlete: proud, energetic and able. Picture a confident human athlete on the winner’s podium: head up and chest out. Being forced into an unnatural position is mentally stressful to any animal.

    In creating an athletic horse we desire that the horse truly value and take pride in following us; a partnership. A basic premise of good leadership is our ability to earn honor and respect from our followers – because that’s what we provide to them.

  3. The horse determines when it is ready to learn the next lesson. If you’ve trained with me, you know that I subscribe to that as well. Certainly we need goals. It is critical, though, that in training a horse our focus is on horse’s needs in the moment, not about our personal desires. When we prioritize our horse’s needs we are acting in the context of a leader; an athletic coach.

    Consider this quote from topendsports.com:
    “Sports coaches assist athletes in developing to their full potential. They are responsible for training athletes in a sport by analyzing their performances, instructing in relevant skills and by providing encouragement. But you are also responsible for the guidance of the athlete in life and their chosen sport.”

  4. …an incomparable harmony between rider and stallion. Again, in our style of horsemanship, this is where the horse intimately follows your focus, energy and balance. And it is incomparable; sometimes it’s very moving. The horse develops a rooted value in following you to a high degree of precision.

    Your balance and use of the aids becomes subconscious: responding to the needs of the horse when they arise. This requires a proficiency in horse communication: the horse feeling of you and you feeling of the horse. This takes some time to develop, and like all things, it comes with practice and time.

Over the years I’ve had many folks bring a colt or an untrained horse to a clinic. In fact there were eight first rides in our Progressive and Liberty Clinics in 2019. Some of these folks have changed their minds about sending their horse to a trainer after taking one of our Progressive Horsemanship clinics. The task of training becomes much less daunting when we understand what we’re working with and learn some techniques.

Let’s face it. You don’t need to know anything about horses to ride one. You can learn to sit on a horse be coached at which buttons to push on a button-push horse. A horse can be trained to respond to specific commands. It’s like having a conversation with Amazon Alexa versus a conversation with a trusted friend. You can command Alexa to do many things for you, and she will. I believe communication is more than issuing commands. Communication involves feel, empathy and shared understandings. Good, practical, two-way communication is a cornerstone of colt-starting.

a yearling colt

Chip at 13 months old.
Clearly I have less grey hair.
Where does the time go?

Riding and Training a Horse are the Same Thing

There is a perception in our horse world that colt starting, training our own horse or solving horse problems are things best left to others. The reason is that the three most fundamental categories of knowledge required for working with horses are generally never taught unless you seek out a clinic to learn them. Those are:

  1. The mental piece: How a horse perceives leadership in the herd and responds to fear and the unknown;
  2. The physical piece: How a horse’s body works; in particular how he balances and moves; and
  3. How you can positively affect both of those things.

With some practice in working with these fundamentals, you can then move to discipline-specific knowledge. When you have functional knowledge of how to work with a horse in those categories, you can train one. And get this: in order to ride a horse, these are also the most fundamental segments of knowledge. The knowledge required to train a horse is the knowledge required to ride one.

Learning takes time and practice. Many times we resort to step-by-step methods that we’ve been taught or have purchased in order to save time. There is a drawback to this that you may have experienced: because every every horse and human is entirely different, one method cannot work for all. Each horse is an individual and will respond differently to different stimulus. Every horse brings different strengths and weaknesses to the table. I have had many horses in clinics that have excelled after being deemed un-trainable by a trainer. It’s more common than you might think.

This doesn’t have to be the case. A good trainer, like a good riding instructor, has the knowledge to adapt to every horse. A trainer worth their weight in gold is one that will accept responsibility, adapt to your horses specific needs – and explain those needs to you – and never blame the horse. This isn’t to say that every horse can excel to the same degree. Not every human body is capable of competing at an Olympic level. But every horse can become proficient when their particular needs are addressed.

In order to ride a horse, these are also the most fundamental segments of knowledge. The knowledge required to train a horse IS the knowledge required to ride one.

When we invest time into our own learning and knowledge, our growth as horse-people is exponential. If you’ve participated in one of my clinics, you know there is a great deal of focus on the why behind the how. I believe it’s very important to understand a bit about what we’re working with before we work with it. Knowledge coupled with the experience we gain with it allow us to adapt to different situations and different horses.

The Pleasure of Youth

From a mental point of view, training young horses requires some understanding of youth that, as humans, we can relate to: Their inability to focus for long periods of time. Quicker to tire. Playful. These things in turn require our patience and understanding. If you watch a colt in a herd, they’ll play with the others; what they are doing is learning the language of the horse and how to interact with herd members. They will also do this with you. Mature horses will sometimes play with them; some are not interested. They all do understand, however, that a baby is a baby and that their actions are, for the most part, inconsequential.

training a colt

Melissa is starting her own horse, Ellie.

Until, that is, they get older. When a horse matures, what they’ve learned has a use in finding a status in the herd and having adult conversations with other herd members. From our point of view, it’s important to distinguish between play and vying for a herd position. This is not to say that you should allow a playful baby to be all over you. The horse is born with a language of space and energy and they’re capable of following your spatial energy right off the bat.

Horses of any age can learn, just as people can. The trouble with mature horses (and people) is that they have thought patterns based on experiences, associations and years of repetition. Consider trying to change your own habits. It’s not easy. Conversely, a young horse is a blank slate. There are no negative expectations or associations you have to clean up. You can be the one to create entirely positive experiences that go a long way to earning life-long trust.

With respect to physical ability, horses generally are not fully mature until between 5 and 8. This means that we have to be careful in what we ask of them lest we create long term physical problems.

Question: Why start or train your own horse?

There’s a few answers to that one. You can likely think of more – if so, please comment at the bottom. I’d love your input.

  • The knowledge and experience you get out of it that you’ll use every time you work with a horse;
  • You develop an intimate understanding of your horse, and your horse of you;
  • You’ll learn how to help your horse through his or her unique struggles;
  • You have complete control of the training program and are intimately familiar with each step of it.
  • You can include a professional trainer in your training program, have them focus on specific needs, and assess the result.

What we learn in the process of working with a young horse, starting or restarting a mature horse or working a horse through troubles is invaluable. These are the skills that will make you a proficient rider. And the time will come where you’ll have to help a horse or have the opportunity to start or restart one.

They key is in communication. I’m happy to have helped many a horse, some in their late teens and early twenties, realize that they actually can communicate with people. They can learn it’s OK for them to express their thoughts because they’re being heard. It’s amazing how those horses change. Their movements become soft instead of hard and jerky. They engage with their owners instead of staring blankly forward. It changes their life in a really good way.

What we learn in the process of working with a young horse, starting or restarting a mature horse or working a horse through troubles is invaluable.

Putting the first ride on our own horse is both exhilarating and fulfilling. It’s something that touches us deep in our soul. It’s a culmination of effort, learning and understanding. More than that, though, we’ve built a relationship with our horse; a real connection. When we’ve taken a horse through the journey from square one to the first ride, we and our horse have a deep knowledge of each other, a trust on a level we don’t experience in many places.

What we learn in the process of working with a young horse, starting or restarting a mature horse or working a horse through troubles is invaluable. These are the skills that will make you a proficient rider. And the time will come where you’ll have to help a horse or have the opportunity to start or restart one.

Sometimes the horses that we’re struggling with, the horses we want to give up on, are the horses we need the most in our lives. Our skills are put to the test and challenged. And it’s only in those circumstances, that we really, truly learn.

horse in forest

Sometimes the horses that we’re struggling with, those horses that we want to give up on, are the horses we need the most in our lives.

Starting a colt might not be something you’re interested in pursuing. You might not have the time nor the inclination. In our style of horsemanship, it’s really not as tough as it seems, because we focus on providing the horse what they need, and in turn give you the skills to provide it; the same skills you need to excel as a rider. It is truly a win-win.

Some of us, though, simply desire a well-broke horse to head out to the trail with. Starting them and getting them to that trusted stage might not be your cup of tea. And honestly, that is completely fair.

The one point to consider though, is that anytime you are on a horse, you are training because the horse is learning from you, your responses, how they respond to what you ask, how you deal with their troubles or fears…the list goes on. Thus it bears repeating: the skills required to train a horse are the same skills required to ride one.

As a consequence, we build confidence; not only in our riding but in our understanding that what we’re doing – and how we’re doing it – is both correct and beneficial to the horse. The evidence of this is that our horse is able to perform as an athlete with confidence, pride and fluidity; and without anxiety, fear or brace.

Scott Phillips

March 2020

[1] Retrieved from https://www.srs.at/en/about-us/the-riders-of-the-spanish-riding-school/

[2] Retrieved from https://www.srs.at/en/about-us/the-education-of-the-stallions/

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About amazingh

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, producing horsemanship webinars and podcasts, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and of course, operating Amazing Horse Country. He affectionately refers to his herd of horses as his "kids". Scott has uniquely integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

2 thoughts on “Training your OWN Horse

  1. Marjorie Phillips

    If time etc is a problem for entirely training your own horse one could work with a trainer such as yourself. I like this idea because then you know the history of the horse’s training. If the owner is old they don’t have to be the first up on a young horse. Being present when that takes place is as valuable.

    1. amazingh Post author

      I totally agree. I believe it is crucial that the owner be a part of the training process. It also depends heavily on the trainer. If the training process is based on the needs of the horse (VS putting every horse through the same paces) then you have an incredible opportunity to learn about your horse. Who he or she really is. What their needs are. And most importantly, how to connect with them and build trust based on both of your individual personalities.

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