#4 the real work starts now

Welcome to part 4 of the series ’10 First times in Coltstarting’. In the last article we discussed how to help your horse feel comfortable in your training environment and have his first sniff around the arena. In this article we will talk about having your first actual trainingsession with your (young) horse and how to help him be successful in a short amount of time.

When you know your horse feels safe in his new environment, and specifically the arena or other place you’ll be training him, and you know by now where the ‘holes’ and his weaknesses are on an emotional, mental and physical level, then it’s time to start changing things around a little.

My goal in training, especially in the beginning with a young horse, is ‘get in, improve, get out’ or: keep it short and successful. Especially with a young horse you’ll be dealing with all kinds of things that would make a long session tough and would ruin your chances of success, like:

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  • A short attention span
  • Little stamina
  • Underdeveloped muscle or crooked musculature
  • Taught dominant or unconfident behavior
  • Habits that your horse will have to deal with differently all of a sudden: this will surprise him and cost him energy

All of these things would take time to change: offer your horse the time he needs for them.
The plan:

Step 1: choose a ‘problem’ or puzzle to work on

Step 2: choose a strategy to tackle the problem and improve

Step 3: ask for the exercise, reward *shortly, then repeat until there is a positive change in speed, lightness, suppleness or your horses attitude.

Step 4: as soon as you get the improvement you quit the exercise, reward your horse fully, then maybe pick another exercise to go through the same system again for a different challenge.
You repeat this with 2 maybe 3 different ‘problems’ and then you reward your horse and bring him back to the paddock, pasture or stable.
The reward could be anything: you could decide to chill with him a little longer in the arena or you could decide to take him back to his paddock as quickly as possible. What would be the better option depends on your horse, timing and how the session went.

*the time you take for the short reward depends on how your horse is wired: is he a quick thinker/mover or does he usually require a lot of thinking time to get going? Besides that it’s important to match the reward to the effort. The more effort your horse put into it, the bigger the reward should be. It’s important though that you try to match the reward to the effort he feels he has put in, and not to what you think it deserves. You could be asking your horse for something you think is a piece of cake, whereas it’s a very big deal for your specific horse. Pay attention to this and try to be a fair judge.

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Yssa

A practical example of all of this was young Yssa (Dutch Warmblood – Icelandic cross) who came to me to be started under saddle in 2015. Yssa was a true nerveball: she kept her eye on everything and would snort and run whenever the smallest thing happened. The first couple of times I took her to the arena she would be tense from the moment we left the paddock to the first few minutes in the arena. The exercises there helped her and soon she started to relax quicker and quicker until she came out of the paddock feeling calm and confident.

We followed the plan as described above:

Step 1: puzzle to solve: teaching her to transition into a trot on the lunge

Step 2: strategy: asking for the transition at the same spot every time she passed it. Not going for higher phases of pressure but just repeating the first few phases (up to 2,5) until she would decide to go for trot.
Why this strategy? Because of her tension I knew I could easily push her into a trot but she would go without conscious decision and would be tense about it. This way she would get enough time to think her way through until she was emotionally ready to offer the trot. Obviously you would have to be able to read your horse well to know if this was the right strategy for them.

Step 3: at the same spot I picked up the leadrope and pointed in the go-to direction, if she didn’t respond I would offer a voice cue, if she still didn’t respond I would pick up my stick and lighty swing it once. As soon as she did speed up just the tiniest bit, I would leave her alone as a reward for her effort until the next time she passed the same spot.
This process I repeated about 20 times (the owner was my witness) and then she offered the trot on a phase 1: just me picking up the leadrope and pointing.

Step 4: getting her in, big reward and cuddle (which she really approved of) and then taking her back to her paddock without doing any other exercises. I knew that this exercise already was a big thing for her mentally and emotionally and it was enough for the day. Plus, I also knew that if we stuck around the arena much longer, she would find something to worry about again.

A nice ending, and all of this only took about 15 to 20 minutes. The next day it was a piece of cake to ask her to trot.

So remember: keep it short and successful! Enjoy the small successes.

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