Foundation training for a young horse is some of the most important training we can give. I feel good about the foundation training program I completed with my 3-year-old, Jaz. I worked with her two or three days a week and during this time she learned a lot: acceptance of a halter, leading, line work, tying, de-spooking and beginning saddle work. In addition, I introduced Jaz to many new objects such as a tarp, a leaf blower, and a waving flag. I have taken her to new places and let her experience new environments, crowds of people and different horses. The combination of her willing nature and the de-spooking training have molded Jaz into a horse who is calm, relaxed, and willing to accept the adventure of our trips. This is our goal with foundation training.
Many times people tell me that they can’t work with their horses as much as they would like and think they should, since a trainer may work with a horse five or six days a week. My response to this concern is—Do not worry about it and don’t try to rush the training process. A young horse should not be worked like you would work a fully mature horse because a young horse is developing physical structure. A young horse, say a 3-year-old reining horse, that is overworked may suffer physical damage and later require hock injections; the horse may also suffer mental fatigue. A training schedule that is less intense is better for a developing horse.
Through the early days of training Jaz, I did not ride her a lot because of the stage of her physical development. Toward the end of the seventh month Jaz really started to develop quickly — she just grew up — from about 13 hands to more than 14 hands at the withers and more than 15 hands at the hindquarters. This up and down type of growth process is normal on every baby. Eventually, the withers catch up and then the hindquarters grow again, and then the withers. When the horse is going through these growth spurts, your training should be slow and easy.
So, how long will it take you to train your horse if you can work with her two or three days per week? In theory, if I had worked Jaz five days a week, it would have accelerated the training. For example, if I worked with a 2-year-old horse five days a week, by the time she was three years old, she would have good basic foundation training on her, meaning she would have left and right lateral flexion, vertical flexion, soft and responsive shoulder and hip control; she would be able to do leg yields and she could side pass, stop, and back up. The horse would also be able to perform all three gaits in a relaxed manner, do upward and downward transitions and be comfortable on the trail and crossing objects. If the same training was completed working the same horse only two or three days per week, and if the horse had a good mind, it might take four years to finish the foundation training. Or, if the horse was not as complacent and trainable, she might be five or six years old by the time the foundation training was finished. The same training needs to happen but it may just take a little longer. Also, if you are training only a couple of days a week, you may need to repeat lessons more often to re-enforce the learning. This is normal and is fine. With horses, we always may need to go back and retrain a lesson. Don’t think of this as a negative, but as a training opportunity.