Last month, I discussed the preparation that’s necessary before I climb aboard a colt for the first time. Before mounting, I need to have my colt comfortable wearing the saddle and moving out through the full range of motion with the saddle on.
Once the colt is saddled, free longeing in the round pen is great preparation. I might also pony the colt off of another horse, or turn him loose in a larger pen or arena and move him around. The saddle feels different to the colt at the walk, trot, and lope, so I make sure he experiences these transitions multiple times before I mount up.
I ride my colts two or three times in a halter and lead initially. Then I transition into a snaffle bit. In these first few rides, I really don’t care where he goes, and so I’m not trying to steer him very much. Also, if my colt gets scared and starts to buck, I don’t want to pull back on the reins and a bit in an effort to survive the wreck. This would probably scare my colt even more.
Before climbing all the way on, I’ll step up half way, rub my colt on his neck and rump and then step down. I’ll do this on both his right and left sides. Then I’ll step half way up, tip his nose toward me, and then chirp or cluck to encourage him to step his hind quarters over. I want my colt to realize he can move his feet with me on top. I’m also teaching him the concept of lateral flexion with his head and neck, and also to disengage his hind quarters. This will be a good “emergency brake” if things start to fall apart; I’ll do this multiple times on both sides. I’m preparing my colt for what I’ll do when I’m all the way up.
Once in the saddle, I’ll encourage my colt to take one or two forward steps directly after moving his hindquarters out of the way. This is my goal at this stage of the game: forward momentum.
When people think of riding a colt for the first time, they’re concerned about how they will be able to control and stop the colt. My biggest concern is how I will get him to move. I need forward impulsion and I need to start getting it right away. That’s where an assistant in the pen can be helpful. Not just anyone will do. Don’t ask Uncle Charlie to come help just because he’s available yet doesn’t know anything about young horses. Uncle Charlie might end up getting you killed! You’ll need someone who can free longe you and your colt safely.
As my helper is moving the colt around the pen, I’ll try to rub the colt all over and get him really comfortable with the whole experience. Remember the full range of motion concept? The quicker my colt learns to walk, trot, and lope with me on his back, the less of a big deal it will be.
The biggest confusion that riders face with their colts is the idea of pushing on the brake and the gas peddle at the same time. If you try to steer and guide the colt too much at this early stage, you’ll hinder the colt’s ability to get comfortable moving forward. I tell my students, “I don’t care where they go. I just need them to go!” If you start “micro-managing” and trying to direct your colt too much too soon, you’ll run into problems and probably create confusion and a bad attitude in your colt.
Following someone else who’s riding a saddle horse can be a big help once you leave the round pen. Horses are natural followers. You’ll be surprised how your colt will move forward and “line out” when he has another horse to follow. This technique can, however, become a crutch if it’s over used. Your colt needs to venture out on his own flight path before long.
During these early rides you’ll not see me pulling back on both reins at the same time to either slow down or stop my colt. Using one rein at a time and doing a lot of bending exercises will help create suppleness and help keep my colt from getting bracey.
I’m also careful to not use too much leg early on. A lot of squeezing and kicking can create a cranky, sullen colt with pinned back ears and a ringing tail. Rather, I’ll slap my leg or spank behind to encourage forward motion. I’ll create some kind of energy with my voice and body and then get soft when my colt moves forward.
As I mentioned last month, these few paragraphs are not meant to be comprehensive and complete. This is simply a small window into the colt starting process that I follow. If you are up to the challenge of colt starting, great! If not, find a competent trainer to lay a proper foundation on your youngster. It will be a relatively small investment in the twenty-plus year relationship you can enjoy with your equine partner.
Richard Winters is a performance horse trainer with a natural horsemanship touch. For over 20 years, he has helped people with their horses through his training programs, clinics, DVDs, and his presentations at horse expos. His horsemanship is universal, ranging from reined cow horses on the Western side to jumping and dressage on the English side. Learn more about Richard at www.wintersranch.com.
Recently, Richard had the great honor of being selected as one of three competitors for the 2009 Road to the Horse Colt Starting Competition, which will be held March 14 – 15, 2009 in Franklin, Tennessee. He will compete with horsemen John Lyons and Tommy Garland as they start three young horses. Check out the Road to the Horse Web site at www.roadtothehorse.com.