I think anyone who has a baby horse probably spends a lot of time thinking in reverse. As in, X is The Big Thing, and then everything gets planned backwards from X. What is X? Starting under saddle, of course. That’s kind of the holy grail moment that we’re working towards with babies, after all.
Where “X” exists on the calendar really depends. It depends on the person, it depends on the horse, and of course, like anything with horses, changes in circumstances can also cause X to move. When Presto’s dam, Sadie, was a baby, I fully intended on starting her at 3.5 years old. However, let me tell you what’s worse than a 2yo filly with a whole lot of smarts and not enough mental stimuli to occupy said smarts.
NOTHING. LITERALLY NOTHING IS WORSE THAN THAT.
My formerly very sweet filly got bored, and when she got bored she got creative, and when she got creative she went through a decidedly wicked phase that resulted in more than one vet bill. Freaking fillies, man.
So I moved up her timeline for starting under saddle, and she went to the cowboy a few months before her 3rd birthday. She didn’t work too hard, but her brain was 100% occupied every single day with things that were new and fresh and different. She came home a changed horse… not even the sweet filly I had before, but a genuinely happy and more confident horse. She needed direction and purpose.
After she came home we spent that whole first summer mostly just hacking and trail riding. Her first “off property” adventure was a trail ride with a lot of other horses, at a place she’d never been. I swung aboard not knowing what to expect, but she was foot perfect and led most of the way. She absolutely loved it, and thrived on having something fun to do. Bonus: spending all that time hacking turned her into a pretty chill horse. Not only did she get exposed to a lot, she also learned how to just be a riding horse without a lot of pressure or demands or heavy expectations. Her body had time to strengthen and develop and acclimate to it’s new job before her work got harder. I fully believe that this is one of the biggest contributing factors to her fantastic work ethic.
Having been through this already with Sadie, I’ve got Presto’s X set in the spring of his 3yo year. He’s a March foal, so basically sometime around his 3rd birthday is what I’m aiming at. Of course, I’m flexible on that. If we have to move it up or back for whatever reason, then that’s what we’ll do. But he will likely go spend 60 days with a “cowboy” (maybe even the same cowboy) just like his mom did. From there we’ll spend several months hacking and trail riding, then he’ll do a month of dressage basics with a pro, followed by having the winter “off” to let everything soak in before starting a more formal training schedule in his 4yo year.
Of course, he’s just edging in on 18 months old, so we’re talking yet another 18 months in the future before any of this happens. This is where we start thinking in reverse. What do you fill that time with? How “prepped” do you want the horse to be before it’s started? When do you introduce what things?
Some people just leave them totally alone. I have no problem with that. I totally see the appeal and the benefits. It’s just not my preference. I made an effort to leave Sadie mostly alone aside from what she really needed to know, and feel like that kinda backfired on me. She wasn’t the type of horse that that approach worked best for, and I don’t feel like Presto is either. They’re smart, they like to learn, and they seem happiest when they have regular interaction. With Presto I’m keeping him more occupied and staying more involved on a daily basis. I try to picture it as if I’m building a house… how solid can I make that foundation? What’s going to help form him into the best horsey citizen that he can possibly be, later in life?
There’s a lot of stuff he already does. He crossties, straight ties, loads, hauls, stands for the farrier, stands for baths (I mean there’s a lot of glaring, but he stands), wears a bridle, knows the basics of lunging, knows what “whoa” and a cluck mean, stands for grooming and fly spray, ponies off another horse, wears boots/bandages on his front and hind legs, knows how to walk/trot/stand in hand, has done some in hand trail obstacles, and has been to a few horse shows.
Right now we’re doing some round penning basics… not much since he’s so young and I don’t want him tearing around on a small circle, but he knows how to yield the front/hind end and back up using body language, and lower his head from poll pressure. We’ve had a couple “rope” lessons with me running a rope all over his body, around his legs, under his tail, etc. We’ve started dabbling in “walk” and “trot” voice commands. He’s a lot like his mother in that most things are almost too easy, because he retains the lessons very quickly. Even with keeping his sessions at 15 minutes or less, after a while you start feeling like you’re running out of stuff to do. Properly torturing a yearling requires some serious creativity.
There’s still a lot I want to teach him before he’s ready to be started under saddle though. I want him to already wear all of his tack comfortably, of course. I want him to long line. Shoot, maybe at some point in the future I’ll even sit on him or teach him about mounting. I guess it depends. I figure that wearing tack and long-lining are things we can play with when he’s 2. I definitely want to keep taking him to shows, too, be it FEH classes or otherwise. The more the better.
A big goal for the fall/winter is hauling him off property just to pony with Henry. I want to take him to show venues and walk him through the water, up and down the banks, and across the ditches. He’s already done this once and we both thought it was fantastic. I’d also like to take him to some local parks to trail ride, let him experience terrain and whatever spooky things might be waiting in the bushes. Aside from the exposure, I think it’s really good for his body. The long walks help him build some muscle and fitness, and the varied footing and terrain helps develop his bone and soft tissue. Plus he’s getting the chance to learn to manage his own feet, without the guidance or hindrance of a rider.
For another horse/owner this schedule might not work, but learning more about Presto and his brain over the past few months has really helped clarify a longer-term plan for him. That’s not to say that it won’t be modified of course… in fact I’m sure it will, but we’ve got a rough outline in place at least. Either way, I’m sure it’ll be fun.