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Colt Starting Part 4 – First Ride, Then Guide

Some of you are saying:  “Finally, it’s time to ride!” and others would still like to spend more time on the ground. As far as these articles go, it’s time to talk about the first ride on your young horse. If you are just now joining us there are three articles written earlier that have got us to this point in starting a young horse.

We have been preparing the horse by building his confidence, earning his respect and using techniques or a language that the horse understands. Our horses are backing up, yielding their forequarters and hindquarters, moving sideways, circling when we ask, soft on the lead line, jumping barrels on line, carrying and walking over tarps, comfortable with a flag being rubbed all over them or waved around them in front, behind, over top and underneath. They are not scared of us on the ground or on their backs. They have gotten used to the feel of the saddle and move as freely with it on or off. It might seem like quite a list of things to have working well but it doesn’t take long and what you are doing is putting a foundation on the horse. Something you can build on now and in the future.

There is always more that can be done before taking the first ride but this seems to work well for me. There is one more thing that I’m not sure if I mentioned and that is having your horse easily and softly bending his head and neck right and left from the ground. Having him able to be soft in this area and not move his feet tells me that there isn’t any brace when I ask for that particular movement. A horse with a stiff neck and braced jaw is not a good sign. Another check I like to do is slap the saddle with my hand, shake the stirrups, reach over and shake the off side stirrup which are all good preflight checks. If all is calm I step up in the saddle and step down, then repeat the same on the other side. When I’m standing in the stirrup I will reach over and rub the off side and the hindquarters where your foot might touch one day when you are mounting or dismounting. The horse should be standing calmly for this and then I will swing my leg over and settle into the saddle. Be sure not to slam down in the saddle they will get hard to mount. Then get off and lead them forward or circle them if they seem to be tight and then get on again once they look relaxed. 

The next step is to encourage them to move. Some want to move and others can get a bit sticky. I find the ones that want to move are my preference. I get them moving and allow them to get used to having a passenger. Where he goes doesn’t matter. All I’m interested in at this point is to get some walk, trot, and canter established. Once I have the horse understanding how to go up and back down in the three gaits that is when I would carefully and slowly start to guide them in where they are going. Too much guiding too early takes away the forward in a horse. It is very hard to do much with a horse when the natural desire to go forward has been taken away. They need to be comfortable to move their feet so you can do something with the feet. People spending days, weeks and in some cases months walking and trotting and not cantering really is not a great idea.

After they are moving freely and I have guided them by having them follow their nose I generally make sure my lateral flexion works from the saddle and start making it better. I want the horse to know and not forget that I’m in the saddle. (They actually can, and then get startled) I never want to sneak a ride by sitting there quietly. I try and stay active, moving, rubbing anything I can reach, slapping my leg, swinging my legs. Introducing him to things from the saddle. As soon as possible I want to ride with the flag and tarp making sure that they can handle all kinds off commotion from the saddle. We already showed them from the ground and have them very comfortable with these things so from the saddle shouldn’t be too much to ask. I want to be able to progress to cantering with the flag or tarp waving and the colt is relaxed and understanding. The braver your young horse is the more easily they will be able to learn all the new things that will be required of them. Somewhere in the first ride after the forward movement is understood I will maybe once or twice ask for a step backwards on the first ride. Picking up the reins and closing one finger at a time very slowly with very little pressure and waiting for the horse to find his way off the halter or rope hackamore. I guess I didn’t mention that, I’m in no hurry to get a bit in the horses mouth. I save the mouth and stay out of it until I feel they have a real understanding of all the other things they are learning. The mouth is one of the most sensitive parts on a horse and is easily hurt or troubled. I haven’t started a colt in 15 years with a bit. Many do and there sure isn’t anything wrong with it, I prefer not to. I think of the bit as a tool for refinement and at this point there isn’t anything to refine yet. If you get a walk, trot, canter with your young horse plus turns, lateral flexion, backup and some flag and tarp action from the saddle that would be a great session for the first ride and he would be ready for the day off to think about it all. 

The next day I would do all my ground exercises again much of it with the saddle on. I go through my steps for mounting, then the riding where I allow the colt to just get moving and then the guiding exercises as well as the flag and tarp. Everyday, creating more depth to their confidence, respect and understanding. You will find that the exercises are quicker and easier each day with a more relaxed horse. Anything that you have been doing on the ground with your horse such as sending them over barrels or walking over a tarp you can start to ask them to do while your in the saddle.

Around the third or fourth ride I will start to ask for them to go sideways from the saddle by turning my toe out pushing with one leg and opening the other. I use my Horseman’s stick from the saddle with rhythmic pressure to support what my leg or rein is asking. This is done very much like we did on the ground with their nose to the fence and only a step or two at first and then more as they understand. Also every time I pick up the rein on the halter I look for, wait for, and encourage softness before the maneuver. Always offering and helping them learn to follow a feel with their nose, neck, ribs, hips and shoulders.

All the above pictures were taken at the recent Road To The Horse competition in Murfreesboro TN, the World Championship of Colt Starting which is a judged event in which each participant has only a few hours to prepare an unstarted 3 year old to participate in an obstacle course. For more info about Road To The Horse, see below.

There is nothing softer than a young horse started correctly and it is always fun and enjoyable to see how soft and willing you can teach them to be. It is ours to have and ours to loose. I was talking with someone the other day and I remarked, “To me starting a young horse is kind of like getting clean piece of paper to draw a picture on. As I draw my picture I hope after each day it becomes clearer and easy to make out. The paper is thin and the pencil is sharp so I must be very careful not to accidently poke a hole in it.  I don’t want a picture that has holes in it that I had to patch up.”   Have fun and a safe ride.

To see the first articles in this series please visit www.thehorseranch.com/articles/

Glenn Stewart travels extensively conducting clinics, demonstrations, and colt starting sessions, and also offers Camps and a 3 month Horsemanship Course at his home The Horse Ranch, as well as the Horsemanship Learning Adventure Series; two completely different experiences, High & Wild in the Northern BC Rockies, and Working Equitation with Lusitanos in Brazil. He rides 30-60 client horses per year, including young horses, restarts, challenging horses, and foundation training. Glenn is a former Champion of the Cowboy Up Challenge at the Calgary Stampede and was chosen as one of the Canadian representatives in the 2012 Road to the Horse, the World Championship of Colt Starting in Murfreesboro, TN. More information by calling 1 877 728 8987 or visiting www.thehorseranch.com


Road to the Horse, the World Championship of Colt-Starting is unlike any other event in the equine or entertainment industry. The three-day event will match six of the world’s best horse trainers and clinicians of today against one another as they train unbroken colts to ride in just a few short hours in front of a packed live audience and television cameras. By combining education, edge-of-your-seat suspense, entertainment and the love of the horse, Road to the Horse has been responsible for solidifying the position of today’s horsemanship heroes and launching the careers of tomorrow’s hottest new stars. In the process, the event itself has become a catalyst for the advancement of natural horsemanship. Hosted by Rick Lamb, of RFD-TV’s The Horse Show with Rick Lamb, spectators are guaranteed not only to have a good time, but also to walk away with training knowledge that will improve their relationship with horses. The event is supported by title sponsor Western Horseman and in association with AQHA.

For more information on the 2012 Road to the Horse visit www.roadtothehorse.com or call 325-736-5000.