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Horsemanship - Handling The Young Horse

( Originally Published 1962 )


THE SCHOOLING OF THE YOUNG HORSE MAY NOT SEEM TO HAVE much to do with the problem of learning to ride, and this chapter might appear to be a digression from the subject, as far as this book is concerned. But it is one of the aims of this volume to call attention to common ways of mistreating horses, and there are certain principles relating to the training of the young horse that any rider will do well to store away in his memory, to be applied to problems of everyday riding.

The first schooling of a young horse will to a great extent determine his later behavior. If his friendship and confidence are gained at an early age he will develop into a willing and dependable horse, provided, of course, that later abuse does not sour him against everything on two legs.

On the other hand, if his first training breeds fear, suspicion, and lack of confidence it will be very hard to change his mental attitude. He will always be afraid. His instinct will be to resist and to avoid the influence of man by every means at his disposal.

A colt is by nature gentle, curious, and eager to learn. He has a wonderful memory and rarely forgets a kindness; but he will retain just as tenaciously the memory of a hurt or a scare. He should never be put to work until he has passed his fourth birthday, because his bones will not begin to set until he has reached that age.

The disposition and mentality of different breeds of horses differ considerably and must carefully be taken into consideration during training. Somewhat different methods must be used with descendants of wild mustangs and with the thoroughbred. But one rule applies to all of them—they must never be frightened or abused into submission. A colt will become willing, reliable, and efficient only if he is given a chance to understand what is wanted of him. He should be encouraged and guided during his training, as his strength and endurance develop, and his spirit must not be broken in the name of making him "safe."

It should be remembered that a colt is always born gentle and that whatever vicious qualities he may later demonstrate are taught him.

There is one expression that should disappear from the vocabulary of horsemen—"to break a horse." There are too many stupid and brutal trainers who take this expression literally. They still use whips, clubs, crude spurs, rope and more rope, with an abandon that would disgrace a savage. To such people, patience, kindness, and intelligent under-standing are qualities to be avoided in order to gain respect as he-men. It is a disgrace to any civilized country that caveman methods in horse training should not only be tolerated but actually admired. Even circuses long ago adopted the reward system in training wild animals, mainly because it was found to be the most effective. It seems a trifle absurd that a young colt should be supposed to surpass lions and tigers in ferocity and make necessary a training system based on punishment.

The following incident substantiates this statement and illustrates the real meaning of the principles to be discussed later.

A young colt, a three-year-old, was to be "broken." With-out preliminaries an attempt was made to place a heavy stock saddle on his back. Terror stricken, he bucked it off several times and tried frantically to break away. His efforts were finally frustrated by the use of more rope, and at last the cinch was tied. A violent bucking spree followed, during which the colt worked himself into a lather and also hurt his leg in falling. After a while he subsided, panting and trembling, partly exhausted. The trainer then mounted another horse, the colt's head was hogtied with short lengths of rope to the horn of the rider's saddle, and the performance continued out in the open field, the colt still fighting and completely insane with fear.

After a long period of this treatment an assistant, after a few clumsy efforts, succeeded in scrambling into the saddle. The effect of this new horror on the colt can easily be imagined. He fought in blind panic and finally collapsed from exhaustion, only to rise and start all over again. He fell down repeatedly but each time somehow succeeded in getting to his feet, although his legs could scarcely support him.

When at last he was so worn out that he could only stumble drunkenly along, leaning against the other horse for support, his "lesson was over for that day. He was not a pretty sight. Sweat streamed from him, his flanks were heaving convulsively. He was breathing with panting gulps and trembling in every limb. To look at his eyes was almost unendurable. Their expression was one that should never be seen in a horse's eyes—half-closed, glazed, and bloodshot. He was bleeding in several different places, including the mouth.

After two or three weeks of this "schooling" the horse was rented out to the public.


Three main problems face the trainer of the young horse during the first period of his schooling. First, the colt must become accustomed to being handled and to being guided by voice, hand, and halter. Next, he must be introduced to saddle and bridle, and, finally, must learn to accept the weight of the rider on his back. As soon as these objectives have been accomplished he must be given a chance to get used to his burden and adjust himself to carrying it without losing his balance, at a walk, trot, and canter. He is then taught the meaning of the aids and how to respond to them.

When a colt has passed his third year the first period of his schooling can begin. At this time, as well as later, the trainer must use the utmost care to gain the colt's confidence and convince him that man can be trusted and that he will not be hurt or frightened. He must learn to recognize the trainer's voice and to submit without nervousness to the touch of the hand., to being groomed, to having his feet lifted up, and so on. He must learn to be led by a halter and to submit gradually to gentle discipline. The trainer must at all cost avoid frightening him or meeting his instinctive resistance and opposition with crude force. The strength of the hand under the silken glove must not become obvious or menacing, much less abusive.


The longe should be used very extensively, even after the schooling under saddle has begun. This extremely important means to exercise, discipline, and train a horse, whether a colt, a jumper, or a horse recuperating from hurt legs or back, is not always given the attention it deserves. However, unless the correct technique of the longe is understood it may do more harm than good.

The longe should be twenty-five to thirty feet long and very flexible. A window-sash cord is ideal. The handle of the whip may be five to six feet long and not too pliant, with the thong long enough to reach the horse. A small loop for the hand is tied at the end of the line, which must be neatly coiled and carried in such a way that more line can easily be paid out or gathered in, as needed, without fumbling or delay. To the other end of the line a ring is fastened, which in turn is attached to a short leather strap in such a way that it can slide about two inches toward the ends of the strap. Each end of the strap can be buckled to the rings of the snaffle or to the halter. The longe must never be tied to the headpiece on one side only. When it is used with a snaffle its action must resemble that of the reins as nearly as possible.

No longe outfit is complete without a surcingle, which must be well padded to fit the back and withers and prevent it from slipping. The surcingle is provided with rings to which the open reins can be tied. For the young horse this girth is an excellent introduction to and preparation for the saddle.

Until the horse learns to obey the longe the trainer should always have an assistant to handle the whip, allowing the trainer to use both hands on the line. Both trainer and assistant should be careful to face the same direction in which the horse is moving and never to turn toward the horse unless he is required to stop or approach the trainer.

When the horse is moving in the left volte the trainer carries the slack of the line in his left hand and regulates it with his right, in the same way that the reins are handled from the saddle. He should keep a steady and light contact with the horse's head and use gentle, short pulls to check the horse, instead of heavy jerks and rough action in general. The assistant with the whip walks between the horse and the trainer, close to the line, with his whip stretched toward the horse and aimed at a point immediately behind the girth.

In other words, the longe line takes the place of the reins, and the whip that of the boots, and they are handled on the same general principles as are the aids from the saddle.

Until the colt has become familiar with the bit an ordinary halter should be used for the longe. Later a "watering snaffle" is attached to the halter and the longe line, in turn, to the snaffle, but without reins. This type of snaffle is fastened to the side rings of the halter by passing a steel cross bar through them on each side from the inside. The bars are connected with the bit proper by a few chain links or short leather straps. In teaching the horse to take the bit, the watering snaffle is fastened on one side and then gently slipped between the horse's teeth before the other end is fastened by slipping the bar through the ring of the halter. The process of acquainting the colt with the bit is much simplified in this way.

A regular headpiece, always a snaffle alone, is used only after the colt accepts the watering snaffle without fuss. A longeing surcingle is then put on. Great care should be taken not to pull it too tight at first. The open snaffle reins are attached to the rings on the surcingle, and must, to begin with, be left entirely loose, so that the colt can detect no pull or resistance from them. Gradually the reins are shortened until they have a tendency to keep the horse's head in a perpendicular position. The outside rein should be a trifle longer than the inside, to point the head slightly in. Each time the direction of the volte is changed the reins must be readjusted accordingly.

After a few lessons, a light saddle takes the place of the surcingle. If there is a chance that the stirrups may flap or rattle and frighten the horse they must be taken off. Again, particular care must be taken to tighten the girth very gradually. The horse can easily be made to accept the saddle on his back if he is allowed to sniff it and look it over before it is put in place. A false move in tightening the girth may do damage that is difficult to repair. If the colt is extremely nervous it is advisable to use a saddle blanket before trying the saddle. It should be put in place and removed repeatedly, and then secured with the surcingle.

Smoothness and quiet are of prime importance when schooling the young colt. The trainer's voice must always be carefully modulated, whether used to give a command or to pacify the colt. His movements must always be deliberate, never abrupt.

The tempo on the longe at walk, trot, and canter, as well as the action at all gaits, must be given the closest attention. The colt must advance willingly and energetically. Machine-like evenness of tempo is the best cure for tense nerves and also the most economical way of performing. The tempo must never become so slow that suppleness, springiness, and clean action are lost.

The whip in the hands of the assistant trainer must be used as nearly as possible as a threat only-respected but not feared. If it has to be used at all it should only deliver a light snap directly behind the girth.


When the young horse accepts the saddle and bridle confidently and shows a willing obedience to line, whip, and voice, on the longe, he is ready to be mounted. If possible, a specially constructed remount saddle should be used for the first few months. Otherwise, a saddle must be chosen that has the same general characteristics as the remount saddle, which is heavily padded and has no wood or iron frame except for pommel and cantle. Padding frequently takes the place of a frame for the cantle, also. The thick, padded rolls and knee cushions in front and behind prevent any change of position of the rider's seat and thighs. The overstuffed quality of the seat saves the horse's back from rough contacts.

Unchanging stability of the rider's seat is of the utmost importance, since the immediate problem is to teach the horse to find his balance under the weight of the rider. If the rider is free to change his weight around by moving backward and forward in an open saddle the horse's balance will be disturbed. He may lose confidence and often be badly frightened right at the beginning.

The first few times the trainer mounts he should have two assistants—one to hold the horse by the head and one to give him a leg up. The stirrup should not be used on these occasions, partly because the abrupt motion may disturb the horse and partly because the left toe may come in too violent contact with his flank. Instead, the rider stands close to the horse, facing his shoulder, and bends his lower left leg up backward. The assistant, standing behind him, places his cupped hands under his ankle. The trainer's left hand is resting on the withers and his right on the seat of the saddle —not on the cantle. By stiffening his left knee and using the assistant's cupped hands under his left ankle for leverage, the trainer can slide up the horse's shoulder smoothly and effortlessly, until he rests on his stomach across the seat of the saddle. During these preliminary exercises care must be taken to place the weight as directly over the horse's shoulder as possible, and everything must be done to avoid disturbing or frightening him.

The next step is for the trainer to swing his right leg over and settle down on his seat. He should do so while leaning on straight arms over the horse's shoulder, and then settle down into the saddle slowly, supporting his weight on his arms as long as possible and gradually taking it over on his thighs, while retaining a light seat. The feet must find the stirrups quickly, so as not to fall heavily down in the saddle in case the horse should jump. Once in the saddle, the trainer must stick at all costs.

The mounting is repeated several times, finally by using the stirrup. As soon as the horse accepts the mounting with-out undue excitement he is invited by clucking the tongue to advance at a walk, the assistant leading him by the bridle. The colt will be hesitant at first and must be allowed to take a few uncertain steps at a time, with frequent stops, until he learns to balance himself and gain confidence. Gradually the clucking of the tongue is accompanied by a light pressure with the legs, which the horse soon will learn to associate with its correct meaning.

The main concern of the trainer when the mounted work starts is to teach the horse to advance confidently at a walk, trot, and gallop, and to adjust himself to the weight of the rider. Any appearance of force should be avoided, and the colt must be allowed to retain the impression that he is acting voluntarily, the trainer urging him on with his voice rather than with whip and legs. If the colt is very timid it is recommended that he be permitted to walk beside or follow behind an older horse.

The rider must, of course, sit the trot and not start posting until the horse has gained complete confidence and balance. His start at a canter has been explained in a previous chapter.

While the rider's attention during this period should be directed mainly toward plain forward riding, with the horse otherwise left alone as much as possible, the basic education of the horse in understanding and responding to the aids can soon begin. The horse is made aware of the use of the rider's weight as a guide by careful application of the seat when passing a corner or any other turn and when changing tempo or gait. The action of seat and boots must always be well coordinated, systematic, and sufficiently obvious to teach the horse to associate certain motions of the rider with certain changes in speed and direction.

The trainer should always carry a whip long enough to reach behind his leg, without change of position of the hands. In teaching the horse to obey the signal of the boots, the action of the legs is accompanied by the whip, applied immediately behind them.

The reins must under no circumstances become too active at this early stage. A light hand and a delicate touch are imperative in encouraging the horse to take hold of the bit and in avoiding any disturbance of his balance.

When practicing turns the rider should carry the inside hand out from the horse, giving the pull on the direct rein a transverse effect, while the indirect rein only tends to steady the horse's head.

An important part of this early training of the horse is the flexing of the neck, both in the vertical and horizontal planes. It will be found useful, also, to practice flexing the horse's neck while dismounted and standing in front of the horse with one thumb hooked in each snaffle ring. A gentle play with the bit will make the horse chew on it and result in relaxation of the neck immediately behind the jaw. His head can then easily be brought down in a perpendicular position, and flexed to right and left alternately. The same thing should be practiced frequently from the saddle, on the spot, at a walk, and at a trot.

The schooling and training of a young horse along these lines should progress systematically over a period of not less than six months. A whole year is even better.

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