What does it mean to start a horse?

Contributed by Amy Skinner




An advertisement for a sale horse reads, “sixty days professional training, started under saddle and ready to take any direction.” What does this actually mean?

Every trainer probably has their own ideas about what starting a horse looks like and how long it takes. There are various methods to start a horse that create different results. 

The truth about colt starting competitions

With rising popularity in Colt starting competitions, makeover events, and Colt starting video series, the public can easily be misled about what it really means to start a horse. Colt starting competitions can easily take the initial training of a horse’s life into the realm of circus, prioritizing speed and excitement over a calm mental state, long term soundness, or a true solid foundation. With horses just under saddle a few days jumping through rings of fire, having leaf blowers blown from a man standing atop their back, the public over time has become conditioned to look for quick turnarounds in training and to demand that a horse “tolerate” all kinds of insanity. 

What does ‘starting a horse’ mean to you?

I have a long minimum training requirement for starting younger horses- longer, in fact, than any of my competition in the area. I require at least six months to back a young horse, and often people are shocked when they hear this. The average Colt starter is turning horses around at 30, 60, and 90 day periods, and this is what the public has come to expect. To many, starting a young horse means teaching the horse to accept a saddle and a rider; turn right, left, stop, back up and go. When I tell people that I will spend months physically preparing the horse to have enough stability to safely carry a rider, and more months to develop the ability to move in a way that doesn’t compromise balance for responsiveness, people are often stunned. 

The old classical methods of starting horses prioritized balanced movement before steering, driving aids, or accomplishing anything specific. Tactful riders made sure the horse maintained the integrity of the neck, fluidity of movement in the back, and stability in the hind legs. If a turn couldn’t happen at the desired location without tightening the horse, the turn was no longer the priority. Over time, the horse develops into a supple, stable and happy partner, who can be ridden more accurately without losing balance. In this way, nothing is taken from the horse just to develop a quick handle- instead the horse is given all the necessary tools to accomplish his job as a dancing partner, and will maintain a happy back and mind for a lifetime. This is what starting a young horse means to me. 

A young horse started with all the bells and whistles, but missing out on the fundamentals of balance and relaxation, is a horse missing a very basic and essential foundation. This is not a start at all, but a mechanical and quick route to stealing rides.

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