Friday, May 30, 2008

Colt Starting - Will I Ever Get A Handle On It?

I was reading an article in Performance Horse Magazine yesterday. It was part two of a series on colt starting, written by Clinton Anderson.

It was pretty good. Especially since his concepts dovetail pretty close to mine. I always like the ones that think like I do.

I don't know a lot about the guy. He's big on the RFD channel, but I don't have cable. A couple of my students went to one of his clinics, they thought he was wonderful. They each bought about 400 bucks of his stuff.

When one of these uber-clinicians market a huge line of junk at their clinics, I tend to lose interest. Maybe I'm missing a lot of good information, at least some honing of my marketing skills, but specialty mecates at double the going rate irk me to no end.

Anyway, I was reading with interest. He firmly believes in creating a colt's forward with a three step learning process. First step is your leg, followed by a more aggressive warning bump, and then over and under with your reins.

I learned the same method from a Monte Foreman trainer in the early 70's. I teach my students to give the cue you would like them to respond to, then follow with the same cue but stronger, and then make it happen.

It works if you are consistent. Which you should be.

Then Clint and I began to diverge.

He wants his youngsters to walk, trot, and lope right away. He feels that they need to feel comfortable in each gait as soon as possible. They need to git when he says git. This eliminates resistance farther down the road.

The Big Kahuna felt the same way. We got those wild little billy goats gassing around immediately. Trust me, they were comfortable packing us around at a lope by the end of day one.

My problem is that whipping around on a staggery little two year old that doesn't stop, or turn, is not my ideal way to spend a morning. It scares the poo out of me. A three, four, or five year old is worse, they're stronger.

I go the route of wanting them comfortable at the walk and trot before I'll try to lope. If they decide to lope off the first time I ride them I'll let them, but I still hate it.

I prefer a turn to the left and right, and a little bit of whoa first.

I also have a problem with a little bit of "stuck" in every horse I train. There is a brief hesitation in them before each maneuver. In some ways it's comforting. My horses are NEVER runaways. They don't squirt through lead changes, they rarely run off in their run downs, and if they do, they always come back to your hand.

If I have a discipline problem it tends to be a loss of forward.

It's something I mess with all the time.

My three year olds have it the worst. They lug on me, move as if we're dragging logs through the swamp. It takes forever to fix.

I know I create this, and I've always figured it was an annoying trade off for how calm and easy my young horses tend to be.

Until I read Clint's article. He goes on to say that he wants his horses to accept him flopping and rubbing them all over those first few rides.

"Can you imagine flopping all over Merry even now?" I asked my boss.

"You go right ahead." She answered.

"Not today." I said.

"Probably not tomorrow either." She said.

Merry is a very lively, talented four year old. She was a slow, careful start. She has tons of brain power, and so much physical ability she can't always control it. She's slowly growing into herself. She also is extremely reactive. I think she's going to be pretty darn handy.

But if I flopped around on her, I would become a lawn dart.

"This is the second part." Said the ever practical boss. "Maybe you should read part one."

So I did. AHA!

It turns out that Clint is a big believer in imprinting. His babies are halter broke and handled from day one.

I am not.

Imprinting might work if it's done differently than every imprinted horse I've ever come across.
The imprinted horses I have dealt with are pushy, rude, have no concept of personal space. They think I'm their friend.

If you watch a herd of horses the hierarchy is very clear.
There's boss mare #1. She sleeps when she wants. She eats where she wants. She periodically kicks the crap out of a random victim whenever she feels like it. Everybody wants to be her friend. Nobody can kick her bossy brat of a foal. Or her best friend...
Boss mare #2. She follows #1 around, babysits her kid, eats at the peripheral of the best grass, puts up with random bad tempered assaults, and is protected from the rest of the herd. She also gets to be mean to everybody else.
And so it goes, down the chain, until you get to the youngsters. The yearlings and two year olds swirl around fighting and playing with each other, and try to stay out of the boss mare's way.
Have you ever seen how two year olds treat their friends?
I do not want to be a friend.
I want to be boss mare#1.
I'm guessing Clinton Anderson does it right. I'll never know, because I prefer my youngsters to come to me with as little handling as possible.
Even if they've never been handled, I'm usually getting along with them within a few weeks.
If they've been mishandled it can take months to straighten them out enough to be useful.
Ideally I like them just halter broke. Barely.
What occurred to me was that Clint's colts are about broke before he ever gets on. Mine aren't even a little. I want them to feel broke. So I keep them slow. I create a hesitation because I am hesitant in how I start them.
So what's the answer?
We have six, two and three year olds that we are starting right now. I've been working one of the three year olds for over sixty days. He wants to skitter. That could turn into a bolt. So I've been easing into him day by day. Yesterday he sighed and relaxed when I stepped up. He'll be ready to ride in a day or two.
A two year old came in about three weeks ago. We're cruising around pretty good. She has been so easy and accepting it's been a cake walk.
So is there a middle ground? Is there a way to get that forward on command those first few rides and still feel safe?
I think it may be a matter of upping my expectations on the ground. I need to flop and bang and all that stuff before I get up on these babies.
Clint can ask it because he already knows they can take it.
I shouldn't get on until I'm confident I can ask for that forward and stay safe.
I want to be somewhere in the middle of Clint and the Big K. I'm going to play with these six and see if my theory is right. It seems so simple on paper. It only took me 30 some odd years and the willingness to read an article written by one of those damn clinicians to get there.
I truly am a mugwump.


Mrs Mom said...

We are never too old to learn- every horse can teach us something new, every day ;)

Looking forward to hearing the end results of your middle-ground testing.

joycemocha said...

I dunno. My guy wants a good solid whoa on a greenie before they get a lot of riding time--but we've not had a lot of green as grass ones in the barn of late, just a lot of rehabs. The only greenies are the ones he's bred.

He spends a lot of time on walk and jog before ever getting them up to a lope. Most of these babies are not being trained for competition, though, but for amateur owners who may or may not show--heck, some of them may never break out of a trot.

The greenie in current training started out in the round pen and is only now graduating to the big arena. They're moving slow with him, but he's a slow-developing baby who still looks pretty babyish at three.

So I'd guess that my guy is pretty much in the same line as you are--and I'm kinda with you on the slow, easy start rather than getting them up to all three gaits ASAP. I wonder how much of that is focusing on speeding up the training for futurity competition (as I recall from that article, these are babies that Clinton's getting ready to send off to specialized trainers for futurity preps).

That sort of training is an entirely different thing from the sort of lifetime good training I'd like to see put on a horse. I can just see what Clinton et al would think of the fact that my 8 year old reining-bred mare has not been trained to do flying changes yet--heck, she's only gotten solid in lope/canter with simple and interrupted changes over the past year, and she still wants to race through the simples! Taking my time to get her solid in the lope, however, has gotten her from a "race like hell just like great-great grandma Poco Lena" to a nice, relaxed lope/canter in either English or Western tack, to the degree that my trainer is commenting on how much more slowly and relaxed she's moving, almost like a good-quality (no 4-beat!) Western Pleasure horse (she's still too elevated and big for a regular WP class but she'd probably clean up nicely in any Versatility/Ranch WP-type class).

I don't want to rush her, because I want her to be relaxed and have the strength to do the work properly. Which means time, and since I'm the one in the saddle, not the pro, that means that she gets less work per week than she would if she was in pro hands and being prepped for competition.

OTOH, I want a horse that will stay sound into her late 20s, if possible (and I dream of her being sound and active into her late 30s)--this is my horse to grow old along with. We've got lots of time, at ages 50 and 8.

Sydney said...

I was NEVER a big believer in lots and lots of ground work. I liked to get on the horses back/ in the carriage and let them pull/carry me around. That was before.

A few years ago I got a mare that had been trained by a lady who followed clinton. She used his methods and her own and all of them involved extensive ground work.

This mare is amazing. She would never bolt, change gait until asked or pull any funny business if someone was flopping or moving around in the saddle in a wierd way.
I broke her to the cart two years ago and even though she doesn't have as many miles as my other driving horses shes more "broke" than them because she doesn't speed up when we hit a big bump or a rock from her shoe hits the metal on the cart and makes a loud BANG.
If I have a saddle on her and she doesn't quite aim herself through the man door and the saddle catches she either stops in her tracks so I can re-align her or she keeps on going as if the saddle never banged on the door.
All this was created through clinton's methods.

I believe every horse person can teach us something we didn't know before (good, or bad)

I'm a big believer in lots and lots and lots of ground work now.
Can't wait to head how the "middle-ground" testing goes :)

emmab13 said...

I come from quite a different background, producing expensive young horses in England for eventing, from starting at three to the young horse classes at four to their first event at five. That's MY thing, I also have other people's breakers and schoolers to pay the bills.

I spend AGES on groundwork, flopping, bouncing etc. People in Britain won't buy something a bit sharp, or with a quirk, especially when you're asking plenty.

I do tons of ground driving too, down the road, over poles, cantering in a circle, lead changes, transitions on voice and rein. I'll ride one day, drive the next, or maybe ride for ten minutes, drive for ten. They learn everything first without a rider, including their 'go' and their 'whoa', and their left and right.

I canter within the first 2-3 days of getting on, simply because they are 'broke' (love that word) enough that it isn't an issue.

It means they're schooled almost before you get on their backs, they have a mouth and sides you can touch. Obviously it takes some longer than others, but they all get there in time to jump a course of 3' and do a dressage test by their four year old year.

manymisadventures said...

Well I'm definitely not in the colt-starting business, but I can say from previous experience that I definitely think groundwork is important. I say that after seeing how many under-saddle issues I had with my OTTB could be resolved by some solid groundwork, where he could figure things out for himself without a rider on his back.

I am also curious to find out how the testing goes!

mugwump said...

I've beeen thinking this thing through all day, and the plan is to have the ground work cleaned up to the point of instant response on the longe line, walk, trot, canter, whoa.
I already do a lot of work with shoulders, (another blog, another day)respecting my space, and moving each foot where I need it moved....
I want the horse to feel confident...I think that's the key. This is going to be fun...

Heidi the Hick said...


I too get a little skeptical of the "buy my gear" type of trainer. But, there is a lot to be learned from any of these people.

My 7 year old mare's been with me since she was a yearling. I broke her, on weekends, in little bursts of learning. Not ideal! Luckily she's a quick learner and very compliant, but I think it helps that I didn't get on her back til age 3. Until then she was led everywhere, by all of us, including my kids, and handled, groomed, fussed over, and grabbed. She's tame. I know I've goofed up a few things. But talk about slow training process!

I wanted a good whoa on her before I got on her back, as well as solid voice commands. I needed to be able to trust her.

I agree with joycemocha- I want this horse to stay sound for a long time.

I still haven't got a reliable lope on her. If fact, this summer I'm going right back to jogging. We'll work on shoulders and lateral work.

Meanwhile, I got a new gelding a year ago. He's six months older than my mare and... despite excellent ground manners... not broke past a jog. I pushed him last summer, wanted a lope out of him, and he promptly bucked me off. Oops. dammit.

So I'll be going back to a jog with him too. I'm not worried. These two really don't get ridden much, but I know I can get good work out of them. They're good kids. I'd rather take it slow and feel good about the whole thing than spend all that time crumpled up in the dirt!

ps - a friend of mine did imprinting with her filly at birth. Guess what- pushy horse who didn't respect her was the result. At first it was just boisterous baby stuff, but as she grew and realized her strength, she got dangerous. My friend ended up sending her to a "breaker" even though she didn't really believe in his harsher methods. She was desperate. The good news is, the mare is now a good reliable horse. My friend doens't believe in imprint training, although she admits that it could have been done not-quite-right. I don't know. I just think we humans have to be the one in charge. Otherwise, things don't go so good for anyone.

mugwump said...

One of my favorite ways in the old days(before I knew I was a pro, and just rode)) to get a young horse to lope easy the first time was, to ride with a friend on an older well broke horse. I'd keep my horse tucked into the older one's flank and we'd head up a hill. The older horse would lope ahead, and mine would just go with...It's harder for them to buck going up hill, and they naturally want to pull with their front end, so the lope is where they want to go anyway.
My boss and I were just talking about doing the same thing with a pony horse...the old ways can be the best ways...:)

Heidi the Hick said...

Ha, I'm glad I came back here to see if there were any new comments on this topic!

I think Ponying is great. When I was training the little mare, I still had my 1/2 Arab gelding. He wasn't the most calm horse by any stretch, but I knew him well and knew what I could trust him with. Since I didn't lunge the filly, I ponied. It didn't take her long to learn to trot and keep up with him.

I'll remember the ride-beside uphill lope. Makes sense.

(I read the Captain story to my husband last night... he was stunned. He now feels better about every silly horse I've taken on over the years!)

Smurfette said...

Boy, do I agree with you on the imprinting! I don't start colts any more (don't bounce too good anymore), but my dream colts of my own were like this: handled from day 2 or 3, and pretty much handled like a real horse from that time, haltered every day, lead around some, maybe brushed and feet picked, but basically for that 5-10 minutes, expected to act like a real horse, not my friend. I expect them to stand tied pretty quick too. By the time they are 18 months or so, nothing I do scares them, unless they are SUPPOSED to be scared, so saddling takes all of 5 minutes, then start ground work. I do like ground work, including driving, cause I want them to know "whoa" before my butt gets on top of them. By the time they turn 2, just step on and ride off.

I do agree with Big K about getting them cantering soon, probably not as brave as first day, but as soon as I know they remember "whoa." Same logic as training a rider, sooner or later they are gonna have to canter, and I don't want a panic, so lets get over that hurdle, and then go back to the quieter work.

Love the blog, let us know how it goes.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of your middle ground approach. I am currently starting a colt that I've raised from birth but was not imprinted. This was a colt that had a good bit of groundwork and was raised calm and respectful. Beleive it or not he has had about 10 days total on him and the first 5 were bareback with a halter in a big 5 acre pasture. I used a combination of Clintons methods and my own and he came out well. Instead of loping first ride we took it at the pace he was comfortable with and he has been under control ever since. He started loping about the 7th ride and there was never a out-of-control moment. So while I'm not a beleiver in loping first ride unless the colt is calm with it, I think clintons methods hold some merit.

mugwump said...

You guys are too good. I am just now getting around to halter breaking our yearlings.
Not because of any specific reason, I just am tired of getting yelled at by the farrier and the vet!

spotteddrafter said...

Been lurking and, what a nutcase Captain is!

I too prefer a solid walk and trot before lope/canter. That 3rd gait takes so much more balance - both for the horse himself and balancing the rider on top of it all.

For me, because I don't train horses, I just work around them...respect is a MUST. Ground manners are a MUST. My mare is a draft cross, an alpha mare, and just bossy as hell...and knows her size. She tried and tried to use it to her advantage with me, and each time she found out how fast her hindquarters and then shoulders can get out of my space.

Anyway, love your blog and am now a regular reader. :)

Samantha said...

For me? I want somthing broke so that when I get on I dont need to worrie about getting off untill I want to!!

Ya know you can say your ok with getting on these greenies, and Im sure you are, but I want a quiet youngster! My last wp prospects drove for weeks, sidpassed, forhand turned, and haunch turned, all before I got on there backs. (And I sacked them out once a week)

However I do know a guy who drives his horses for 6 months before he'll get on them... the other extream.....

verylargecolt said...

I had no forward on the VLC at first. I had one hell of a backwards, though!

You know what? He got over it just fine. He's forward now. Expecting a horse to lope off with your weight the first time they carry a rider is unfair, to me. I want a fitness level so that loping is EASY. I don't want some scrambly, scary lope. I like and am impressed by the fact that you start slow, also, and I think your horses are much better for it in the long run. It's easier to rev them up than slow them down or fix them when they've learned to hollow out and run through the bit. You can ALWAYS rev them up. Shit, feed 'em Red Cell, I've had that make everything hotter than hell! :-)

verylargecolt said...

And I hate ground work so I don't do much of it. It's that simple. If I can lean and lay over them, flop the stirrups around, whomp on the top of the saddle with my hand, etc. and get no reaction, I'm probably good to climb on.

I did learn from the VLC to spend a bit more time teaching them to bend and give with their neck, though!

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