One of my passions is problem prevention, rather than problem solving. I may be a registered CAB, but at the end of the day I like to make sure that dealing with behaviour problems is only a small proportion of my work. The rest of the time I like to focus on preventing them starting in the first place. I do this in part through education, through my writing and lecturing and coaching of other equine professionals. But I also do lots of hands on training. I have regular clients with young horses that I have coached throughout the backing process. I love it even more when I get to work with breeders and can help foals get the best start. The best thing of all is when I can take foals that have had a good beginning and work with them as three and four year olds, taking them through the backing process.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that people like nice, well trained horses. And nice, well trained horses get treated well. Nice, well trained horses rarely get abused or mistreated. They tend to have good homes.
Starting with the raw material, personality is half inherited, the other half is all about life and what it throws at us. So if a foal has lots of enjoyable handling early on, isn’t frightened or forced, but not spoiled either, then that foal learns that people can be trusted. That foal starts out in the world liking the human race, choosing to engage with them.
From there on, it’s relatively easy to build on that with further positive experience. If the foal can be born in a herd environment with interesting terrain and exposure to things like railways, motorways, tractors, quads, people etc, even better. They will learn good social skills and they’ll encounter a variety of stimuli early on. Add to that a natural weaning, so that they are old enough and self confident enough to choose when and how they stop suckling, and you will have an emotionally stable individual that is predisposed to cope well with separations.
At present, I have three such horses in my herd. One we bought as an unbacked youngster to be long term training prospect for Spence junior. I’m having lots of fun with her at the moment, having backed her and am now riding her on a little so that she has a few more miles on the clock ready for Spence junior to take her on. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately from Spence Junior’s perspective, she’s only thirteen hands, so a little on the small side for me, or perhaps we’d be having ownership disputes!
The other two are here for starting for a client, with no time deadlines or expectations other than that they are happy and they become nice, well trained riding horses. One of them we’re going to keep and the other is to be sold. It’s lovely to have the leisure of working at the best pace for them. You can see from the images below, I’m now lying over them. Kaikoura is definitely ready for me to sit on, he’s very accepting of new situations and stuff, but maybe a little slower to learn that his job is just to stand still and do nothing! Once he realised that he could turn his head and take a small handful of feed from me while I lay across him, we had a bit of a break through.Blue Bayou, on the other hand, is a little more cautious about new situations and stuff, he needs more repetitions to help him relax, but he’s very smart and a quick learner.I’m super pleased with them both and the progress they’re making. Blue is going to be a cracking horse for someone when he’s ready.
My focus is always on doing things as and when the horse is ready, rather than having fixed goals that have to be achieved at set times. Sometimes it might seem like I’m going very slowly, but then that’s because it takes time to build a good foundation. Once those good foundations are in place, it’s amazing how quickly the walls go up.
The other thing is, I’m in my forties now, I’m not as brave as I used to be and I definitely don’t bounce the way I used to. So I don’t want to sit on any youngster until I know they’re happy about it, for my safety, for their sanity, and for the safety and sanity of everyone around me!
I guess this is having a horse centred approach, my focus is on how the horse is feeling about what they’re learning. But at the end of the day it’s just good horse sense, isn’t it? And to me, that’s what sensible starting is all about.