Balanced Training for Two-Year-Olds

by Chantal Marleau

When you care for a young horse, the time will invariably come when you will face the age-old question that will profoundly affect the rest of that horse’s life: To begin training or wait a while longer? This particular question has sparked much heated debate in the horse world and is one I would like to explore in this article.

The reason for much of the boisterous discussion is that both horse owners and trainers are bombarded with conflicting information. On one hand, we are told that, depending on the breed, horses do not reach physical and mental maturity until the age of four or five (except for those horses with rather slow growth rates, such as Arabian horses, that might not develop until the age of six). On the other hand, it is common knowledge that Thoroughbreds begin their racing careers as two-year-olds. At that same young age, some promising Quarter Horses are already mastering their slides and spins. Perhaps someone you know has a colt or filly that is already a veteran of the show ring. How do you know what is right for your horse and where should you start? I believe the answer lies in using common sense, understanding your particular horse and striving to apply a good dose of balance.

A Window of Opportunity
In my experience as a trainer, I have come to believe that the second year in a horse’s life does, indeed, provide an ideal window in which to introduce certain aspects of training. I’ve found horses of this age to be like sponges. They are typically willing and able to absorb many types of information and are enjoying a period in their lives when everything is still new and exciting. This is the perfect time to impart an understanding of what life is going to be about.

Often, when a horse has been left too long without training, there is a tendency to struggle when he is suddenly thrown into a working environment. My goal then, during the critical two-year-old stage, is to create a mind frame that enjoys working with me rather than dreading the moment I show up with a halter. That said, it is vital to keep exercises and tasks interesting for a young horse. Since the mind is far from mature at the age of two, a key element to maintaining a youngster’s attention is never to set a predictable routine. It’s best to keep young horses guessing and that alone will earn you some respect.

For example, I like to expose colts and fillies to a variety of interesting things on and off my property. It is vital to create an understanding that home is not the only safe haven available. If you have a seasoned horse that enjoys trailer rides, this would be the ideal time to load both horses and introduce the idea of a road trip, however short it might be. The more unexpected adventures you throw into your young horse’s life, the more likely he is to grow up to be a reliable partner.

With this in mind, I challenge you to introduce your two-year-old to various sights and experiences, such as strangers, dogs, cows or even hand-walking in unfamiliar territory. The choice is yours and your imagination is the limit. But, here is where understanding your horse’s capabilities is key. Some two-year-olds have a short attention span and can only be successful for ten to fifteen minutes at a time, while others can focus for an hour or more on new tasks. It all depends on the horse. Keep in mind, as well, that much like humans, a horse’s ability to focus can vary from day to day.

Becoming a Leader
Although I firmly believe in exposing young horses to as many things as possible, I do not encourage the notion of sacking-out a horse and desensitizing him to the world. Instead, I encourage you to improve your leadership skills and teach your horse to think through life’s pressures and to look to you for peace when things look scary to him – which is not an overwhelming task (as you might think), if you adhere to a few simple techniques.

First of all, you need to understand that a horse must be relaxed in his mind if he is to be soft in his body. To help hold the mental focus of horses I work with, I use a tool that I call a ‘flag’. I attach a small plastic bag to a stick and shake it gently to draw a horse’s attention. As soon as a horse focuses on me or even stops what he’s doing and tries to concentrate on what I’m doing, I hold the flag perfectly still. This rewards effort by removing pressure (shaking of the flag) as soon the horse answers whatever question I am asking of him.

Use the flag at first by working your horse loose in a round pen or whatever manageable working space you have available to you. As soon as his mind drifts outwards to his buddies or to another distraction, shake your flag gently until you regain his focus. Soon, your horse will learn two important things: That he can control pressure himself and that his job is to remain attentive to you. It is important that you only apply enough pressure to encourage your horse to find the right answer. You never want to create fear by shaking your flag too violently. If you make a horse fearful, you have prevented him from thinking. You definitely want to create a situation that keeps always thinking.

As you progress with this technique, you can expect some mental stillness from your young horse. What I mean is that you might wait for him to focus on you longer without raising his head or turning away. You should be moving forward with the challenges you present to your horse.

Softening to the Lead Rope
Teaching a young horse to soften to the lead rope is another exercise that will serve both of you well as you begin to spend more time together. This training is the basis of being able to lead him effortlessly, as well as having him stand tied without fear or anxiety.

Begin by sliding one hand down the lead rope while the other holds the flag. What do you feel? Does your horse brace by raising his head upwards? Perhaps your colt or filly is challenging the pressure by backing-up. Whatever the reaction, you will need to hold on to this resistance until it dissipates. The moment you feel any tension, gently shake the flag with your other hand until you feel the head soften to the lead rope. Try this many times. As your timing improves and you are better able to release your pressure (the flag) at the very moment that you obtain softness, you will see your horse begin to give and relax more and more rapidly.

A progression of this exercise is to quickly walk forward, thereby creating your own tightness in the lead rope. Challenge your horse to put some slack back into it by keeping up with you and remaining relaxed at the poll. Again, shake your flag the moment that you encounter any resistance and release as soon as you feel your horse give to the lead-rope once again. You should find yourselves flowing forward together more effortlessly.

Respect for Personal Space
This is also the time for your youngster to develop a keen sense of your personal space. Just because your horse is not yet full-size does not mean he should be allowed to step too close to you. In the first article of this series (see the 2010 Canadian Horse Annual) I discussed the idea that horses communicate through the space that surrounds them. A lead horse, for example, can easily direct the herd by pressing either his thought and/or his own space into that of others. Imagine that a giant bubble surrounds both yourself and your horse. Your goal is to press your bubble into the same invisible circle that surrounds your horse and have him yield to you. For example, if the horse’s head were in your personal space, you would step in towards his nose and expect his head and possibly his entire body to clear that space. If he resisted, and you felt yourself stepping into what amounts to a wall, you could use your flag or whatever else you’re comfortable with to kick up a bit of a fuss until he cleared out of your space. With every attempt, you should be encouraging him to yield a little sooner by being very quick to release your own pressure at the slightest sign of a try. The more yield you produce, the softer and quieter your horse will be.

The techniques we’ve just discussed are designed to build softness from the inside out and, when developed at an early age, can lead to extraordinary life-long results. Think of these methods more as a way of living, rather than exercises.

A good friend of mine once said, “So they are started, so they go.” What he meant was that by making good use of the impressionable years in a horse’s life, you are providing him with the best start possible.

Expectations for Two-Year-Olds
As a trainer I would like to see a solid understanding of groundwork by the end of the two-year-old year, as well as a consistent softening to the lead rope. There should also be a clear understanding of personal space and the notion of travel, and being separated from other horses should be a non-issue.

By the end of this formative training season, a two-year-old should also be very comfortable being saddled and carrying a rider at both the walk and trot. If a horse is further along in his mental and physical development, some canter work can also be beneficial.

Saddling and light riding should become a regular part of a youngster’s repertoire. This is the time to instill comfort with the experience of being ridden and to develop a basic understanding of the aids. This will facilitate the more formal training that is to come in the following year.

It might sound like a lot, but my belief is that it is all very necessary work. These steps lay the foundation for all future training and will teach a horse to use himself properly, which will contribute to the maintenance of soundness throughout his life.

As trainers and caregivers, our job is to take the beauty of the horse and work with it, not to push the body or the mind to the extreme. I would discourage you from either starting a horse too late or pushing him so hard that you end up with a lame or mentally damaged horse that was ridden too hard as a youngster.

Find a good balance and the wisdom within yourself to build a great relationship with your horse and you will be well on your way to achieving success in your training.