The Timeline

I think anyone who has a baby horse probably spends a lot of time thinking in reverse. As in, X is The Big Thing, and then everything gets planned backwards from X. What is X? Starting under saddle, of course. That’s kind of the holy grail moment that we’re working towards with babies, after all.

Where “X” exists on the calendar really depends. It depends on the person, it depends on the horse, and of course, like anything with horses, changes in circumstances can also cause X to move. When Presto’s dam, Sadie, was a baby, I fully intended on starting her at 3.5 years old. However, let me tell you what’s worse than a 2yo filly with a whole lot of smarts and not enough mental stimuli to occupy said smarts.

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My formerly very sweet filly got bored, and when she got bored she got creative, and when she got creative she went through a decidedly wicked phase that resulted in more than one vet bill. Freaking fillies, man.

So I moved up her timeline for starting under saddle, and she went to the cowboy a few months before her 3rd birthday. She didn’t work too hard, but her brain was 100% occupied every single day with things that were new and fresh and different. She came home a changed horse… not even the sweet filly I had before, but a genuinely happy and more confident horse. She needed direction and purpose.

those long legs are genetic

After she came home we spent that whole first summer mostly just hacking and trail riding. Her first “off property” adventure was a trail ride with a lot of other horses, at a place she’d never been. I swung aboard not knowing what to expect, but she was foot perfect and led most of the way. She absolutely loved it, and thrived on having something fun to do. Bonus: spending all that time hacking turned her into a pretty chill horse. Not only did she get exposed to a lot, she also learned how to just be a riding horse without a lot of pressure or demands or heavy expectations. Her body had time to strengthen and develop and acclimate to it’s new job before her work got harder. I fully believe that this is one of the biggest contributing factors to her fantastic work ethic.

3yo Sadie leading the way as we headed out on her first off property trail ride

Having been through this already with Sadie, I’ve got Presto’s X set in the spring of his 3yo year. He’s a March foal, so basically sometime around his 3rd birthday is what I’m aiming at. Of course, I’m flexible on that. If we have to move it up or back for whatever reason, then that’s what we’ll do. But he will likely go spend 60 days with a “cowboy” (maybe even the same cowboy) just like his mom did. From there we’ll spend several months hacking and trail riding, then he’ll do a month of dressage basics with a pro, followed by having the winter “off” to let everything soak in before starting a more formal training schedule in his 4yo year.

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Of course, he’s just edging in on 18 months old, so we’re talking yet another 18 months in the future before any of this happens. This is where we start thinking in reverse. What do you fill that time with? How “prepped” do you want the horse to be before it’s started? When do you introduce what things?

Some people just leave them totally alone. I have no problem with that. I totally see the appeal and the benefits. It’s just not my preference. I made an effort to leave Sadie mostly alone aside from what she really needed to know, and feel like that kinda backfired on me. She wasn’t the type of horse that that approach worked best for, and I don’t feel like Presto is either. They’re smart, they like to learn, and they seem happiest when they have regular interaction. With Presto I’m keeping him more occupied and staying more involved on a daily basis. I try to picture it as if I’m building a house… how solid can I make that foundation? What’s going to help form him into the best horsey citizen that he can possibly be, later in life?

Besides modeling his new navy leather halter like a boss

There’s a lot of stuff he already does. He crossties, straight ties, loads, hauls, stands for the farrier, stands for baths (I mean there’s a lot of glaring, but he stands), wears a bridle, knows the basics of lunging, knows what “whoa” and a cluck mean, stands for grooming and fly spray, ponies off another horse, wears boots/bandages on his front and hind legs, knows how to walk/trot/stand in hand, has done some in hand trail obstacles, and has been to a few horse shows.

Right now we’re doing some round penning basics… not much since he’s so young and I don’t want him tearing around on a small circle, but he knows how to yield the front/hind end and back up using body language, and lower his head from poll pressure. We’ve had a couple “rope” lessons with me running a rope all over his body, around his legs, under his tail, etc. We’ve started dabbling in “walk” and “trot” voice commands. He’s a lot like his mother in that most things are almost too easy, because he retains the lessons very quickly. Even with keeping his sessions at 15 minutes or less, after a while you start feeling like you’re running out of stuff to do. Properly torturing a yearling requires some serious creativity.

When you’re trying to have serious rope lessons but he’s more interested in sniffing poo

There’s still a lot I want to teach him before he’s ready to be started under saddle though. I want him to already wear all of his tack comfortably, of course. I want him to long line. Shoot, maybe at some point in the future I’ll even sit on him or teach him about mounting. I guess it depends. I figure that wearing tack and long-lining are things we can play with when he’s 2. I definitely want to keep taking him to shows, too, be it FEH classes or otherwise. The more the better.

A big goal for the fall/winter is hauling him off property just to pony with Henry. I want to take him to show venues and walk him through the water, up and down the banks, and across the ditches. He’s already done this once and we both thought it was fantastic. I’d also like to take him to some local parks to trail ride, let him experience terrain and whatever spooky things might be waiting in the bushes. Aside from the exposure, I think it’s really good for his body. The long walks help him build some muscle and fitness, and the varied footing and terrain helps develop his bone and soft tissue. Plus he’s getting the chance to learn to manage his own feet, without the guidance or hindrance of a rider.

sometimes we stop for pets and naps

For another horse/owner this schedule might not work, but learning more about Presto and his brain over the past few months has really helped clarify a longer-term plan for him. That’s not to say that it won’t be modified of course… in fact I’m sure it will, but we’ve got a rough outline in place at least. Either way, I’m sure it’ll be fun.

13 thoughts on “The Timeline

  1. When I was growing up in Montana most of our young horses were turned out in huge “pastures” until they were 1 or 2 years old. These pastures were measured by square miles, not acres, so they really were huge. And given the landscape of eastern Montana they were learning how to be a horse (as my Dad always said) as well as growing up. This developed some very sturdy, sure-footed and solid horses.

    Once I started working with youngsters I wanted them home before the summer of the yearling year. I showed a couple yearlings in 4-H (in hand only) and open shows and later showed Jaguar in the yearling lunge line stuff. I like to expose the baby horses to as much as possible before they are under saddle so that all that stuff is second nature once they have the saddle on. I only need so much drama at one time! I’ve backed probably 15-20 young horses and only ever really got bucked off of one of them so I am pretty confident that my approach works.

    I wish I had taken Coco out and about more while she was growing up, but she has been pretty good nonetheless.

    I’m also curious about the research that is coming out about the training of 2yo thoroughbreds making for stronger horses. I think there was an article in The Horse about it this year.


    1. There have been several studies showing that lightly stressing the bones/soft tissue as they’re growing makes them stronger in the long run. I think the key is the lightly stressing part. If I lived somewhere like… Ireland… where there were lots of hills and mud and he lived in a herd of young horses, it would probably be sufficient. Here in Texas where everything is flat flat flat and he lives with a couple donkeys in a smaller pasture, I don’t feel like he will develop as well on his own. I’ve noticed a marked difference in his musculature just in the past couple months since I started ponying him on long walks more frequently. His walk has also gotten bigger and more swinging through his body. If I can see those changes on the outside, I have to believe that there are benefits on the inside too.


  2. This is pretty much my exact same timeline for my filly. I want to expose her to as much as possible as a yearling and two year old – she already does all the same stuff as Presto, minus the ponying which we will be starting next month hopefully, but she is already comfortable wearing a pony saddle. I want her to understand bit cues and voice cues through long lining and lunging next year. I still have to find a good cowboy to send her to when she’s 3, and then light riding and hacking that year with the winter between 3 and 4 off. I love your posts about what you’re doing with Presto, because it gives me good ideas on what to work on with Jupiter. She is also wicked smart and already had an awesome base of training when I bought her, so I also feel like it’s hard to find new stuff to keep her interested and learning! I’m hoping that introducing ponying off of my gelding will help keep things fresh for her, and also keep her from getting too big for her britches, as Bay doesn’t put up with any sass from babies lol


  3. Love your work you are doing with him. I did that with my filly and I found her more accepting when it came to breaking her in. Our rides with her being led off my other horse seem to slow her mind down and she always had better manners. At the moment she has been out in a paddock for a couple of months due to her crazy growth spurts (and Southern Hemisphere winter) she can sometimes be to opiniated which results her being ied up for a while for her to remember what manners are. Good luck with your our little man.


  4. If you want someone to ride off property with, let me know. I’m happy to haul Reba an hour or so for a nice trail ride. I prefer nice calm walks, with maybe a little trotting and cantering thrown in, but nothing crazy or dangerous. Or overly long. Definitely no adrenaline rushes or endurance conditioning needed here.


  5. Sounds like you’ve got a good, solid plan for him. I definitely don’t think I’d have your patience to bring a baby up like that, so it’s been cool to follow along with your posts on him.


  6. I guess I should probably start thinking about this myself. lol I’m still looking for a trainer though…one that’s close enough for me to go lesson with while Joey is there, preferably someone who shows on the APHA circuit. In my budget. I’m hilarious. :/ Joey has picked up on most things well, but I hesitate to trying ponying or ground driving because I’m so incredibly uncoordinated myself. hahah


  7. I started Hampton in the fall of his 2 year old year. Just sitting on him, and walk trot mostly at first. I think this really contributed to his work ethic. Plus he was already big and I did not find the idea of starting an even bigger, stronger 3 year old an appealing idea.


  8. I know nothing of baby-babies, but I kind of wish all horses went through your program. I really think you’re setting him up for so much success. He’s seeing and doing everything with very little pressure. It will be old hat by the time he’s broke to ride.


  9. How about horse agility. I don’t know much about it, but it looks like fun and would keep those Presto brain cells busy. Too bad – very very VERY too bad – that the “big lick” breeders, trainers, owners and fans in the TWH world don’t and won’t treat their horses the way you have mapped out Presto’s education. They start their youngsters (read: victims) at SIXTEEN MONTHS! There’s an infamous photo of a young guy riding what you’d take to be a tiny pony, already sored, blindfolded (bizarre training practice) and up on stacks. The idea is to see if the little creature can “take it and walk”. If so, welcome to hell – a life of pain and misery on the big lick circuit. If not, dumped at a kill auction. Presto, thank your lucky stars you are the breed you are, and that you got such a great mom!


  10. It’s been really interesting to read about your day to day with Presto and your plans before riding. I have next to no experience with horses under 4, so it’s super educational!


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