- November 3, 2015
- Rachel Larsen
We’re making up the sun in these last precious days of beautiful weather, the golden window, before Fall transitions into Winter. Around our outfit, this involves tackling projects that were set aside during the busy summer months. Projects like colt starting. Riding a young, inexperienced horse while chasing wily yearling cattle through the timber is not an experience I would recommend. So, only our older and more experienced horses travelled to cow camp this year.
Our green horses, spent the summer luxuriating on grass. I like to think they imagined themselves as wild brumbies, as they spent a season unencumbered by human contact. Their respite from human handling
had little impact on their comfort level with people, because they proved to be absolute nuisances when I gathered cows in the horse pasture. Though their curiosity interfered with my cowboying, it is a gratifying trait when it comes time to start a horse.
Curiosity can be stronger than fear and seems to ease the starting process. Before we put the first rides on our colts, it is important to us that they have a good foundation. All our young horses are halter broke and respectful of humans on the ground, before we saddle them the first time.
First, we ask for a response to pressure. When we can achieve movement with pressure, then we work towards developing a response to the release of pressure. The key to these exercises is observation. Learning to gauge a horse’s response to the handler, relies upon keen observation of the expressions of their ears, eyes, mouth, and tail. Are their ears tuned towards the handler? Do their eyes appear soft? Are they working their tongue in their mouth? Is the tail relaxed and lifted away from the body? These are a few expressions of attention and relaxation a horse can exhibit. When you are able recognize a change of attitude base on these minute signals, the starting process seems to move more quickly.
Throughout the starting process, we repeat actions and activities, until we see a favorable change in a horse’s demeanor. Horses respond well to positive reinforcement and the simplest form of positive reinforcement is what my mother always called, “Stopping on a good note.” Regardless of the exercise, every time you receive a favorable response step-away, take the pressure off and relax yourself, too.
My husband prefers to take his colts outside, within a few rides to avoid souring them (and himself) on round pen activities. If you have the space and the experience, it is good for the horse and human mind, to navigate the outdoors. However, I only recommend it after you have achieved a few relaxed rides in a more contained environment. We prefer to let the horse dictate the experiences they are ready for, based upon our observations of their demeanor. So there are no hard-and-fast rules in our colt starting program. What works for us may not work for you, it is safer for you and your horse to operate within your comfort zone.
The first outside rides are a pretty relaxed affair. As the chief Scaredy Cat, I usually ride a broke horse and act as a hazer and inspirational assistant for my husband and the colt. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. Again, we observe the young horses expression and behavior. When one is riding like Bing, pictured below, with their tail relaxed and a soft expression about their face, we start home. Sometimes, we even stop and dismount, then we loosen the cinch, pat the colt, and spend a little time relaxing. This is usually reserved for a longer ride and colts with a little more experience. Moments like these serve to create that “good note,” I spoke of.
Starting horses is a continual learning curve for me. My goal with every experience is to create pockets of positive reinforcement and hone my empathetic observation skills. I love to learn and embrace opportunities to do so, but the best part of starting colts this Fall is the time I’ve spent with my husband. It is with gratitude and humility, that I thank October for being such a golden window of opportunity.
About Rachel Larsen
Rachel Lohof Larsen is a fifth-generation rancher, mom, wife, cowgirl, and blogger. Originally from Montana, Rachel has a BA in Environmental Science from Colorado College. She and her husband, Guy, bring a sense of integrity and a strong interest in sustainability to all their pursuits....