Starting horses can be daunting for some, so it’s essential to ensure you are capable or have a qualified rider/trainer doing it for you or at the least guiding you. Horses react to different situations and methods of starting. The techniques you may be used to using may not suit the horse you are starting; this might mean you will have to adapt your approach or bring in someone else who better suits the training style of that horse.
There is some controversy around what age a horse should be started under saddle. Some research states that doing a few short rides at a young age can be suitable for the horse as they will begin developing bone strength for weight bearing. To get a horse to this point, there are many different approaches. In Harmony Horsemanship. both positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement are used. When using positive reinforcement, offering rewards to your horse for doing the things you want them to do can help increase motivation and help them learn faster, but it can also help with relaxation. When you offer food as a reward, the horse starts chewing, gets more invested in the training, and helps them stay out of over-emotional space.
Now, you have to be careful not to bribe your horse. For example, if you have a bucket of food and you’re letting the horse eat while you get on, the horse probably isn’t fully aware of what you are doing because it is focused on the food. Instead, slowly work your way to getting on, and every time the horse stands still and pays attention, offer them a reward. That way, you get a true sense that the horse is ready. You’re giving the horse a chance to fidget around if that’s what they’re feeling, and you’re not hiding or masking its genuine emotions and letting the horse be fully present in that moment.
Negative reinforcement, which is pressure and release, is also essential because it’s great for the horses to understand that pulling back on the reins means stop pulling and left or right means turn and might be how you bring them into an emergency stop. However, it’s great to use your body first, exhale, and have the horse go off a softer cue. If we’re realistic, probably at some point, there’s going to be some spook or startle or excitement or energy where the horse is not going to be responding to that super soft cue. We want them to have an understanding. So both positive and negative reinforcement can be very valuable.
With that said, you want to be careful that you are not using excessive amounts of pressure and that you’re not going to a place of causing that horse emotional upset or pushing them over a threshold. So when they start to get worried, you wait rather than adding more pressure to get them to complete the task. It’s essential to be fair, consistent and follow through, not in a threatening way that causes them to become defensive or more upset, but so that they understand to follow through and get rewarded and build that motivation.
So the moral of the story is make sure you have somebody who knows what they’re doing, who is well balanced and ready to adjust to the horse’s needs.
As horsemen and horsewomen, we have to do right by the horse, which means looking into any possible reason the horse may be reacting a certain way. Is it us? Is it the saddle? Is it soundness? This is our job because we chose the horse; they didn’t choose us. Remember, you can always check out more great free resources and other information at