Trainer shares a bit of advice on starting colts
February 18, 2013
A horse's lifelong usefulness is often dependent upon the foundation built by his first teacher. Well-trained and successful horses generally had a solid start as a young horse. Groundwork is one common method of starting young horses. It teaches horses as early as long yearlings to learn to give to pressure and be responsive to signals and cues such as turning, moving forward, and stopping before a person ever swings a leg across their back. Dr. Mark Russell, an Equine Specialist at the University of Arkansas, starts his young prospects in a round pen. Russell is a native of Waller, TX, where he grew up training his own American Quarter Horses for all around events such as pleasure, reining and trail. In between graduate school at Colorado State University and receiving his PhD at Texas Tech in Lubbock, TX, he worked in the industry as a pleasure horse trainer for a little over a year. During the summer months, Dr. Russell hosts a series of clinics for both 4-H'ers and adults focused on training and horsemanship. He also holds an official judge's card with the American Paint Horse Association and judges throughout the year all across the country.
Dr. Russell starts young horses in a round pen setting. He requires that the colts learn to move off his body language in the round pen from moving forward to stopping and facing him. Dr. Russell also flags or sacks out his colts as part of his groundwork regime. Sacking out or flagging horses works by desensitizing them to the stimulus, the flag or sack (a tactile response) as well as the noise (an auditory response) that's created when the horse is being flagged or sacked out. By desensitizing the horse to a stimulus, he ultimately decreases the response, decreasing the horse's likeliness to move away or flee. After the horse has learned not to move in response to the flag or sack, saddling can begin.
Prior to saddling, Mark spends a great deal of time ground driving his colts. In his opinion this helps get the horses broke on the ground and teaches them to respond to commands before they ever carry a rider. He also requires before getting on that horses can flex in both directions, meaning they can willingly bend from side to side with little or no resistances.
Dr. Russell starts all of his horses with a snaffle bit. He actually suggests bridling yearlings so they can learn to "carry the bridle." The horses learn to carry the bridle in a controlled environment such as a round pen or the comfort of their stall without reins. This procedure is done in short bouts of time. He also states that, "groundwork and driving in a snaffle ideally puts the buttons on the horse from day one."
“You are limited in how long you can use the snaffle and you can’t expect a finished horse to perform adequately with a snaffle due to not being able to elevate his spine and round his back carrying a snaffle. And a snaffle can easily be pulled through the side of a horse’s mouth if they are not responsive and do not have a proper curb strap.”
Dr. Mark Russell
A snaffle is bit that has rings on the side (O-ring, D-ring, egg butt, half cheek or full) and may have a broken (broken in the middle or broken in multiple places) or solid mouthpiece according to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Bulletin. A snaffle does not have shanks even though many catalogs and even some people refer to curb bits with broken mouthpieces as snaffles. A snaffle works by placing direct pressure on the horse's mouth in various areas including the tongue, bars, cheeks, lips and palate. "A snaffle bit helps teach and assist young horses to lead with their nose, then a bosal is used after they are responsive to a snaffle. The snaffle helps create self-carriage, softness and lateral flexion. Ultimately if the training is done correctly then the horse will learn to work off the person's legs versus just relying on the bit and your hands," says Dr. Russell.
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He also suggests that a snaffle compared to a bosal would be a more appropriate choice for a greener or less experienced rider as it applies direct pressure and provides the ability to point the horse's nose more easily. A horse may need to graduate from a snaffle, though. "You are limited in how long you can use the snaffle and you can't expect a finished horse to perform adequately with a snaffle due to not being able to elevate his spine and round his back carrying a snaffle. And a snaffle can easily be pulled through the side of a horse's mouth if they are not responsive and do not have a proper curb strap, " states Russell.
Dr. Russell generally steps his horses up to a bosal, a form of a hackamore, when they are ready. The bosal is generally used after a snaffle and before a curb bit. Other hackamore bits are the sidepull and the mechanical hackamore which employs more leverage than direct pressure according to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Bulletin. The bosal works by placing pressure on the bridge of the nose and under the mandible or jaw. He transitions his horses from a snaffle to the bosal when "they are soft in the rib cage and responsive." Russell suggests that "A bosal is a good tool for helping pick up the horse's back as well as freeing up their front end so it's forced to better utilize its hindquarters when moving." One disadvantage to the bosal explained by Dr. Russell is the fact "if you go to turn with a bosal, it doesn't allow for the same freedom or a free turn due to different pressure points when compared to the snaffle. The response is not the same or as natural."
So, ideally when changing from the snaffle to the bosal the horse should be sensitized to pressure, meaning the rider can apply less and less pressure and the horse responds quicker and more readily to stimulus (or cues). In closing, Dr. Russell urged, "Do a lot of ground work first, seek out advice from other horsemen and professionals and don't rush the training process!"