Training a Young Horse: Activities & Tips

What You Should Teach Your Young Horse

The best time to introduce a horse to new objects, situations, and environments is when they are young. Young horses are naturally more curious and accepting of their environments than older horses. Whether your horse is just a few weeks old, a yearling, or a three-year-old, working with them consistently can help you get them started on the right track.

What should I teach my young horse? Here is my list of what I teach my young horses, from the first thing I teach them to more advanced training for youngsters:

  1. Touch
  2. Leading
  3. Leaving Their Herd
  4. Yielding to Pressure
  5. Picking Up Their Feet
  6. Tying
  7. Lunging
  8. Clipping
  9. Blanketing
  10. Trailer Loading
  11. Hand-Walking Trail Rides
  12. Ponying
  13. Going Off the Property
  14. Saddling
  15. Riding

Just like children, every young horse is different. They have different personalities, learn at different paces, and respond differently to situations; however, your best chance at creating a brave, trustworthy riding horse is to start working with them as soon as possible.

How Long Should I Work With My Young Horse?

The younger the horse, the shorter the training sessions should be. The younger the horse, the shorter the attention span! That said, you can do multiple sessions a day if you provide ample time between when the horse gets to be a horse. Here is the length of sessions I recommend based on the horse’s age:

  • Newborn – Weanling (6 months): 5 – 10 minutes
  • 6 Months – 1.5 Years Old: 10 – 20 minutes
  • 1.5 – 2 Years Old: 10 – 30 minutes
  • 2 – 3 Years Old: 20 minutes+, depending on the horse

When working with my yearling, I could tell when his attention span was shot, and he was ready to be done. He would get fidgeting and nippy. If your young horse shows signs like this or their personality seems to change within your training session, it’s best to end it on a good note and put them back in their pasture. To continue may cause both of you to become frustrated, and it may cause your horse to negatively associate its training sessions.

Depending on the horse, a two—or three-year-old can be worked with for a variety of times. Many ranches start their ranch horses as 2-year-olds and have them work half the day with cattle. Some stables don’t train their horses much until they reach 2 years old; then, they have to start at the beginning. It depends on your preference and the horse. I, personally, don’t start my horses under saddle until they are three to four years old. However, I pony them on longer trails and take them off the property with my other horse. Whatever you decide, be aware of your horse’s personality and know when to tell that they have had enough.

Training a Young Horse Step #1: Touch

Being able to touch your horse is essential to working with them. Knowing that you can touch your horse and you won’t get bit or kicked can give you confidence when working with them; it will also give your horse confidence in working around you! I made this the first step to training a young horse because if you can’t master this when the horse is young, it will be much more difficult to master it when it is older.

The goal is to be able to touch your horse anywhere on its body. Imagine if the horse gets a cut or injury on the inside of its stifle. Most horse owners never think to touch this area. I want my horse to be familiar with that area being touched so it will be easier for me to clean the wound.

If you’re uncomfortable running your hands over an area of your horse, use a lunge whip. Use the approach and retreat method to get the horse used to areas it is unsure of. When the horse shows signs of insecurity, retreat your hand or lunge whip back to an area it is comfortable with. Gradually move forward again.

Finding places your horse likes to be scratched is a great way to help your horse learn to positively associate touch. Common scratchy areas on horses include just behind the withers, in the center of their neck, and under their belly where a girth or cinch would go.

The concepts and methods used to get your horse used to touch are the same methods used to get your horse used to ropes and halters. They must first get comfortable with the foreign object touching them before they will allow you to put a rope around their neck or a halter on their head.

Training a Young Horse Step #2: Leading

Now that you can touch and halter your horse, it’s time to work on leading them. With foals younger than weanling age, I always introduce this concept using a butt rope; this is a rope that goes around the foal’s hind end that enables the handler to help move the foal forward. This rope keeps the foal from rearing up and flipping backward. It can be used to help the foal understand what the handler wants when they give a little pull on the lead rope. You’ll gently pull on the butt rope at the same time to scoot the foal forward.

An easy way to start teaching a young horse to lead is to have someone else lead another horse in front of you. The young horse will naturally want to follow and quickly learn to walk on a lead. Doing this when you take the dam and foal to their paddock is a simple way to introduce leading early on.

Initially, a baby horse is not going to walk beside you perfectly. They may drag behind or be pulling to get ahead. At some point in time, they will surely have a burst of energy and want to rear and buck on the lead. Keep calm, keep moving in the direction you are going, and try to ignore the chaos as much as possible. To gain control, you can circle the foal or halt altogether. The last thing you want to do is jerk on the lead or pull the foal’s neck around violently. Foals are in the early stages of development and are still fragile. To be able to teach your young horse to lead correctly, you must move on to teaching them to yield to pressure.

Training a Young Horse Step #3: Leaving Their Herd

If you want a horse that can ride out on the trail alone and go wherever you point them, whether with another horse or not, you’ll want to start your horses as soon as possible on leaving the herd. Foals should stay with their mothers until they are weaned at around six months old. From that point on, start incrementally taking them out and away from the other horses for small periods of time; this will help them feel more comfortable in environments where there isn’t another horse around.

The best method I have found for this is feeding time. Your foal or young horse should be on a routine feeding schedule. At the same time every day, remove your horse from the herd to be fed. You may start out by feeding them on the other side of the fence, but the ideal goal is to get to where you can feed them where they cannot see the other horses. Your horse will learn that leaving the herd isn’t bad since they get to go eat!

I always take my yearling away from his herdmate when it’s time for our training sessions. I started doing this as soon as I brought him home, and he can now comfortably walk away from his pasture and even to the state park to be hand-walked on the trails all by himself. for more tips, check out my YouTube video down below by clicking the image:

Training a Young Horse Step #4: Yielding to Pressure

Learning to yield to pressure is vital to a horse’s training and safety. Other terms used interchangeably with yielding to pressure are teaching a horse “respect” or teaching them “boundaries.” Yielding to pressure is when a horse moves away from pressure being applied (leg pressure, lunging) or toward the pressure to relieve a pull (leading, going on the bit, picking up feet).

It’s the same concept whether you’re teaching your horse to move away from the pressure or toward it to relieve a pull. When starting young horses on this, you want to reward them for the smallest try. To reward them, you will immediately remove the pressure by dropping the lead, putting their foot down, or moving your leg, hand, or lunge whip away from them. By doing this, you’re letting the horse know that they responded correctly. This concept is called pressure and release.

You must gradually increase the pressure levels to teach your horse to respond to the lightest pressure. Always start by asking your horse with the lightest pressure possible. If they don’t respond, increase the pressure to a medium pressure. If they don’t respond to that, increase to a harder pressure. If you only ask your horse to do something immediately using the hardest pressure, that is the pressure they will learn to respond to. If you start by asking with the lightest pressure, they will eventually learn to respond to the lightest pressure possible.

Start small. Yielding to pressure will require your horse to think rather than react, which goes against their flight instincts. It may initially seem like a slow process, but once your horse gets yielding to pressure, it will make them much easier and safer to work with. This is a crucial step in training a young horse. To move on to the next training steps, your horse must be able to yield to pressure.

For specifics on training your horse to yield to pressure, check out my article Teaching a Horse to Yield to Pressure: Easy Exercises.

Training a Young Horse Step #5: Picking Up Their Feet

You want to teach your young horse to pick up its feet as soon as possible. Initially, the horse will want to pull its feet away or try to jump away from you. It’s much safer and easier to do this with horses when they are young and small rather than large, heavy, and grown up. Also, horses need their hooves trimmed every 4 – 8 weeks, depending on the climate. Being able to pick up their feet for the farrier is essential to maintaining your horse’s health.

To teach your horse to pick up its feet, you will apply the concept of pressure and release. Have someone else hold the horse so you can focus on the feet. Decide how you will ask the horse to pick up its feet. Remember, consistency is key to working with horses. Initially, you’ll want to ask the same way whenever you ask them to pick up their feet. Whether it’s pinching the chestnut or pulling up on the fetlock feathers, decide the method you want to use.

When you pick up your horse’s feet, start with the lightest pressure: a gentle squeeze to the chestnut or a closing of your fingers are the feathers. If the horse doesn’t respond, gradually increase to a pinch of the chestnut and a tug on the fetlock feathers. You can also lean your shoulder into your horse’s shoulder to rock their balance to the opposite foot.

As soon as your young horse picks its foot up, even if it’s just a centimeter off the ground, release the pressure and stand all the way up at its side to reward it. For a youngster, you can even lead them a few steps to act as a mental break. Start here and gradually increase the time you hold the hoof up.

Training a Young Horse Step #6: Tying

Before teaching your horse to tie, ensure they will to the pressure of a lead rope when you pull on them to step forward. This type of yield is crucial in safely tying a young horse.

To start, I always introduce tying by looping the lead rope around a post or a tie ring, but instead of tying it, I hold on to the other end of it. It’s best to use a longer lead rope, like a 14′ rope, so you can still work around the horse. If the horse were to fight and pull back, I could let the rope get longer but keep them from injuring themselves or getting away.

Practice having your horse give to the pressure of the lead rope by pulling your end of the rope around the post or through the tie ring to where there is tension on the rope. The horse should step forward to the post to relieve the pressure. If they fight it and want to pull, hold on to the rope until they give to the pressure.

Another aspect of successfully teaching a young horse to tie is teaching them to stand still. I always work on teaching my horses to stand still before I teach them to tie. It helps them feel more relaxed when they are in an environment that limits their space, like tying. I’ll hold my lead rope and have my horse stand in the round pen or paddock as I brush them. If they step forward or wriggle around, I’ll back them up to where they were before. Remember, with a baby, getting a few seconds out of them standing still is a good start. They won’t have the attention span and focus to stand still for too long.

Training a Young Horse Step #7: Lunging

Lunging is an important part of horse training, enabling you to move your horse safely around you. Not only is this great for teaching a young horse to move out and learn riding cues, but it is also a great safety tool when desensitizing or working with a particularly spunky horse. If a horse knows to move out and around you, even when they are feeling spicy, it will help keep you at a safe distance from flying hooves.

While lunging is a great training tool, you should limit lunging to only a few minutes with young horses. Since they aren’t fully developed, hard lunging can cause unnecessary strain on your horse’s body and joints as they go continuously around in a circle. I only lunge my 1.5-year-old draft cross for no more than 5 minutes at a time, and I try to keep it at a walk and trot.

Before your horse can go out in a circle around you, you must teach it a few aspects. First, it needs to be able to move out and away from you. Second, it needs to be willing to move forward and around you. Third, you need to have control of its hindquarters so you can ask it to halt and stop if it decides to have a bucking fit.

In my article, Horse Groundwork Exercises for Respect: 5 Easy Exercises, I walk you through teaching each exercise to where you can start lunging.

Training a Young Horse Step #8: Clipping

Many horses have an aversion to clippers. They don’t like the clippers’ buzzing sound and avoid the razor’s vibration. Starting your horse early on with clippers can make them a joy to work with during the show season! Not only do people clip their horses to be more presentable for the show ring, but sometimes it’s necessary to clip horses with health conditions where they can’t shed their coats properly. It’s also hygienic for feathered horse breeds to clip their feathers to avoid rashes and moisture getting caught against their skin.

The first step in introducing your young horse to clippers is getting them used to the sound of them. The buzzing sound is typically what causes most horses to freak out. The easiest way to do this is by tying your young horse in the barn while you clip another trustworthy horse. The young horse will feed off of the trustworthy horse’s emotions. They will take on the same outlook if they hear the buzzing but see that the other horse could care less.

From there, you want to introduce the horse to the vibration of the clippers. You’ll want to do this by holding your horse rather than having them tied up. You don’t have to put a blade on for this initial bit. Rub the vibrating clippers up and down your horse’s body, applying the advance and retreat technique mentioned in the “Touch” training step. If your horse is scared of the clippers, try using positive reinforcement to change their outlook. Touch the clippers to the horse, give them a treat, and take the clippers away from the horse.

Training a Young Horse Step #9: Blanketing

Blanketing horses for cold weather is a controversial topic in the horse world; however, blanketing is also a great tool for teaching young horses to get objects put on them and straps hanging around their bellies. In the long run, blanketing your young horse will make it easier for them to put a saddle on for the first time.

An easy way to assess your horse and how they may handle blanketing is to drape your lead rope around them and move it over their body and around their legs. This will help them get used to the feeling of straps around their legs and belly.

Every horse is different when blanketing for the first time. My yearling could have cared less when I threw the blanket over him and pulled the straps underneath his belly. It’s best not to assume your horse will handle it like my yearling! Find the middle of the winter blanket and fold the sides back in your arms to make the blanket more narrow. Place the blanket over your horse’s withers to start with. Take it off and place it over again until the horse seems comfortable.

From there, unfold the blanket towards your horse’s hind end while keeping the horse’s nose turned towards you. If the horse were to freak out, this would cause them to move away from you rather than toward you. Do the same as you pull the belly straps under and around the horse.

Training a Young Horse Step #10: Trailer Loading

No one likes dealing with a horse that refuses to load on the trailer. Start your horse young, and you won’t have this problem in the future. The great news is there’s no rush to get your horse because not many people are taking their weanling or yearling out to the shows or on trail rides.

If you want to make this really easy for yourself, feed your horse in the trailer for a few days. The horse will learn to love the trailer, and it will probably learn to self-load to get the food! First, make the trailer look as inviting as possible. Open the doors and windows, and move the dividers to the side if possible. Walk on first and go all the way to the front of the trailer; this will encourage the horse to follow you. When they step up, offer them food.

If you have an escape door on your trailer, walking your horse through the trailer and out the escape door is a quick way to get them used to stepping into the trailer and immediately getting off.

When you feel comfortable shutting the trailer doors, have a second person around to help; don’t try to do it by yourself the first time with a young horse. For more tips on loading your horse in the trailer, visit my article Loading a Horse on a Trailer: Simple Step-By-Step Guide.

Training a Young Horse Step #11: Hand-Walking Trail Rides

Do you look forward to your young horse growing up as a trusty trail horse? If so, start them out on the trails as early as you can! The trails present many new situations and obstacles that a young horse can learn to navigate. There can be water crossings, ditches, dogs, animals in the brush, and steep hills. Hand-walking your young horse out on the trails can be a great way for them to experience the new environment while giving you control and enabling you to help them work through scenarios.

Hand-walking your horse on the trails can also reinforce the work you’ve done to get them confident about leaving their herd and going out to be worked. If a young horse is raised to never leave the barn or its friends, it’s going to be hard for them to be brave on the trail. When I do this with my youngster, I use a rope halter and bring treats in my pocket for rewards. Initially, we’ll only go a little ways down the trail. As the horse gets comfortable and can focus for longer periods of time, we will increase our distance. This is also a great way for both of you to get some exercise!

If you are working on getting your horse ready for the trails, check out my article How to Bombproof Your Horse For Trail Riding.

Training a Young Horse Step #12: Ponying

Ponying is when you ride one horse and lead the other; it can be used as a tool to introduce your young horse to work and being ridden. While you won’t ride your young horse while ponying, you will sit above them on your other horse. They’ll learn to follow your lead while you’re in the saddle, and they can’t directly see you like they would on the ground.

When you pony a horse, you want the horse you are leading to stay beside your knee as you sit on the other horse. You don’t want them to get too far ahead, or they could kick out and hit you. You don’t want them to drag behind, as the horse you are on may kick them. Always introduce this in a smaller space, like a round pen or arena. Being able to neck rein on your riding horse will make ponying much easier, as you’ll have a free hand to hold the lead rope of the other horse. If you want to teach your horse how to neck rein, visit my article: Teaching a Horse to Neck Rein: Step-By-Step Guide.

Practice leading your horses next to each other before you try riding. Once you feel comfortable, get on one horse and lead the other. It’s smart to practice leading your youngster on both the left and right sides. Start at a walk. Ensure your horses can walk, halt, back up, turn around, and change direction before moving on to the trot. Your young horse will be able to learn vocal queues as you ride, and they’ll start learning how to yield their hind-quarters and shoulders to make room for the other horse.

Training a Young Horse Step #13: Going Off the Property

Many adult horses get very anxious every time they go to a new location. If you want your young horse to be confident in new places as they grow up, start taking them off the property now.

I take Ruach 20 minutes away to go walk on public trails. You can also take your horse to a friend’s farm or a local show to experience the commotion and many horses. Starting out, take another horse with you so they have a friend who can help them feel safe.

There are also many horse campgrounds across the United States. Many of them have corrals or stalls for your horses. For an overnight trip, try one of these campgrounds. You can leave your horses in the corrals, then pony your youngster out on the trails.

Training a Young Horse Step #14: Saddling

Even if your horse is too young to ride, you can practice saddling them. Being saddled and having a girth tightened around them can be overwhelming for a horse that has never done it before. Even before you saddle them, getting your horse used to being touched by different objects and getting things put across their backs can help them be more accepting to the saddle.

I have a training saddle I am using for the first time, saddling. It’s a cheap saddle that has seen better days, and I don’t care if it falls on the ground. To saddle your horse for the first time, use the approach and retreat method. Practice approaching your horse with the saddle. If they are unsure of it, let them see it, then retreat to give them a break.

As they get comfortable with it, place it over their back and remove it many times before putting the girth on. You want them to be comfortable enough with the saddle being put on them so that when you go to put the girth on, it’s not as overwhelming for them.

When you put the girth on the horse, the best and safest thing to do is tighten it quickly to a place where the saddle is secure, then get out of the way and let your horse work it out. Now, if you’ve done good desensitizing, your horse shouldn’t do anything once the saddle is on them. If you haven’t been as thorough in introducing saddling to your horse, they will probably go into a bucking fit. Eventually, they will work it out and accept the weight on their back and the girth around their belly; however, you should continue to work on desensitizing your horse before you try to ride them.

Training a Young Horse Step #15: Riding

There are many intricacies to starting a young horse under saddle. Check out my article How to Train a Horse: Step-By-Step Guide for a detailed how-to. Remember to go slow. Be thorough. Trying to go fast will leave many holes in your horse’s training. Remember that a young horse will not do everything perfectly the first time. Oftentimes, the young horse has to develop not only its skills but also its muscle and stamina.

Remember to reward for the smallest try and always try to end on a good note. If something’s not working, take a step back and get advice from a more experienced person. Give your young horse grace. Remember, this is new to them.

I hope you found this article helpful! If you’re looking for more horse training articles, click here.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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