Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Train While You Play—Lessons Learned from Baby Horses

By Mary Gallagher

Baby horses are four-legged balls of fun, interested in everything, playful and curious. We have been blessed with a number of bright young colts to start and develop, over the past few years at Freedom Farm, and I’ve been taking notes on our progress. I’ve realized how much power and potential there is in recognizing the energy of play as a resource in training, not only with babies but horses in general. Without overthinking things (a good first rule of thumb with baby horses), I wanted to share some insights and ideas to consider while playing with your horse of any age:

You can see these ideas in action in my recent video, taken in real time during our Friday ground class. Linked at end of article!

1. Warm up play time—No demands, just move and groove! Turn out your horse with friends to stretch the legs and burn off some excess energy. 

2. Baby Steps.  Start with boundary rules. This means true boundaries, such as our Boundary Box (cavaletti poles arranged in boxes of various size). Setting poles or any obstacles to play around can be a fun way to establish safe boundaries. In the play area, I can allow my young horse to investigate the obstacle while keeping them on the opposite side of the obstacle from me.  This gets a conversation going, while allowing curiosity to grow. Later these little yields can grow into bigger yields, such as going sideways down the fence. Not too soon though—remember, these are baby steps!

3. Brief and easy to understand. Change obstacles frequently to keep interest going. If I want a horse to put a foot on an obstacle, I would start with: put your nose on the obstacle and then move on to a new obstacle to put the nose on again. Get the nose going where you want and the feet will follow. Keep it simple and go with curiosity.

4. Make a winner, make a try-er, make it fun to learn. Speaking of encouraging curiosity, you really want your horse to give yes answers. YES I Can Do That. Because it is SO EASY. I can’t express how important it is to set things up so the horse can give a Yes answer. BABY STEPS. Its like playing with a young child if you make it too hard they stop having fun then they don’t want to play. Make it so your young horse can come up with the right answer easily. And then move on. DO NOT DRILL the same answer. 

5. Short sessions. Keep it interesting, just like with little kids. If you keep your training time short, you won’t run out of ideas or become too repetitive.

6. Forget about training and have fun. Knowing what you want the end result to be is important. But you don’t need to win the Olympics today! Be flexible, start by shaping what is presented in the moment. As your horse offers pieces of that end result you can shape them for the future. Too often we get in our heads that things have to go a certain way and we miss some beautiful ideas developing in the young horse. As I like to say, “Observe, observe, observe. It is easier to shape than to fix!



7. ‘Warm Down’ Curiosity walk. End with bonding. Go for a graze or a wander with your horse. Hang out! It is your relationship that really matters.

And finally... Friday Horsemanship with Obstacles and Baby Horses. Enjoy!

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