Stop wasting time – Tips for training yearlings and two-year-olds
I used to be one of those people who thought the racing industry folks were insensitive and cruel. How could they start horses under saddle at just 18 months old?! How could they race them at two?! Don’t they know horses don’t mature skeletally until at least four or five-years-old? Of course, they know, they’re just greedy! I thought.
I had started a couple horses under saddle myself. The first was a young POA pony who turned out well despite my fumbling attempts as a 16-year-old, but then he was basically born broke. And lazy. But he loved to jump (LOVED IT, I tell you), so much that at times when I couldn’t get him to canter, I’d hop a cross-rail just to help through the transition. He was a cool dude, definitely a pony attitude but an excellent project for a motivated, eager, teenage Pony Clubber.
My next few breaking projects were older warmbloods – one four, one three. The four-year-old was wide-eyed with wonder at everything, with as much mental maturity as a puppy. He neighed at everything… horses, ponies, cows, birds, trees, rocks…. “HI MY NAME’S ‘PICKLES!’ CAN I BE YOUR FRIEND?!” Along with his innocence, he had a strong desire to please, and a great deal of athleticism, so he moved along pretty quickly. A 3-year-old WBxTB filly proved to be quite the challenge – very opinionated, with a strong attitude of entitlement and zero natural work ethic. Oh well, I thought, they can’t all be easy, right?
And then I entered the Thoroughbred world. After working the Keeneland sales, a couple of RNA’s (reserve bid not attained) went back to the farm with the idea of selling them as 2-year-olds. That would involve breaking them. I cringed at the thought, but it was my new job so I buckled down and got to work.
To my surprise, it was incredibly easy. Now, before you think these are “babies” (like I used to), these yearlings are fit and strong long before they ever see a saddle. Months of sales prep had them looking like fit little athletes, and they already had the concept of obedience. They were introduced to tack in the round pen, then bellied up and lunged with a rider aboard (me). Within seven rides, one colt was walk/trot/cantering around a two-acre paddock and doing flying lead changes. Seriously…it was not the difficult, forced work with overwhelmed babies as I had originally expected.
Nor was it physically terrible, either. Most of the riding was done at a trot, in progressively larger fields, building up the distance each week. After 30 days, they were trotting for 15-20 minutes. I picked up each canter lead, did a loopy circle each way, and that was it. There was no galloping at that stage, and no working in an arena or endless small circles to risk joint injury. It was mostly straight lines and understanding “Go Forward” without question.
Being smaller (probably 800-900lbs and about 15 hands) the fall yearlings were easy for a rider to influence. Shifting your weight caused a dramatic change in their balance, so you could help them turn or keep them straight. Similarly, your balance affected them greatly when going up or down small hills. You could make their lives a lot harder when they occasionally acted naughty, and it wasn’t impossible to convince them that you were “bigger” than they were. But mostly, they wanted to work with you, and using your weight made it simple to teach them what you wanted.
I began to realize that these young horses were happy to do their job and developing that classic Thoroughbred work ethic that is so prized. They were like eager little kindergartners, wanting to make Miss Teacher proud of them each day. Young horses, not unlike young children, are programmed to absorb lots of information at that age. It’s perhaps the best time to introduce them to their future life, and set them up for later success.
Would I recommend to start every horse at that age? Definitely not. Many horses aren’t ready for that kind of program at 18 months old. Many may not be ready until age three. But I do recommend incorporating some structured lessons for yearlings and two-year-olds, to develop a good work ethic and obedience.
- Do lots of preparation before starting under saddle. An unstarted horse is out of shape and tires quickly, leading to possible injury. Develop some early condition with a program of handwalking or ponying, and teach them to ground drive. Progress up to 20-30 minutes, five days per week, for a good 30-60 days before breaking.
- Once started under saddle, don’t just assume the horse is ready for “real” dressage or jump work. Take time to build more foundation with lots of hacking, long trotting and riding in the open. Months of this would be ideal, then give the horse some time off.
- I’m not a fan of lunging a lot before age three. Too many circles for my taste, risking unsoundness. Use a roundpen or the lunge line sparingly, enough to get basic control, and then get out to a bigger area. At three, they can start to do some more circle work and introduce side reins if you like.
- Use good sense and judgment, and treat every horse as an individual. Some need more time than others; some are naturally independent and do well alone, others should have a buddy horse around for support.
- Contrary to what some people say, sitting on a two-year-old and following a thoughtful plan of progression will not cripple them for life. But there is a difference between hacking out in the open on light contact, and cranking him into a frame and circling in a 20x40m arena.
Here’s a really neat video from Darryl Leigh, who breaks and starts race horses in Australia. Owners send him top prospects, by sires like Bernardini, More Than Ready, Street Sense, and Medaglia D’Oro. When the colts and fillies have a basic handle, they work out on the trails, hacking through water and cantering over small logs. I wish all OTTBs were started this way, what a pool of event horses we would have!