Training Yearlings

Training a yearling colt can develop a mature horse that is ready for riding lessons, has great ground manners and has a deeper connection with the horse owner. Everything from leading to ponying to loading the young horse can make him a better old horse.

At first, you have this adorable little foal, with his little-wittle nose, fuzzy-wuzzy coat and stubbly tail. You ooo and ahh over him, take tons of pictures, and show him off to your friends when they stop for a cup of coffee and a baby viewing. Mama feeds the foal, he’s weaned, and then you feed him. Pretty soon he grows into what he is today, a frolicking, gangly and, likely, unruly yearling.

Now he’s not so cute.

He needs some manners and a way to keep his brain busy. But it’s still at least a year, maybe even two or three, before you can ride him. In the meantime, what are you going to do with him?

There’s the temptation to sell him and let him become someone else’s problem. Or, you could turn him out to pasture and forget about him until he’s 2 or 3 years old. Or, you could do what amateur owner Keeley Gant did, and spend the next 12 months getting your yearling ready for the rest of his life.

1. Schedule a Gelding Appointment
Obviously, this only applies if your yearling is male. If your colt has made it to his first birthday still intact, now’s a great time to make an appointment to have him castrated. A yearling gelding is much easier and enjoyable to handle and train than his stud-colt counterpart.

“It’s the best thing I did,” says Keeley, who adds that J.R.’s coltish attitude changed almost immediately after the surgery.

Young horses heal faster, too, making getting cut less stressful now than it would be later on in life.

2. Teach Leading Skills
At this point, you’ve probably already haltered the kid. And, maybe, he’s learned to give to pressure and follow you around on the lead rope without too much protest. Just remember, these early leading lessons are laying the foundation for tying, ponying, bridling and, more generally, behaving. You might be able to wrestle your yearling now, but he will grow, and there will come a time when he’s too big to make him do anything. So, instead of forcing him to follow you, teach him to lead properly.

“A big part of it is learning about space,” Keeley says. “J.R. had to learn to get out of my way and not climb on me.”

When you’re working on leading, change directions a lot, stop, back and turn your yearling toward and away from you. Have set expectations, but also keep training sessions short and positive. Your yearling has a short attention span, and this is kindergarten, not college.

3. Take Long Walks Together
Once J.R. had a handle on leading skills, Keeley spent time walking him in-hand along country farm roads near her family’s home. Their walks provided exercise, “which we both needed,” says Keeley. And the straight, slow work conditioned J.R.’s body without putting unnecessary stress on his joints. “What else was I going to do with him?” asks Keeley.

Taking walks also broadens a yearling’s world, letting him see things outside of the stable yard. On their walks, Keeley and J.R. saw birds, friendly dogs, cars, tractors, logs and litter. “It also gave us a chance to work on ground manners and space, and I think he learned to trust me when he saw scary things, because there wasn’t anyone else around to protect him,” she says.

That trust has translated into the saddle, where J.R. is willing to try new things when Keeley asks. “I think it has to do with all the time I spent with him as a yearling,” she reflects.

4. Let Him Tag Along on Trail Rides
Ponying your yearling along on trail rides is a great way to get him out and exposed to the big, wide world. Just make sure you’re experienced at ponying before you take a yearling as a tagalong, and practice in an arena before heading out to open spaces.

Finding the right pony partner is important, too, because that horse becomes your yearling’s security blanket. However, your yearling is going to need above average leading skills, and will need to be thoroughly sacked out and broke to a rope before you can attempt to pony him. Usually, the little guys are happy to follow the big boys anywhere they want to go, which gives an inexperienced yearling confidence out on the trail. You’ll come across hikers, motorcycles, bicycles, deer or elk, which to your yearling might as well be aliens. But, seeing scary things now, with the guidance of a good-old-guy pony horse, will make encounters easy later on when he’s under saddle and on his own.

5. Practice Grooming Rituals
Grooming is a great way to instill big-boy manners in your yearling while also taking the time to bond with him. As you are brushing, get him used to your touch by gently rubbing his ears, stroking his face and lips, and running your hands on his flank and under his tail. Don’t forget to handle his feet, too, which will help him behave when the farrier visits.

Also take the opportunity to get your yearling used to clippers and spray bottles. “Clippers were hard for J.R.,” Keeley remembers. “I’d just keep the clippers in my hand as I brushed him. That way he got used to the noise and the vibration.”

Put coat conditioner in your spray bottle and treat his coat every day. And introduce your yearling to the hose and the beginnings of a bath. “With J.R. being a Paint, I knew I’d be spending a lot of time cleaning him up,” Keeley says. She started with sponge baths and getting used to water coming out of the hose. “Now baths aren’t a problem,” she says.

6. Trailer Up and Hit the Road
Time is on your side when it comes to teaching your yearling to load in the trailer. “I’d hook up the trailer and spend time letting him look in it and smell,” says Keeley. “We didn’t have anyplace to go, so there wasn’t any pressure to get him in the trailer.”

Instead, she could take her time, load him up and haul him for short rides, usually with an older horse as a buddy in the second slot of the trailer. Trailering became something he just did, instead of something to get nervous about.

7. Teach Him to Longe
Longeing for too long and too hard can stress young bones and joints, but you can still help your horse get an idea of what you want from him on the longe line. Send your yearling out to the end of the line, and incorporate longeing into your in-hand trail training. “It really taught J.R. to go out where I told him, instead of being on top of me,” Keeley explains. “I could get him to go over bridge poles without me tripping through them, too.”

He’ll learn voice commands, too, including the all-important “whoa,” which will come in handy when he’s under saddle.

Teenage Training Advice

• Keep training and handling sessions short to keep your yearling’s attention.

• Let your youngster investigate new stuff at his own pace to avoid frightening him.

• Babying can create bad habits, so treat your yearling like an adult horse.

• Get your yearling out and about, since the more he sees, the more confident he’ll become.

• Make sure your yearling is up-to-date on vaccinations before hauling to new places.

8. Tackle In-Hand Trail Obstacles
Keeley showed J.R. anything that came to mind-tarps, bags, sprinklers, an exercise stability ball (“It wasn’t getting any use anyway,” she says)-all of which prepared him for future trail classes and basically just got him used to seeing strange things. “Now, when he sees something new, he’s like, ‘No big deal.’ Nothing bothers him,” she says.

To keep your yearling-and you-interested, create a short in-hand “trail” course to work through. Walk over poles, bridges and sheets of plywood. Trot around cones, figure eight around barrels, open mailboxes and carry bags full of noisy trash. “Pick up a coat hanging on the fence,” Keeley says. Do anything your yearling might find strange or curious, and give him time to mentally process what’s in front of him. With patience on your part, your yearling will learn that there’s no reason to be afraid of new things.

9. Let Him Learn Social Skills
Pasture turnout with “big boy” horses is a great way for your yearling to stretch his legs and learn to socialize with his own kind. Curmudgeonly old geldings or strict broodmares are usually great etiquette teachers, as long as they aren’t known kickers. Pinned ears, bared teeth and swishing tails go a long way in disciplining youngsters. Living with older, more experienced horses will help your yearling discover his place in the pecking order. Those manners carry over into your yearling’s interactions with humans as well as with horses.

10. Practice for Your Farrier
This is a great time to get your yearling ready for his future farrier work. Whenever you get him out, pick up your yearlings feet and hold them, making sure he doesn’t rest his weight on you or stomp his feet down. As you pick up his feet, set him up for success by making sure his weight is evenly distributed over all of his legs. Pick up a leg when he’s straddled out, and he could lose his balance, as well as his hoof-handling confidence. Consistently use a verbal cue, such as “hoof up,” and pretty soon you’ll find that your yearling will pick up his feet on command.

As you release his hoof, gently guide it to the ground, teaching him patience and that his hooves are handled on human terms, not his.

Once your yearling is comfortable having his feet picked up, practice gently banging on them with the handle of a hoof pick to simulate having shoes nailed on. Doing so will get him used to the sound and sensation of hammering on his hooves. Your farrier will appreciate your hard work when your yearling proves himself as a practiced partner.

11. Enter a Yearling Futurity
Yearling futurities are a fun way to get your youngster out and show him off to your friends. It will also get him used to going new places. With frequent traveling, he’ll figure out that unloading in a new place is no big deal, focusing on you rather than his insecurities.

Just remember, yearlings are susceptible to lots of different viruses, such as rhino and flu, so make sure he’s in robust health and well vaccinated before taking him off your property.

Many futurities held by local saddle clubs include several components: halter (judging conformation), longe-line (movement), showmanship (manners) and in-hand trail. Preparing for these classes can give you and your yearling a goal to work toward. But don’t rush your yearling into a show if he’s not mentally or physically ready. “There’s no reason to get in a hurry,” Keeley says.

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