When I was 14, I started training my dear horse Taxi, who was a yearling at the time. She is my buddy and we have gone through life together. I remember in Montana, some people around me warned, “she is gonna buck at some point.” When she did not buck, those same people told me, “you just wait, she will test you!” Well, over 20 years later, I am still waiting.
When I introduced the saddle, bridle, and climbed on her back, the events were very simple - I was careful, listened to her needs, communicated my needs, and nourished our bond. I did not push her to limits outside of our comfort zone in ways which left her afraid. Each day, I would build our friendship more and more, taking great care never to break it.
"Breaking," as the idea implies, strips a horse of trust, free-will, and forces them into servitude for us. What breaks most is the horse's heart. In the past, breaking horses was done with violence and force, without regard to relationship. As humans, we have come a long way since these methods, however in some cases we have not come far enough.
Horse gentling is the process of establishing relationship with a horse based on trust and mutual respect. Trust is earned and it is one of those things that is hard to define, but easy to know if you do not have it. I do not blame horses for not initially trusting me, it is completely understandable to be afraid of people. Starting at the ideas of vulnerability creates the foundation for which trust can emerge.
It is my job as a human to enforce ideas that human beings are benevolent, nurturing, and fair creatures. We have tremendous capabilities to heal, protect, learn and to teach. I want the horse to know that we make very good herd-mates.
We really get into trouble when we put our training on an agenda. People think, “this horse is two years-old, therefore he should be doing….” This kind of time-line training can easily push horses beyond their tolerance levels. We have observed that children learn to read at all different rates and times which have no impact on overall development. This is certainly true for horses.
Often people start their horses way too early, before growth plates have closed or muscles have properly developed. This strongly sets the horse up for joint issues or lameness by the age of four. Starting horses too early is equivalent to making little children weight lift.
There are tons of training techniques that can be done with young horses. Ground training is the way to introduce complex tasks to the young horse to prepare him/her for riding. This just takes time and consistency, but is worth the pay off when you have a stable, happy horse who likes working with you. After all, this is the ultimate goal.