The Perfect Start

Setting a colt up for success from the very start with expert Linde Von Koeding

Giving a young horse the best start is vital to their success and longevity in whatever direction that you plan to take them in. The things that they learn during those first few weeks, both good and bad, will shape the way they respond for the rest of their lives. While colt starters seem to be training the horse’s body to accept a rider, a great colt starter will be training a horse’s mind to accept a rider’s lightest cues and teach them to want to say yes.

Training a horse is very similar to building a house; a poor foundation will produce a house with issues just as a poor start will limit a horse in their training process. In both instances you can go back and redo the foundation, but it will take extensive time and money to do so. Linde Von Koeding, an accomplished NRHA trainer and judge, emphasized the importance of finding a reputable colt starter. “It’s extremely important. This is their foundation that everything else is built on. Done right, the colt (and everyone who is going to train that colt throughout its life) will benefit from it for the rest of their riding career. Done wrong, it can greatly delay the colt’s progress and trainability.”
Linde is well known for her ability to mold a young horse’s mind and body into a willing partner that is ready to tackle whatever task is presented to them. She prefers her incoming colts to be lightly handled when they arrive at her barn for starting. Simply knowing how to tie and pick their feet up is enough of a starting point for her. “The biggest advantage to that is that I can evaluate their natural reaction to new things better since nobody has molded them into anything yet.” She adds, “I prefer that because I can truly teach them ‘my way’ and I know exactly what they know and what they don’t. I seem to have a lot less surprises when it’s done like that.”

The colt’s training will start on the ground through various exercises both with and without a saddle on them in the round pen. Linde uses this time to introduce the concept of pressure and release to the horse. When she applies pressure to the horse, she will release the pressure as soon as the horse gives to what she is asking them to do. This teaches them to start hunting the release and finding the answer quickly. “This starts from the ground. I prefer to have a pole in my round pen that I lunge them around with a rope before I even saddle them. That is a very early lesson to follow the pull and look for the release.” She went on to further explain. “That principle continues through the rest of their career. I make sure to offer a release of pressure as soon as they follow their nose/my hand. Over time, it becomes a very natural response for them to do.”

In order to know if they are ready for her to step foot into the stirrup and onto their backs in a saddle, she will perform a simple test to gauge their readiness. “I get on them when I can lay over the top of them and they walk small circles following my inside hand while I lay over their back. If I can’t do that, I won’t get on, since that is the very first thing I will ask them to do once I actually sit on them.” Once the horse can do this willingly, she will climb aboard. Linde prefers to put their first ride on with a rope halter. “On the very first ride, I just like for them to get comfortable with me being on top of them and walk, trot and lope both ways. That is really it on the first day, keeping it as simple as possible.” Before moving the horse out of the round pen and into a big area, Linde makes sure that the horse can steer in all three gaits, switch directions at a trot, and knows how to back a couple steps. She will put them in a rope hackamore for about a month, and then will transition them into a smooth snaffle for the rest of the year.

Once out in the big pen, Linde resets her expectations for the horse. She goes back to the very beginning of wanting the colt to simply move out and guide willingly at a walk, trot and lope. “The first month is usually packed with lots of steering in any gait, getting comfortable with anything that is going on around them such as other people riding plus any traffic around the ranch. I also make sure they are learning to pick up the correct lead.” Linde described. During this time Linde is utilizing the pressure and release concept that she established on day one with the colt. The pressure and release not only teaches the colt concepts such as steering, but it also begins to establish a work ethic in them. By rewarding them for trying and giving them a release at the first sign a try, the horse learns from the very beginning that the sooner he tries, the sooner he will get a release. This makes for a very trainable colt in the future.

Linde teaches every type of colt the same basics, but depending on their specific tendencies, she molds her program to best suit the individual. When working with a reactive colt, she will be sure to budget in more time for that training session. “If the colt is more reactive, I take my time and don’t rush things. I make sure everything becomes very solid, even if the steps take longer to accomplish. Building the colt’s confidence and trust in me helps a lot to teach them to think instead of overreacting.” She explained. When working with a duller colt, she will establish self-carriage from the very beginning. “For a duller colt I will utilize lots of forward and steer, I don’t allow them to get dependent on my leg and I expect them to carry themselves without me babysitting every step of the way.”

All colts need to be allowed to take however long it takes for them to grasp a concept before moving onto a new step. Patience in the beginning will get them much farther ahead in the long run than trying to rush their learning process in the beginning. “Some colts just take longer.” Linde revealed, “But once I can come out and walk, trot and lope any day, I start stepping them up. I start teaching them the beginning of the turnaround, a stop, counter canter etc.” She enjoys the process of feeling a horse understand a concept and seeing them use that as a building block for the next. When asked what makes a colt stand out as a truly special prospect, Linde shared that overall balance is key. “Quality of movement is a big one. Most of our colts are bred to perform and to be athletic, but the special ones are the ones that are naturally very balanced.”

Whether a colt is headed for a performance career or a pleasure riding career, a proper start is essential to all. Capturing the colt’s mind and showing them that there is a reward for learning and working will pay huge dividends as the colt matures. Take time to find a knowledgeable colt starter who will treat each colt as an individual and progress only when they are ready for it. This is an incredible time to witness true horsemanship when done right.

By Lauren Stanley