How long does it take to train a horse? pt. 2

You might also like to read part 1, when I first discussed this topic.

This is a question that I often hear people ask. How long does it take to train a horse? Or, how long should it take a horse to learn a certain skill? Or, how much should a colt know after 30 days with a trainer? The following post is something that I wrote earlier in the summer for a list I am on. We were discussing the difference between retraining horses and training horses who have had no previous training. I had several people tell me they liked the post, so I’ve decided to repost it on the blog.

Over the past 2 years we’ve had over 50 horses come through the rescue I work with. I have found that the blank canvas horses who know next to nothing are usually much, much easier to work with than horses who have had previous training.

We have a 7 year old gelding right now who we took in almost exactly a month ago. He had been a pasture pet his whole life and had almost zero previous training. (He did know the basics about leading and had been trained to pick up his feet, but that was about it). So far he’s learned targeting, trailer loading, how to wear a saddle, gotten better about picking up his feet, lunging/circling, and other ground work type stuff. He’s had 8 rides and just on the past couple of rides I’ve started doing a bit of trotting and also riding him outside of the round pen. He’s taken to training like a fish to water–this has all been in about 20 sessions, each 30-45 minutes.

There was another gelding we adopted out this spring who had been rushed and started badly and had developed a habit of big bucks if he got even a bit confused or frustrated. It took about a year and a half of work to get him to approximately the same point as the first horse. (And he still didn’t have the same sort of confidence that the first horse had.)

The most important thing that I’ve learned from the rescue horses is that every horse is an individual. I have to watch the horse and listen to what the horse is trying to tell me. I can’t have preconceived ideas about how long training a certain skill “should” take or how a horse “should” react to something new. The horses are all individuals. Although I often have a notion of how things will play out, the horses all respond slightly differently.

Two years ago we took in about two dozen horses from a paint breeder (mostly yearlings and two year olds), most who had zero previous handling and weren’t even halter broke or accepting of being touched. Here’s a video of one filly from that group working on trailer loading. At that point, she had about 30 minutes total of work on haltering, leading and loading.

Although the horses in that group were all pretty easy to work with, every single horse in that group of two dozen was different. Some were happy-go-lucky about everything, like the buckskin filly in the video above. Others need more time to learn certain skills, sometimes much more time. One colt was extremely fearful of having his ears touched–it took well over a month of daily work to get him to the point where he was comfortable with being haltered and having his ears handled.

I’d much rather have a horse that knew nothing (or very little) than a horse who had quite a bit of training, but who had holes in his training or poisoned cues. But with any horse, I still have to treat the horse as an individual.

With the horses who have had previous training, but do have issues, I’ve found the best and quickest way to make progress is to start completely over. I follow the advice that I have heard Alexandra Kurland say many times: “Don’t train on top of someone else’s bad training.”

I treat the horse like he knows absolutely nothing and build a good, solid foundation that I can feel safe continuing to build on. Sometimes this means starting at the very beginning, retraining the horse how to put his head into a halter. (Quite a few traditionally trained horses are actually quite uncomfortable being haltered, you’ll see the horse brace through the head and neck as the person puts the halter on, rather than relax and drop his nose into the halter.)

As for starting horses under saddle using clicker training, I really, really like something that my friend Jane posted. She said: “I am very comfortable with what I am doing. But I do not think that those who have backed horses with any method and at any age, should tell others, that they “should” be able to back a horse themselves if they just use clicker training and do it “right”.

I’ve found that clicker trained horses are very forgiving. Still, they are horses and horses can be dangerous. If a person doesn’t feel comfortable, confident or experienced enough to start their horse, then get help for some or all of the process. Same with re-starting a horse. Or working with a horse who has poisoned cues or other negative histories. There are many very good instructors and trainers out there, even if their methods don’t agree 100% with your methods. The trick is finding the right one and then working closely with them as your horse learns.

The first several horses I started completely myself were very lovely, kind horses who helped me out as I fumbled through figuring out what I was doing. Could I have used more help and guidance? Of course. I’ve picked up a lot over the past couple of years that I didn’t know then.

It might take one person a month to train something that a professional trainer might be able to train the same horse to do in a day. Still, by working with your own horse, you’ll learn a lot more and build your relationship with the horse. When considering whether someone should start or train her own horse, I think it’s important to consider all of the dynamics involved–the physical condition, past history, previous training and knowledge of both the person and the horse, as well as the resources and facilities available to the person.

So, how long does it take to train a horse?

It depends on the horse.

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