Colt Starting - It's About Teaching Horses
By: Kaffa Martignier
What is Colt starting?
“Colt starting” is the process of beginning a horse’s riding or driving education. It involves the first, formative experiences of the saddle, rider or driver, trailering, preparation for the farrier, dentist, vet and so on… All the things a horse will experience during a lifetime in the human environment.
Colt starting is a specialized, highly skilled discipline. For a student who has graduated Level 3 of the Parelli Program, Colt starting is an optional part of the study of Level 4. For a Parelli Professional, it’s an important part of their ongoing training.
The most important distinction to make is that Levels 1 to 3 of the Parelli Program are for teaching people; Colt starting is teaching horses.
A partnership for life
The horse learns what he lives, and he lives what he learns. The programming that started the moment he was born continues with his early experiences with people. These lessons, good or bad, will stay in his emotions, in his programmed responses, if not in his conscious memory.
You get only one chance to make a first impression—when you imprint a newborn foal, when you walk into the round yard with an untouched three-year-old, when you settle into the saddle for his first ride, when you lead him up for his first experience with the vet or the farrier.
We’re working on the finish when we start. We are cause; our results are effect. The effect our actions and interactions have on this horse may show now, and they may not show until later. The Parelli philosophy is “starting and developing” not “breaking and training.” We are starting a relationship, with the goal of developing a partnership—for life.
How the dream can become a nightmare
Done right, Colt starting looks deceptively simple. The trouble starts when someone who should be focused on raising their own skills, decides they are ready to teach a horse. People don’t know what they don’t know. They've watched someone who made it look easy, but they don’t realize that they didn't comprehend what they saw.
We humans have come far from natural. Common sense is becoming very uncommon. Think about it: “Warning. The escalator is about to end.” There is too much concrete in the world, insulating us from developing mental, emotional and physical fitness; too many escalator warnings, saving us from our own lack of feel, timing, balance and judgment. In an endeavor like Colt starting the consequences of being unfit can be deadly.
Partner or Prey Animal…
When the horse asks for guidance in the moment and you miss it, he’ll say, “You don’t have the answers when I need them, but Mother Nature does.” He stops listening to you and starts listening to Mother Nature—and then it may all be over before you even realized it had started.
The horse is a prey animal—keenly perceptive to danger, bonded to his herd and fleeing mindlessly from fear. Most people have no idea what it feels like to be a prey animal—so they have no idea until it’s too late, how extreme the reaction of their prey animal may be. Perceptive to danger can become perceptive to communication; bonded to the herd can become bonded to the human; flight from fear can become impulsion—but only if you have the necessary savvy.
Part of the art is to be able to take a green colt for whom go is equal to whoa, and keep it that way. Every impulsive or lazy horse, every horse that bursts through or leans against pressure, was once a perfect foal who knew how to do transitions that were equal and weightless—until we interfered with him.
Too often, by the 5th or the 20th ride the horse has forgotten how to do balanced transitions. And, too often, in a human environment full of compelling stimuli, he has not been taught how to be in control of his own emotions.
You have a choice as his leader to help him develop so he is able to act like a partner, not a prey animal. That means you have a responsibility, if you want to ride young horses, to develop yourself first into the kind leader capable of that.
The horse industry today
Pat often says that if a dog trainer, dolphin trainer and horse trainer were assessed by a board of behavioral scientists, the horse trainer would be the one with the least scientific basis for his methods. In the horse industry, methods are based more on mythology than science; more on emotion than logic.
The reason for the mythology is that horse training dates back to the dark ages where the horse’s primary uses were transportation and warfare. Horse training in some ways has changed very little since then. Today, we use animals for recreation, companionship, and in the case of wildlife parks and zoos, education and conservation. With these intentions, more recent animal training industries have used emerging behavioral sciences to develop their methods.
The reason for the emotion is that 80% of horse owners today are recreational. They get into horses for emotional, not logical, reasons. The majority of horse owners in the 21st century don’t plough fields, carry packs through mountains, ride to war, haul timber, deliver the mail or move herds of livestock across vast, hostile landscapes.
Mythology and emotion are among the reasons why every day in the USA, someone is hurt or killed in an accident with a horse. Ignorance and subjectivity add up to complete lack of judgment.
Pat’s vision of a
Parelli Natural Horsemanship is criticized for having taken the mystic out and put horsemanship into a logical formula that ordinary folks can follow—so long as they are matched with the right horse and follow a few basic principles.
For 25 years Pat has held firm to a vision of a principled industry with standards and values based on science, logic and common sense, rather than emotion and outdated military thinking.
Principles, goals and time lines…
The Parelli Program is founded on eight Principles of Natural Horsemanship that Pat developed for his first seminar a quarter of a century ago and still teaches today. Principle Number 7 states that for safety and success it’s essential that horses and humans are matched appropriately. As a Parelli Instructor, I believe if this one principle alone were followed, I’d probably be out of a job. Principles guide us in what attitude, tools and techniques we would use, and what we would not use. The goal is decided by the trainer, or the person paying the trainer.
The timeline is up to the horse—to be successful the timeline must honor the horse’s nature and meet his developmental needs.
When ego, emotions or poor judgment get into the mix, goals get ahead of principles, timelines get distorted, and the result, at best, is mediocrity. At worst, someone gets into an unsafe situation with a horse whose early development has been compromised.
If you’re lucky, you've seen an unhandled colt begin to learn to follow a feel in the hands of a master horseman. What if it stayed this light, this trusting, throughout the process? Then start and finish would be indivisible, and the journey of horsemanship—a horse and a human going somewhere willingly together—would be all that matters.
To find a Parelli Endorsed Young Horse Specialist who could help you with your young horse, visit www.parelli.com and browse the listings of Professionals.
Visit Parelli Savvy Club for more educational articles and horse training videos designed to inspire, empower and educate horse owners of all levels.