Weanlings, man! They're that "what do you do with them" age as far as training and conditioning go. Certainly it's a good time to be working with their feet, teaching them manners, and perhaps leading them over obstacles, but what else to do with them? Many people, sadly enough, spend a lot of time lunging them to condition them. Long ago, when working at a large Arabian training operation, I did so as well. The pressure on their immature legs isn't ideal, injuries from the nearly-inevitable youngster antics are frequent, and now I'm an advocate for avoiding extensive lunging, even with protective boots or wraps. Fortunately, there are other options.
Julie is seven months old now and slightly delayed in her training and desensitization process due to a severe laceration to her nostril. Where normally I'd have turned her and her mother out with the cattle earlier, I didn't want her sticking her sutured nose into cow germs until she was completely healed. Thanks, too, to another shoulder injury, I haven't been able to do the physical work I normally do with them during those rare uninjured spells. Today, with the help of my other half, was the day to begin some meaningful work with Julie. It was a full day for her.
First, since Julie hadn't met the cows, I let her follow her mama Chica up to the arena / cow pen. She happily walked right in. From there, I took Chica's bridle off and let Julie and Chica loose to run and get their ya-ya's out. Chica immediately introduced Julie to the cows. With her mother at her side, Julie wasn't at all concerned.
After a few minutes of letting them romp, I hopped back up on Chica, Julie still free to do as she pleased. I simply trailed the cows, moving them slowly and in a relaxed manner, but not letting them get away with anything that would break Julie's confidence or teach her bad habits. This means I wouldn't let the cows get behind her, rush at her, or push her back, nor would I let Chica turn her back on the cows (not wanting Julie to learn to do that). Julie was immediately interested. She comes from "cowy" stock, and has a natural affinity for chasing cattle.
Pretty soon Julie had the hang of the whole "all animals are equal but horses are more equal than cattle" equation. As you can see by the photo below, she's engaged, interested, and not fearful. Her ears are attentive and her eyes are fixed on ever-patient Buttercup. Before too long, Julie was quietly "pushing" the cattle.
Next, with Russ's help, we moved onto Julie's first lesson in being ponied. Nothing beats ponying for exercise and training combined. If you don't have a solid pony horse, better to leave the youngsters grow up at pasture than to stress their legs with constant work-in-the-round. Opinions vary; this one's mine, for what it's worth. Ponying offers a number of advantages for training babies: it doesn't limit them to round work or ground work; it familiarizes them with seeing a rider above them; they learn verbal commands as well as learning by watching the senior horse; and they can be exposed to trail work, obstacles, and further work with cattle. They also learn patience that translates to being ridden; always try to spend a few minutes just letting your mount stand and breathe while ponying, and the baby will learn to do so also. This can prevent the youngster "fidget" habit. Eventually, when you're getting your youngsters under saddle for the first time, you can have someone pony them during those first few rides.
Russ's horse, old faithful Musty, is no novice at ponying other horses, young and old. He's reliable and calm, and he helps school them on their role - when they start creeping up ahead of him, he'll discipline them by snapping at them. Pretty soon all he needs to do is pin his ears and tilt his head and they'll know to back off. Julie has never been turned out with Musty (as evidenced by his still-long tail - she's chewed the tail off every one of her stable mates) and has no bond with him, but she quickly trusted him and was calm beside him.
At first I rode alongside Julie; then, when she decided to grow resistant and drag back on the lead, I moved to the rear and slapped her on the topside when she'd become obstinate. Eventually I took the lead; she was good, then, about keeping up with her mama horse. Due to my shoulder injury, I couldn't pony her from Chica, but keep in mind that ponying from the mother horse is a good beginning.
We didn't push her too much, and limited her lesson to half an hour. There's no benefit in doing more at this point. I don't want her getting sour because of fatigue, mental or otherwise. When we move up to taking her on trail rides, we'll be able to go farther and longer because she will be interested in the new scenery.
Ponying takes some practice. Don't dally the rope onto your saddle unless you're an old hand and you have a good roping saddle and a horse that won't flip over backwards when you drag livestock behind him. If you're reading this, you probably already have the basic knowledge to never, ever, ever wrap rope around your hand or other limbs. Try not to keep constant pressure on the lead rope or you'll teach resistance. Take and give; take and give. Also: wear gloves.
Teaching a horse to be politely ponied is one of the most useful tools you can give them. Eventually, teaching them to pony other horses is equally useful. It's a good idea to equip them with those skills long before you're ever on a trail ride and need to either pony them home or pony someone else's horse off your own horse due to an emergency.
Julie will soon be moving onto trails and obstacles. I'll keep you posted!
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