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Yearling year, not a year of 'limbo' but rather a year of learning!
Before putting your horse under saddle think back to the basics and you'll have a much better result when your yearling turns two!
Here you have it, spring is almost here and you have a yearling (or many yearlings) sitting in the pasture. Your yearling isn't exactly pretty, their backside is several inches higher than their front end and their head seems bigger than it should be and certainly seems bigger than you remember from when they were a foal. The yearling has a potbelly and you just dewormed all your horses so you aren't sure why that hay belly is hanging on. Perhaps you're not sure why you bought a weanling last year or even why you bred your mare because now since you have to wait a year to do anything with your horse-this yearling year is wasted, right?
Ah...yearling year is the perfect time to build a foundation for your future saddle work!
First, yearlings are not mentally or physically developed to the level of a mature horse, so keep this in mind as you work with them. Be gentle and keep sessions short and sweet, doing just enough to teach a simple lesson and ending, whenever possible, on a 'good' note where your yearling has understood and performed what you have asked. To achieve this, don't ask too much and reward the yearling with praise and an end to the training session. Try to avoid directly feeding your horse as a reward, although allowing them to rest and enjoy their dinner is not the same as hand-feeding treats. The point I'm making is it's best not to set up a basis for your horse DEMANDING treats in the future, so if you avoid using them as a reward you won't set up those expectations. I often do something as a reward like let my yearling out in the indoor arena in the winter so he can roll in the soft sand there. Especially in the winter where the pasture is full of snow here, that's a pretty big reward! You can put a cut up apple in your yearling's feed bin and that way they won't associate YOU with the treat. A better way to avoid being nudged, nipped and harassed if you ever don't have an apple.
You can do many short exercises with your yearling, depending on how much handling they've had. Of course, first step is halter, lead and tie training. I have a hub about starting your weanling out right that may be helpful if you haven't yet accomplished the basics. Handling legs and feet is essential in a future saddle horse so you can do a little every day. If your yearling is already great at letting you touch their legs, pick each up and hold it for a short while and then set it down gently when you want to, you can move on to more advanced training.
Remember that simple things make a big difference in a good saddle horse. Teach your yearling to stand tied. Teach them to be groomed and to stand quietly while this is going on. Don't make them stand their for hours and hours, but do let them stand in a safe place where you can keep an eye on them and once you have taught them to tie, you can let them stand for half an hour or so. This is a good lesson for the yearling. A good idea is to do this before feeding time so that they get to go back to their paddock/stall and eat after being good and standing tied. Of course, vary your routine so your baby doesn't get pushy or demanding about going back to the stall. One day groom them after the tie session, another day let them go directly back to their stall/paddock.
If your yearling already halters, leads, ties, stands and grooms well, is used to having feet and legs handled and is generally relaxed when being handled by you, it could be a good time to introduce some basic 'groundwork'. This can range from moving the yearling's body around you to your yearling just standing quietly on the end of the lead while being held. (You'd be surprised how many horses won't do this as they are used to 'doing' something constantly and get impatient and rude if you stand with them.) Many horses paw and nudge if you don't walk around with them but how many times would you like to just stand and talk to your friend at a show or in the barn with your horse quietly standing next to you? THIS is a lesson you can start with your yearling and it's not harmful to their growing body. You can let them graze and just stand with you, but then they should pick up their head and stand for a period of time. if they try to pull down to graze just gently correct by pulling up on the lead. Rather than 'jerking' the lead, imagine that you are creating an invisible 'barrier' with the length of the leadrope. If your yearling tries to jerk their head down to get to the grass, they will encounter the barrier of the halter that is there because you shortened the leadrope. So you aren't 'jerking' on them, they are 'bumping' into the halter. This seems subtle but it can make a difference in your horse's attitude and yearlings are absorbing quite a lot of information and GROWING so soon they will be able to easily overpower you. Teaching them to respect you and the halter, rather than forcing it is a much better way to deal with your horse. Establishing this early in the yearling year or of course, even before, will set up a good standard that will continue into your saddle training when your horse turns two.
Don't forget to do other 'simple' things that can great foundation training for your future saddle horse. A yearling can be handled all over their body, so don't just get stuck on legs and forget that a saddle horse has to tolerate having ears touched, girth area brushed and touched and often other body parts touched, groomed and checked regularly. The more you teach your yearling that this process is non-threatening the better they will be when you go to do saddling and riding later on. Many people rush through this stuff, thinking the riding is the ultimate goal, but are jealous when they see a young horse that stands quietly, isn't ear-shy, calmly accepts a bit and picks each leg up and stands nicely while the feet are being cleaned or trimmed. The 'limbo' yearling year you may have thought wasn't a time for training can be a great time to get your yearling used to the basics of handling so that by the time you get to under-saddle groundwork and riding basics your horse is more experienced than other two year olds. Your trainer will appreciate this extra effort, and don't feel you need to become a trainer. Patience and consistency are important here. Be slow and gentle, don't rush your baby. I find that's the biggest issue today is that it feels like people are in a great big hurry with their horses. The yearling year is a wonderful time to NOT be in a hurry but rather to slow down and enjoy your future saddle horse. Contrary to popular opinion, if you buy a yearling you have a whole year to work with your horse before putting them under saddle. You can help mold their future success and get them used to your routines around the barn. A yearling can be a great investment, MUCH cheaper than a two year old and a horse that will be fun to work with and train.
I find my yearlings do best with short, easy training lessons. Low pressure for the most part, although putting a little pressure on them is ok as long as you don't frighten or harm them. If your yearling is fearful, slow down and take things one small step at a time. Don't think in big huge accomplishments but rather in small, easy tasks. Kindergarten for us and that's yearling year for your horse. It's starting a foundation for something that will last your young horse a lifetime but they still need a "nap" (as in, they can only handle a little at a time just like five year old humans!). Be patient and try to end your yearling's session with a success, however small. It may mean you only work with your baby for several minutes, but if your yearling learns and succeeds in those several minutes it will be a lesson that will carry on with them for the rest of their life. Of course, the same is true of lessons gone wrong, so try to gently correct bad behavior or if -you- make a mistake try to finish your lesson on a good note, do something you know your yearling is good at already, like pick up their feet or even just run your hands down your yearling's legs-if they are good at that and praise them for their good job when they do as you ask.
Remember that this time doesn't need to be about teaching fancy tricks or rushing to get your yearling under saddle but rather is a time you can build your horse's future one small, simple step at a time! Hope your horse's yearling year is one filled with success!