California Riding Magazine • June, 2014

Smart Start
Patience and education are critical in setting a young horse on a positive path.

by Clay Jackson

This is the time of year that many people are thinking about starting their young horses with the hopes of a show career. You might have a young horse you bred standing in the paddock or pasture or, like some, you've picked up a prospect from a breeder or an off-the- track Thoroughbred.

If you have not been down this road before I strongly suggest working with an experienced trainer or breeder who has. This is one of the most crucial points in your horse's life, the point where it learns to trust your direction and when his relationship with humans can be made wonderful or severely compromised.

This may sound a bit stark, but that is the reality of training horses. We either make them good or bad and that is mostly by experience or ignorance. If you chose to go down this path, pay attention to details, pay attention to everything, especially yourself.

Why me, you ask?

Because, lack of self- discipline or one's ability to control the process, is often the resulting factor in turning your training program from a well-meaning attempt into a mess and this is more common than most understand.

Over the past 35 years, I have worked with hundreds of horses, from young weanlings on a large Thoroughbred breeding farm bursting with energy and a bright eye on the world, to seasoned show veterans who have become difficult to handle or have shut down and want nothing more to do with people.

I have witnessed riders in 1.20 meter jumping classes on young horses who, surprisingly, barely know the basics and are getting around on the horse's sheer natural ability, rather than proper training and conditioning of both partners.

Don't Rush It

So, the first principle I highlight is "time." It is one of the most valuable assets available to you. Do not waste it or rush it when it comes to training a horse. Self-discipline is one of the hardest for many to even conceive of as a factor. If more people used self-discipline many horses would be saved the experience of pain, frustration and fear! This holds true for anyone who works with horses, from handlers, farriers and veterinarians. Any and all professionals should already know this.

Put yourself in the horse's shoes, would you want to be rushed into doing something you don't understand? How about packing your own parachute and getting ready to jump out of a plane? I had to pack my own parachute and I darn sure wanted to understand what I was doing. That may seem like overkill, but hitting the ground with 1000 pounds of chute landing on top of you will yield some nasty results, too.

Your safety and the horse's sanity need to be paramount. Take your time, give your horse a chance to learn, and give yourself a chance, too. When you methodically, slowly progress in a training program there is much less chance you will miss something.

I train horses and coach riders continually and often find in every new horse or person I work with a missing step, one that has been overlooked in some very basic part, which is inhibiting the progression forward. Being in a hurry to jump, being in a hurry to get collection, being in a hurry to go fast..... These often lead to failure.

Timing is one of your best tools. Being quick to see a problem and perceptive enough to move a horse along when they are ready or to wait will produce much better results, often lasting a lifetime.

Steer Clear the Path Of Ruin

My concern has always been seeing so many good horses quickly pushed to competition, burned out by the pressure of it and then disposed of like an unwanted dessert. The idea is all sugar coated and looks like something easy and desirable, but even some professional trainers can spoil a horse and often many young horses start down the path of ruin, not by the hand of an abuser but by the hand of ignorance.

The worst is the person who accepts this as a way of cycling through horses until they find a rare one that can take whatever the person is dishing out and still perform.

I always caution new horse owners to check out the trainers they choose. Make sure they have a strong background of working with young horses. There are far too many who assume that, because they are good show riders or riding instructors, they must be good horse trainers. When these trainers can't get the job done they advise the owners to sell or dispose of the horse and buy a "trained" horse. Thus making their job easier and the horse ends up with a trainer like me.

I can't stress enough this is wholly unnecessary in most cases. If you take the time, the reward of patiently training your horse will never be forgotten and you would be contributing to our sport a well-balanced and happy performer.

As an example, I was asked to work with a young mare, which had been bred impeccably for her destined career, but had shown difficulty in training and, after being with several different trainers, the last advised the owners to put her down.

When I met this mare, she stood facing the back corner of the stall and would not engage with anyone. Within one month of patient work, I had gained her trust and we began to work successfully together. I finished after a time with her and sent her back home. At a local show nearly a year later, I happened to run in to the owners, who exuberantly came up and gave me a hug! They told me the mare was training beautifully and was very happy, the "Belle" of the barn. To my astonishment, they said the current trainer thinks she will make Prix St. Georges! I couldn't have won any more of a prize: no blue ribbon replaces the feeling of training a horse to fruition.

I love training hunters, jumpers and equitation horses. Along with that, my background from working with young horses early in life has helped me develop horses in the basics for use in many other disciplines such as dressage and three day eventing. What I have learned is it will be a lot easier and more rewarding to take your time and if you are educated in your decisions. Read, watch and always pay attention to different methods and the results. In the end, your horse will tell you if you got it right!

Clay Jackson is a USHJA Certified trainer, a national and international level competitor, and was Ride Director for the 2013 Pentathlon USA World Cup. He breeds, trains and shows horses from his Santa Rosa facility. Have a training question? Please contact him through his website: