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We Are Flying Solo

December 27, 2018

A 4 Yr Old Is Not The Same As A 6 Yr Old

Y'all.  Not even close.

You are permitted to laugh.  I do.

Encore was halfway through his sixth year when I got him.  He was a sensible creature with plenty of life experience, having put in three solid years on the track, but his brain didn't really completely mature until he was eight.  Only then did I feel like I had an adult horse along for the ride.

Shortly after bringing Echo home, I remembered that I had repeatedly muttered to myself during those two Encore years, "I'm never getting a horse younger than this."


Don't get me wrong, Echo has a brain just as phenomenal as Encore (I'm just going to go ahead & apologize if the two 'E' names get confusing, I tried to find a different letter, nothing fit as well).  Quite possibly even better.  A prime example:

Because the shipper delivered Echo at dusk, I borrowed a stall from Trainer Neighbour for the night.  I didn't want to throw him out in a field where he didn't know the fencelines in the dark.  And to the shipper's credit, they had a rule that they would not unload a horse at night to pasture, for the safety of the horse.

The next morning, I walked over to lead Echo home.  This involved taking him through Trainer Neighbour's arena, past the chickens, guineas, mirrors, gravel piles, ground poles, lawn chairs, then on a short trail through woods along my back fenceline to my gate.
Echo discovers mirrors:  "Is that a new friend??"
I got about halfway home before it occurred to me that I was leading a still-technically-3-yr-old, who had just raced two weeks ago, who I didn't know, who didn't know me, through the woods full of crunchy leaves (had he ever seen woods with crunchy leaves?)...alone.

I had at least waited until Neighbour was home & she knew what I was doing, so she could come look for my body if I didn't text her within a certain time.

Fortunately for us all, Echo never put a foot wrong.  He was alert & curious, but perfectly mannered.  We arrived home without event. 
...alone...with a new baby racehorse

PSA:  Be smarter than me.  Bring a friend (employ bribery if needed).  I was lucky.

Echo has continued to impress me ever since with his intelligence, sensibility, & surprising level of self-assuredness in such a  young horse.  However, it is also VERY clear to me that he is still...such a young horse!

I've worked with young horses before.  But in my head, I guess I had these age bins or categories in which I expected horses to be roughly similar in terms of maturity.  As if there was some magical line where what I might expect from a 1 to 3 yr old changed to what I apparently expected from a 4 to 6 yr old.  

Who're you calling goofy?
All of you who have owned youngsters may now laugh even louder.

Surprise (to no one but me, probably):  a 4 yr old is still a BABY horse.  A very large, goofy, exasperating, hilarious baby. 

Just like every other creature, horses do vary as individuals.  I've certainly met 4 yr olds who were physically & mentally "filled out" enough to do grown-up things like be in riding lessons & go to horse shows.  It quickly became apparent that I had not purchased one of those.  Which was fine because my budget for horse activities is precisely $0.00.

So what's the difference?  These are a few things which stand out to me:

1)  His attention span for work maxes out around 25 minutes.

And it is surprisingly consistent.  Recently, I have been sneakily asking him to stretch that to 30 minutes.  You wouldn't expect 5 minutes to be a big deal, but it is, I can definitely feel that he gets mentally (& physically depending on the activity) tired at that point.

Walking AND trotting...IN A STRAIGHT exhausting
Because he is an incredibly honest & intelligent try-er, I am always very careful not to push too hard.  I want to keep things feeling pleasant so he doesn't get sour & more importantly, so he never learns that he can't do something.  One of my core training philosophies is that I want my horses to think they are super-heroes:  I am always setting them up to succeed in training so that when we are faced with an especially challenging situation in the future, they will always try, because it will never occur to them that they might fail. 

If we accomplish an accomplishment in less than 25 minutes, no problem, we stop early.  He gave what I asked for & I want to keep that bright, fresh edge to his energy.  Nothing dulls an intelligent, generous horse more than drilling.
Narrow as a board in January

2)  Equipment sizes are not final. 

Part of the reason I shopped with a horse size range is that I don't want (& can't afford) to buy all new stuff.  But even though Echo is adult-sized height-wise, I have definitely seen changes over 11 months & I can tell that he has yet to fill out horizontally.

He already had a bigger head than Encore when I got him, but I've still had to let out his bridle another hole this fall.  His butt is now sticking out of the spare 78" sheet that was a dress on him last winter.  Solo's old medium splint boots no longer fit & his feet have gone up almost 2 sizes.  Fortunately, my beloved HS Duo bit was a little big on him to start, it now fits just right.  No way could I afford to buy another one of those!
Ran out of sheet before we ran out of horse

Everything:  Leaves.  Sticks.  Solo (this is not well-received).  My hair.  Sleeves.  Blankets.  Shed walls.  Broom handles.  Lead ropes.  Cross-ties.  Leg boots.  Brushes.  Any tangible object that can be reached.  Except apples.  Apples remain mysterious objects which smell really good but have an unexpected level of crunchiness & so cannot be trusted enough to chew.  Even when a human cuts them into pieces & rubs them on the side of his tongue to tempt him.  Also, humans are weird. 
Along with that goes an insatiable curiosity.  Everything MUST be investigated, now!  That can be a really good thing, I like a horse who wants to inspect things that startle him.  I far prefer that over one who just tries to run away.  But there have been times where I'd like Echo to be a little LESS curious.
It appears you may need some help...
One day, I needed to trim off some plywood edges (which had been chewed by a certain Baby Monster) with the reciprocating saw.  Which is a very loud & very powerful tool.  Solo is used to loud tools, but I waited until the horses were done eating & had moved out of the shed.  After they left, I fired up the saw & started cutting.

I focus very intently when using this particular saw, as it has so much power that it could easily slip or jump if you wavered, leading to serious injury.  Did I mention it's also very loud?  And it echoes off the metal shed roof.  Flies were out, including many bitey ones, & I felt a particularly tickly one on my elbow.  I took my finger off the saw trigger & turned to brush off the fly...

AI HELPS U!!! find that Echo was standing right behind me, nose on my elbow, fascinated to explore what the weird noisy human was doing with his chew wall.  I nearly had a cardiac event on the spot.  Aside from the fact that his face was so close to the saw blade, he did NOT have handy safety glasses.

He lived.  I lived.  And overall, I am finding this bright, inquisitive creature a pleasure to work with.  He is sensitive in all the good ways & attentive to even a slight change in energy, showing me there is yet another level of training finesse in which to challenge myself.  

A question for YOU, those of you who have spent time around young'uns:  do you have a favourite resource that deals specifically with bringing along babies in their own time?  How do you keep things varied & fun?  Are there things you wish you'd done differently?  Are there things you are so glad you did?  What would you add to the list of "notable baby differences?"  Please share in comments!


  1. He’s adorable and charming. My young gelding loved power tools of all sorts. He would try to steal my drill. Doing groundwork and playing games is fun and keeps their brains busy. Trail riding.

    1. Oh no, I didn't even consider drill STEALING!? I'll keep an eye out for that now. I can't wait until gun season for deer ends on January 2nd and we can go back out on the trails again, for sure!

  2. Oh man, what IS it with horses and power tools? Don't they know those things are dangerous???

    We have a 4yo too, and he came to us quite reactive and not at all confident. I've been doing loads of R+ training with him which has greatly encouraged him to be more outgoing and confident. We have also been going So. Slow. So very slow. All walk and trot and lots of in-hand work. He now tries so hard and is always looking for the "YES!". Best of luck with your new kiddo!

    1. I don't know how they missed the tool memo, but glad it's not just my kid who is foolhardy!

      Awww, poor little baby, but glad to hear he keeps improving. It's such a neat feeling to see them "discover" a world of positivity. I do love doing groundwork, but Echo is so smart, that I'm going to have to think up some more creative things -- I go out with this plan for working on something & he learns it in about 2-5 minutes & then I go, "Uh, that was supposed to take longer, now what?" Human planning failure...

  3. My 5 year old (almost 6) is physically finally in big boy body but his brain is lagging behind... hahaha! The 25 minutes this is SO accurate and I think you can keep on like you're doing by adding a little time when he'll allow. I found an event trainer up here who specializes in NH (not the carrot stick kind) and that has worked wonders with many of the youngsters I've dealt with. But I think with the young OTTBs keeping them in consistent work (of any kind) that is not on a regular schedule is the best. I had a trainer once tell me that the best thing I could do for my young horse was 1. not ride him at the same time or days each week and 2. mix things up with him as much as I can:) Best of luck and I can't wait to hear how your story develops!

    1. That is really good advice about mixing things up. I have definitely received, uh, not-subtle commentary from Echo if we do the same things two days in a row. It sounds sort of like, "Sigh, seriously??? Whatever, I'll just look into the woods the whole time to see if anything interesting is happening." If he could do a pre-teen eyeroll, he so would.

  4. I love baby horses so much - I love how everything is new and shiny for them. Dante was the youngest horse I purchased (2 riding 3) but I worked a lot with young off the track horses when I was younger as well as baby ponies. I personally just try to keep the work varied day to day, I don't always ride at the same time or duration, I sometimes move from place to place to work so that they learn that person on their back means business - with at the start of his 3yo year I didn't work Dante through his paces for a full hours but we might go on a walk hack, or move to another arena to talk to someone, or go explore something in hand. So much in hand work was mixed in with riding (since I only rode him about 3 days a week) and that and working on the lunge line learning the various voice commands. He also spent a lot of time hanging out and hacking around horse shows.

    Good books include:

    Dante didn't come to me totally self assured but he is infinitely curious and I make sure to cluck to encourage him to explore scary objects and reward when he moves towards and touches things he once spooked at. Being fair and consistent about his behavior has led his confidence to improving immensely.

    Working with babies is so rewarding!

    1. Thanks for the book links, I will check them out! And I definitely agree about touching scary things, so great to hear Dante found his confidence in you!

  5. I love babies and I hate babies for the same reason --everything is a game. Its fun when I am in on the game and its not when I am the game. My advice is make everything a game or they will. :) I don't always succeed with this.