A “young horse or pony” is considered to be from 6 months (after weaning) to 3 years, when you will want to start breaking them in to work. This can differ with some breeds and sports, with Thoroughbred flat horses being bred to be broken as yearlings; larger breeds may take longer to develop. Deciding when to break a horse in should be based on each individual equine. Until that time, you must look after your youngsters to give them a good start.
Although your youngster will need to get used to stables and stable life, you should consider turning him out as much as possible. The freedom to graze and move around as much as possible helps develop their muscles, reduces stress, and they learn through play how to develop their paces. Grass should be the majority of their diet, with additional alfalfa hay for extra fibre and essential minerals. This may need to be supplemented with grain or pellets specially designed for youngstock should you have a specific breed or sparse pasture.
If you are turning them out full time, make sure your paddock is safe. Fences need to be foal proof, ragwort removed, and droppings taken out regularly. Water must be fresh and always accessible, as must be shade. Always be watchful of the dynamics of the social group. As your youngster grows, they will challenge the social hierarchy and play fighting can get dangerous. Many owners turn out a nurse maid, a retired older horse or mare, who can teach them and nanny the youngsters. If your youngster is getting bullied, rethink the turnout groups. Confidence is important in a growing mind.
If you own a colt, you will need to consider whether you want to keep him entire (to become a stallion) or geld him (castrate). At 12 months you will start to notice your youngster can change character and become a lot more colty and sometimes aggressive. This can make him extremely difficult to handle, and turn out with other colts and fillies. If you plan the breed from him in the future, due to his pedigree or conformation, then you will need to plan to have a separate area to house and graze him away from in-season mares.
If you have no plans to breed, and do not have experience training and managing stallions, then castrating at one year old is ideal. Being so young, they will heal faster and it will be less stressful than in later life. Once gelded they will much easier to handle and train, and usually have a much gentler character.
Although you cannot ride or break your youngster into the saddle until 3 years old, you can start to educate them. This will help you develop his manners and teach him the basics so you can regularly handle him. Be careful as you teach your youngster – these first steps will be his first interaction and going too fast or scaring them can have a lasting impact. Things you can train them to do includes:
Wearing a headcollar and rug – Both are very important to help with the daily care of your youngster. If your youngster has never worn a headcollar, undo the halter completely and put the head piece on before doing the nose piece. Do not try this when they are tied up. Although they made not need a rug, learning to have something over their back will help when you come to breaking them in. Make sure you let them sniff it first, and don’t do up the straps straight away.
Walking beside you whilst being led – if you have older horses in the yard, try to make sure someone is leading them as you start to teach your youngster to be lead. They will naturally follow and learn what it means when you apply pressure without being stressed. When leading them on their own, try to do it out of sight of their field mates and in an enclosed arena.
Standing quietly while tied up – always make sure you are always using quick release knots, and tying your youngster to a breakable piece of twine before attempting this. Put up a small haynet and place the rope through the twine without tying it up. Groom your horse and apply pressure if he moves where you don’t want him to. Over the weeks, tie the knot, and remove the haynet.
Being groomed – this will help you build a bond with your youngster, as well as make sure he is clean and has a healthy coat. Special care should be taken when teaching them to lift their hooves as you will also want them to get used to blacksmiths. If particularly muddy, also teach them to get used to being washed with a hose.
Walk in and out of stables and trailers – the sooner horses are exposed to contained spaces like these, the less stressful they will be. Keep doors open, and make sure there is plenty of light. Get them used to standing outside the stable or trailer, grooming or feeding them. Move the feed inside the stable, so it is just a change of scenery to a usual, pleasant experience. Trailers can be quite dark, so take this very slowly. You can lift their front hooves onto the ramp, but don’t push them in. Walk them straight through the first few times, without the central divide in place. Gradually you can get them to stand inside, rewarded with hay, so it is just a normal routine not associated with stress.
Always make sure you get the full range of vaccinations from your vets. This will build up your youngster’s immune system to help in later life. Although they will still have their first set of teeth, you should also get a horse dentist to check them to get them used to future appointments. Youngsters shouldn’t be shod, but a regular trim from the blacksmith will make sure the hooves develop properly, and stop any damage to fetlocks or tendons should they grow at different rates.