Starting a young horse can be a little bit intimidating. There are just so many things for a malleable mind to see, experience and understand about their new life as a riding horse!

We are hoping to have a long-term partner in sport, and it is helpful to really think about what that means so that we can develop a strategy to get there. It isn’t a virtue to “break a horse in 30 days” or to be able to claim victory that you got on the horse the very first day. While those are impressive feats, they don’t necessarily have anything to do with a career in show jumping as a willing, happy, and capable partner.

Here we will suggest a list of things we think your young horse should know before getting on their backs. As with everything related to horses, a pure recipe that suits everyone is a fallacy, so it is crucial to use your intuition to read the situation and what might be the right order to go through the checklist.

Each horse will move differently, find their balance at different stages and rates, grow differently, and need a break mentally at different points. Just because your young horse needs some more time to process things doesn’t mean they won’t be able to become a fierce competitor capable of adapting quickly later on – it’s all just part of the learning process and why we must stay engaged with how they are feeling and thoughtful about when to push and when to pause. Because they have a long career ahead of them and we like to get started early, we have the benefit of time – if you’re not sure, give them a break, there’s no rush!

Generally speaking, the first thing your horse needs to learn is about handling from the ground. This includes leading, jogging, and so on, but also having experiences with a handler on the ground, such as hanging out calmly in the arena while other horses are being ridden around them. It’s taken for granted sometimes, but it’s worth letting the horses experience a much different dynamic than they are used to in the herd. Horses working interact differently than in the field, and they need to learn and understand that.

It is also very important to do everything with your young horse from both sides – if you can only lead, jog, lunge, or mount from the left, it’s only half broke!

Essential Skills Checklist

Tying and cross-tying

It’s important to do this in stages; allowing the horse to learn they are attached to the wall in an understandable way means staying with them, lead rope still held by the handler, until the horse feels very confident in the space. Then you can begin attaching the crossties to the halter (use quick-release snaps!) for brief periods, increasing the time as the horse calmly accepts it. Never leave a young horse tied alone.

Wearing a blanket

Again, do this with a handler and in a comfortable space for the horse such as his stall. Don’t be in a rush to do up the straps; allow the horse to feel the new sensations and move a little. Don’t be surprised if they first take a step as they may might be a little startled by the new feeling on their body.

Wearing tack 

Do one piece at a time– surcingle, saddle, bridle, boots, etc. – always allowing the horse to get used to the new sensations and adapt before adding another piece.



Leading and jogging from both sides

We like to use a long lunge whip and a lead shank instead of reins for this exercise. The long whip helps you to encourage them forward without having to give up your position. Its important to ‘thread the needle’ so to speak – not being ahead of them and not falling behind, trying to stay as close to the shoulder as possible.

Stopping when asked

This is a simple task that can be addressed every time you handle the horse. Use your voice as an indicator of the upcoming halt and be ready with a release of pressure as soon as they stop.

Reversing in hand

This is a useful tool for a young horse that can be crowding your space. The most important part of any body language training is the release of pressure when they do what you want. You may only get a half a step back the first time – reversing is a vulnerable thing for a horse to do. Reward the effort right away!



Lunging or moving out on the circle from both sides

This is the first step in their independence, keeping a consistent length of lunge line is important and never let them get so far away they can get out of control. At the beginning they may only be 5-10 feet from you until they understand the concept of being out on the circle.

Standing at the mounting block

Your horse should be able to walk around you both directions and be comfortable stopping beside you with her shoulder close to you instead on turning to face you. You can also take this opportunity to lean on their back and get comfortable with weight.



Additional fun and useful exercises:

  • Jumping up and down on both sides of the horse in the saddle area.
  • Leading the horse while you move jumps around the arena
  • Teaching lessons while holding your young horse
  • Running the clippers (off at first, gradually progress to running but not actually clipping) all over their body while grooming
  • If your young horse lives out 24/7, try overnighting in a stall for a few weeks
  • Trailering around the block with an experienced buddy


Next time: More lungeing lessons and introducing ground driving.