The Savvy Station

Colt Starting Naturally

by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on May 17, 2023

Colt Starting Naturally

Joshua Burke— 3-Star Instructor and a Horse Development Specialist.

As we all know, the thought of being the first person to sit on a young horse's back or being able to help a troubled horse trust people again is the dream of many horse lovers. But as some of us have found out, there is a big difference between romance and reality. 


My name is Joshua Burke, and I am a 3-Star Instructor and a Horse Development Specialist. I am originally from England, where I grew up with horses and traditional English riding. When I was ten years old, my family moved to Florida, and when I was 14, I got my first taste of Natural Horsemanship. I saw a guy playing with a wild mustang at liberty that nobody else could touch, and within 20 minutes, the horse was following him around like a dog. It blew my mind, and I knew I needed to learn this.


I was also working on a cattle ranch and learning how to be a cowboy, and there was still this idea of breaking colts rather than starting them. In 2007, my mom dragged me to a natural horsemanship seminar hosted by Pat Parelli. I was 16 years old and already knew it all, or so I thought. Watching Pat and the instructors that weekend blew my mind again! There was no breaking; it was a genuine partnership. When I was 18 years old, my family moved back to England, and much to my surprise, they also knew Parelli. I contacted Alison and David Zuend, where I spent three months as a working student, completed my Level 3, and was inspired to become an instructor and a horse development specialist. David then invited me to go to Switzerland with him to spend some time with Carmen Zulauf. In the first two weeks there, Carmen offered me a position to study with her long-term. I ended up staying with Carmen for two years, where I gained so much experience in colt starting, foundation training, teaching, managing the barn, and specialization training. I now live in Germany at my facility, where we offer horse development, lessons, courses, seminars, and events. 


In my time as an Instructor, I often get people who have tried starting their horse, made mistakes, and then come looking for help. Pat says practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make it permanent. That means that, whatever you teach your horse, he knows how to do that for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, because of our predatory nature, people often teach their horses the wrong thing. So, my first piece of advice is to ask for help. The Parelli community is here to support you. Ideally, the human is a Level 4 graduate and has spent time as a working student with an instructor before they play with young horses or problem horses. Unfortunately, that is seldom the case. Why is it important to graduate Level 4 before playing with youngsters? The better we know the end, the better start we can give them. Imagine I take you to the Amazon Rainforest for a week, and I’ve never been there myself and don’t have a map, but I tell you to trust me, that’s what it is like for the horse when an inexperienced human tries to educate them. The blind leading the blind.  


I often get people who ask me, how long will it take to train my horse? First, I don’t train horses. I start a relationship that can develop into a partnership; secondly, it all depends! Pat would say we can oversee the goals if the horse is in charge of the principles we use and the time it takes. I have had horses I could saddle, ride and even go trail riding within three days, and I’ve had horses that took two weeks before I stepped on them. What is important is we adjust to the rhythm the horse needs. I’ve gotten in trouble for going too fast or too slow with a horse. The four key areas for a horse's development are confidence, curiosity, sensitivity, and responsiveness. It’s important the horse gains confidence through our leadership but not be overbearing in times of uncertainty. We must allow the horse to be curious and explore while setting guidelines rather than rules. The Friendly Game is not desensitization. Our horses should stay sensitive to our phases and understand the difference between energy up and down. Responding and reacting are two different things. It should feel like a dance when playing with a horse, regardless of the level. Can you be a good dance partner for your horse? Is your horse a good dance partner for you? 


Becoming an Instructor and a Horse Development Specialist is no walk in the park. Every one of us has had to earn our ratings. If you have a young horse and are looking to give them the best start or you’re having trouble with a horse, before choosing who can help you, observe them with different horses and ask yourself if you want your horse to look like those horses. 


As horse owners and lovers, we all have a responsibility to give our horses the best life possible. That doesn’t mean love, love, love. It requires Love, Language, and Leadership in equal doses to help our horses become good citizens for the rest of their lives. I dream I wouldn’t get more horses in development that humans have damaged. Can you imagine if everyone got their horses to Level 3 On Line and Liberty by the time they were 3 or 4 years old and then sent them to a Horse Development Specialist to get the perfect start? It could be a beautiful partnership between the horse and the human. How amazing would that be? We, as Parelli students, must be good examples in the horse industry so that we can make the world a better place for horses and the humans that love them. Like Pat always says, keep it natural! 

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