By Pat Parelli
When determining how to engage with your yearling horse, the first thing to remember is that horses are prey animals and precocial species. This means that they are full-faculty learners at birth. As soon as a foal is about a month old, they start playing with the other foals. Guess what they do: they play prey animal pecking-order games!
Most of these games are fun and friendly to see who is the fastest, who can turn the quickest—fun little things like that. But it doesn't take very long before they become good buddies and start wanting to find out “who's who in the zoo”. Once your horse is weaned, you can start to play Seven Games with your horse on the ground, both On Line and at Liberty.
Keep in mind, though, that young horses have young bones. From a health standpoint, you want to make sure not to overdo it. Almost every equine veterinarian would recommend that you don't lunge a young horse, because lunging is nothing more than chasing a horse physically around in the circle, usually to the left. But if you play all Seven Games with your horses in moderation, you can do all kinds of fun things with your young horse. I call it pre-saddle training.
With these young horses, you want to take the approach of being the “extreme middle-of-the-road”. On one extreme is to not touch your horse until they’re mature enough to ride (somewhere between two and four years old). This extreme is akin to having a teenager that basically raises himself when the parents finally decide to step in and start showing leadership. Imagine what a wreck that would be! And they call it tough love in those scenarios with humans. That would be a misguided scenario of “tough love”. The other extreme is to turn a young horse into a barnyard pet. The barnyard pet is when everything is just fun and friendly, but completely lacks obedience.
The goal here in this “extreme middle-of-the-road” is to pursue bonding, obedience, and exuberance. The goal of bonding is to ensure that you're an important figure in their life. The goal of obedience follows the law of nature that “every good horse had a good dam, and every good mom raised a good man.” Every good dam and every good mom used love, language, and leadership in equal doses, which births obedience. And finally, the exuberance that we look for with the young horse comes from knowing how to play with boundaries in place.
Most people have a relationship with their dog where the dog wants to be with them. At the slightest little call, the dog will come running back, and never wants to leave their side. Most people have an experience with their horse where the horse is hard to catch and hardly ever comes back except for feeding time: “Under conditions you can feed me, but you cannot put a halter on me.” This becomes the accepted norm in many cases.
What I preach and teach is to use love, language, and leadership in equal doses to produce bonding, obedience, and exuberance. If we can play with our weanlings and yearlings in moderation, we can produce a relationship that is so natural that the horses don't ever know that they were in training with a human.
A human analogy would be a beautiful little baby: when he’s born, he very quickly identifies who his parents are. And oftentimes, he will only be picked up and held by mom or dad and will be leery of strangers. Then as nature takes its course, that relationship develops first nonverbal communication, then verbal communication. Soon enough, you can’t get that kid to stop talking! The environmental influences are so strong that the child naturally learns to communicate and to be a part of the family unit. In the same way, this young stage in a horse’s development is your golden opportunity to be part of their herd—their family—for life.It’s hardly a boring stage of development; quite the contrary.
The “extreme middle of the road” is when we do whatever it takes to get our young horses to want to come to us, to be with us, and to stay with us. The obedience comes from showing them the boundaries by playing the Seven Games: teaching them how to yield to and from pressure—both steady and rhythmic, how to go forward and backwards on a straight line, how to circle (while not overdoing the Circling Game), how to move laterally, and how to go into claustrophobic spaces (e.g., horse trailers, wash racks, tarps, puddles, etc.). This is how we can take that young mind and shape it in such a way that we'll have a partner for life that will become the equine companion that we've all been dreaming of.
Are you new to the Seven Games? Join the Savvy Club, where you can start the Levels Program and start building that dream partnership with your horse today.