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A Bit of Advice Training Tips

by Kelley Colvin

When thinking about the future of the American Saddlebred industry, we often look to the Weanling and Yearling classes at the Kentucky State Fair and the big monied classes such as the Wisconsin Limited Breeders Weanling Stake and the Bluegrass Futurity to pick out the three-gaited or five-gaited grand champions of the future. We see a large number of colts show in these classes and win, but there is a mystery surrounding what happens to some of those winning colts. Are they pushed to early? Worked too hard? Or just plan burnt out? These questions should have simple answers, but they don't.

Some believe we should not show our babies if we plan to have performance horses later in life. Or should we? Can a colt show as a baby and still make a great performance horse? Sure it can. One of the things that can assure the colt's success both as a baby and as a show horse is how it is started in its early days.

After a recent presentation at the UPHA Convention by Jim Aikman, the showing of babies has become a topic of great interest. Aikman stated that horses such as Phi Slama Jama, who went on to become a multi-time world's champion Fine Harness and an outstanding stallion, and Ruff Country, who went on to be named a world champion three-gaited horse, were both world's champion weanlings. Also Revival, a multi-time world's champion Fine Harness horse, showed to a reserve world's champion weanling title. Sultan's Santana was a champion weanling who later sold for $1 million at auction before becoming a World's Grand Champion Fine Harness horse and a leading stallion. Night Prowler, was a champion in the yearling division. He went on to become a World's Grand Champion Fine Harness horse as well. World's Champion Blackberry Delight was champion weanling and then went on to win world's champion title in the three-gaited park and pleasure divisions. These horses are prime examples that colts can be prepared and shown successfully in the weanling and/or yearling futurities and still go on to be great performance horses.

So, the question then becomes how do I get my colt ready to show now so that it can become a successful show horse later? What kind of workout do I use to make him the best he can be and show to his best potential without injury or burnout?

The following is a collection of training tips and advice from just a few of the industry's professional colt trainers and handlers.

James Aikman, Indianapolis, Ind., founder of the All American Cup, has been showing colts for over 50 years. He has prepared and shown such great horses as Lotta Firefly and Ruff Country.

Aikman starts his colts only 45 days before the planned event. He says, four to five-month-old colts are the best age when possible. Workouts are planned for only 10 to 15 minutes. Aikman stresses that it is important to have the colts on a good feeding schedule. He also suggests tying up the mare while she eats for about an hour. This allows the colt a chance to eat on his own.

When planning the workouts, start confined in the stall. “A confined area is necessary in the beginning,” Aikman stated. After working the baby colt with his mother close by, Aikman likes to move to an area where he can turn out the mare where the baby and mare can see each other. This allows the baby to be separated from his mother but not get worried or fretful. Then he moves to a large outdoor area. In the way of protection devices, he works them with no bell boots or wraps, only a lounge line “so they will feel free and happy," Aikman stated.

In regards to action devices, Aikman said, “If they are good and talented enough to go and show, stretchies and chains are not always needed. I put shoes on my weanlings about 14 days before the planned class."

When at the show, Aikman encloses the colt in a stall with stall drapes. After grooming and cleaning the colt, Aikman prepares the colt by lounging him loosely where the colts feels free, open in a circle. "You are not there to show him. Let the colt air up and show himself," Aikman said.

For showing yearlings the preparation time is a little different. Aikman believes, a four month schedule is best. He recommends worming the colts. Yearlings should not need any serious training during April, May or June.

If the colt has not been shown or handled as a weanling it needs to be handled so that it can be groomed. Then, start teaching it to pose, stretch and lead. The main goal is for the colt to gain confidence.

When leading, Aikman suggests working the colt in both directions as well as in straight lines. He also says turn out time is important while working the yearling; all colts need to have their play time. Be sure to turn the colt out at night so as not to damage his hair coat. “Do not over train," Aikman said.

After a few weeks of handling, Aikman says you may want to put plates on the colt to start shaping and growing his foot out. Parasite control is very important as well. “The best color of a colt is fat” Aikman said.

By July the colt should be settled in a stall full time and should be lead at most two days a week. The rest of the time the colt should be turned out with protective gear.

The colt should be worked in wraps and bell boots for protective purposes. This helps the colt to establish his timing, gain balance and rate speed. Noise training is also important. "Training the colt to handle noise, applause and motion is very important. The colt has to be able to show himself off and not let the noise distract him," Aikman said.

J.D. Gardner of Macon, Ga., says the only problem in starting babies is that “you can’t start them until they are born.” In his eyes, babies are nothing more than small horses. They are just not as strong.

“We can work them, shoe them and show them the same," Gardner said. "We must keep in mind that colts are a lot like children. Their workouts need to be fun, and the more they become hard and routine that is when your colts lose their flair."

Gardner believes, the ideal age is six months, but admits "unfortunately, we do not always work under ideal circumstances."

He says, when the colts are three to four months old, while still nursing, the work can start two days a week, maybe more depending on the size of the colt.

Gardner also says when you start with haltering, the mare can be a great tool. He recommends, using her to get the colt caught and to get the halter on the first time. “I like to teach all of my colts to tie as early as possible. I start by wrapping the rope around a post or something sturdy. Get the colt used to the pressure,” Gardner said.

Once they are comfortable with that then he ties them. "I also, tie the mare with hay or something to eat to ease her nerves and to keep her out of my way while I work the colt. This will become very important later when we get to the horse show as well." he said.

After you have the colt leading, Gardner says the next step is to teach him to park out. “I line up the colts on a hillside to teach them to push through their rump and level their top,” Gardner said.

Once he has leading and the set up down, Gardner then teaches the colt to lounge to build up muscle tone and stamina. "After that you need to start leading the colt in straight lines to prepare the colt to show. Colts also need to be worked in straight lines in order to come to their full motion,” Gardner says.

When it comes to action devices, Gardner says, “The colt will decide whether not he needs them and how long he needs to be worked in them.”

When it is time for shoeing, Gardner says, “Milk feet will react very similar to the foot on a grown horse.” Gardner starts with a keg plate in order to get the colt's foot to grow.

On the back end, Gardner says, “You don’t need a lot of shoe. Keep in mind pads weigh something.” After the show shoes have been put on, “I like to use lead to see how much weight the colt needs,” stated Gardner.

He believes that before you get to the show you need to practice or create a mock show. Get the colt cleaned up, including bathing if necessary, do not wait until you get to the horse show to introduce new things. That also includes gingering the colt for showing. “I like to use unground root ginger,” Gardner said, "it does not last as long and is not as strong."

Gardner also says, once you are ready and get to the show, it is best to tie the mare as you do at home with hay. This will free you and the baby to leave and show.

Richard Witt, of Blythewood Farm in Cleveland, Tenn., though mild spoken, has prepared some top futurity colts in his time while working for the Neil family. One of his most recent colts was Performing Nightly, who finished as the 2003 Reserve World's Champion ASHA Kentucky Yearling Futurity.

Witt began by stating, "Mother Nature provides us with the animal with all the talent and beauty."

Even though Witt does not prepare many weanlings, he prepares them all the same with elementary lessons. Then they are turned back out to be horses again.

"First when starting the colts, you must gain their trust. The colts must not be afraid of you," Witt expressed.

Witt believes the babies sort themselves. "The babies, like the yearlings and futurity colts, will tell you about it or show you the quality, you don't have to pick them out," he said.

After you have them doing the basics, leading and posing, he says, the colts are able to work separate from the mother, but in the mother's sight. This helps the anxiety of both the colt and the mare. Soon after this, the colt should be able to work separate from the mare and out of her sight.

When fitting the colts, they are worked with limited action devices. Witt feels that the more you use the colts early, the quicker they are worn out or burned out. He says, the key is not to work them too long and over do the workouts.

Witt says, if at all possible the colts should be shown in their most natural state. This includes without shoes, if the footing will permit it. Sometimes you have to put shoes on to protect the colts feet. This is normally done two to three weeks before the horse show.

"Most of our colts are prepared as yearlings and two-year-olds," Witt stated. "The yearlings are brought up where they can come in and work. In the beginning, the yearlings are put into lots or run-in sheds where they can be caught, worked and turned out. Hair coats are very important, so the colts are kept out of the sun."

After the yearling has been chosen or exhibits potential, he is put up to prepare to show. The yearlings are shod with plates to grow the foot out.

"Some of our yearlings are broke to line to help finish them," said Witt. No heavy training or action devices are used on any of their yearlings. He believes the quality and talent will surface from the colts. "They will tell you about it," Witt said.

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