Updated: May 19
I had a friend stop by the other day for a visit, and he asked me if he could pick my brain. His big question was this, “how much should I discipline my yearling stud colt?” It’s a good question because, yes, you can both under and over-discipline your colt.
I told him his timing was perfect because I, too, had a stud colt that was flexing his muscles, trying to figure out where he fit in, in this world and with me. And so I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and some research of my own. When in doubt, I hit the books. I read some of my classic manuals by the horsemanship greats. And this is the prescription I applied to both my colt and gave him to use for his. Should you need it, I believe you will have success with it as well.
The brass tacks of what I told my friend was that your colt needs to respect you, but you don't want him to be afraid of you. You need to do “as little as it takes and as much as you need” to get the change that you’re looking for. As I have said many times, working with a young horse can be likened to being a good parent to your children in that you need to be a parent first and a friend second, but ultimately both. Remember that your colt, male or female, has the basic instincts of a herd animal. This is your horse's psychology. At a young age, they will begin to explore who is dominant in each of their relationships. They will be searching to find where they belong.
Me admiring my stud colt. Photo by Trent Schlamp Photography.
So it’s important that you show them that any time you interact with them, you are above them in the pecking order of your herd-of-two relationship. I want to be clear, this is subtle and doesn’t mean knocking them around.
In working with your colt, or any horse, consistency is very important. My friend was telling me how bold his colt was getting, to the point of rearing up and pawing - yikes. And although it may have been in a playful spirit, this sort of behaviour cannot be permitted. I told him this behaviour in a stud colt was common, but he was right that it must be dealt with.
Let's explore some ways you may go about this. If, in order to curb this behaviour, you chased the colt off forcefully, you might get half of the result that you wanted. The colt likely will stay out of your way, but he does this more out of a sense of fear than a sense of respect. Our goal is to teach the colt to show you respect by giving you space, not pushing on you or invading your space, but following you and being respectful of your space.
This is why I like to do this work on the end of my lead rope on the halter. I can have him move away from me but not totally exit the interaction. This signals that he’s on my time and he does has the freedom to move, but I’m the leader here, and I’ll ultimately call the shots.
In doing this, I can have him move out of my space but then reassure him that I’m not there to harm him. I use a flag to demonstrate this, and using my direct-and-drive method of groundwork, the horse learns that I have the ability to move his feet and direct his speed and movement. Watch the video below to learn my direct-and-drive method.
When the horse learns that I have this ability, they see me in a different light. Back to horse psychology, when I move their feet, they go, “Oh, this is the herd leader. He chooses where we go and when but I don’t have to fear him.” As a good leader of your herd of two, you’re consistent, you’re firm, and you’re accurate, but you aren’t necessary to fear because the horse, being a herd animal, is happy to have a trustworthy leader, and this gets to be you. Horses understand that the alpha that moves the herd is the leader and takes on the responsibility of leading the herd to water, grass and out of trouble.
My full colt-starting mini-clinic is available inside the Cowboy Campus Club.
Because they learn to see me in this role, as long as I'm consistent and don't get them into trouble, they will allow me to be their leader. Horses are like children in that they are always observing and making decisions, and you need to remain very consistent in how you interact with them.
When you are working them on the end of a halter rope, you want to take the time to get your hands on them and reassure them that, as a good leader, you are not there to harm them. The better you get them used to being handled and rubbed on at an early age will make a world of difference in handling them when they are bigger and stronger,
My friend explained that sometimes when he tried to run and pet his colt, the colt would try to nip him, and he asked if it was alright to smack him colt on the nose for this. I told him that the key to disciplining was timing, and it was very important to be aware and ahead of the nip before it happened. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word discipline comes from discipulus, the Latin word for pupil, which also provided the source of the word disciple. Given that several meanings of discipline deal with study, governing one’s behaviour, and instruction, one might assume that the word’s first meaning in English had to do with education. I like to use this as an example that your first priority when disciplining your horse is to teach them, not punish them. This approach both affirms you as the leader and teacher but not to be feared.
So maybe you would be rubbing on your colt, and you were aware that he might reach around and try to nip you. If you were aware, you could head him off as he started to reach for you, and with just a small tap on his nose, you could change his mind about his plan to nip you. Being aware any time you are working with your horse, you can head off trouble before it even happens. Now being aware and one step ahead also served the purpose of demonstrating to your horse that you are, in-fact, the leader. You know what they’re going to do it before they do, and this shows your horse that you are in charge.
Photo by Trent Schlamp Photography.
Problems that could potentially become bigger issues down the road can be dealt with in their early stages before they become bad habits or possible wrecks. You have to remember that anytime you are interacting with your horse, you are training them in how they should view and treat you.
My best advice for colt-starting? Have a plan and remain consistent.
You can take my full colt-starting online-clinic inside the Cowboy Campus Club Group Coaching Program. Join the waitlist and be notified when enrollment to the club opens here → https://www.cowboycampus.com/join-the-waitlist