Neu Perspectives

Those Who Start Colts

colt trotting in roundpen

Colt starters deserve credit for an often thankless job, and so do the folks who decide to hire out the task.

I’ve written about starting colts a time or two before, but because it’s such a prominent part of my life, I can’t help but revisit the subject now. I love young horses—whether they belong to me or not—and when Luke and I are hired to start them, I consider it an honor to be that small part of the beginning of each one’s story. There’s nothing more rewarding than the update text, photo or phone call that boasts success with a colt we’ve started and its rider.

That being said, I tip my hat to those who feel drawn to riding young horses. It’s not a job that calls to everyone, and I think that’s a good thing. Most people equate starting colts with being a bronc rider, which is not necessarily true. Although it helps to have a good seat and a feel for the “what might/could happen” when riding a horse for the first few rides, with the right preparation, a colt can often get through the first 30 days without exhibiting bronco tendencies.  And there are a multitude of skills to be learned that can help avoid those sorts of problems.

Jeff Williams starts a colt in roundpen
Photo by Ross Hecox

In the performance world, starting colts or being a “2-year-old guy/gal” is a stepping stone to bigger and better things. A lot of successful trainers and showmen had to start horses at some point in their career to become what they are. I would bet that in most instances, it has made them all horsemen with a better understanding of 2 year olds (and an appreciation for older horses, too!)

In general, the fellows and ladies who decide to start horses, whether it’s for the public or just something for themselves, are pursuing a task that requires flexibility, feel and humility. Every colt is a little different, and there is no shortage of angles and methods to teaching a young horse the basics. 

It’s a very simple breakdown of the concept of horsemanship—making the right thing easy and the wrong thing more work. However, it’s ridiculously important to have the feel to acknowledge the “try.” With colts, it’s important to leave the emotions out, too. Anger and frustration at their lack of understanding often yields unpleasant results. Setting expectations higher than reality can also be a step in the wrong direction.

To be honest, it can sometimes be a thankless job. Sometimes folks who really don’t fit the needs of a young horse try to make one work for them, and it’s a tough spot to try and have a colt ready for that type of person. Often, years down the road, I’ve heard someone encounter a problem with their trusty ol’ gelding and are quick to say, “Well, whoever started him must have left some holes.”

But on the same note, if that same horse and rider team finds success in, say, a timed event or ranch versatility class, they aren’t about to point fingers and give credit to the guy (or gal) who put the first 30 days on them. And yes, a lot of people will reluctantly farm the task out, blaming their outsourcing of the task on their years. I can’t tell you how many people have told us, “I’d do it myself, but at my age, I just don’t want to get hurt.” I’ve always thought that was a funny thing to say. At any age, I’ve never wanted to get hurt. We don’t do this job because we want to get hurt either. But we will do our best to try and ensure that you don’t when you get on your young horse’s back.

The variance on the colt-starting timeline carries a lot of opinion as well. Some folks start their horses as long yearlings, while others consider a 4- or 5-year-old a colt finally ready to start. Sometimes a horse will get two weeks of riding and then have months off to grow mentally and physically before really starting a job. Sometimes people are happy that a young horse has had a lot of time and experience. Other times, it worries them. Different breeds, disciplines and dispositions of horses can dictate a lot when deciding how much to ask of a young horse, and the colt starter needs to have confidence, but flexibility.

It’s a world of constant growth. Starting colts is our bread and butter. It’s what carries our business and has blessed us with the life that we have. But of the thousands (!) of horses we have cared for and ridden, there are almost no two exactly alike. I learn something from our roundpen every time I step in it. Not everything is an early maturing, mentally capable performance horse, and not everything is a fragile, wispy flower of a baby horse, needing to be pleaded with and coaxed along softly either.

So, to all of you who crave those first 30 days, I applaud you. Whether it’s the desire to start something you’ve raised of your own, or 20 head of broncs for someone else, it’s a unique and, yes, sometimes thankless, skill. Just stay safe, know that you will make mistakes, learn a lot and become a better breaker with each one you ride.

And to those of you who send your colts out to someone else, you have my applause as well. It’s a very important stage of a horse’s life and not a job for most folks. I have a lot of respect for those who crave a solid foundation on their horses from someone who has specialized in colts. Because of your decision to send them out, you will probably have better horses down the road for years to come. 

And don’t hesitate to send that happy update text once in a while, too.

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