As your horse progresses through early training, it’ll develop more “feel” and responsiveness to cues. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Find the right colt starter for your youngster with tips from these pros.

Somewhere between halter breaking and training your horse on the pattern is a window of time where your horse is taught the basics of working under saddle. While it may only be 30–120 days of the horse’s life, those few months with a colt starter can make or break your horse’s career. To help you find the right colt starter, we turned to three experts for their advice on this crucial training chapter.

Why Use a Colt Starter

The early rides on a green horse are perceived by some to be simple, but the trainer guiding your horse needs to be experienced. Justin Arnold, who starts barrel racing prospects for $4 million rider, futurity trainer and National Finals Rodeo qualifier Kassie Mowry, among others, began riding colts with his dad at age 12 before moving on to saddle bronc riding for 15 years. He returned to training after his rodeo career. Arnold says sending your horse to a colt starter before your main trainer is a good way to put the horse a step ahead.

Your horse will learn with a trainer how to stand quietly while being saddled. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

“A colt starter can teach the horse all the basic fundamentals,” Arnold said. “It’ll get them pretty soft and they’ll leave knowing a lot, which allows the rider to just step on and go and teach them what you need to teach them. I think you’re ahead of the curve that way, rather than starting from scratch.”

Carl Gould, reined cow horse trainer and National Reined Cow Horse Association Hall of Famer, says hiring a colt starter can ensure your horse gets individual attention during those early stages of training.

“Nowadays, a head trainer really doesn’t have time to start those colts, so he may have an assistant do it or send those colts out for the first 60–120 days until they’re ready to go,” Gould said. “It takes so much time, and you’ve got to sit on those young horses—not necessarily train on them the whole time, but they need to be ridden out.”

NFR qualifier and 2018 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association reserve champion barrel racer Jessica Routier says riders and trainers have their specialties, and she likes to rely on colt starters for their specific skill set.

“I’m honestly not brave enough to put the first few rides on them,” Routier said. “I love to halter break the babies, but I don’t like to be the one who puts the first rides on them. Finding the right person who specializes in the specific job you’re wanting done is important.”

What the Horse Will Learn

Your horse will spend on average 60 to 90 days with a colt starter, but sometimes as little as 30 days or as long as 120 days. Arnold says you’ll see a big difference at 30 days and 60 days, and at 90 days the changes will be more subtle.

“It’ll look a lot the same, but everything’s going to be sharper, and they’ll have more feel,” Arnold said. “They’ll be softer, more responsive to cues.”

The specific concepts your horse will learn depend on the horse and trainer, but they’ll build on one another, Arnold says.

Working with a rope will help a young horse develop.
Some colt starters will swing a rope on the colt, feeling that it offers many benefits to the youngster, even if the horse never goes on to be a rope horse. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

“It’s like teaching a kid how to read,” Arnold said. “You don’t just hand them a book. You have to teach them the letters first, and then the sounds, and slowly build into it. There are a lot of steps in those first 30 to 60 days.”

The overarching goal is to send home a horse that the next rider can step on and ride.

“I want the horse to be able to ride away from the tack room and go right into their program,” Arnold said. “I want the horse to be versatile, I want him to know to get off your legs, stay soft and know all the basics before they get on a pattern. I want to feel like the horse could go on a pattern, or they could rope off them, or ranch on them. I want them to have a good foundation and all the tools to go in any direction.”

Gould says a colt starter will help teach a horse patience in addition to the basics.

“They learn to gallop circles, they learn some feel and some body movement, they learn to go outside and be somewhere out of the arena,” Gould said. “They learn to get in a trailer and go somewhere. They learn to be tied to the trailer, they learn to track and gather cattle. They might learn to rope and go to a roping and just hang out. They learn to stand and mature.”

Colt starters using loping circles to help young horses gain control of their bodies under saddle.
Colts in training learn how to lope circles and gain control of their bodies under saddle. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

In the first 30 days, the horse will probably have developed a bit of feel, says Gould, and as time progresses, it should improve and learn more and more tasks. Routier does a lot of ground work with her colts before sending them to be started. Her horses spend 30 to 60 days with the trainer. But she says if you aren’t comfortable working with a horse on the ground to prepare it, you can leave that work to the colt starter as well.

With an emphasis on slow, comprehensive training, Routier says she likes a colt starter to complete each step before moving on to the next one.

Working cattle is an integral part of some colt starting programs.
Working cattle is an integral part of some colt starting programs. Not only does it give the horse a job , but it helps reinforce understanding of cues and gives the horse a good foundation for any event. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

“I don’t want any holes—something that may have gotten skipped is going to cause problems later on,” Routier said. “From ground work in the round pen to desensitizing them. I don’t micromanage, but when it’s all said and done, I want the horse to have been exposed to as much as possible and to stand and be saddled without being afraid.”

How to Find a Colt Starter

All the experts agree the best way to find a good colt starter is word of mouth. Start by asking competitors with horses you admire or owners who have a lot of young competitive horses being successfully campaigned by trainers.

“Ask around, do your homework and talk to people until you find somebody who has good recommendations,” Arnold said. “And you don’t have to go with the very first trainer you find.”

Gould concurs.

“Word of mouth is probably the best way—find someone who’s really happy with their colt starter,” Gould said. “If he fits your program, then you might want to go talk to that person.”

Finding a colt starter means learning about their program.
Riding outside is essential to preserve a good mind. Arnold rides colts out of the arena after just a few training sessions. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

What to Look For

Arnold says finding a colt starter that is going to go slow with your horse and treat it as an individual is important.

“You want somebody that isn’t going to try to make every horse fit their program,” Arnold said. “They’ve got to be willing to change the way they work to fit the horse. Not all horses are the same, and not all are going to understand one way of doing things. You’ve got to be open-minded enough to try it a different way if the horse is not understanding something.”

It’s a good idea to watch the trainer ride—ideally before you send your horse, Arnold says.

“Watch them ride, watch how they handle the horse,” Arnold said. “You’re going to learn a lot about a person watching how they treat their animals.”

Ask the trainer about their background, their training philosophies and how they will be taking care of your horse, says Arnold.

Gould says to look for a trainer with experience or one who is being guided by an established trainer.

“A newer guy is still learning, and he’s going to make some mistakes,” Gould said. “You don’t want him making those mistakes on your horse.”

Make sure to discuss expectations and timeline with the trainer, Gould advises.

“Ask what they expect this colt to be doing at the end of 30 days,” Gould said. “If he’s saying galloping some circles, riding outside, have a little stop, a little flexion and feel, that you’ll be able to tie him up, saddle him, handle his feet…those are some important things to start off with. So you want to ask the trainer about it.”

Routier will ask previous clients of a trainer about the trainer’s methods and prefers to watch a colt starter ride colts before she sends hers out. Look at horses the colt starter has worked with—of all ages. This will help you get a feel for that trainer’s expected results. Ask the trainer to walk you through their process.

Red Flags

Not all trainers are good colt starters. Arnold says just because someone is a horse trainer doesn’t mean they’re a good fit to ride young colts, in particular. Ask for referrals from previous clients, and find someone who enjoys working with 2-year-olds. Because the colt starter is teaching your horse at such a crucial junction, it’s possible to make mistakes in the horse’s training that will have long-term consequences.

Arnold says look out for a trainer that presses a horse into a set timeline. You want slow and flexible training, with a willingness to adapt to the horse.

“Rather than trying to push the horse, let them learn at their own pace and you’ll wind up in a better situation,” Arnold said.

A trainer who doesn’t want owners watching them work is also a red flag to Arnold.

“Not everybody rides the same, so I may do something different than the person who owns the horse,” Arnold said. “But the owner is going to wind up being the one who rides the horse eventually. I like if the owner comes and watches me work their horse. I can show them how I’ve done it and the cues I’ve put on the horse, so when they take him home, they can communicate with the horse.”

Gould looks out for a rider that is too busy and rushed on the horse, trying to impress people.

“Some riders are too busy with their hands, throwing too much at the horse, and the horse gets confused,” Gould said. “You want that person to take his time, have good feel and be quiet around the horse. You want the whole process to be nice and smooth, calm and cool.”

Ground work is important for any colt starting programs.
Ground work is part of any colt starting program. Arnold uses a rope to reach important pressure points while also desensitizing the horse, which is helpful when it’s time to saddle and can reduce spookiness to other objects. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Avoid a trainer who pushes the horse too hard beyond its ability.

“You don’t want to make the horse do something that he can’t, physically, because you’ll just make him mad and upset him because they don’t know what you’re wanting or they’re not moving naturally,” Gould said.

It’s not necessarily a red flag, but sometimes a horse and trainer do not connect. If there’s a problem, you want the trainer to be honest and communicate with you about it. Give both horse and rider the benefit of the doubt, says Gould.

Feed and care are top priorities for Routier, so she looks for well-kept horses when she visits a colt starter’s facility.

“If you go to their place and you see a lot of skinny horses standing around, I would be a bit leery,” Routier said. “Some horses are just harder to keep fed, but if there’s a lot of them, that’s a red flag to me. I don’t want them to submit to the training because they’re tired and don’t feel well.”

Routier says it’s important to find a good fit between horse and rider. Sometimes, a good trainer doesn’t mesh with a particular horse, though.

“Maybe you have someone start several colts for you and they’ve done a really good job, and then suddenly there’s one and they don’t see eye-to-eye,” Routier said. “I wouldn’t necessarily give up on that trainer right away, because it just might not be a good fit with that particular horse and rider.”

Look for a colt starter who enjoys working with young horses.
Look for a colt starter who enjoys working with 2-year-olds and will be flexible with your horse, not pressing it into a rigid timeline. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Meet the Experts

Justin Arnold grew up ranching with his family in California, then rode saddle broncs for 15 years, qualifying for the National Finals rodeo several times, before returning to horse training. Arnold and his wife, Cory, moved to Texas in 2012 and currently train out of Granbury, Texas. Arnold has started barrel horses for riders including Kassie Mowry.

Carl Gould is a National Reined Cow Horse Association Hall of Fame inductee, an NRCHA judge and Snaffle Bit Futurity open winner. Originally from Clovis, California, Gould and his wife, Snaffle Bit Futurity Non-Pro winner Kathy, live in Asher, Oklahoma.

Jessica Routier is a trainer, barrel racer and NFR qualifier. She and her husband, Riley, live in Buffalo, South Dakota.

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