Horses are so expressive in their body language. Here, “Mercedes,” a yearling filly, is clearly unsure about the lariat in Clay’s hand, but she refuses to take her attention off of it. That’s a good sign.

Today, my husband Clay is bringing some of our long yearlings into our indoor arena, to start their training in the roundpen he has set up in one end. Along with his assistant, Danielle, Clay will begin “Kindergarten” with the young horses.

Using a safe roundpen (one in which a colt cannot get its legs stuck in between the panels up high, in the connection points), Clay’s goal today is basically to get the colt’s attention focused on him. Wherever Clay goes, he wants the young horse to be aware and focused on his actions as the handler. First in is Mercedes, a yearling filly sired by Peptoboonsmal.

Please note, entries about colt starting and horse training in my blog are essentially only “nutshell” versions of the real thing. The only true ways of learning the techniques safely are through the hands-on teaching of experienced professionals – so if you are inexperienced in this department, don’t take my notes and pictures to mean that you too, can try this at home! However, since Clay has had thousands of hours of experience and hundreds of horses ridden under his saddle, there are still many things we can share with you via a blog medium.

So let’s get back to kindergarten. Using a lariat in one hand as an aid to wave the filly away at crucial times, it can also become an extension of Clay’s arm. Clay moves Mercedes around the roundpen, being careful to maintain a safe distance from her hindquarters. Each time her attention focuses on Clay’s body in the centre of the roundpen, he backs away from the filly.

If the filly maintains her attention on Clay, he continues to back away. If however, she moves her attention to something else, Clay pushes her forward again.

Ideally at this point, Clay would like to be able to approach the filly and perhaps even touch her, but if she chooses to leave him, the consequence is that she will have to work. Clay uses the concept of “Approach and Retreat” with horses, the idea behind it being that you get into the colt’s space for just long enough that the young horse can handle it, and then get out again. If the horse starts to leave before the handler has retreated from the “comfort zone,” the handler didn’t get out fast enough and this will make it difficult to build the horse’s confidence for being touched and handled.

Clay has sent Mercedes around the roundpen again and once again, her attention focuses back on Clay. He steps back to try and keep her attention.

Clay approaches Mercedes and so far, she’s keeping her feet still. Her ears are great indicators for what she is thinking and while she is unsure about the lariat, she stays put. Because she allows Clay to touch her, he rewards Mercedes by walking away from her again. The interesting part at this point is, Mercedes now takes a couple steps towards Clay.

So, Clay approaches and tries touching Mercedes again, this time with the lariat.

Mercedes moves slightly away.

Again Mercedes is doing well, so Clay back out of her space.

And that’s a perfect place to leave the lesson at for today.

Clay’s three main rules of colt starting are; 1) The horse and the handler must not get hurt; 2) Always have the colt maintain its attention on the handler in a relaxed, safe fashion throughout the colt starting experience; And 3) Ensure the colt is more relaxed and confident at the end of the session than it was in the beginning.

* Stay tuned! Clay will take this filly from the roundpen groundwork to her first time wearing a saddle and we’ll blog it all for you. However since it’s a lengthy entry, I’ll be breaking it up over the course of several days that do not run in succession. Hope to see you there!

** For more information about Clay, check out