Make the most of your young horse time
Yearling horses are between one and two years of age. Horses grow quickly in the first two years of life, but can take five or more years to finish growing. Genetics determine overall size and stature potential, but nutrition determines whether a horse will reach its full potential.
Yearling horses are just that—horses that are a year old. Genetics and nutrition are key to growth and development. Yearlings are at a great age to begin learning the basics for a long and productive riding career. In addition to basic manners, you can teach them to lead, tie, trailer and lunge. Just remember to keep sessions short and positive.
Feeding your young horse during these growth phases is very important—look for a high-quality forage combined with an easily digestible concentrate. Exercise, in the proper amounts, is also key. While you cannot ride a yearling, there are a lot of different activities you can do to set the foundation for a long and successful riding career.
What is a yearling horse?
A yearling is a horse that is a year old. Newborn horses are called foals. Once foals are separated from their mothers, they are called weanlings. When a weanling reaches one year of age, they become yearlings.
The term yearling refers to horses up to two years old.
How do you feed a yearling horse?
Nutrition is critical early in a young horse’s life. While particular growth rates are more specific to breed and individual genetics, some horses reach 90% of their adult height and 75% of their adult weight by one year of age. Others may not reach these milestones until between 18 and 24 months of age.
The importance of nutrition begins at conception—the mare should be fed appropriately during her pregnancy and lactation to give the foal the best chance possible for a long and healthy life.
Yearlings should be a fed high-quality hay and a grain ration, spread out into smaller meals throughout the day.
Since yearlings don’t have their adult teeth yet, it is best to feed processed grains or pellets instead of whole grains for proper digestion and utilization. A feed formulated for young, growing horses is best—certain amino acids, vitamins, and minerals need to be fed in appropriate ratios for proper absorption.
A few widely available options include:
How do you exercise a yearling horse?
Young horses have a lot of energy and need adequate exercise to grow and develop. That said, exercise should be more on their terms than yours.
You don’t want to overdo it and put unnecessary strain on joints that are still growing.
Keep sessions short, build upon previous sessions, and always end on a positive note. Provide plenty of turnout—preferably with other horses—to allow your yearling to learn good “social skills” early on.
List of things to teach a yearling horse:
While you can’t ride a yearling horse, you can establish a solid foundation for a long and successful riding career in the future. The early years provide a great opportunity to teach things like ground manners, grooming, leading, tying, lunging, trailering, and even in-hand trail obstacles.
How do you teach a yearling manners?
When training any animal, remember that consistency is key. Ensure you are asking for things the same way each time, and responding quickly and appropriately.
Most animals respond best to positive reinforcement.
While it might be cute to let a foal nibble on your fingers or lean on you, it won’t be so cute when they weigh 1,000 pounds. Teach your young horse about personal space early, while they are a more manageable size. If in doubt, consult a trainer or equine professional for how to handle individual behavioral issues.
How do you teaching a yearling to lead?
Before you can teach a yearling to lead, you must teach it to wear a halter. Hopefully by a year old, this part is already done. The key to teaching a horse how to lead is to help them figure out how to “give” to pressure.
Their natural instinct is going to be to pull away when they feel pressure, so this takes time and practice.
Teaching a young horse how to lead is the first step in many other important lessons, such as how to stand tied, how to wear a bridle, and how to lunge. Don’t force it—be patient. Be sure your yearling understands and respects your personal space.
When practicing, switch things up—start, stop, change directions, and back up. Keep in mind your yearling still has a baby attention span, so sessions should be short and positive.
Want to read more? This article has some great detailed tips.
Groundwork for yearlings
There are many different things you can work on with a yearling that will help ease the transition to under-saddle work later in life. Groundwork can include leading, tying, lunging, grooming, and loading onto a trailer.
The more you do while they are young, the easier these things will be as they get older!
You should emphasize teaching the horse to respect your personal space, respond to pressure, and learn voice cues, such as clucking to go faster or “whoa” to stop. Additionally, you can teach your young horse to respond to your body language, which is especially helpful for lunging.
Learning to watch you for cues and trust you to keep them safe will pay huge dividends in the future.
Desensitizing a yearling
When working with horses, it is important to remember that they are prey animals and their natural response is usually “flight” over “fight.” An effective way to help your horse is thorough systematic desensitization. This means you gradually show your horse something scary over and over again, but in a way that the horse doesn’t find overly frightening.
It can be combined with positive reinforcement.
A good example of this technique would be exposing your young horse to a plastic bag—classic (older) desensitization may include tying a plastic bag to the saddle, causing the horse to spook and gallop around until he eventually tires himself out and gets over it.
In systematic (modern) desensitization, you would present the plastic bag to the horse in a less threatening situation, slowly exposing him to it without letting him move into the “flight” or spooky space. This is a less stressful method of desensitization, and while it may take a little longer, will help build a relationship of trust with your young horse.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you lunge a yearling?
Yes, it is generally good to work yearlings on the ground. The more you can do with them early on, the easier it will be to train them under saddle later in life.
Use caution to not overdo it—yearlings are still growing and too much impact on young joints is not a good thing.
Keep sessions short and always end on a positive note.
What is the best feed for a yearling colt?
The best feed for a yearling horse is a high-quality hay and a concentrate formulated for young, growing horses. Nutrition is very important at this stage in the horse’s life—with the right balance of protein, vitamins, and minerals, young horses can grow to their full potential.
Avoid feeding whole grains, as yearling horses do not have their adult teeth yet and may have a hard time breaking down the individual grains to properly digest them.
Commercially formulated feeds would be preferred—it is important to not only provide the right nutrients but also the right ratio of nutrients. For example, the ratio of calcium to phosphorus ratio and zinc to copper are both important.
What age is considered a yearling horse?
A yearling horse is a horse between one and two years old.
Can you ride a yearling horse?
No, yearling horses are not developed enough physically to carry a rider.
Is a yearling still a foal?
Nope! Once a horse turns one, he’s officially no longer a foal (hence the term yearling). While you may not be able to call your young horse a foal anymore, you can still call them a filly or a colt.
A filly is any female horse under four years of age (once she turns four, she’s referred to as a mare). A colt is any (uncastrated) male horse under four years of age (after four, call him a stallion or gelding).
Once a colt is gelded, regardless of his age, he’s referred to as a gelding.
What can I do with my yearling horse?
While yearlings are still years away from riding, there’s a lot that you can do to build a solid foundation for more advanced training down the road.
Working on ground manners is very important, as is teaching the horse to stand for things like grooming and the farrier. You can start teaching your yearling how to load and ride in a trailer.
Many owners will even start working on the basics of lunging (short sessions of 5-10 minutes are best). You can also work on desensitizing by conquering in-hand trail obstacles or even ponying your yearling on a trail ride.
Spending time handling your yearling will set a solid foundation for future training. There are plenty of things you can teach a young horse before being ridden—ground manners, leading, tying, lunging, and trailering are all great activities that will help set them up for success as they continue to mature.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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- You CAN Do This: Trailering a Horse for the First Time
- Horse Hay FAQs (List of Types of Hay, The Best Hay for Horses, etc.