I’ll be honest. Even though I love starting and training colts, and I have years of experience doing it, when it comes down to hauling out a successful harvest from a hunting trip 85% of me wants to turn to my ‘ol faithful, tried and true mare, Chardy and not the unpredictability of a young colt. She has packed elk out straight up thick oak brush covered mountains on rocks in the pitch dark, and carried me safely home without any trouble when it was too dark me to even see her neck as we rode. All of this after having several months off of riding so she could raise a colt. There are 6 things that Chardy and I did in her 1st couple of years packing that I do with all my colts that set the foundation for her to be the trusty and amazing horse that she is today.
Practice at home: I cannot stress this enough. Don’t try the hobbles, pack saddle, or panniers just once…. use them a lot! When you think you have used them a lot, use them several more times.
There are a lot of good colts out there, thanks to the dedication of horse enthusiasts and breeders trying to make the best-minded and physically-apt horses possible. The problem is they are so ‘nice’ that they will fool you into believing they are broke on the first try because they are so well behaved. When the wind is blowing, the smell of raw meat is filling their nostrils, and bloody quarter bags are being flopped on their sides, these 2-3year olds tend to sing a different song then they did in the safety of their round pen at home. The more you practice with your equipment at home the better off they will be in a new and high-stress environment.
Take your time: Remember, even if you have the most well behaved colt in the nation, he still has a baby brain. It takes time for them to process, they have short attention spans, and the world is still a relatively new place with new experiences for them. Everything you do with them at this age and stage is being soaked up and stored in their memory, for better or worse. Give yourself and your colt 2 or even 3 times the amount of time you think it's going to take. Don’t get in a rush. Be patient with their baby brain. Its better to be pleasantly surprised that you didn't need all the time you planned for than to be in a frustrated frazzle because you feel like you're running behind.
Trail ride: Get your horse used to being out in the wilderness. Especially if your horse lives in a barn/suburban area. The lands that are hunted on tend to be filled with surprising and 'spooky' things for colts. We are fortunate to live where our property borders the BLM that we hunt on. So our horse get use to the wildlife, noises, and smells of the area just by roaming their turnout area. Even with that advantage, I still take my horses out on the trails. They get used to seeing boulders, birds, deer, elk, chipmunks, crossing water, and so much more while out on the trails. It's a lot easier to learn about and deal with these obstacles that you’re sure to encounter without 100+ lbs of dead weight and raw meat smell on their backs.
Ground work: Make sure your colt's leading skills are on point. I have avoided a lot of wrecks packing because my horses and donkey are really good at respecting my space and taking cues from the ground/end of a lead rope. When your horse is scared and about to blow-up, you want them to focus-on you (Check out ‘Fundamental Fridays: Focus-in, Focus-on’ blog post) and not what ever is freaking them out. When you are maneuvering over obstacles and through tight spaces you want their leading abilities to be sharp (Check out ‘Fundamental Fridays: When leading becomes a drag’ blog post) so they are not running you over or fumbling over the trail.
Sacking out: This is so, so important. When you're out in the sticks it's so much nicer when your colt is solid and not jumping at every cracking twig, breeze rustling the leaves, and branch scraping
their bellies, legs, and packs. I always start out with ropes, tarps, and sacks in the round pen (Check out ‘Fundamental Fridays: Beginnings of Bombproof’). Then we graduated to putting the panniers and pack saddles on, filling the bags with miscellaneous things, and walking through the brush around the property.
Break a sweat: Generally speaking, I don’t believe that simply making your horse tired is going to solve/prevent all your problems. If that colt is really worried about his life, he is going to do whatever it takes to save it whether or not he is sweaty. That’s why this is last on the list. You should exhaust all of the other tips, helping your colt to learn, before using this one. I will say that colts, given their baby brains, tend to focus a little better and have fewer silly moments when they have some sweat under the saddle pad and their little nostrils are working for them to breathe. Now, just keep in mind what kind of work they will have to do to pack out your harvest. If they are worked hard before the real work begins, their exhaustion can lead to injury. There is a balance. If there is a way for them to have a good walk climbing up or down hills to get them breathing and sweating a little bit before they start to pack out your harvest, that will definitely help them stand still when you go to throw all the meat in the packs.
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