Every trainer has his or her own method of starting a young horse under saddle, and that’s not to say any one opinion is wrong. As long as the horse gains knowledge and experience at the proper pace for his mental and physical development, many methods can be equally successful.
I have always believed horses should be started slowly and never rushed. Of course, no owner wants to pay for six months worth of training, only to have the horse return home barely knowing how to yield to the bit. My philosophy has always been to first get the animal used to carrying a bit attached to the halter while being groomed, longed, washed and so on. I’ll use trigger snaps or very small double-end snaps to hook the bit to the halter, always being careful not to bang the horse’s teeth when inserting the bit into his mouth.
Using a lightweight, sometimes hollow-mouthed, preferably an inlaid copper or sweet iron smooth Dee-ring snaffle, the horse becomes accustomed to the bit and can gradually begin wearing a regular headstall. The reason for this particular type bit is simple: The bit should be lightweight so it’s less of a burden to the horse -- after all, if he’s never worn a piece of cold steel in his mouth, we want him to get used to it rather than be traumatized by it. Also, the thicker the mouthpiece, the less severe the bit is. Many people don’t realize this, but an extremely thin smooth snaffle can be much harder on a horse than a thicker twisted wire bit. Last, a copper or sweet iron mouthpiece, which helps keep the animal's mouth nice and soft. I'd like to stress that preferably it should be inlaid copper, since solid copper bits get chewed on, which often results in sharp edges that can hurt the horse.
Always making sure the bit fits properly and comfortably in his mouth, the trainer should use common sense and his or her own judgment to decide when the next step should be taken. Depending on the reaction of the horse (and each individual horse is different), the surcingle can be introduced separately or in addition to the bridle. This very important tool teaches the horse to respect the girth, which is the first step toward getting him under saddle.
Ideally, horses should be started in a non-stress fashion such as this at about three years of age so they are ready to ride at the beginning of their fourth year. (I realize that with some breeds the animals are started much earlier to prolong their careers, but I firmly believe a young horse's legs are not developed enough to withstand the stresses associated with intense under saddle training until at least the age of three -- however, that's another story). Some can physically and mentally handle being ridden as three year olds, but any do not.
When the horse accepts the surcingle in conjunction with the bridle, a cavesson noseband is added to discourage gaping of the mouth when rein pressure is applied. A standard running martingale is another piece of equipment my horses are often not without when worked in a snaffle -- and that applies to horses of all ages. Adjustable side reins should be used at the longest length possible, attached by snaps to the bit and run through the rings on the martingale, snapping to the center rings on each side of the bitting rig. The martingale used should have rings that fall on the side of the horse's neck rather than those which come up from the chest area (which applies unnatural leverage on the horse's mouth).
Next time: Getting the horse accustomed to being bitted up and longed, working the horse in long lines (also called ground driving) and mounting the young unbroke horse for the first time. I will also discuss the safest way to start a green horse under saddle and techniques for working horses in the round pen.