Colt Starting and Colt Breaking – The Differences

by patparelli on March 25, 2011

Tom Dorrance and Pat

Tom Dorrance and Pat

Walk a mile in your horses horseshoes is what Troy Henry and Tom Dorrance tried to get me to understand!  Showing a horse who is boss was an easy concept for me to grasp as a young man.  I loved horses and I loved the notion of being a good enough cowboy to make horses do what I wanted whether it was halter breaking a young horse, riding them for the first time , getting them to stop or turn quickly, rope a cow, or any other ranch duties. I found out quickly that if I stayed focused and worked really hard I could out-fumble most any horse, this is what I now call ” Young Man’s Disease.”  You may have heard me use that term a lot lately and my intention is to help other young men realize that they don’t have to go through that process like I did.

It is true,  to be really good with young horses one should be as confident as a lion tamer, as good a rider as a rodeo hand, as strategic as a CEO of a corporation, as mentally aware as a psychoanalyst, but one should lead with compassion, skills and TRUE HORSEMANSHIP KNOWLEDGE!

When I talk about “Young Man’s Disease” I am not pointing any fingers because I have been there, done that and bought the tee shirt, besides I don’t have to point any fingers, the whole world is there to see it and see the difference in many cases.  Humans know what is right in their hearts when they take the time to feel it.

I grew up using words like ‘break’ and ‘train’.  Everyone used them and nobody thought any different, note the word THOUGHT. I knew what I meant so what is in a word anyway?  Then enters a real horseman named Troy Henry into my life and he pins me down one day after I had been giving a lesson to one of our students. He had heard me encouraging her get her horse moving more forward in the round corral, I kept on saying “make him do it , come on make him do it”. After the student left he came over to me all red in the face, I knew I was in big trouble but for what I didn’t know.

He really let me have it! He blew like a top! He said “If I ever hear you say that again you’re out of here!”  At first I thought I must have used a swear word but that wasn’t it,… so I said please tell me what word I should never say again. He smiled and said “MAKE”, never say MAKE or LET.  When I asked him what should I use he replied CAUSE and ALLOW, and while you are at it never say Break or Train again either, use the words START and DEVELOP as in START A RELATIONSHIP and DEVELOP A PARTNERSHIP this was the first big philosophical differentiation that I can remember about horsemanship. As you might well imagine this was a defining moment for me!

Maturity does not happen overnight and slowly but surely my approach started to change.  One thing I know for sure, horses are like people in at least one way. They do not care how much you know until they know how much you CARE.

Shortly after Troy Henry passed away Tom Dorrance came into my life, he started to share the idea that colt starting, like horsemanship was truly an ART.  Colt starting is not something you do to a young horse it is rather something you do with him and for him.

I had just moved from Clovis Ca. To Clements about 3 hours north. The sign in front of my property read ” Parelli Horse Ranch, the Foundation Station Specializing in The Lost Art of Starting Horses”  This was in the early 80′s we were starting over 300 horses a year. These were the days that I got a lot of tutelage from both Tom Dorrance and Ronnie Willis on a regular basis and I would host a Ray Hunt Clinic at least once a year and ride in 2 or 3 on top of that.

Colt Starting

Colt Start Clinic

This was a great opportunity to learn at an accelerated rate, I could not get enough information and experience to fill my appetite but I sure was trying!

Ronnie Willis helped me with my first colt starting clinic. We started 22 horses in 5 days and had all the owners riding them by the end. This was big fun so I started putting on clinics almost every week and had between 20 and 30 horses most every time. The challenge was not usually the horses but rather the people, mostly because they were not experienced enough with young horses. These were the days I really learned a lot about horsenalities and the different approaches that one might take. After every horse that I started I usually found myself pleased but not satisfied so this is where I learned ” Good Better Best, Never Let it Rest, Get Your Good Better and Your Better BEST!”

From L-R - Ronnie Willis, Ray Hunt & Pat Parelli

From L-R - Ronnie Willis, Ray Hunt & Pat Parelli

So how can one tell if someone is starting a colt or breaking one?

The frame work I use is, if the dam of the horse you are starting was watching the session and approved then maybe your doing OK.  If you or the horse are sweating profusely and there is a lot of dust and commotion then maybe one is working harder and not smarter, this might give us some clues as to what we are observing.

Don’t let techniques like round penning fool you, in fact I think one of the most common mistakes most people do is start by sending the horse around the round corral to get respect instead of giving the horse a moment to decide if you are friend or foe. This often creates the horse’s perception that he must defend himself and then he uses up unnecessary energy through self preservation.

Another common mistake is to try and desensitize the horse by sacking him out and over exposing to too many different things to quickly like throwing the lead rope at him over and over again rather than build confidence by exposing the horse to different things or situations at a rate that their confidence and curiosity can handle. Keep this in mind –  we all want our horses to be a blend of CALM, SMART, BRAVE and ATHLETIC and the way to get this result is by creating a provocative learning environment where we never loose a Horse’s Confidence, Curiosity and Sensitivity so that he continues to become more and more responsive.  In other words starting creates PARTNERSHIPS and BREAKING is the first step to LEARNED HELPLESSNESS.

I recently had the privilege of sharing my approach to colt starting at ” The Road to the Horse ” in Tennessee  on February of 2011. I hope this blog will help you understand at an even deeper level what I was trying to share. The teachings of my mentors and the learning of me as a student. I hope came across clearly.

The most rewarding thing that happened for me at the ” Road to the Horse ” was not what happened in the arena or any compliment that any one gave me then or since but what happened the next morning.

As many of you know,  after the first session Linda and I decided to buy the colt I was starting. In the second session I started calling him “Partner.” In the final session we had a great feeling together but it wasn’t until the next morning when I went to the corral where all the colts were being kept for the weekend, when I made eye contact with him in the corral he nickered and walked through 10 other horses and met me at the gate, wanted a scratch, stuck his head in the halter and followed me with extreme confidence. Then was the moment I knew all my teachers were watching and nodding with approval.

On the way home Linda and I discussed changing Partner’s name after a student suggested we should call him Troubadour because there was a song playing in the final session by George Strait called “Troubadour.” That’s how we gave him his name. He was bred at the 6666 Ranch in Guthrie TX. His Registered name is “Hey Whiskey” because his Sire’s name is “Paddy’s Irish Whiskey.”

One last note: When I refer to Colt Starting,  I am referring to young horses not colts (as in un-castrated young male horses). One time I had a colt starting clinic with only young stallions and on the second day someone asked why I didn’t let students bring Fillies, so I just wanted to be clear.

Keep it Natural

Pat Parelli

{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

steve jensen April 30, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Pat, thank you for showing us how much more important the relationship is compared to the task or the prize. Respect is earnd not owed and can take a lifetime to earn and a moment to loose. In three days, you gained a lifetime worth on top of what you have already earned. There are three pictures in the slide show from the road to the horse that I wish I could have made into a poster. Two pictures of the other compediters had their ropes pulled tight around their horses neck and the horse up in the air fighting for there exsistence. The other picture of you kneeling, rope coiled up, and Troubadour standing there looking at you. Looking at those three pictures says it all; and why I am glad I found Parelli. Thanks again!


Sandy Eis May 1, 2011 at 11:02 am

Steve…This is an awesome post!! Thank you. where is this picture you mention? I would LOVE to see it & also have one.
Yes, we are most certainly Parelli & Proud of it!!!


Sandy Eis April 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Pat, you are WAY MORE than a diamond in the rough. I am a diamond in the rough..well I’m still carbon trying to get to the diamond part. YOU are a well polished gem who keeps getting brighter!!!


Tracy April 22, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Your a diamond in the rough Pat Parelli-don’t ever change mate :)


tommy huffstetler April 7, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Pat, Thank you and Linda for helping to make happy horses all around the world! My wife and I have rescued 4 orphanied foals in the last 4yrs. The first 2 are just now turning 4yrs. old we got them when they were around 2mos. old. They have been raised with Love, lanuage and Leadership. Developing these Babys with using the Parelli Way has been such a wonderful journey. Now our 2nd set of foals are turning 2yrs old this month! Today my little boy Suitor saw daddy standing on the big Stump!! Front two feet up on the stump! As I turned to look at my wife with joy. Here comes the back feet! Yes Suitor and Daddy were on the Stump he just offered! THATS WHAT MAKES IT ALL WORTH WILD!!!


Terri Crow April 7, 2011 at 5:07 am

I am coming to see you in the colt starting May 6th, 2011. I can’t wait!


Peter April 6, 2011 at 3:24 am

Hello Pat, glad you cleared up the “Colt Starting” verses “fillies”. we always wondered why no one ever did fillies in the “US”. I guess from what I’ve learnt, even though we both speak English( I’m an Aussie), often words mean different things to each of us, so how hard is it for the horse.


kate wood April 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm

I really loved this post, what you said and the old photos were great. I was especially struck by the use of your term: Learned Helplessness. I wrote a blog about this myself some time ago. When that term surfaced for me it was like a bright light shining on so many widely accepted training techniques that upset me at a gut level. (The thought of doing that to a horse made me literally sick to my stomach!)
Those words, that term: Learned Helplessness – has made it so much easier for me to evaluate each step of this journey with horses.
Thanks so much!
Kate Wood
Orcas Island


Henny April 4, 2011 at 11:49 am

Great article!!! Thanks for sharing!


Vickie Baker April 4, 2011 at 10:36 am

Hi Pat, Thanks for sharing this on the blog, it’s perfect timing for me. I am having a wonderful relationship with my 13 yr. old horse and it’s all because of Parelli Natural Horsemanship, you & Linda. We’re at Level 3 now and it’s a great journey but the timeliness comes in for my 4 yr old filly and 4 yr old colt. They’re going to be STARTED this summer and we are going to DEVELOP a better relationship! My watch words are going to be ’cause’, ‘allow’, ‘start’ ‘develop’. As the horses and I work together, those words will become my mantra, my guide and my measurement of success. BTW – got my first horse at 52 & now I’m 60. Parelli Natural Horsemanship has caused me to become a safe and ‘savvy’ horse woman, continually learning and growing. God Bless you & Linda! You ROCK!


Dawn McLean April 4, 2011 at 10:22 am

Pat, I saw you start an Arabian colt at the beautiful campus of Cal Poly College, Pomona California, way back in August of 1991. Three months later I was “starting” my own “colt”, a 12-year old Arabian stallion retired from the show industry. He was aggressive, angry and reactive in the extreme, and I totally credit the Parelli methods for helping me to finally break through to this incredible animal. By the time he passed away at age 27 I could honestly say that he was my best friend; more than five years later I still miss him terribly. However, I am continuing the Parelli ways with my newest horse, another Arabian who came to me as an unstarted 9-year old. Unlike my previous one he has not had the curiosity and braveness knocked out of him, and he has turned into the most awesome partner and companion ever. Thank you Pat, for all you have done for The Horse!


eh lamore April 4, 2011 at 10:08 am

Pat, You have given me and my mare a real chance at a partnership.My LBE mare is VERY Alpha. She doesnt need anyone or anything. And,she is very,very, smart as well, has a great sense of self preservation. Partnering up with her has been a HUGE challenge.I have been riding her for 5 years,we do low level eventing schooling (self asessed level 4). We really took the time it takes, so it takes less time! She had a soft tissue injury last fall, and was on stall rest for 3 and a half months! UGGGG! NOT easy. I have gotten thru it and we are now conditioning and about done with that, she is sound. BUT,WOW, I had to really re-partner up with her.I started over from level 1. Kinda scarey,she was WILD! Thought of finding a new home for her,she wouldnt respect me at all.Trailering is where this came out. She is NOT afraid of the trailer, just was very disobediant about going in, just plain defiant, and disrespectful. REALLY wanted to give up.I felt like such a failure.My horse HATES me is all I could think.Racked my brain to figure out what to do. Spent 2 hrs one day, would load her, unload her, over and over, until the DRAMA was over.(I could always get her to load, it was her attidude that was killing me!!!)Had a break thru, she has given it up.I practice everyday, she has gone on the trailer consistantly now for several days, like a POLITE lady, thank you! TAKE the TME it TAKES so it TAKES LESS TIME!!! This is my mantra! Just getting her on the trailer wasnt enough, doing so politely was my goal.I got to tell you, I am over 50…


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