Getting Closer - Beginning under-saddle work

Published on Mon, 07/21/2014 - 8:54am

Last month, we outlined the first steps in preparing a horse to carry tack and a rider—the first step is getting him used to the tack.
   Once the horse is comfortable moving with a saddle and bridle, I like to give him some context about what the bit is for before I have someone climb aboard. Ground driving is a great exercise for this situation and it’s a good skill for the horse to have in his memory bank should he encounter an injury or training challenge later in life.

Why not drive?
While ground driving may seem like a very specific type of training—especially if your horse isn’t going to pull a carriage or cart—it has applications for almost any type of under-saddle work.
For example, I use it with my Thoroughbreds to teach them about steering and movement of the bit from the ground at a slow speed. It can also introduce horses who might end up doing some dressage work to the concept of moving their hindquarters independently from their front end.

The best way to begin
I like to start all my young horses’ lessons in a round pen. On many farms, round pens have solid walls to eliminate the distraction of other sights and sounds on the property. Even if you have more of a corral set-up, the enclosed space can help a young horse focus on you instead of the rest of his surroundings.
I use my Stableizer acupressure headstall on my young horses, too, since it helps them focus on what I’m going to ask them to do. I like my round pens to be around 20 or 30 meters in diameter—enough room to move comfortably with some confinement to discourage bolting.

I like to start new exercises here before moving to a more open arena or small paddock. It’s also a great spot to do desensitization training.
Before you begin ground driving a horse, be sure that he is comfortable with feeling the lines touch the sides of his body, hindquarters, and legs. You can accomplish this using the same slow-but-steady method you used to introduce him to grooming tools and his saddle pad. Just be sure to work with him until he no longer reacts to the feeling of the lines—they may touch him without warning as he moves and you don’t want the feeling to be a surprise.
From there, I like to put the horse in a bridle and surcingle. You can use longer lines, but I prefer rope of the right weight and size. The lines I use are 22-feet long with an enlarged popper braided at the end for optimum grip. I couldn’t find the type of lines I liked so I now have them made for our business. Be sure not to wrap nylon line around your hands if you use that instead—they can do serious damage if the horse pulls away.
Twenty-foot lines are the shortest you should use, as you want to put yourself at a safe distance behind the horse while keeping plenty of slack in the lines. Some people like to run the lines through the rings on the surcingle, but I prefer to run them through the stirrups on the saddle. You may want to tie the stirrups to the D-ring on the saddle to keep them from moving as the horse works.
Begin by asking the horse to go forward by clucking to him or telling him to “walk” and have an assistant standing to the left of the horse begin to move forward, too. Ask the horse to “whoa” with a light pressure on the lines, at the same time asking him to back up. When teaching the horse to turn, give him the heads-up with a vocal command like “hup” before putting pressure on the lines—eventually he will associate the vocal cue with the movement you’re asking for and you can use your voice less.

Some advanced movements
If you’d like the horse to move his backend separately from his front, begin lightly touching his flank with your right line during a left turn, and vice versa. You may need the assistant’s help again for this. If he seems to respond well, you may be able to ask him to move off the line from a halt. This type of lateral work will strengthen his back and make it more supple while preparing him well for the dressage ring, a Western course, or maneuvering out on the trail.
You may be able to teach the horse to back on the ground lines, too. After you ask for a halt, keep the tension in the lines—most horses will move back to avoid the pressure of the bit.
You can also add some trotting into your lessons if the horse seems ready—just be sure to position yourself just to the inside of his circle so you can keep up without having to run.
As with your earlier training, end each session on a good note, and praise the horse by rubbing his forehead and blowing into his nose when he responds to you correctly.