Hit the Saddle

Published on Tue, 10/14/2014 - 4:23pm

Over the last few months, we’ve detailed some methods for both the early training and weaning of foals along with the beginning stages of starting a young horse under saddle. Remember that the timing of under-saddle work will vary from one riding discipline to another. In the Thoroughbred world, we usually begin late in the yearling or early in the two-yearold year, while others often wait until the horse is two or three. No matter when you plan to begin serious riding, doing consistent, short sessions of ground work with your young horse can help prepare him mentally for what’s ahead by using the exercises and aids I’ve discussed here.

In the August issue of AcreageLife, I outlined the way I teach my young horses to ground drive, which I believe is a great method for helping them to learn about steering. It also teaches them about moving their shoulders and hips independently. Let’s talk about the next steps.

Another groundwork option

Many English disciplines teach young horses to lunge as a means of exercise before beginning under saddle training. While I don’t often do this with my young Thoroughbreds (since it isn’t a skill they’ll use at the track), it might be helpful for those who will be doing trial riding or some variety of English work. Remember, too much lunging work can place stress on your horse’s soft tissues, especially if done for long periods in small circles. It’s easiest to teach a horse to lunge if you can begin in a round pen or small paddock. The hardest part for many horses is learning how to make a symmetrical circle around you, usually because they don’t understand what it means to reach the end of the slack in the line. Clip a 30-foot line to the horse’s halter or bit, and stand to the side of one shoulder, as if you are leading him (it may be easier to begin on his left side). Hold the line coming off the halter in your left hand, and the excess in your right, being careful to not wrap it around your hand.

You may need a lunge whip in your right hand if your horse is resistant to going forward. If you carry a whip, treat it as an extension of your hand—you shouldn’t need to touch the horse with it, but instead move or point it as a cue for forward motion. I often tie a plastic bag to the end of the whip so they can better see the end of the whip. Keep in mind that the sound of the bag may be upsetting if the horse hasn’t been desensitized to it. Step back from the horse and use your right hand or raise the lunge whip a few inches off the ground to encourage him to move his body forward. If you keep driving him forward, he should begin moving around you. Start off slow and small, and make the circle bigger and quicker as you finesse your commands. Begin with one direction and make sure he understands your cues before switching him to the other direction. I always start counterclockwise, since the majority of horses are “left-handed.”

Use the same voice commands you taught the horse while ground driving—whoa, walk, trot, etc. Add a little tension to the line, together with a verbal “whoa” to ask the horse to stop and make sure you lower or even drop the whip so as not to mix your signals. You may need to add a hand command to help the horse understand when you’re asking him to stop or slow down—like raising the left hand or extending an open palm to your left side. Just be sure to keep your commands consistent.

Get in the tack

Different trainers have different approaches to mounting their horse for the first time. Many in the racing world prefer to do it in a stall, while I usually like to use the round pen to give us both a little more breathing room. Remember to only progress to this step when the horse has indicated he’s ready by remaining totally calm when you move or shake saddle pads over his back. Work with a helper and wear a helmet. One person should be at the horse’s head, leading him in a small circle, and the other should begin leaning on the horse. It’s often easiest to “back” a horse at first— leaning on your stomach across the horse’s back—so you can easily slip off if he gets upset. If you are working alone, a mounting block may be helpful so you don’t need to jump to lean on the saddle, which could frighten the horse.

For many horses, the mountingdismounting process, when your limbs are moving unpredictably, is often more disorienting than feeling your weight on his back, so I usually have the rider slip on and off the horse a few times while the handler keeps the horse continuously moving in a small circle. The circle will give the horse something to think about and will minimize the feeling of your motion on his back.

When the horse indicates he is comfortable with you doing this, back him again and pause before swinging your right leg over. Repeat the mounting-dismounting process a few times before mounting normally and have the handler begin walking in larger formations around the round pen or paddock. Expect that the horse will be tense at the start of this process, and may even do a hop or two. Don’t punish him for this behavior. Keep reassuring him and blowing into his nose: You want him to know he is safe. Most young horses pick up on the process pretty quickly after the initial surprise wears off. I coached the horse pictured here with her 18-year-old owner and had them riding in less than 90 minutes after going through our steps of lunging, driving, desensitizing, saddling, and mounting. Check out next month’s column for the next steps in your horse’s under-saddle career