I have been asked to expand on the way I work with young horses, so here it is. If you have anything you would like me to write about, please comment below, or send me a message! I have included a short "recipe" of the ground work I do leading up to the first ride, including the work done in the first ride or two. If you are interested in a blog pertaining to the horse's first few rides after the round pen, please let me know!
One of the most valuable tools you can have in your toolkit if you are going to work with horses, is to know how to start horses under saddle. This was a complete mystery to me until I started working at Valhalla. There I was able to apprentice under Erin Brinkman, and learn her ways. I was able to watch her do the ground work, and practice it under her supervision. When it was time for me to get on my first unbroken horse, I was a bit nervous, especially after my experience breaking my back getting bucked off a young horse! But that was what I wanted to learn, how to tell if a horse is ready for you to get on or not, and though I acknowledged I was afraid, I wanted to learn. Erin said that very few of her young horses bucked under a rider for the first time, because of the way she prepared them. This is a very different idea than the picture I had in my mind of cowboys "breaking" horses. There is a difference between "breaking" and "starting.". I learned her method, and had the opportunity to practice on many youngsters under the guidance of the trainers at Vallhalla, and feel I became proficient at it while working at Don E Mor.
Of all the youngsters I started, I only had one offer to buck under saddle, and that was my fault. I thought the horse was ready to learn leg cues my first time on him. I have since learned to take it slow and just be a passenger during that first ride.
Working with young horses is all about repetition. It's normal for you to have to repeat a lesson several times before the horse really gets it. It should come quicker each time. Some particularly smart, people pleasing horses will get it the first time, but that is usually the exception, not the norm. I like to think that I am using each lesson to prepare the horse for what is coming next. I make it really obvious to the horse and don't surprise him with anything. This is how you get a youngster that is confident in you. When it is time to get on, I make it so obvious to the horse that he is sometimes bored with it.
The first thing I do when I get a new horse to start under saddle is get acquainted with it. I usually do this in the stall, where the horse feels comfortable, but the space is confined. I want the horse to learn not to be afraid of me, and to associate me with good things. I talk to him, and sometimes give treats. I like to do this work without a halter, but if the horse is particularly shy, or if I don't trust where the hind feet might go, I will use a halter and lead to keep the horse close to me. If the horse has already had some handling, I start with grooming. Most horses enjoy this. If not, I just skip that step the first lesson, or introduce it at the end, when the horse is more comfortable with me.
The bulk of the "work" at this point, is desensitizing the horse, and gaining his trust. Start with stroking the horse all over. Stroking instead of patting is calming to the horse, but you will learn quickly which parts the horse is shy about. Spend extra time stroking the horse in those spots. If the horse is extra shy and gets nervous, just go away and come back to the spot when he is relaxed.
Once you gain the horse'a trust, the next step is patting the horse all over. This is where the real desensitization begins, and this can take many sessions with a sensitive horse. Pat the horse all over, paying attention to where the horse is sensitive, and pat him extra there. Start thinking about where the saddle and girth go, and be sure to desensitize those areas well. Alternate between stroking and patting if the horse is nervous. You want the horse to start liking being patted. You are soon going to start using it as a reward.
Before I take the horse out of the stall, I put on the halter, and make sure the horse knows how to give to pressure on the halter. A rope halter is best. It is comfortable when you are not asking anything, but works on specific pressure points when you need it. Do not tie a horse using a rope halter until you know he is not going to pull back A nylon or leather halter is fine if you do not have a rope halter..
I mainly just ask the horse to put its head down when I apply downward pressure on the halter. This is going to transfer over when I teach him how to stretch down into the bridle. Start with just a little pressure, and as soon as the horse gives just a little bit, release the pressure and praise him. This is the first time he is learning to give to pressure, a horse's natural inclination is to push into pressure. If you have to, increase the pressure gradually. Make certain that you do not give until the horse gives, or you are teaching the wrong thing. Sometimes you just have to hold the pressure and wait, but as soon as the horse gives even a tiny bit, sometimes he just THINKS about it, you let off immediately and praise. Particularly tough horses may need you to help them release tension in their top line by you jiggling their crest back and forth, or asking them to bend slightly one way or the other. Most horses will learn to stretch all the way down to the ground within one session. It is important that each time you repeat the lesson, you start with the least amount of pressure possible, and increase it from there, rather than just going immediately to the amount of pressure you know the horse responds to. This gives the horse the opportunity to show you that he has learned the concept, and also teaches him to respond to lighter and lighter aids. This concept is also going to transfer to under saddle work.
Once this is established, I take the horse into the round pen. The horse may not lead that well yet, that's ok. Young horses typically have a lot of energy, and a short attention span. It is better to let them get some energy out before you try to work them in hand. It will be much easier for them to focus on you when they are a little tired, and start to see you as their leader.
Round pen work is an art to itself. If you are interested, I can suggest some good videos to watch if you do not have access to a trainer who uses round pen techniques. I use round penning at the beginning to teach the horse that I have control over which direction and at what speed they are moving, which is exactly what their herd leader does. We can use the herd instincts of the horse to train them, because even though they will test your leadership ability, no horse REALLY wants to be the herd leader. It is much easier for them to be followers. I also use the round pen to start introducing voice commands. If I use the whip and the horse trots, I say "trot" just at that moment and praise him. Same for the canter from the trot. I also use cluck for trot and kiss for canter. For a down transition I use the rolling of the tongue, "brr" noise along with the voice aid for that gait. It's all just about association at this point though, you want the horse to feel like everything he is doing is good.
When you teach the horse to "whoa" in the round pen, you have to back off from driving and lower your energy. I do not like to teach the horse to turn in, because that can be dangerous when I attach a line. Approach the horse when he stops and praise him. Pat him all over. Always work on desensitizing.
Once the horse reliably goes forward in the direction of your choice, you can attach a lunge line to the halter or cavesson. I don't do it sooner because the line can be interpreted by the horse as a "brake", and if the horse turns to the outside with the line attached, you are in big trouble. Once the line is attached, you can start enforcing the voice commands. From a walk, say "and TROT" making your voice go up at the end to signal an up transition, then use the whip behind the horse if needed, and touch him with it as necessary. Always praise when you get the right response, even if you have had to increase the pressure on the horse, and you have gone through the exercise a million times. Always work the horse equally both directions. Any chance you get, approach the horse, praise him, and pat him all over. When he is accepting of this at this point, start using "things" like a saddle pad, the lunge line, a girth, the surcingle, anything, to continue desensitizing.
The next step is to attach side reins. I like to use the web-style side reins, with elastic at the bit end.. I do not like the leather ones with donuts. These are heavy, and the donut weighs down on the bit every stride. The idea behind the side reins is that it sort of simulates the rider's hands and introduces contact. Contact at this point just means that the reins introduce limitations on the horse's frame, but the horse should accept these limitations and even seek them out by stretching into them. This teaches the horse to start using it's back. This is the most important basic dressage concept at this point. The horse is learning to use it's back when it is "round," which at this level means it is tracking up from the hind end, is lifting it's back, and carrying the head at or below wither height with it's nose in front of the vertical; or when he is stretching his nose to the ground, while he is continuing to track up. This stretching is ideal, because it strengthens the muscles in the horse's back that he needs to comfortably carry a rider. It is usually the first thing I teach them when I get on their back.
The horse should be able to walk, trot, canter and whoa reliably by voice command, wearing a surcingle, before attaching side reins. I do not use a saddle at this point, due to the slight possibility that the horse could flip itself over when the side reins are introduced. Be careful to protect the horse's mouth when introducing side reins. I always attach them to the cavesson or rope halter first, before attaching them to the bit. Some horses will resist and throw their head up and want to run backwards even with a tiny bit of pressure on their head. It is in their personality, and I would rather this harsh lesson occur while the pressure is on their nose than on their sensitive (and uneducated) mouth. The first session in side reins should always start with the side reins on their longest setting, just so that the horse hits it if they go really high or low with their head. You want them to feel as though they can still go forward even though there is some restriction.
Shorten the side reins gradually. If you have a particularly sensitive horse that feels restricted and wants to go backwards, you may want to introduce just one side rein at a time. Most horses are ok with two as long as they allow you to drive them forward again when they hit the side reins. It can be quite ugly at times while the horse figures out the side reins. Just keep driving them forward and do not let them stop and back up. Sometimes horses learn to give to the side reins best at the walk, so it is good to do walk/trot transitions. Any time the horse "gives" and stretches down into the side reins, use your voice and reward him. Find a good stopping point when the horse is either stretching down consistently, or stretching down frequently, and ask him to "whoa," approach him, praise him, and switch directions. Once the horse is comfortable with this work, you can start lunging with a saddle. Start with the stirrups up, but eventually let them down to get the horse desensitized to the area where your leg will be. You will soon be educating your horse to the leg aids, but for now, you want the horse to accept "white noise" in this area and not over react to it.
At the end of the session, bring the horse into the middle of the round pen, and begin introducing him to the mounting block. Make him stand next to it on both the right and left sides. Even though we typically mount from the left, we always introduce everything from both sides, because the horse has a brain that does not connect in the middle to allow information to transfer over. Usually the horse will move off when you position him at the mounting block, and you take a step or two up. He is not accustomed to seeing things over their head. Just move him back and do it again. If you have a helper, you can have them steady the horse, but if the horse is really afraid he must be able to move off or he will feel trapped. This is just signaling to you that he is not ready for the next step. Most horses will accept this in a few minutes. If you have a particularly sensitive horse, you may need to desensitize him to seeing movement above his head before trying this again. It helps to attach a flag to the end of a whip, touch the horse all over with the flag until he accepts it, and then shake the flag around the horse and over his head where the rider goes until the horse accepts this as well. When you are able to stand next to the horse at the top of the mounting block, make sure you wave your hands around above the horses back, where your torso and head would be.
Once the horse accepts you next to him on the mounting block, begin patting him all over. Start on the side closest to you. First on his neck, then pat the saddle, let down the stirrups and slap them against the saddle, bump them against the horse, and pat him behind the saddle. Jiggle the saddle around on their back. Any time the horse moves away, just reposition him and start over from the beginning. Repetition is key. Once he stands for all that work on one side, do it on the other. Then start desensitizing the horse on the opposite side of you. He needs to get used to seeing you on one side, and then feeling your leg come over on the other. Usually that is what frightens horses, when something crosses over from one side of their brain to the other. It is the same with horses that spook. They might see something that alarms them with one eye, but they don't usually spook until that thing comes into focus in the other eye. This is why it is so effective to ride a shoulder-in past a scary object. Not only does it keep the horse on your inside leg and outside rein, it also keeps the scary object in the outside eye.
Once the horse stands at the mounting block on both sides and accepts this work, it is time to start adding weight onto their back. I start by just leaning over them while I am patting the "off" side. You can gradually add more and more weight onto their back this way. You can do this with a ground person, or without. If the horse moves off, just slide off and reposition him and start over. There is a lot of repetition with young horses! Once you can lean all the way over and put your full weight on the horse's back, you can have a helper lead you around. You don't usually have to do it for long, it's an awkward position for the rider and an unbalanced position for the horse, it's just so the horse feels the weight on it's back and learns he can still move.
Once you get to that point you are nearly there! All you have to do now is do the same work in a more upright position, and by adding weight to the stirrup rather than by leaning across. Some horses will not like it when your toe touches their girth area, make sure you desensitize him there. Also be sure to desensitize him behind the saddle, in case you are clumsy getting on or off. Have a helper with you in the round pen, attached to a line or not, it's your choice. I used to always do it with a line, but I have determined that it is better to do it without. It is better to not have the chance the horse could get tangled up if the line gets dropped, and there is not much the ground person can do to save you with the line if things start to go wrong. The best thing the ground person can do is drive the horse forward with the lunge whip, so it is best to allow them to focus on that without having to hold a line.
It is so easy to rush at this part, but I like to get on and off the horse from both sides a few times before I ask the horse to take a step forward. Once it is time to move forward, the rider says, "And walk," and the ground person is ready to drive the horse forward. The horse is now learning to listen to the person on their back for direction, rather than just listening to the ground person. You can take a light contact at this point, the horse should be accustomed to it from the work in side reins. Ask the horse to stretch down into the contact. It is an amazing feeling when a horse "gets it" the very first time you are on their back! In my opinion, introducing the stretching from the beginning is very important, because it teaches the horse that the hand is not something to back away from, and it also strengthens their back muscles. I like to start with a few walk/ halt transitions before I begin the trot work, but the work should nearly exactly mirror the work the horse has been doing on the lunge line up to this point, only now there is a rider on them. Introduce the halt by using your voice, steadying your hand, and stopping your seat. It is a good rule of thumb to only introduce one new thing to them at a time. When it is time to trot, the rider says "And trot" and gives the cluck sound, do not use the leg at this point. If the horse does not move off immediately, the ground person encourages the horse forward with the whip. Do a few trot/walk transitions, then go the other way. It is good to move into the canter as soon as possible, but it does not have to be done in the first session. The rider should be able to feel whether or not the horse feels comfortable enough to canter. It can sometimes scare them before they figure out their balance. Some horses will offer it, if this happens, go with it! Say "canter" and praise the horse. The desire to move forward under the rider is a good thing! The opposite is bucking or rearing! When cantering for the first time, I usually just get into 2 point and let the horse figure out their balance.
You can introduce turning in the round pen during the first session. Look where you want to go, shift your weight there, bring your hands, and the horse should turn. If he needs a little more support, you can tap the inside hind or the outside shoulder, whichever seems "stuck." The ground person helps by switching the lunge whip to the other side. End on a good note and praise the horse! You have successfully started the horse under saddle. The next few session in the big arena are just as important, which I will be covering in blogs to come!