Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Question: Julie Goodnight,
Thank you for answering my request. My colt is 3 years, he was born in my arms, he is an Arabian. I have been working with him from day 1. He is halter broke and I have been working with him in the round ring. My husband and I have gotten a saddle and a bridle on him, and rode him a couple of times, then one time we put the saddle on him he spooked and he started to run with out the saddle being secure, the saddle fell off him and now he won’t let us put a saddle back on. So we took him to the round ring and started to ride him bareback with just the bridle and he is doing very well. Teaching him to walk and turn to the right and left with the bridle and also our legs. He wants nothing to do with the saddle. He is very smart. I have two other horses the Arabian mare (his mother) and a mustang we also raised from 5 weeks old. The mustang was a lot easier to train. The experience I have is only pleasure riding. I want to learn English and bareback and also better myself in western riding. I also love to teach and think I would be good in training.
Answer: Your question brings up some important points for any horse owner that is trying to start their own horse and I appreciate an opportunity to address it. I have trained many horses and through the years I have learned to be very cautious about horses that people have tried to start themselves, because more often than not, problems such as you describe have developed and it is much harder (and more dangerous by far) to un-train a horse once he has had bad experiences than it is to train him correctly to begin with.
There are so many steps along the way of starting a horse where things can go wrong. One of the most critical steps is the saddling process and getting the horse desensitized to the feel of the saddle and girth. You cannot be too careful at any stage of starting a horse. The slightest bit of carelessness or passing through a critical step too quickly can easily lead to a disastrous training session like you had with your young horse.
When you take your horse to an experienced and qualified trainer for the basics, what you are doing is buying insurance that these things will not happen and that your horse will be off to a good start. And there are many, many critical steps in the process of starting a horse under saddle, where things can go haywire. Every time you start a colt, you learn something else that will make your subsequent starts even better, so once you’ve started a few hundred, you’ve learned to watch out for all the little things that can go wrong.
Unfortunately, a horse cannot unlearn something he has learned. He will always remember what happened to him with the saddle and he will always be ambivalent about it. However, through training he can learn to overcome this bad experience. After enough positive experience with the saddle, gradually the positive will outweigh the negative and the horse will accept the saddle. I’ll give you a technique to use to teach the horse to stand quietly and accept the saddle, which is the same technique we use to start any horse. The difference with your horse is that it will take at least twice as long, because he now knows for a fact that the saddle can hurt him.
The technique is called patterned conditioning. The term conditioning refers to classical conditioning, a/k/a Pavlov’s Response. The term “patterned” refers to a repetition in training. What you need to do is condition the correct response in the horse when you approach him with the saddle. The correct response is to stand still and relax; therefore you will reward him every time he stands still and/or relaxes. The way that you reward him is giving him what he wants most at that moment, a release of pressure. In this case, the pressure, or stimuli, is the approaching saddle, so when he stands still and/or relaxes an iota, turn around and walk away from him.
You will continue to repeat this pattern of approach, retreating with the saddle every time he relaxes. Usually with an unhandled colt, depending on the breed, it might take from fifteen to fifty approaches for the horse to stand quiet and relaxed while you throw the saddle onto his back (cinching is a whole different process and another step wherein things can go very wrong). For your horse, it would probably take me a hundred approaches with the saddle; for you and your horse it will be several times that, because of the timing of the release.
The timing of the reward is so critical; the optimal time between behavior and reward, in order for the horse to make a strong association between the two, is a one half a second. An experienced horse person can see (or feel when riding) that a horse is going to do something even before he actually does it; a reward (release) given at that instant is the most optimal time. That is why trainers might advance much more quickly with a horse, and that is what you are paying for when you take your horse to an experienced and qualified trainer.
You’ll need to understand a very important concept in horse training to enact this plan. It is known as “Advance and Retreat” and there are several articles in my Training Library about that. Do not try the plan above until you have read it and thoroughly understand advance and retreat.
Good luck with this horse and remember to have a great deal of patience because it may take some time to even that score. In the meantime, keep working with him in all the other areas of riding (being extra careful not to get your horse in a bind), but pay special attention to desensitizing him to the saddle. Let him look at saddles in all environments; let him be near other horses being saddled. Take as much time as he needs and if you ever begin to lose your patience just walk away from it.
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