Issues From The Saddle: Starting A Horse Under Saddle Logo

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.

Julie Goodnight

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent. Backlinks are allowed.

Issues From The Saddle: Paces Instead Of Fox Trots Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I just got back into horses a year and a half ago at age 47; I’ll be 49 this year. I am building my confidence in slowly; I’m a cautious rider. Especially with my newish horse, Chief, a Fox Trotter, who turned into a different horse after he was delivered to me. Spooky, spooky, spooky. However he has come a long way in the 9 months I have owned him. I was ready to sell him or send him back to his previous owners in the first month or so that I had him but since then I have fallen head over heels for him and he trusts me more and more.
Time will tell. Not only do I have to work with the spooking, but I learned that the special gait that he does is called pacing; apparently he doesn’t Fox Trot under saddle. Every gaited horse owner/trainer that I’ve talked to has advised me to retrain him to gait anything other than the pacing. With his conformation, Chief might learn to do a Fox Trot, running walk or even a rack. In the meantime I walk him. It can be a bit boring. If I speed him up, he immediately goes into a stepping pace. I’ll have to work him over poles when the weather and my outdoor riding ring become more welcoming. If I don’t succeed at this then I guess I’ll just live with the pacing. I learned after I bought him that gaited horses are complicated!”


Answer: Dear Marilyn,

You pose two very good questions—about establishing a relationship with a new horse and about dealing with the pace in a Fox Trotter. The former is a question that I get frequently and it usually starts with, “My horse was fine when I tried him out but once I got him home, I started having all sorts of problems. He was represented to me as a well trained horse buy doesn’t seem like it now.”

This is an all-too-common scenario and there are many factors contributing to the horse becoming seemingly “untrained.” It may have to do simply with the horse changing environments. Horses are easily desensitized to the “stuff” in their environment; but when they change homes, everything is new, foreign and scary to them. This is why a horse that has been “hauled” a lot (traveled to and had to work in many new and different places) is more reliable than one that has been ridden the same amount but only in one place.

A new horse behaving poorly can also be a reflection of the rider. The horse may have been used to a very structured and authoritative rider and if his new rider is passive and unclear, the horse may become confused and insecure. If a rider’s cues are drastically different than what the horse is used to, the horse may become confused and/or agitated; same could be said of the bit. It may also be that the horse was being worked heavily before and so was in a more disciplined routine or the horse may have been getting less nutrition and is getting too much at his new location. Many others factors could cause the unraveling of a horse’s training, or a combination of factors; it is not necessarily that the horse was misrepresented to the rider, although that is certainly a possibility too.

When you get a new horse, it may take time for him to adjust to his new environment and great care should be taken to make sure your new relationship starts off on the right foot, with you in an authoritative leadership position. A bad experience when he is first getting started in his new life and building a new relationship with a human, can lead to a quick downward spiral in his behavior. When you are starting out with a new horse, it is a good time to practice ground work to gain his respect, confidence and focus before you start riding hard. The training progression outlined in my Lead Line Leadership video serves this purpose very well.

Once you buy a horse and before you bring him home, try to get as many rides on him as you can in his familiar setting (so you know what is “normal” for him) and try to glean as much information from the sellers as you can about the horse and his training. If you can take some lessons from the seller or a familiar trainer, do it. This way, you are already started on building your new relationship before the horse changes environments.

As for your concern about your horse’s pacing, you have discovered the true dilemma behind gaited horses. Not all of them gait well and some require special training or assistance from the rider in order to maintain a proper gait. It is extremely common for fox trotters to pace instead of fox trot; probably more pace than fox trot. Although there are natural fox trotters, most require special training by a rider skilled enough to hold him in the right gait.

The pace is a two-beat lateral gait, meaning that the legs hit the ground in lateral pairs. Unlike the trot (which is a two beat diagonal gait) there is no suspension in the pace so it can be smoother to ride than the trot (although it can become quite rough at higher speeds). The fox trot is a four beat diagonal gait and is the desired gait for that breed, but other breeds highly value the pace and train it into the horse (Standardbreds and Icelandics to name two).

You did not mention how old your horse is and how much training/riding he has had. A horse is said to be “set in his gaits” when he will reliably take and maintain the desired gait easily. It is much easier to “set” a horse when he is younger and just starting off in his riding career. The more he has habitually paced when being ridden, the harder it would be to train him out of it.

To set a horse in his gaits is complicated requires a high level of skill from the rider, as well as time to groove in the horse’ habitual response and muscle memory. The rider must be able to collect the horse and get him to elevate his shoulders and use his hindquarters more effectively. The rider must also be able to discern between different gaits and rhythms easily so that timely corrections can be made when the horse is in the wrong gait and so that a release is given when the horse gaits properly.

Your choices are to try and develop the skill you need to train the horse yourself, to take the horse to a reputable trainer whose specialty is gaited horses or to live with the pace. I have known people that have set their horses themselves, so it is in the realm of possibilities but will take time, patience and determination. Taking the horse to a trainer for a few months will be expensive and the outcome uncertain depending on your horse’s age and natural ability (the same applies if you try to train him yourself). It may help to consult a gaited horse trainer to see how difficult a proposition this is and/or to get some guidance in retraining this horse yourself.

Of course, living with the pace is not so bad, especially if you can keep your horse slow enough that it feels pretty smooth. In the overall scheme of things, this may be less important than other characteristics (like not spooking) and it seems like you have developed an affinity for this horse.

Good riding!

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.