Fresh Start

Like my fruits and vegetables, I prefer my horses fresh. It’s clearly not for everyone, but I enjoy riding a horse that’s a little bit excited, that’s looking down the road, eager to get there and curious about what job awaits him. It took me about forty years to realize it, but I prefer a horse with a big motor and a busy mind. To me, it’s more fun than riding a horse that’s sluggish, insensitive and looking for a way out of work. But a fresh horse is neither fun nor confidence inspiring to many riders.

What is a fresh horse?

A fresh horse is one that has not been handled or ridden for an extended time or for a longer period than normal. Perhaps it’s a horse that’s simply not in a regular riding routine or hasn’t been ridden in a few days. At one end of the extreme, it could be a horse that’s been turned out with the herd for several years without any riding or handling, and at the other end, maybe it’s Monday and that horse just had the weekend off. 

Because horses are emotional animals, a horse might be in a fresh state of mind because of the situation it’s in. Riding in a strange area or with unknown horses can sometimes cause emotional overload. When something changes in a horse’s known environment, like a new banner on the fence, it can temporarily blow his mind. Maybe the wind is howling, putting a normally calm horse on edge. Often a nervous or excited horse feels just like a fresh horse— it’s more horse than you are used to.

What does fresh look and feel like? 

A horse with the freshies tends to be high-headed, energetic and easily distracted. It may be looking around a lot, calling out to other horses, fidgeting. It’s muscles feel and look tight (we call that “on the muscle”) and sometimes the rider feels a hump in the horse’s back that may morph into a little crow-hop. It’s often the result of pent up energy in the horse, not the result of disobedience or defiance. There’s a big difference.

If a trained horse has simply had a time off, even if it’s been months or years, it does not forget its training or become untrained, let alone become disobedient or defiant. Horses retain their training forever; they don’t unlearn, although they may benefit from occasional reminders. 

However that horse was left before the lay-off, is the same horse that you get back, once you get the freshies out. While I expect a fresh horse to be energetic and need some re-tuning, that should not translate to disobedience if the horse was properly trained to begin with. Defiance and disobedience are signs of poor training, not a fresh horse.

Whether your horse has been laid off for days or weeks or has had time off due to weather conditions, vacation, physical rehab or some external reason, there are a few steps you can take to make sure your first few rides on a fresh horse go well. From take-off to landing, it helps to pay attention to details, to insure a smooth and safe flight.

Pre-Flight Checklist

At its best, riding is a physically demanding and somewhat risky activity. When a horse is fresh, it’s important to be thorough in your preparations and make sure all conditions are perfect for flight. If we always consider the worst-case-scenario with horses, it will keep us safer. Minimally, I want to make certain that my tack is right, the environment is conducive to training, and my horse is in the right state-of-mind. Before I take that first ride, I’ll go through a pre-flight checklist, to make sure all conditions are right.

  • Saddle fit and tack check: If the horse has had weeks or months off, it pays to reassess saddle fit. A horse’s body shape changes rapidly with age and conditioning, so saddle fit is a constant concern. With an extended layoff, it’s even more important. Pads may need to be adjusted; billets and latigos may need adjusting. Check all parts of your tack, especially if it hasn’t been used in a while. Adjust the headstall/bit/curb strap; look for wear spots where metal meets leather; check Chicago screws and other connections.
  • Safe footing: Keep in mind that the fresh horse is probably going to outrun his lungs. Like most horse trainers, I’m a fanatic about soft, freshly-groomed and consistent footing. A fresh horse may be physically out of shape or coming off injured reserve and in his excitement, he may run fast and buck hard in the groundwork and trot/canter hard when I ride. I want deep enough footing that my horse has plenty of soft ground underneath him, but not so deep that he over-stresses his tendons. I don’t mind mud unless it’s slippery, as long as the footing is consistent. 
  • Groundwork for focus, not to tire: If the fresh horse is nervous and a looky-lou right when I pull him out of the stall, some groundwork is indicated. If the well-trained horse is mannerly from the start, listening to me, standing quietly while tied and compliant, I may skip it. If I do groundwork with the fresh horse, my goal is to get the horse to listen to me, follow instructions and demonstrate compliance. It is not to “get the bucks out” or tire out the horse. In my experience, people who say that are often inadvertently training the horse to buck on the lunge line. 
  • Ground School. For groundwork, I use a premium rope halter, with a 15-foot training lead; I may also employ a flag or boundary stick. I start with leading the horse around at walk and trot, doing turns and stops, to check its manners, its awareness of boundaries and its focus on me. Then I might circle the horse on the end of the line and ask it to turn around and trot off a few times. If it gives me green lights, I may only spend a couple minutes in groundwork before I step up in the stirrup. If I think the horse really needs to blow off some steam, due to excessive confinement or extreme emotionality, I’d rather use the round pen or turn him loose in a bigger pen (assuming re-injury is not a concern).

Cleared for Take-off

Once I swing a leg over the back of a fresh horse, we are wheels up. As soon as I settle in the saddle, I will ask the horse to move forward at either walk or trot. If he’s truly fresh and has a lot of energy, I want to send that energy in a positive direction. Riding and training horses is entirely about controlling forward movement—start with the forward, then gradually start guiding the horse more and more.

  • Forward motion is the basis of all training. Working trot is the best gait for a fresh horse. It covers the most ground and is the most efficient gait for the horse. If he’s really fresh, I’ll jump right to working trot as soon as I get on and keep him at that gait for at least ten minutes. That’s enough to take the air out of most horses. After that, we can usually settle into some more serious work.
  • Lower your expectations for performance, but not for obedience. I don’t expect a horse that hasn’t been ridden in months to be as sharp in his skills as he was in the peak of his training, but I always expect and require obedience. If he hasn’t had a reason to think about riding cues in a long time, he’s a little rusty and I will give him the time he needs to regain his performance skills. But I expect him to go in the direction I choose, at the speed I dictate, without argument. Having time off does not change the rules of expected behavior.
  • Bending, not pulling, to control speed. A hot blooded, forward moving horse that has been laid-off or cooped up, is going to have a full tank of gas and be eager to go. What never works well on a horse like this is to try to control speed by pulling back on two reins. Instead, I prefer to control speed or excessive energy by bending the neck of the horse softly from right to left to right to left. When the horse builds speed, I gradually bring him onto an arcing circle, increasing the bend in the neck until I feel him gear down a notch, then letting him go straight in reward. Remember, the goal is to control forward motion, not stop it. A lot of behavioral problems stem from the latter.
  • Changes of direction matter. If I am bending the horse to control speed, I will also throw in some changes of direction too. I never go ‘round and ‘round in one direction; instead, I change directions often. This has the double-effect of bending the horse and showing the horse I control its direction. Changes of direction are a powerful tool on a horse that’s excited, scared or feisty.
  • Be prepared for spooks. A nervous or excited horse is more prone to spook, spin and bolt. Mange your rein length and know how to shorten and lengthen your reins blindfolded (my rope reins are the perfect length and are easy to manage); know how to execute the emergency stop (see my YouTube video on Pulley Rein). Don’t ride the horse as if he is going to spook (because he will), but be prepared to react if he does.
  • Rest in the far corners. After extensive trotting, circling, changes of direction, hand gallop and canter, when the horse reaches his full aerobic capacity (maxVO2), I will take him to one of the far corners of the arena (where he doesn’t want to be) for rest and recovery. This addresses barn sour tendencies and teaches the horse to enjoy the part of the arena he normally avoids. 

Horse, this is Your Captain Speaking

Besides getting the fresh off the horse and dissipating his pent-up energy, my main goal with this horse is to remind him of how we do business, who is in charge and who will be making all the decisions (me). I’m less concerned on the horse’s accurate response to specific cues, and more interested in re-establishing a productive working relationship. With that in mind, there are some specific parameters that I work within.

  • No looking around. Focus on the job ahead of you. This is a strict rule of mine on any horse, but especially for the green or fresh horse. A horse that is looking around excessively is not focused on me or the task ahead. I simply disallow it by bumping the outside rein once when the horse turns its head to look. As soon as the nose crosses the line of its shoulder, I issue the correction. Using good timing and the right amount of pressure, the horse stops looking for his escape and brings more focus to riding within a minute or two.
  • Breaking gait (up or down) is bad. Whether the horse is lazy or full of gas, he doesn’t get to pick the speed. Ever. You don’t want a thousand-pound flight animal thinking he controls the speed. A fresh horse needs to move forward, so I proactively take charge by asking it to move forward before it has the chance and for longer than it wants to. Holding that forward horse back when it’s fresh is a bad idea; it’s better for me to be the one asking for speed (and the horse asking to slow down). 
  • Control direction; don’t compromise the path. Just as with speed, I also don’t want my horse thinking it gets a vote in where it goes. If the horse is avoiding the far corners, pulling toward the gait or otherwise veering off the path I have chosen, I will address it. If the horse is nervous or full of itself, I may not take it immediately to the scary places, but it’s important that I maintain control of the direction. I may employ changes of direction, but always turning the horse away from where he wants to go (the gate) or toward the place his is avoiding (the scary place). This kills two birds with one stone: the changes of direction give me more authority over the horse and turning toward scary or away from home will make sure the horse does not benefit from its disobedient actions. If I let the horse veer-away from a place I’ve directed it to go or let the horse pull me in a direction without addressing it, it is learning the wrong thing.

Us horse trainers like to talk about riding the horse underneath you and staying in the moment. Ride the horse that showed up today; play the hand you are dealt. They are not robots and they all have good days and bad days. It’s the rider’s job to adjust to the needs of the horse, in the moment and ride proactively.

Just because a horse has pent-up energy or hasn’t been ridden for an extended period, does not mean he is a bad horse or that he has become untrained. Think about kids going back to school after summer break. They are a little wild and may need a few days to fall back into the routine, but they know how to do it. Contain and direct their energy, remind them of their manners, and get their mind back in the game. That’s what you want to do with the fresh horse.

As always, with horses, keep your safety and the safety of your horse, first and foremost in your mind. And don’t forget… enjoy the ride!

Consistency Counts

Photo by: Tina Fitch

On one of my many visits to southern California, I was conducting a horsemanship clinic in the town of Norco, renowned for its horse-friendly lifestyle. On any given day in “Horsetown USA,” you’ll see horses being ridden on the dirt sidewalks along Main Street  or parked at a tie rail in front of a shopping center, or even in line for the drive-up window at McDonald’s.

While there, I was invited to tour the Circle D Ranch, home to Disneyland’s herd of gorgeous draft horses. Having worked behind the scenes of the horse operation at Disney World, on the other side of the country, I was not surprised to find an immaculate, state-of-the-art horse facility, that was custom-built to suit the exceptionally high standards of Disney.

The ranch is home to 18 draft horses, who work 3-4 days a week in the theme park, some thirty miles away, where they are stabled in a similar barn while “on duty.” The horses come to the Norco ranch for rest and pampering on their 3-4 days off. Aside from the incredible horse flesh and the five-star facility, I was most impressed by the consistency with which the horses are handled. Strictly enforced, detailed policies and procedures are designed to make sure the horses get handled exactly the same way every day, by each of the many employees tasked with their care, both in the theme park and at the ranch.

From the way the horses are haltered and led, to how they are tied, to the order of the brushes used, to the process for turning them out or to their daily hand-walking– it was done exactly the same by every handler, in the same order, at the same time, in the same places. There’s almost no stress for these horses, because of the consistency. They always know what to expect and what is coming next. They never have to guess or question. There is great comfort in order and predictability.

Horses are prey animals and it’s easy for them to feel like victims in a chaotic world, when there is a lack of consistency or predictability. Small changes in a horse’s known environment can send him into a tailspin. For the same reasons, horses thrive on routines, law and order and consistency. It makes them feel safe and calm when they know what will happen next.

Horses always do better with consistent handling and regular routines. They learn patterns quickly and they love to be able to predict what is going to happen next. Most horse owners have learned the benefits of feeding and turning out horses in the same order, and how quickly you can train horses to a routine. Professional horse trainers tend to be very consistent and systematic in the way they ride and handle horses, and their horses are usually a reflection of that. But I often see a lack of consistency in novice horse owners, particularly when it comes to establishing boundaries, communicating clearly and displaying consistent leadership to the horse.

Draw a Line in the Sand
If a dog has poor manners and jumps on you, rubs against you, roots his nose under your arm so you’ll pet him or jumps in your lap uninvited, it may be obnoxious but it’s probably not going to kill you. When a horse has no boundaries and no manners, it’s downright dangerous and is a problem that will snowball. Remember, one way that horses establish dominance is to move the subordinate out of their space.

My horsemanship clinics typically start with groundwork. This is my opportunity to get a feel for the horse’s temperament, to evaluate the relationship between horse and handler and to refine (or establish) the horse’s ground manners. Since horses basically do what you’ve taught them to do (for better or for worse), it’s often the way that a horse is being handled that is leading to the problems.

Typically, in groundwork sessions I see a lot of inconsistency in boundaries or no boundaries at all. Sometimes the person stands too close to the horse, constantly in the horse’s personal space, and choking up on the lead. But when the horse gets irritated and starts throwing its head or nipping, it’s often wrongly concluded that the horse is the problem.
People are sometimes totally unaware of space and boundaries when it comes to horses. Just like a toddler, horses will push on you until they find the limit of their boundaries. If the person is unaware of her own personal space and has no boundaries, the horse will react to that by pushing until he’s slinging his head at you, dropping his shoulder into you and moving you out of his space. Even then, sometimes the person is unaware of their own boundaries.

It’s unfair to be in a horse’s face, kissing all over his muzzle, and standing up under his neck, but then get mad at him when he crowds you, nips at you or worse. To be effective (and safe) with horses, you need to be very clear of your own personal boundaries and diligently enforce the boundary.

My personal boundary is as far as I can reach around me with my arms outstretched. If the horse moves any part of his body into my space uninvited—even just his nose—I will correct it. If I’ve set a forward boundary of where the horse should be while I am leading him and he crosses the line, I will reinforce the boundary—100% of the time. A boundary is

only a boundary if it is consistently enforced. If you are clear on where the boundaries are and you consistently enforce it, the horse learns quickly.

Say What?
Horses are very communicative animals—that’s a big part of why they became domesticated to begin with and why they have remained an integral part of human society for thousands of years. Although they have some communication through sound (audible signals), most of their communication is through postures, gestures and gazes. Yes, it can be subtle, but the information is there if we look for it.

Horses are more adept at reading people than people are at reading horses. As verbal communicators, we put far too much stock in the spoken word and often miss the subtleties of body language—both in our horses and in ourselves. Learning to be in command of your body language and use appropriate gestures, will help you send the right message to your horse.

For instance, when a horse is shying away from something or refusing to go in a certain direction, the rider often does the opposite of what they should do—staring at what the horse is spooking at or looking in the direction the horse wants to go. What you do with your eyes is very meaningful to the horse in these moments—your eyes will reveal your determination (or lack thereof), your intentions (where you want to go) and your confidence level. If you say one thing with the reins (go this way) then the opposite with your eyes, you’ve contradicted yourself.

When doing groundwork with horses, our goal is to move the horse out of our space, in order to reinforce who is in charge. Yet, time and time again, I see handlers approach the horse as if to move him off, but then withdraw if they think the horse is not going to budge. Often, the person is completely unaware that they are withdrawing or even stepping back—but the horse always sees it. Always. Even the smallest retreat will be detected. Being in command of your body language and sending intentional nonverbal signals to the horse will bring your communication to his level.

Perhaps the biggest area of miscommunication with the horse comes when we are riding. Complex cues for movements and guidance require skill from the rider, yet it’s usually the horse that’s blamed for a poor response. A horse can only perform to the level of the rider and when the horse is not performing well, it’s usually the rider that needs fixing.

Conflicting signals and inconsistent expectations are often to blame for a horse’s poor performance. Pulling back on the reins at the same time you want the horse to move more forward is super frustrating to horses and I see it in every clinic I teach. Pulling on two reins to turn is another frustrating example of miscommunication, often seen when people are riding two-handed. If I want to turn right, and I pull both reins to the right, my right hand is pulling his nose to the right, but my left hand is pulling his nose to the left, once it crosses the withers. How can he respond correctly to that?

Another example is when I do training demonstrations on canter leads at horse expos, most of the time the “lead problem” is fixed by simply clarifying the cue the rider gives. The horse doesn’t have a lead problem, the rider has a cueing problem. Clarifying your cues and using a consistent sequence in your cues will get you the response you want. You could teach a horse almost any cue, by consistently applying the cue and reinforcing it. But if the cue is a little bit different every time or if you fail to reinforce your cues consistently, the horse will fail to respond.

Think about the cues you give to your horse when you’re riding—cues to walk, trot, canter, stop or turn. What are the precise aids you use? In what sequence do you apply the aids? How is the trot cue different from the canter cue? How do you prepare a horse or warn him that a cue is coming? How does your body change when you are tense, upset, tired or nervous that may change the clarity of these cues? When you are clear and consistent in the way you cue your horse, your horse will respond like clockwork.

Following Your Lead
You don’t have to be around horses very long to figure out that you want to be the one in charge. It’s not a good idea to let a one-thousand-pound scared rabbit call the shots. Horses seek out leadership because it makes them feel safe and protected. But there is never a void of leadership in a horse herd. If the leader falls down on the job, either figuratively or literally, another horse will immediately step in to fill the void. You’re not the leader unless you act like the leader all the time.

A comment I often hear from horse owners is, “every day, I feel like I am starting over with my horse.” They do the groundwork exercises, designed to establish authority and control, and get a good response in the moment, but the authority does not stick. The next day, the horse is challenging their authority again. It’s not the horse that’s the problem—he’s just doing what horses do. It’s a lack of consistency in their leadership (and therefore a lack of leadership).

If it is a daily battle to be in charge of your horse, you’re doing something that is eroding your own authority. Are you controlling the actions of the horse? Or are his actions dictating what you do? It’s a simple equation—action and reaction. If you are making an action, to which the horse is reacting, you are in charge. If the horse is making an action, to which you are reacting, the horse is in charge.

It amazes me how often I see handlers work hard in the arena, during the clinic, to establish good ground manners and authority over the horse, then throw it all away the moment the session is over and they leave the arena. Walking back to the barn they let the horse get in front and pull them to the barn or get impatient and start fidgeting and fussing. Rules of behavior must apply all the time and be enforced all the time, or they are not rules.

Little things can erode your authority or leadership with the horse– letting him grab the hay out of your arms when you feed him, hand feeding treats, letting him rip away from the halter when you turn him loose, stepping back when he moves into you. Being the leader to your horse is a full-time job.

Without question, horses will make us better at being humans, if we rise to the occasion and resist the temptation to blame the horse and instead look to ourselves. Consistency in defending your boundaries not only keeps you safer around the horse, but also helps the horse accept your authority. Achieving command of your body language and the subtle signals you constantly send to your horse, helps you communicate to the horse and may help you receive the subtle signals he’s sending you.

Nothing is more important to your horse than your consistency of leadership. Horses yearn for a strong and fair leader, but it’s not always easy to be the one at the top. As the leader, you’re not really allowed any down time. It’s a hard job—to be consistent in praise and reinforcement, to be consistent in your rules and expectations of behavior, to be consistent in your emotions and confidence, to be consistent in the way you communicate. It’s not an easy job, but the payoff is huge. When the horse puts all his faith in you and is willing to follow you anywhere, it’s a feeling like no other.

Starting Over With A Fractious Horse

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In the episode of Horse Master that we aptly called “Starting Over,” we worked with Clare and her horse “Lux” at a farm outside of Portland, Oregon. Our shoot site, Tanz-Pferde Dressage Farms (www.tanz-pferde.com, the name means dancing horses) was a beautiful backdrop. We shot in their new outdoor arena and were surrounded by incredible trees—beautiful back drops in 360 degrees. With six really good episodes “in the can,” I think all of the crew would agree that one episode that really stood out was Clare’s. In the episode, you’ll see a dramatic change made in this once-injured and defiant horse.

Clare is an outstanding rider, partly because of Lux’s crazy bucking temper tantrums. Lux is a huge warm blood who hates to move forward and doesn’t mind fighting. But, the great thing about big lazy horses is that they can only buck so hard before they get lazy and quit. The key to riding horses that buck in a refusal to move forward is to ride them forward through the bucks and only let them stop when they are relaxed in the back and moving freely forward (without any pedaling from the rider). Once they figure out that bucking buys them more work and relaxing gets them less work, they’ll never buck again; at least not with the same rider. Clare did an exceptional job of riding Lux through his temper tantrums and it looked as if she knew his every move. But, in spite of all this, riding was not really what this horse’s problem was—it was far more fundamental than that.

Lux’s sordid history includes winning championships in the hunter ring as a five year old, when Clare was only ten; although he was already displaying some naughty behavior then, it wasn’t until he broke his hind leg that his behavior spiraled down. With a long recovery period, Lux was sound within a year, but he had become spooky, fractious and aggressive—with no resemblance of the former show champion. Clare’s parents spent thousands of dollars on vets exams, acupuncture, chiropractic, calming supplements, new saddles, therapeutic pads, bits, shoeing and three years later, the trainers were still stumped at what they could do to resolve Lux’s fractiousness. Now a mature 16 year old, Clare sees that her beloved horse is not getting better so she pulls him out of training, thinking it’s time for a break and she turns him out to pasture in a large herd. In the pasture, Lux immediately takes over as alpha. Now, a year and a half later, six years after Lux’s injury, Clare is ready to try again to resolve his behavior and she has studied natural horsemanship and is certain that’s the answer. And she was right.

It only took a fifteen-minute session in the round pen before Lux was hooked on and followed me around the pen like a puppy. Of course, that was after he threatened to jump out of the pen, bucked, kicked, snorted and tossed his head in defiant gestures. At first, he was very determined not to acknowledge my presence, but being out of shape got the better of him and his head started dropping. Soon he was giving me great head bobs in a deliberate gesture of submission. Again, once lazy horses figure out the path of least resistance, they take it.

I showed Clare how to correct his ground manners and develop a larger perimeter of space around her so that the big Lug, uh, Lux isn’t walking all over her. Clare turned out to be an exceptional student and absorbed what happened as I round-penned the horse and made the necessary changes in her handling of Lux. My assistant trainer, T Cody, did a little more ground work with Lux and watched carefully as Clare work him to make sure Lux maintained his subordinate demeanor and respected his boundaries.

The next day Lux was still a changed horse– respecting Clare’s authority, keeping his focus on her at all times and keeping his head down and relaxed. With a great sense of accomplishment, we wrapped-up Clare’s episode and as I was leaving the round pen to go change into clothes for the next show, I told Clare she should take advantage of the work we’d done in that round pen over last 24 hours and saddle him up and see how he rides. When I came out 10 minutes later, Clare was cantering figure eights in the round pen, doing beautiful flying lead changes with each turn as her mother shouted with glee into her cell phone, sharing the success with Clare’s dad.

I’ve had one update from Clare, in the past three weeks and she asked an astute question and immediately put the answer to work on Lux with great success. I think Clare will do great things with this horse. It takes two to maintain this kind of change in a horse—both the horse and the handler/rider need to change their ways. With horses, it always boils down to the human stepping up to the plate and showing some leadership—either you are the boss of them, or they are the boss of you—that’s the way it works in a horse herd. Horses are much happier when there is a competent leader in charge, so that they can relax and not have to think.

Be sure to watch the “Starting Over” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight
–Julie Goodnight

Issues From The Saddle: Starting A Horse Under Saddle

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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.

Christine

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

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