The big day has arrived — the day you actually swing your leg over your young horse’s back for the first time and sit aboard him.
It’s an exciting moment for horse trainers and for anyone who’s raised a young horse, rather like your child going off to their first day of kindergarten. But it’s a moment often misunderstood and shrouded in the mists of equestrian legend. For the truth is, if you’ve done things right — following the guidelines of last month’s article ”Young Horses Need A Leader, Not A Friend” (September 2007) — a horse’s first few days under saddle should be glorious non-events.
The horse world is full of conflicting opinions about the right age to begin riding a horse. Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses and Arabians destined to race start under saddle as late yearlings or early 2-year-olds. Others will argue vehemently that horses shouldn’t be started until they’re 4 or 5, claiming that they’re still growing and too fragile until then.
We believe that the best answer is between these two extremes. With adjustments for the breed and for an individual’s characteristics (including size, temperament and soundness), the spring of a horse’s 3-year-old year is the best time to start them under saddle. With occasional exceptions, at this point in life they’re physically mature enough to support the weight of a medium-sized person and to handle a reasonable amount of work. And they’re usually mentally mature enough to begin to concentrate and really learn.
We believe that waiting until age 5 can handicap a horse’s usefulness as a riding or competition horse. From a physical perspective, it’s especially important to start large horses (warmbloods and drafts or draft crosses who’ll mature taller than 16.3 or 17 hands and weigh more than 1,200 pounds) at 2 or at least 3 to begin to develop the muscles they’ll need to jump, to extend or collect their gaits, or just to go in self-carriage.
Just like children, you also need to begin teaching them how to learn and to enjoy it. And with big horses it’s always an advantage to work with them before they realize how big and strong they are.
We’re not suggesting you have to ride them at 2 (the thought of riding some of the horses we’ve had at that age is comical), but you can longe them for 10 to 15 minutes two or three times a week, pony them off a trusty horse at the walk or trot, or just hand-walk them for 30 minutes several times a week to strengthen their bones, ligaments and tendons, joints and muscles. If you know how to drive and have a harness, you could even teach them to ground drive.
You’re working on developing fitness and strength — which will have a direct influence on their ability to become athletes — and you’re working toward the goal we discussed last month of establishing your aids. Your aids are your means of directing them (to turn, to jump, go down the trail, or to change gaits) and are the key to establishing horses’ confidence in you as their leader. That confidence will be extremely important over the next several years, as you introduce them to a myriad of situations or questions they’ve never faced before.
Approach With Confidence
So now it’s time for the next big moment in equine education. You should be fit enough to comfortably mount the horse and to stay with him if he shies or bucks. And you should act (and be) as confident as possible about mounting, because the horse can tell: If you’re afraid, he’ll be afraid too.
If you can’t approach the mounting block with confidence, ask or pay someone else to do it. And if at this point, or later, you lose confidence or can’t understand why you and your horse aren’t progressing, get professional help. There isn’t a horse owner or trainer alive who knows it all, and we all take lessons whenever we can.
Before you try to get on, you must be wearing an ASTM/SEI-certified helmet, and it’s not a bad idea to wear a body protector, too. Using an English or Western saddle is up to you (each has pros and cons for starting youngsters), but we recommend you put either a breastplate or racing yoke on your horse so you have something to grab other than their mouth.
Begin by longeing the horse, just as you’ve been doing. Then, with an assistant, walk the horse to a portable mounting block situated in a ring. Stand on the mounting block and lean over to touch the saddle and pat your horse on the neck, back and rump. If he stands quietly, your assistant should reward the horse (with words, pats on the neck and treats if you wish) and walk the horse away.
It’s very important in these early days to constantly assess the horse’s attitude. Is he anxious, confident, relaxed, bored or tired’
If he’s confident and relaxed, keep pressing forward. If he’s anxious and scared, back up and repeat the lesson or exercise until he is confident. If he’s tired, stop and try again tomorrow. If he’s bored, progress more quickly to get his attention.
When your assistant walks the horse back to the mounting block, start again. If he’s relaxed, try leaning across the saddle, patting him on the right shoulder as you talk to him. Stay there for 30 to 60 seconds, gently slide back on the mounting block, and have your assistant walk the horse away while praising him. Repeat as many times as necessary.
Remember, you want to be sure the horse is watching and listening to you and isn’t surprised that you’re suddenly leaning across his back, so use your voice.
If that exercise went well, ask your assistant to walk the horse back to the mounting block again. This time, lean across the saddle and, after 10 to 15 seconds, ask your assistant to walk the horse forward on a circle as you lie across the saddle on your stomach.
For many horses, this is a confusing moment. Suddenly they have a moving weight on their backs, and they usually aren’t sure how to support it. Some will panic and shy, perhaps even attempt to bolt. So be prepared to immediately push yourself off the saddle and away from the horse if he panics. If that happens, immediately repeat the exercise until he’s relaxed.
But most horses simply take a number of uncertain, sort of drunken steps as they adjust to the new weight. Some larger horses barely seem to notice. Even if they don’t mind you being there, you’re in an uncomfortable, vulnerable position, from which you’d like to quickly move on. So, after you slide off, praise the horse and decide what to do next.
You might want to quit here for today, ending on a good note before the horse gets mentally tired. Or lean across the saddle and walk a circle again to confirm his trust, then quit for the day. But if he is completely unperturbed, continue. Remember: Read your horse, just as you will throughout his career.
Next, you want to acquaint your horse with the actual act of mounting. Put your left foot in the stirrup and slowly lean your full weight on it as you and your assistant praise him. Take your foot out and do it again. If he’s quiet and confident, put your left foot in the stirrup and quickly but steadily swing your right leg across his back — without kicking him in the croup — and settle as gently as possible in the saddle.
Have your assistant walk the horse forward a few steps. Halt, then lean forward, gently but steadily swing your right leg across his back again, and slide to the ground, praising your horse. You should repeat mounting at least one or two or more times. Take your time here to make sure he’s completely comfortable with mounting, because you can’t do anything else if you can’t safely get on his back.
Again, evaluate your horse. Should you stop, repeat or go on’ If you stop for the day, next time repeat all the exercises you’ve done today to build upon them.
Next — either today or another day — after you’ve gently settled into the saddle, ask your assistant to lead the horse on a circle as you command, ”Walk on.”
Almost always, the horse will hesitate or even halt as he attempts to compensate for your shifting weight and find his balance. Tell him ”good boy/girl,” but continue to command, ”walk on,” and cluck. At this point, use only gentle, continuous leg aids as the horse is processing a lot of new stimuli and sensations.
Generally, a couple of circles to the left and right at the walk are enough for the first or second day under saddle. Praise him and let him assimilate his training overnight or for a day or two, then do it again.
Road Signs And Mileposts
From this point forward, there are no rock-solid rules, only road signs and mileposts. You have to continually evaluate your horse’s body and mind as you go as fast as possible but as slowly as necessary. Proceed slowly (but confidently) if he’s uncertain, move steadily forward if he’s confident and happy, and skip a few steps if he’s bored.
But after a day (or two or three) of being led around a circle by your assistant, your next goal is to transition your horse to paying full attention to you, the person on his back. Up to now, he’ll have been paying more attention to your assistant (especially if he knows the person and has been receiving treats) because he or she is standing by the horse’s head, the area from which all commands have come throughout his young life. Now you must teach him to understand — and accept — the aids of the person on his back.
While still holding the longe line, have your assistant step farther and farther away from the horse, toward the circle’s center. The horse will want to follow, but use your outside rein and inside leg to keep him out. Use your voice to cluck and command ”Walk on” as you now use your alternating legs aids to encourage him forward.
Your assistant should refrain from using their voice or the longe whip, unless the horse won’t move or becomes disobedient. You want the horse to begin obeying you, but you also want to prevent dangerous situations from starting.
Now practice the most basic transitions — walk to halt and halt to walk, commanding ”who-oh-oh” with your voice and half-halting repeatedly with legs, seat and hands. Praise him and stand for a few seconds, and before he starts to get anxious, walk again.
Each time, the horse should respond more quickly than the last time, and be sure to praise him with your voice and pats for his correct response. If, after a few sessions, your horse is still sluggish and doesn’t eagerly move forward from your leg aids, carry a dressage whip and tap him as you use your legs. Now’s the time to develop his responsiveness to you and his respect for your driving aids so you can teach him to go truly and well forward.
The next step is trotting on the longe line. Again, practice the transitions (walk-trot, trot-walk, walk-halt) to develop his focus, his strength and his response to you — they’re the keys to the future.
Avoid cantering on the longe line while mounted because most horses simply don’t have the balance or strength to canter on a 20-meter circle with a rider at this point. And if they do, then they have the balance to canter off the longe line too.
And that brings us to the next big milepost — riding off the longe line. Start the horse on the longe line, just as you’ve been doing. Then halt, have your assistant quietly unsnap the longe line, and take the big step with confidence. Start on the circle, and if he feels confident and attentive, start walking around the ring, continuing to practice the basic transitions, rewarding him for obedience, and increasing the strength of your aids if he isn’t. ”No” is not the correct answer to your aids.
At the walk, introduce your horse to more complex steering by doing circles, turning around jumps or other obstacles, changing rein and changing direction. And when you feel ready, urge him forward to the trot.
Continue practicing transitions, doing 20-meter (or larger) circles, turning around jumps. Praise him and end the day if he starts to feel tired so you keep him fresh and looking for more.
Often the first canter is an anxiety-inducing moment, but if the horse has been obedient to this point, there’s no reason to anticipate a problem. And if he’s been recalcitrant, it means either you’ve moved too fast or too slowly — and you have to figure out which it is by repeating the exercises you’ve already done or moving to more challenging exercises.
Remember that the canter can be a taxing gait for horses because only by riding can they develop the strength and balance to canter through corners and around circles.
Why is it harder’ Because it’s a three-beat gait — each stride has a period when they’re supported by just one leg, unlike the walk and trot. To develop strength and balance, you must keep urging him forward with your legs, seat, voice and (if necessary) a dressage whip while you keep light contact with the bit.
From here, the exercises and training opportunities you can do with your youngster are nearly unlimited, and in subsequent articles we’ll discuss a wide range of them.