Starting a horse under saddle and bridle and teaching him to carry a rider are always challenging tasks. Becky Siler carried that process a step further when she decided to take a 2-year-old Moyle horse raised on the ranges of Idaho and turn him into an endurance mount.
Becky cares for the horses at Walt Disney World in Florida and competes in both endurance riding and competitive trail riding, so she brought a wealth of horse experience to the project. She also had met with John Lyons several times and studied his methods, which she used throughout the colt’s lessons.
Parts one and two of Becky’s story appeared in the January and February 2005 issues of John Lyons’ Perfect Horse. Part one explained how Becky chose her Moyle colt, Eli, in Idaho and gentled him enough for the long van ride to Florida. Part two continued Becky’s story back home, where she schooled Eli in ground manners. This chapter completes the story, as we see how Becky taught Eli how to carry a rider and learn to become a perfect trail companion.
By late May of 2001, Becky planned to saddle Eli for the first time in preparation for a nearby clinic she had signed up for with John Lyons certified trainers in June.
Although aware that John was in the process of trying a new way of saddle training by doing all the bridle work first, she decided to teach Eli the “old” way, saddling him loose in the round pen and sending him around. Because she knew she would be instructed with the “give to the bit” lessons at the clinic, she felt that Eli would benefit from the “old” style of saddle training.
Becky planned to take Eli to her friend’s round pen to do this first saddling, as he always seemed calm and relaxed there and genuinely enjoyed his trips in the trailer.
She began the lesson by doing some inside and outside turns, and approaching and sacking him with the saddle pad, which she had done before. Putting the saddle on for the first time did not bother Eli at all until he moved off with it. At first he seemed surprised, then he bolted around the pen for four or five laps. He never bucked; he just acted scared.
After that initial reaction, Eli took to the saddle calmly. Becky proceeded to work him on inside and outside turns for approximately 15 minutes. Then she called it quits for the day.
The next day, Becky saddled Eli in her own round pen, and she used a different saddle that had latigo strings hanging off it. As soon as Eli moved off with that saddle, he became frightened of the strings flapping from it, bolting and bucking. Becky asked for several inside and outside turns to help get him to focus on something else, and that calmed him down.
She asked him for turns and stops until he became comfortable with the different saddle. She continued the same lesson plan for the next four days. Each day Eli became more accustomed to the saddle until it became routine for him.
On to the Clinic
By the second week in June, Becky felt they were both ready to tackle the two-day clinic in Ocala, Fla., where Eli would learn about the bit and hopefully be ridden for the first time.
Becky liked Steven and Linda Duchac from the start. They had gone through the John Lyons certification program together and were willing to let her bring a stallion, which many clinicians are not willing to do.
The couple laid out a solid plan for the weekend, which included classroom time as well as the leading and bitting lessons. The plan for Eli was to spend most of Saturday and early Sunday working on the bridling and giving to the bit sessions, then have Linda get on him first in the round pen Sunday afternoon if he seemed ready.
Steven spent a couple of hours helping Becky master the baby gives with Eli, then later in the day working up to the more advanced gives. Becky learned to give Eli an instant release as soon as he gave to the bit, and he picked up on that lesson very quickly.
By late afternoon the first day, they were working on more advanced leading steps. They also worked on the hips-over move, which Eli already performed well with a halter. Linda felt that Eli would be ready for his first ride on Sunday afternoon.
On Sunday morning, the Duchacs worked with the students on practicing their advanced leading and gives to the bit. While the rest of the class saddled up for their riding portion of the clinic, Becky and Linda headed to the round pen with Eli for his first ride.
After Becky saddled him and worked him on his inside and outside turns for approximately 20 minutes at a trot and canter, Linda came into the pen and started working on his gives to the bit and his hips-over moves.
When Linda felt that Eli was giving to the bit well and moving his hips over, she began the process of the first mounting.
Preparing to Mount
Linda started from Eli’s left side and took the slack out of the left rein. She left some slack in the right rein, but not enough that it would hang down too far. She approached him again, took the slack out of the left rein, then walked away a few steps. She repeated this approximately eight to 10 times.
The next time, Linda approached Eli, she took the slack out of the left rein, put her left foot in the stirrup and took her foot back out. She walked away a few steps and repeated the process several more times.
When she felt he was comfortable with that, Linda put her foot in the stirrup and bounced around while hopping on the foot that was on the ground. She then walked away. She repeated this several times until Eli was relaxed.
Next, Linda approached Eli, put a small amount of weight in the stirrup, reached for the mane and the back of the saddle, then took her foot out and walked away. She repeated these steps on both sides approximately 25 times.
After this step, she approached him, took the slack out of the left rein, put her foot in the stirrup and lifted her weight off the ground as if to stand in the stirrup. Eli handled all this without too much fuss or worry. She repeated this step on both sides another 25 times.
Finally, Linda swung all the way over his back, just barely touched the saddle, then got right back off.
She repeated the steps, then swung on and stayed there. Eli did not seem to mind at all. Linda let him take in the fact that someone was on his back before picking up a rein to ask him to disengage his hip. When he disengaged his hip, he just walked right off with no fuss.
After Linda had Eli walking around consistently while giving to the bit and moving his hip and shoulder in response to the rein cues he’d learned from the ground, she felt it was time for Becky to get on for the first time.
She brought Becky into the round pen and had her repeat the same steps with just putting a foot in the stirrup then walking away. After doing this several times, Becky put her weight in the stirrup. This bothered Eli, and he started to move away.
Linda instructed Becky to take her foot out and ask Eli to move his hips over several times. Her purpose was to get him to focus on a different task. Becky repeated this another time or two when Eli started to move off as she put weight in the stirrup. He finally relaxed and was tolerant of Becky’s weight in the stirrup.
Becky then stepped halfway up, stepped down and walked away. She repeated this step six or seven times before swinging right on. “Wow,” she thought. She was finally aboard her colt that she had spent countless hours working with on the ground to lead up to this very moment.
Linda showed Becky how to “connect the rein” to Eli’s hip by holding pressure until he moved his hip over. Because Eli had learned this lesson well on the ground, he picked it up easily under saddle.
Becky rode Eli around the round pen at a walk for 10 minutes, then dismounted and re-mounted several more times before ending for the day.
Eli’s clinic weekend and first lesson under saddle succeeded more than Becky believed possible. He had learned about the bit and giving to it, as well as some advanced leading lessons. He was exposed to a group of horses while exibiting perfect ground manners as a stallion, and he had his first riding lesson. Overall, Becky came away excited that she could now move on with Eli’s saddle training on her own.
First Weeks Under Saddle
The next day, Becky repeated the steps from the day before. She made sure she “sacked” Eli with the saddle pad. She saddled him and sent him around the round pen for some inside and outside turns. She knew that John feels a horse may be more likely to buck or become scared on the second ride than the first.
Eli was still nervous when Becky put weight in the stirrup, so she asked him for a hips-over move. After a few tries, he settled down and she began standing in the stirrup.
Once she mounted completely, she practiced several times just stepping down and mounting back up from both sides. When she felt ready to stay on board, she picked up the rein and asked Eli for baby gives. She knew from her ground-training manual that John does not recommend any leg cues at this point. If the horse wants to move off when you pick up the rein, you should just let him.
Eli did choose to move around the pen, so Becky practiced gives to the bit from either side. He started to understand the rein cues well enough that after a few minutes, Becky was actually steering. Becky rode him around like this for approximately 20 minutes and decided to call it quits for the day.
On day three, Eli seemed nervous after being saddled and actually bucked with the saddle on during the groundwork in the round pen. After Becky asked for inside and outside turns for 15 minutes, he settled down and she was ready to begin the mounting steps. She once again repeated everything from the previous two days without omitting any steps. She practiced baby gives for a few minutes, and when he started walking, she practiced stopping him by using a hips over.
On this day, she began Eli’s first lesson in taking a leg cue to move forward. She lightly bumped him on both sides using both of her legs until he moved forward. Since he’s a fairly sensitive horse, he moved off fairly quickly. She practiced this for approximately 25 minutes while also doing gives and connecting the feet to the rein, making sure to stop bumping with her legs the moment he moved forward. She ended the day on this positive note and gave him the next day off.
On day five, Becky trailered Eli back up to the Duchacs’ place for a lesson. Steven worked with Becky and Eli on more advanced gives and “connecting the feet to the reins.”
Steven got on Eli and worked with him on more advanced cues from his legs. His goal was to get Eli to pick up a trot with gentle “bumping” leg cues. After a few minutes, Eli picked up a trot around the pen and was relaxed and calm.
Becky and Steven then moved Eli out of the round pen into a large paddock. This perked up Eli’s interest, and he moved with a spring to his step. He was steering well by this time.
Back home, Becky spent the next several weeks working with Eli about five days a week. Sometimes she felt he was regressing because he would act a little like a wild horse in the round pen during the warmup before she mounted.
Becky also began taking Eli to her friend’s arenas to work him in different settings. She knew that the exposure to new places and horses as a stallion would help him down the road when she wanted to trail ride with others.
As summer neared an end, Becky had other priorities and so decided to give Eli a break. She knew that many ranchers and distance-riding folks laid their young horses up after saddle-breaking them so that they could mature physically and mentally. Becky knew her life would be busy until winter, so she decided to continue with Eli’s groundwork and leading manners since she planned to breed him and collect semen in the fall.
An Educational Setback
In November, Becky received an invitation to speak at a small seminar held at a local Lutheran riding camp. They asked her to give a round-pen demonstration with Eli. She was happy to help others learn how they could use John’s methods to teach their horses to accept handling and to become trustworthy mounts.
After a short classroom session, they headed out to the round pen to see Eli worked. Becky warned that she had not been on Eli since the end of August, but that if his mind seemed right that day she would get on him to demonstrate how John maintains that a horse can retain what he has learned for up to 16 months.
Eli demonstrated his round-pen basics and spook control perfectly. Becky showed how to work a horse over a scary object such as a tarp in the round pen by turning the horse back and forth closer and closer to the object. She sent him over poles she’d laid on the ground. She demonstrated advanced liberty work as well as giving to the bit. She then saddled him and asked for a few hips-over moves.
Then things started to go wrong. Because Eli had such a good mindset that day, Becky got sloppy and skipped a very important step. After tightening the saddle, she never moved Eli around the pen to see how he would act under saddle that day. She proceeded to go through a few of the mounting steps, gives to the bit and hips over before swinging right up.
Eli remained calm and relaxed at first. Becky felt sure that he was in a good mood, and she asked him to move forward. He walked off calmly, but went right over to the round-pen rail as if to brush her off. When Becky asked for a give to the right to turn him off the fence, he exploded. He bucked like a rodeo horse and lost Becky on the third jump.
Fortunately, she was not injured and calmed him down. She proceeded to explain to the crowd what she had done wrong by skipping the steps of moving him after tightening the cinch. She mounted back up and ended the session on a positive note.
Later that winter at Walt Disney World, while talking to John about that incident, she was able to laugh about it as John said he had also been caught in that same predicament. He did not need to remind Becky how critical it is to never leave out a step with a green horse.
Becky rode Eli successfully a few times over the winter, but planned to really get him back in serious training by spring. She enlisted the help of her friend Nora to take him to her place for a month and work on ground driving while Becky came over to help and learn.
Becky rode Eli a few times at Nora’s and took him home after 30 days. They could tell that Eli was maturing into a strong, young stallion. He acted quite a bit different since he had bred a mare over the winter and had had semen collected during the spring.
Deciding to Geld
In July, Becky was riding Eli in her front yard, which is right next to a sometimes-busy county road. Even as she was thinking of John’s saying, “Ride where you can and not where you can’t,” she could tell that Eli was nervous. The mare he had as a girlfriend all winter was in the pasture behind the house.
Becky was practicing serpentines and circles, and she cued him for a trot. For no apparent reason, he bolted with her across the large front yard and threw in a buck or two. Becky took a nosedive in the grass. Becky was glad she was wearing her helmet.
She caught him and rode him around the yard a few times before putting him away, but what she didn’t know at the time was that she had cracked a rib or two and broke her big toe. Becky was unable to ride Eli for the next six weeks, and so she continued his groundwork.
Becky started discussing with her veterinarian whether to have Eli castrated. She re-read an article in the April 2001 issue of John Lyons’ Perfect Horse titled “Cut the hassle, geld the horse.” She realized that even though Moyles are rare, Eli would only mature to 14.3 hands and probably wasn’t the classic depiction of the breed.
Besides, he was changing into a mature stallion, and she had to be on full alert at all times around him. Becky wanted to leave Eli out to pasture with her gelding Miles, and that was becoming impossible since Eli was assertive with him.
She also had to admit that since the accident, she was afraid to ride him on the trail with other horses lest he dump her in the woods and be loose as a stallion with other riders.
So in September 2002, she had Eli gelded as a 4-year-old.
Becky also decided to send him to a trainer for 30 days shortly after gelding. The exercise would help him, especially since she had to be away for two weeks. She knew when she returned from that trip she would finally be able to continue riding him without interruption.
While she was gone, the trainers had a couple of incidents where Eli wanted to bolt. But they worked through that by using hips over and advanced gives, and they had him trail riding by himself in the forest.
Wide Open Spaces
Becky began trail riding Eli on a regular basis. Out on the trail, she continued to work on speed control, winding around trees, circles and group riding. She was having a blast with Eli while they each learned to trust one another more each day.
Becky also trained Eli on such things as sacking with a slicker from the saddle, trotting over ground poles and cavalletti, and even taking small jumps. She took regular dressage lessons to further both her riding skills and Eli’s balance and fine-tuning.
She trailered him to ride with others every chance she got in the next year and a half. Eli was becoming a seasoned overnight camper and handled everything in stride.
He was now solid about cantering down the trail even in a group of horses and would turn and leave the others readily if Becky asked.
One thing Becky noticed was that Eli was still frightened of four-wheeler vehicles in the woods and bicycles approaching him. She trailered him to Sugarloaf Mountain, a popular training place for event cyclists and motorcyclists. She let him watch hundreds of bikes go by every hour. He became accustomed to them eventually, and now hardly glances their way while they pass him in droves when Becky rides him there.
Becky looks forward to her first competition on him this year. She knows that her years of training him the John Lyons way will pay off with a horse who is obedient on the trail and can be shown to the judges in hand with a string around his neck if she wanted.
Recently, Becky decided to give team penning a try. Eli had never been ridden around cows, but since he likes to chase dogs and play, she figured he’d have the aptitude for it. On their very first run, he went right into the herd and helped cut out two cows near each other.
Although her team didn’t get their cows penned that night, she couldn’t help but think back to when Eli was a wild 2-year-old stallion in Idaho never touched by human hands. What a long way he’d come from that unlikely start of having to be halter broken in three days. Thanks to a good training method and her consistent work, Becky now enjoys the bond that few others can rarely attain with their horses any other way. PH*