By the time I am ready to climb on a young horse all the things I have written about in the past several months need to be in place. The horse’s attitude needs to be willing, he must be comfortable with any and all equipment I will use and he should be especially comfortable with the feel of the bit I am using. He should understand how to move forward with a little contact from the bit. He should longe without trying to escape and without leaning on the bit or my longe line. When I am happy with the horse’s effort in all these areas there are just two things keeping me from getting on, fear and common sense.
We are at the point of no return. This is where I have to have faith in everything I have done to prepare the horse for its first ride. This is also where the way the horse has responded to what I have done will indicate the success of the first ride and ultimately the rest of his life as a saddle horse. If he is not ready to be ridden it is irresponsible and foolish to proceed until he is ready. Before I do get on I mentally take note of how I feel about getting on, If I am feeling apprehensive or not comfortable with the idea of riding the horse in question I will err on the side of caution and not get on. Whether the horse is ready to ride or needs just a little more work there is one last thing I like to teach before I put my life in the hands or hooves of a young inexperienced horse. I will teach him how to park up to the fence or mounting block.
Parking a horse has several benefits. It will teach a horse to accept and move away from an outside aid, it will teach him that he can move into the blocking pressure of a fence, it will help him get used to seeing me from a higher vantage point, it will also help him learn to deal with things on both sides of his body at the same time and finally help teach him some responsibility, that is to stand patiently and wait for me to deliberately get on.
The method I will describe I learned from friend and colleague Jay O Jay. I start on the ground with my flag in my left hand and I will stand on the right side of the horse. I will put a halter under the bridle and tie the reins up and use a nice long lead rope. Holding the lead rope right under his chin I want to have enough contact on the halter to prevent the horse from walking forward. I will tap him on his right hip gently and with rhythm until he moves his hind feet away from me. One or two steps is enough to reward. I will ask this several times until the horse is comfortable with moving away from the tap of my flag. I want him moving slowly sideways and not forward. When he is consistent and correct I will lead him to the fence.
I will sit on the top rail and lead him up and try to position his head just left of my legs. I want to make it comfortable for him so I will just pet him for a moment until he is ok with me sitting above him. I will then reach over him with my flag and tap him on his right hip and ask him to step towards me. It will often take a moment or two before he will feel comfortable moving towards the fence so I try not to rush things. Any movement towards the fence and I stop asking and give him a quick pet. I keep asking until he is standing parallel to the fence. I will then climb down and lead him away to give him a break before I repeat the exercise. I am quite picky about how the horse parks himself. He does not need to do this quickly but I will expect him to repeat it until he is correct. I do this for a couple of reasons. One is I want him to take the responsibility to park himself properly, if he is out of position or not waiting for me to get on it can be dangerous to mount from the fence or a mounting block. Another reason is that I do want him to learn to wait quietly without anticipating that he should walk off. If at any time while I am sitting on the fence he moves away I will ask him to park again.
Once he has parked and is waiting quietly for me I will make it comfortable for him to stay there. When I am sitting on the fence I always have one hand holding on to the fence. If he moves away while I am doing something to him I do not want to fall off the fence. I will lean over him so he can see me with both his eyes. I don’t want to startle him when I swing my leg over him so I will reach over and move the off side stirrup around and make some noise with the saddle so he does not anticipate something hurting him. I try to be louder and sloppier and a little carefully careless in how I handle him. My reasoning for this is that anticipation or the fear of the unknown that causes stress to sometimes be overwhelming. If I am louder and sloppier than normal and I allow him time to get used to a higher level of stress he learns that he can cope with it. I do not keep it up for long periods of time but I do want him to know that I am not hiding anything from him, that I have no surprises for him. That way he has dealt with the highest level of stress before I get on, and because nothing I did actually hurt him he will not be waiting for the unexpected. In fact he will be expecting things to be loud and scary so when I slip my leg over him while still sitting on the fence and I am slower and quieter he is not afraid.
When I do slip my leg over him and sit on him I at no time take my left hand or left foot off the fence. This is my safety net and if the horse bolts I will not try to stop him until he is out from under me and then I will ask him to come back to the fence and I will repeat the whole process.
Parking at the fence is an important lesson for a young horse to learn because it is when he has to use all the skills he has learned in order to trust me to sit above him and wait patiently while I make a fuss above, and over him. When he can handle all that pressure and be comfortable with everything that has happened to this point the fear and common sense that has prevented me from getting on until now is replaced with faith and trust.
It takes an incredible amount of faith and trust for a horse to let us do the things we do to them. At some point I must have faith in him and in the work that I have done to prepare him. I trust the methods I have tried to describe over the last several months and I should trust the horse because he has proven to me how much he is capable, and willing to accept. This is when I need to be honest with myself about whether I am ready to get on. I know that the horse is ready but If I have any doubts I will wait until tomorrow.
© 2006 Will Clinging