The first ride I put on any un started horse is likely the most important ride of his life. It will set the stage for his future as a saddle horse. If I screw it up I could turn an honest young horse with the potential to be a wonderful partner into an unreliable, dangerous problem horse. The first ride itself will not entirely accomplish this but it will start a pattern of behavior. If I scare the horse on his first ride he could become violent in his effort to save himself. Bucking, rearing or bolting are instincts that can very quickly take control of any horse and are a very real wreck waiting to happen. If something like this does happen it will cause the horse to anticipate the same thing happening the next time I get on. This anticipation will cause him to become instinctively defensive faster each time he feels stressed. Eventually this anticipation leads to habit. The horse may get over the fear but has learned that explosive behavior is expected and therefore form a pattern. The horse will think “you expect me to blow up so I won’t disappoint you and I will blow up”.
On the other hand if the ride is short and quiet and comfortable then the reverse is true. He can learn that he does not need to be afraid. If he is not afraid there is no need to become defensive so he will not buck or bolt. He will learn that I am there to comfort him not to scare him and he will let me quietly get off. The horse can then anticipate the next ride to be just as comfortable and rewarding. I, as a rider, will also get more comfortable with the idea of getting back on with no fear of getting hurt. The confidence of horse and rider are increasing together and it won’t be long until the horse has no fear of a rider and I can ask more and more of him.
These two scenarios are something I keep myself aware of when I am riding or about to ride a young horse. If I am aware of what I am asking and how the horse is responding then I can adjust or end my session so it was successful. The most difficult thing about riding young horses is estimating how much they will tolerate. I try to err on the side of caution and ask less than I think he can cope with. Occasionally I will misjudge this and the horse will show signs of increased stress. That is my warning to either back off or get put off. I can’t just get off when he becomes afraid or I will teach the horse to become afraid in order to have me get off, but I can reduce the intensity of whatever I am doing to keep him from becoming overwhelmed by what I am doing. It is constant give and take.
The articles I have written for the past months have described the process to teach a horse the necessary skills to deal with being ridden. Although it has taken months to write about the time span can be from a few days to a few weeks depending on the horse. I like to teach things slowly to ensure the horse has learned each lesson. The better each lesson is understood the easier my horse will learn and accept the next lesson.
The horse is ready to be ridden; I have already sat on the horse while holding on to the fence. He accepts and understands what bit pressure is and how to yield to it. He is not afraid of the saddle and the stirrups bouncing so my legs shouldn’t scare him. He has accepted my authority and started to trust me and his confidence in me and himself are developing through understanding and awareness of expectations that have already been established. At this point I will basically just get on. And then I will get off again.
I prefer to mount for the first time from the ground even though he will park at the fence for me. This is because at the fence I have not allowed him to walk off. He expects to have to stand still and I have corrected him for not standing still. I do not want to cause conflict on the first ride. On subsequent rides the fence or mounting block will be a non issue when it comes to mounting and then walking off when asked. But when I get on the first few times I want him to know he can move. This is my personal preference and if you have a horse that you will have difficulty getting on from the ground then mount from the fence or mounting block.
When I am getting ready to mount I will be on the horses left side, my left rein will be shorter than the right rein. If he walks off before I am on, slightly pulling on the shorter left rein will turn him a small circle around me. I do not want to proceed if he is walking away. When he is standing quietly I will put the toe of my left foot in the stirrup I don’t want my whole foot in the stirrup in case he walks off before I am ready I don’t want to get hung up. I will then stand up in the stirrup and lean over the saddle. I will pet and talk to him to let him know I am there and that I am not hurting him. I will then step down and repeat this a few times
If he walks off I will hold on for a moment to evaluate the level of stress he is feeling. If he keeps walking or trots a little I will hang on and try to stay balanced keeping my left rein taut so he stays in the circle. When he stops I quickly step down to reward him for stopping. If he becomes explosive I will step down immediately and try to evaluate what went wrong before I get back up. It was likely just the surprise of him moving with the extra weight putting him off balance or him seeing my legs sticking out from his side and not knowing what to do. I will calm him down and try again.
I am looking for one of two things; either he walk off quietly and then stops by himself or he stands patiently in a semi relaxed state. If he does one or both of these things while I am leaning over him I have a pretty good idea that his response will be the same when I sit on him so I will then swing my leg over and sit quietly on him. I will just pet him and then step off again.
I will get on and off this way several times each time paying attention to how well he is handling things. If he is relaxing I will then ask him to walk in small circle. When he stops I will get off, remount and repeat. I can then change the direction of the circle and get off and then repeat. When I have done this a few times I will put him away and consider it a successful first ride.
If he is still having a hard time with me getting on and off I will end the lesson at that point. I am just planting seeds and they will need time to germinate. If he is not comfortable with me getting on he won’t be more comfortable if I ask for more from him.
The rule of thumb that I use to help me decide when to quit is this. When I want to try “just one more thing” I stop. I will leave that “one more thing” for tomorrow.
© 2007 Will Clinging