The Process of Starting a Horse – introducing Equipment
In last month article I wrote about establishing leadership. The lessons taught in that stage of training should be maintained or re established as needed throughout the training process. I will take a few minutes at the beginning of the first several sessions to make sure my horse is attentive and respectful and prepared to learn. If I am not happy with his attitude the leadership lessons will preempt any other lessons until re established.
The introduction of equipment starts in the leadership stage. My lariat and training flag are used to help me establish control of movement. They exaggerate the pressure I am applying to push or block the horse. This exaggeration increases the pressure I apply without having in most cases to make physical contact with the horse. A rope or flag or whip should be used slowly and deliberately, the movement should be smooth.
Once the horse feels safe with me I encourage the horse to stand still. The only time a horse will get a reward at this point is when he has stopped his feet on his own or has commited to standing still. I encourage this by making it comfortable by touching him comfortably and softly for short periods of time. As he gets comfortable with this I will ask him to tolerate it for longer amounts of time and I will also become more casual in how I approach and interact with him. This is an approach and retreat going from side to side until he accepts that I am comfortable to be with.
I will then add more pressure in the form of equipment like my rope, saddle pad and eventually the saddle. The process starts over and repeats itself each time the stimulus changes. When using something other than your hand to touch him I will offer whatever I am using for his inspection. I let him sniff and even chew on it momentarily until he becomes distracted from it. At that point he has convinced himself that it is not to be feared. This process will likely need repeated until he is comfortable with the item in question. I will not change items until he is satisfied that whatever it is is not going to hurt him. If he moves away from the item I try to judge why he moved and how he moved. What I want to see is a commitment from him. The commitment to stay and try to accept what I am doing, or the commitment to escape. If you do not have a commitment just wait until he makes up his mind about how to deal with it. Moving his feet slowly is not a commitment to escape, his brain will often work better if his feet are moving but I use this as a sign that I can not increase the pressure unless I want to force an error. I make it easier for him to stay by backing off slightly but do not remove the item either or I could teach him that when he moves away I will reward him by removing the pressure I am applying. This would be rewarding the wrong behavior. I will wait until he stops his feet then I will remove the stress. If he does make a commitment to escape I will not chase him away, I just ask him to come back and try again. I want to make it easier for him to be right rather than more difficult for him to be wrong.
If he continues to escape I will slow down or back up a step because he is not ready to handle what I am doing. When he puts more effort into staying he is ready to continue.
The first saddling is possibly the most stressful lesson a young horse will ever have. This lesson sets the stage for the rest of his working life so it is important to do it right the first time. It is not the saddle itself that is overwhelming but the pressure from the cinch or girth. That combined with the weight of the saddle with leather and stirrups flopping at his sides can send him into orbit. Many horses will buck or bolt when first saddled so make sure you have him in a safe place. If you have him on a line make sure it is long enough that you can get out of his way without having to let go. You may need to be very quick on your feet so do not stand directly in front of him unless you want him to land on you. Allow him to run or buck or whatever he feels he needs to do to deal with this very stressful lesson.
I am not concerned that by letting him buck I are teaching a bad habit. I think the opposite, if there is a buck in him I want it to come out in a controlled environment when I am not sitting on him. Just because he bucks when I saddle him does not mean he will buck when I get on him. I encourage him to move his feet but I do not push him too hard. He may be on the verge of exploding so I just push enough that his feet are moving. When he can walk and trot and canter comfortably I will take the saddle off and repeat the saddling process again. He probably will react much less defensivly this time. When he looks comfortable again I will unsaddle and put him away. I try not to introduce too much in one lesson. If I feel he is not ready to be saddled or not ready to be cinched up I do not feel obligated to procede. Better to wait and have it be a good experience.
Other equipment like the bridle will be another lesson on another day.
© 2006 Will Clinging