Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Starting The Young Horse Under Saddle, Part II

I actually meant to put up this post back in late August when I added Part 1. Now I'm finally getting around to it. :) Enjoy:

Foundation -- according to Webster’s Dictionary it means “the basis on which something rests”. The definition is clear and simple. If you start with a solid foundation, you can feel completely confident that what you build will last. If you apply that theory and principal toward training horses, inevitably you will have a well mannered animal who responds in the proper way to most any situation. First you must select a horse suitable to your needs as a rider, and to the purpose for which you intend to use him. Unfortunately, that’s not as easy a task as it would seem to be.

Many years ago I was contacted by a local Corona, California, trainer and riding instructor regarding one of the columns I had written on the use and benefits of snaffle bits. It is my sincere belief that any horse can, when properly trained, be ridden in a mild snaffle without incident (as you have read here before). Well, the gentleman in question brought up a couple of incidents where children had gotten hurt riding their horses down the streets of Norco, another nearby California town. According to him, they couldn’t control the animals because they were using snaffle bits. He disagreed with my views for that reason alone.

The problem is, children should never be allowed to ride horses they cannot handle. Period. Especially on the street where things can get dangerous real quick. If those kids had been mounted on safe, well trained horses there never would have been a problem. Most parents, however, don’t want to spend the extra money it costs to purchase a trained animal (and I don’t mean the old nag down the street that Johnny used to barrel race on) in the first place. It costs the same to feed and provide care for a poor, untrained example of horseflesh as it does a top notch well trained one. In the long run, that initial purchase price can pay for itself many times over. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to buy a top show horse if the kid isn’t interested in showing, but isn’t making sure the horse is safe rather important? The next step is to put the horse in training with someone competent and to insist that anyone who will be riding the horse takes lessons. Again, it’s not cheap to have a horse with a trainer, especially a good one, but isn’t your child’s safety the most important thing in the world?

That said, let’s get back to work. We left off at the point of having the horse ready to work in a bitting rig. Once he is comfortable about the bridle and surcingle, being longed in it and so forth, side reins can be introduced, gradually shortening the length of rein until the horse has the desired headset. By gradually I am NOT talking about within the same training session. Depending on the horse’s reaction, I want to see only small increments of tightening done each day. Some horses will all but throw themselves on the ground the first time they come up against any sort of pressure on their mouths. Some will accept the bit and pressure on the reins from the get-go like they’d been doing it all their lives.

Now, by "headset" I am referring to the horse's ability to carry himself without gawking at his surroundings or looking skyward. I prefer my horses to go with their heads "set" reasonably for their conformation, the task they may later be asked to perform in the show ring notwithstanding. We all know there are certain expected standards for most horse show endeavors, so that goes without saying.

Naturally, not everything can be accomplished in a single training session. Ideally, they should be spread out over several weeks. Once the horse accepts the essential elements of his new working wardrobe, his trainer can begin working him in longlines. It is very important to remember that some horses are afraid of the lines (which can be regular cotton longe lines) moving across their backs and especially touching their legs.

I recommend that everyone do their long lining in a round pen or “bull pen”. There the horse is in a confined enough area that he really can’t run away. If he does run, it will just be in circles and he’ll be easy to get stopped. As with longeing, one should always try to stay toward the horse’s hindquarters (never standing within kicking range, of course!), but the goal is to keep the horse moving forward. The key word here is FORWARD! The other important thing for everyone to remember is not to allow those long lines or driving reins to get tangled up around your feet. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Depending on the horse’s attention span and level of maturity, the trainer might be able to have him ground driving nicely within a couple of weeks and ready to ride soon. One terribly important factor in properly long lining is to make sure you don’t hang on the horse’s mouth. Just as with riding, we want to keep his mouth as soft and responsive as possible. Light “bumping” should accomplish what you want, and sometimes you’ll need to bump him a little harder to get your point across, but you don’t want to create a horse who leans on your hands.

There are a few things any good trainer should have settled before mounting a green horse who’s never been ridden before, and they all relate to safety. First, he ought to make sure there is someone with him in the ring. I like to have someone hold the horse while I mount him in case he decides to leave the area. Should the horse try to bolt, the person holding his halter rope (I always keep a halter on under the bridle when getting on a young horse for the first few times) can then get him stopped quickly, easily and without hurting his mouth -- which is the reason I have a handler holding a lead rope attached to the halter in the first place. I also personally prefer to get on a horse and ride him in the round pen for at least the first two weeks or so. This way he doesn’t have a chance to go running across a huge arena trying to buck me off! Of course, many would-be horse trainers don’t have access to a round pen, in which case they simply pray a lot. (Just kidding!)

Remember...this is only the very beginning. I divide training horses into three segments: Starting, Training, Finishing. Just about anyone can start a horse, and most semi-knowledgeable people could do a reasonable job of giving them the basics. Where the tricky parts come in is with the job of finishing the horse and ensuring they are ready to go down the road carrying any rider and doing any job they’re asked to do without hesitation. If you, as the owner, can successfully get your horse this far without the help of a professional, congratulations. However, I recommend that 99% of amateurs get the advice of a trainer before tackling the job of starting a young horse on their own.



  1. I like all this and agree, except this part towards the end: "Just about anyone can start a horse, and most semi-knowledgeable people could do a reasonable job of giving them the basics."
    Sometimes, with some horses, but it's really easy to mess up a sensitive horse with a "one size fits all" attitude.
    I'd amend to say (you probably meant this anyway,) "most semi-knowlegeable people have the ability to give a green horse a good start, when coached by an experienced trainer."

  2. Yeah, that was essentially my point ~ I generally assume a rank newbie would not attempt to start from the beginning with a horse, though I should take into consideration so much of what we see (and read online), right? ;)

    Something I have always maintained is there is no one way to train a horse, which is why John Lyons' first book bothered me so much...

    But giving a horse the basics is relatively basic, and the point remains that many who do a great job of starting a horse cannot do much of a job finishing one. :) This article was written long before I had internet access, which really did open my eyes to the nature of many horse people, circa 1994. o.O


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