Just because a horse doesn’t buck you off when you ride, doesn’t mean he’s ok with a human rider. We want our horses to not simply tolerate us being up there, but embrace it. There’s a method you can use to test this that I call “fencing”.
A good friend of mine called to tell me about a filly he had recently bought at a horse sale. She was bred really nice, but pretty jumpy on the ground. He could get a halter on her after trying for a little bit, but she stayed skittish and nervous. He informed me that he’d done quite a bit of groundwork trying to get her more gentle, but it didn’t really seem to last.
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He asked if he could bring her over for me to put the first few rides on her. I was glad to do that, but from what he described, I figured he might have to make at least two trips over to my place for me to work with the horse before she’d be ready to get on.
About a week later, he showed up and unloaded the horse. It
was exactly like he said. She was extremely skittish. Sometimes, while simply trying to reach and rub her on the head, she would start flying backwards and jumping sideways. I told him we needed to take her over to this large tree stump that I have. The stump is about 3 feet tall and 30 inches in diameter and an important part of my obstacle course. I even carved some steps in one side for easy access.
I climbed up on the round stump and had the horse walk circles around me so that she could get comfortable with giving me her back. When a horse gives you her back, it basically means she gets comfortable enough with a human up above her to where she will put her back right underneath your body.
The goal is, with your horse in a halter and lead, to stand on the stump and let her walk around you while at the same time encouraging her to move closer to the stump. Then, when she gets closer, and a little more underneath you, let her rest (reward her). Over time she will become more and more sure about what you’re wanting and eventually stand directly underneath you with sureness about it.
What I like about the stump is that you can have the horse continually move forward and go round the stump as you hold the lead while spinning with them as they walk around you. This is convenient in a lot of ways, but mostly because, if they start to go sideways, you can just have them go forward again. We did this for about 10 or 15 minutes, and it got somewhat better.
Then we took a break from the stump and went to the round
pen. This was where the real truth came out. If you were a spectator watching this session, you might be thinking at this point that she was beginning to get a little gentle — that is until you mashed on her a little bit. Mashing is just my word for doing a little bit more than what you’re doing at the current moment.
In this example, I could be standing next to this horse while moving real slow, smooth, and cautious, and the horse would not react too much. But if I started jumping up and down and moving pretty quickly (mashing), the horse showed me right away that she wasn’t okay with that. This is where a lot of people get in trouble.
They assume a horse is gentle and confident with something, but they only expose him to it just a little bit, the tip of the iceberg. But if you can dig down in there, and expose them to the entire iceberg, they may get a little (or a lot) more bothered. When mashing, it’s important that you don’t get them too bothered, and ensure you stop mashing (release) with good timing.
They will very quickly get to where they can handle more and more mashing. So for about 30 minutes, I jumped around and the horse would dart sideways. I just went with her until the feet either slowed down or stopped altogether, and then I would retreat.
After a little bit, I could jump up and lay across the horse’s back. There was no saddle on the horse, mind you. I just had a halter and lead rope, and I was holding the lead in my left hand. I would jump up on the horse’s back, and she would stand for about two seconds. But then she would jump forward and sideways. She was real uneasy about the whole thing.
After a while of mashing at that level of pressure, I had pushed the line up a good bit. Now I could jump around, even lay across her back for a second, and everything was okay. She wasn’t too awfully bothered about that anymore. When she would get bothered, it was really critical that I didn’t back off because that would be teaching her that if she got a little scared and jumped sideways, it would all go away.
It was critical that I hung in there and didn’t retreat until there was a slight change towards her calming down. It didn’t have to be a big change, and it wouldn’t be, because she was just learning all of this. For example, she would be running sideways, but if she ran sideways a little bit less, I would retreat. If I would have tried to wait until she stood completely still, we would be running around the pen all afternoon, and we would never get anywhere. This is a case of breaking it down to help the horse understand.
Now we had gotten to where I could lay across her back, and she would stand for as long as I wanted, but she had not untracked (moved the feet). Remember, un-tracking is one of the most important things in training a horse to do anything. Without un-tracking, you’re in a lot of trouble and you may not even know it, until you find that trouble or, more likely, it finds you.
As I was laying across the horse’s back on her left side, I shortened up the lead rope, which was in my left hand, and began pulling out to the side being careful not to pull back. I had to pull for about 20 seconds, smooch, and even reach back and slap her on the butt to get her to begin moving her feet. When she finally did un-track, her foot movement was very sporadic and sticky, not flowy and confident.
She would go sideways and then go backwards. After about 20 minutes of doing this, she got to where she could walk forward in a little circle going to the left, and she would do it in a way that looked completely natural. She moved like I wasn’t even up there. That’s how you know you’re getting close — when you ask the horse to un-track, and the feet move like they would if the horse was just naturally out in the pasture. We’d been at all of this for about two hours, so I told Sloan, “Let’s call it good for the day. You can bring her back again next week.”
When he brought her back, we had to work on some of the same things again. But this is expected until a horse gets real sure. This time it only took about 10 or 15 minutes to get her back to where she was when I left her a week ago. I explained to Sloan that he would need to repeat doing these things until the horse that he was after (which is the gentle horse that would let me climb all over it and untrack nicely) would be right there on the surface every time.
In other words, he would need to do what we had done until he no longer had to repeat it. Before long, that calm, gentle horse would no longer be buried under piles of worry. All of the spookiness and tightness in the feet would just melt away. I put the saddle on her, tightened the cinch (un-tracking her feet between each tightening) and sent her trotting and loping around both directions in the round pen — about four times each way. Everything looked good. She did buck and kick up a little bit, but she wasn’t too concerned.
Then, this time with her saddled, I took her over to a panel of the round pen and did some fencing. I basically did the same thing as when I stood on the stump, but I was sitting on top of a panel. After a little bit, because she had already had some of this last week, she got to where she would confidently stand right up underneath me. And now, because I had a rail to help balance, I could put one foot and one hand on the railing of the panel and use my other foot to swing my leg over.
She was okay with my leg being on her back, so I went on and sat down in the saddle. Still holding the fence in case I needed to abort mission, I started petting her all over. Had she gotten real bothered, all I had to do was pull myself to the left a little bit, and I would be right back on the panel instead of on the horse.
We did this for another 25 or 30 minutes to make sure she was real confident. Then everything looked good to go, so I sat on her one more time. This time I put both feet in the stirrups and let go of the panel, all while keeping the halter lead in my free hand.
At this point, you don’t want to try and kick a horse to make them go, because they don’t even know what kicking means yet. And if you’re not careful, it can get them bothered and cause a wreck. A better way is to un-track them by pulling outward on the lead. We did this, and she walked a few steps, so I started petting her. Then we did it again, and I would
pet her again.
After a few more times of this, I started getting a little more particular. The second that I felt her getting ready to stop moving her feet, I would start pulling to the left pretty firmly before she even had the chance to freeze up. After five minutes of this, she was freely walking all around the round pen, and did not have any bother at all.
Next I started lightly bumping with my legs in a rhythmic tick- tock type of fashion, increasing the firmness and also slapping my leg and smooching until she would walk just a hair faster. Then once I felt her walk a little bit faster, I would give an instant release and repeated it several times.
After this, it was very easy to get her to roll up into a trot because she knew how to escape the pressure (move her feet) that I was putting on her by slapping my leg and bumping with my feet. She rolled right up into a trot and trotted about six steps.
You would not want to ask for more at this time. You would just want to reward that little bit they gave you, and build from there. The second she went up into a trot, I stopped kicking and began petting her on the neck. Almost immediately she came back down to a walk.
We repeated this several times, and in the next five minutes or so, I could
get her to go right up into a lope, and we loped a few laps around the pen. Then I tossed the lead rope around her head to the other side and we went the other direction.
I stepped off, called it good, and told Sloan that he would probably be fine taking it from there because the whole time he was paying attention and really comprehending what was going on with the horse. But he said he would still like to bring her back for me to ride her in the big arena one time before he took over. A week later he brought her back.
This time, it only took about two or three minutes to get that calm, gentle horse that I left a week ago. I started riding her around the arena and letting her go wherever she wanted as long as she went in a forward direction. That’s the thing with starting these colts.
You don’t really want to over-confine them or try to control them too much. Don’t focus on that. Focus on getting them freed up, moving out, and going. This is really helpful for preventing much bigger problems later on. The very first thing a horse needs to learn, once you are on their back, is to free up and go.