A Pre-Flight Check Out

You have the chance to ride a horse unfamiliar to you. You might wonder, How would John approach this? His answer may surprise you.
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You have the chance to ride a horse unfamiliar to you. You might wonder, How would John approach this? His answer may surprise you.
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You have the opportunity to ride your cousin's horse, or your neighbor has a new horse and wants you to try him. Or perhaps you're in the market for another horse and have found one you'd like to take for a test ride. You don't have a lot of experience riding different horses, so you find yourself wondering how to stay safe with this unfamiliar horse.

Messing around with horses is inherently dangerous. We all know that. But the dangers often increase with horses that we don't know. When you're thinking of riding a horse you're not familiar with, there are at least two concerns. First, should you get on him? And second, where should you ride?

The better a rider people think you are, the less careful they are about your safety. I'm often in that situation. People think that, because I start "unbroken" horses, I'm going to be safe on their horse. Often, it isn't until we're going through the process I'll describe below that the truth comes out about the horse.

The reality is that I get on unbroken horses only after I've worked with them enough that I know I'll have control. So the "unbroken" horse often is safer than the one that someone wants me to ride.

Getting to Know You

Ask questions of the owner.

Watch the owner ride the horse.

Be brave enough to not ride.

Plan to control one piece of the horse at a time.

Use groundwork to test the horse's reactions and to establish some points of control.

It's hard the first time or two that you tell someone you're not going to get on their horse. But it gets easier when you think about the possibility of getting hurt. I've talked with hundreds of people who've been injured, and often it happened because they got on a horse despite the fact that they didn't feel great about him. Perhaps they didn't want to disappoint the owner or they didn't want to appear chicken.

If I don't feel that I'm going to be safe, I don't ride. Other people can give you their opinion whether a horse is safe for you to ride, but you have to trust your own instincts.

Investigate First
When I'm presented with a horse that's unfamiliar to me, whether someone brought it to a clinic or I'm visiting at their place, I ask a few questions to get a general sense of the horse and his background. I ask the owner to tell me about the horse, and I listen carefully to what they say. If they use words that don't describe literally what the horse does, I ask them to explain further.

So for instance, if they say that the horse is "gentle," that could mean he smooches with them when they feed him carrots, but it might have nothing to do with how he rides or handles. If he's "fancy with his feet," that could mean anything from him being a well-balanced, athletic horse to one who can kick you accurately.

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If he's "light on the front end," that could mean he gives to the bit beautifully, doesn't hang on your hands and has a lovely, floating trot. Or it could mean that the horse rears. We don't even want to know what the translation of "airs above the ground" or "advanced dressage" is, unless we're sure we're talking about a genuine dressage horse. And so it goes.

Ask the owner what he's done with the horse. If he says they've ridden him in the pasture, ask how long ago and under what conditions. Realize that most people will paint a more positive picture than you'll experience. That's not to say that people intentionally mislead you. It's just human nature to want your horse to look good, and most people underestimate the amount of consistent work that's necessary for a horse to be safe to ride.

Ask if the horse likes being groomed. If the owner says the horse doesn't mind his body being brushed, but he doesn't like his head handled, that will tell you the horse may be headshy.

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Some behaviors often go hand-in-hand with headshyness, such as a tendency to get startled or buck when a rider makes a quick move. It could be that the horse merely doesn't like how his face is being brushed. But it could also be an important clue.

Is it easy to pick up his hind feet? It's a good sign if the horse readily hands someone a back foot for cleaning. On the other hand, if he kicks out when someone tries to reach for a hind foot, that will tell you he's likely to kick you should you fall off near a hind foot, or he might buck if tall weeds tickle his hind legs.

How did he act the last time someone rode him off the property? How long ago was that? If it's been a while, he may not be too eager to leave. On the other hand, he might be totally relaxed about it. But if the last time was two years ago and he only left after a second horse joined him, realize that riding off the property today may be too ambitious.

The longer you talk with the owner and the more specific your questions, the more clearly you'll feel one way or the other about riding this horse.

Trainer's Tip

I Don't Ride Bucking Horses
If the horse bucks when the owner rides him, or if the owner reports that the horse occasionally bucks, I don't get on the horse. No exceptions. Bucking horses are unsafe to ride under any circumstances. It would be foolhardy for me to presume that because I've ridden for years or I've lived through riding bucking horses that riding one today will be OK.

That doesn't mean the horse necessarily needs three months of professional training before he can be ridden. It means, though, that I'd do a sufficient amount of groundwork, developing control with the bridle, and enough
sacking out that I would feel I have good control of the horse even if he began to get upset.

The last, and maybe most important, question is if you can watch the owner ride the horse. Watch carefully how the owner interacts with the horse, how the horse acts when being saddled and bridled and how much control the rider has when he gets on.

Watch the horse's ears and facial expressions. How does he act when ridden away from the barn? How well does he respond to the rider's signals, and what cues does the rider use? When the horse goes from a walk to a trot, does he get all excited or take it in stride? Does it seem that the horse enjoys the owner or do they appear to be arguing?

There are no clear-cut signs that we can give you to tell you when you'll be safe. You have to depend on your experience and your intuition.

I can tell you, though, that if the owner won't ride the horse, I treat the horse as if he's an unbroken horse. That is, unless I see him ridden, I assume that he has some holes in his training that may make him unsafe to ride - even if he's reportedly been a trail horse for years. It's better to make that assumption and work through the steps checking out his training than to presume everything's OK and then find out he skipped an important grade in school.

Substitute Teacher
Let's assume that you feel OK about continuing with this horse. Imagine, then, that you're a substitute teacher with a class of 20 kids you don't know. When things start to get out of hand, what's your best option for controlling them? You know that hollering won't do it, nor will whacking the desk with a ruler. You can't get 20 kids under control at once, so you try to engage the ringleader, hoping that controlling him will take the wind out of the other kids' sails.

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That's the same approach you should use if things are about to get out of hand with this horse. The less control you have, the smaller piece of the horse you should think about controlling.

You'd normally think about stopping "the horse" when you're casually walking from the arena toward the barn. But if the horse is trotting quickly, picking up speed and not responding when you pull back on the reins, you have to focus on controlling just one of his feet. (You've already shown yourself that you can't stop the whole horse.) But if you can get one foot to stop or turn for one moment, the whole horse would slow down.

Or let's say that you discovered the horse has a tendency to rear. If you could tell him to drop his head, you'd be able to keep his front feet on the ground.

Whether you're working with your own horse or a horse you're not familiar with, you should concentrate on controlling just one part of the horse at a time. The result is that you'll end up with the whole horse under control.

So how do you best control the horse? With the reins. No matter how well you can use your legs or seat, the rein is the more direct means of communication, especially with a horse who's getting upset.

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There are four separate parts of the horse you can control with the rein.
Ear: Determines the height of the horse's head. Take slack out of the rein and watch the tip of the horse's ear. When the ear begins to go down, release the rein. With repetition, the horse learns the "head down" cue.
Nose: Determines where the horse's face is pointing. Take slack out of the rein and hold light tension on it until the horse "gives" his nose in the direction of the rein. Release the rein.
Shoulder: Determines where the front feet will go. Much more effective steering than the nose. Uses the same "give" concept, but requires a bit of practice to coordinate.
Hindquarters: Determines the amount of forward movement. Can be used to change direction. This is your most important control mechanism. Use one rein (pulling it toward your body, not out to the side) until the horse takes a step to the side with his hindquarters. Release the rein. Move the hip and release, and again, if necessary to get the horse to slow or stop.

Nearly Ready to Ride
So you've decided to ride and you have a control plan. The horse is saddled and you're ready to get on. Right? Wrong. Not until you've done everything you can reasonably do to have the horse under control and to check out his reactions. You could spend days getting to know the horse.

We're not saying to go to that extent, but here are a few pre-flight tests you can use to see how your cues work with this horse and to see his reaction to potentially spooky things.

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Give to Pressure: Ask the horse to walk forward. (How he responds will be more information for your research.) Pull one rein toward the horse's shoulder. The horse should ideally give to the bit to the side and perhaps soften his shoulder.

If none of that happens, continue holding the rein until the horse takes a big step away from you with his hindquarters. That's basically what you're going to do from the saddle to control his shoulders or hips.

Test how easily the horse responds from the ground. Be sure to check both sides. You'll find that most horses respond much better to one rein than the other. Before you get on the horse, you have to feel confident that you can get the horse to move his hindquarters over, since that will be your primary stop mechanism if he doesn't obey your normal rein signal.

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Sacking Out: You want to see how reactive the horse is to objects around his head and legs. Begin by gently introducing a washcloth or small towel. Expose the horse to it, but take it away before the horse really reacts. Your objective here is to check out the horse's reaction, but not to scare him or cause a major reaction. So proceed carefully, from smaller objects to larger ones and from noiseless things to objects like plastic bags that may rustle.

See how the horse reacts to the object around his body. Drop it down onto his feet and wave it around his head. If the horse pulls away, don't "chase" his head with the object, but use light tension on the reins to ask the horse to bring his head back into position.

Other Tests
Depending on the horse and the situation, you can try lots of other tests, from waving a whip nearby to tossing an object to asking the horse to cross a tarp. You can involve other horses, and you can work in various locations around the farm.

The bottom line, though, is that you have to determine how much information you need and in how many situations you have to see the horse in before you feel comfortable riding him, or riding him off the property or outside the arena. But testing doesn't have to be tense-up time or a distasteful chore. You get to handle a new horse and get to know an owner better. You might get so involved that the process ends up being more fun than a trail ride. PH*