Has anyone you were intimately involved with ever looked at you and said those dreaded words, "We need to talk"?
If so, the moment was probably followed by their evaluation of your relationship that didn't necessarily match your own. Ouch.
Well, like it or not, that moment has arrived again, only hopefully in a less painful manner. It's time for you and your horse to have a, "Let's define the relationship" chat so that you can assess your readiness to ride.
In my previous article, I provided some guidelines to help you determine if you and your horse are ready to share the experience of riding together. Click Here to read, "The Privilege of Riding." I regard riding as an intimate experience that should be treated with consideration and respect for the good of both rider and horse, and therefore I feel it's important to set it up for success.
The hope is that the groundwork you have done so far has equipped you and your horse for this next step.
But do not fear if your relationship with your horse does not yet meet the "ready to ride" criteria from, "The Privilege of Riding." Just like with people, each relationship with a horse has its own natural process of growth and challenges. It's just part of it. Your diligence to taking the time it takes to get it right with your horse will pay high dividends in the future.
For those ready to ride, here are a few last pre-ride preparations that will make all the difference in your experience in the saddle.
Saddling in Partnership
Goal: To have your horse willingly accept the saddling process without being tied.
Instructions: When we tie a horse up we are greatly limiting their ability to move and therefore their ability to express themselves. Because of that, we inadvertently end up doing something to our horse, rather than with our horse.
Some horses may stand quiet enough for saddling, but are likely just withdrawing inward and tolerating the process. Others will make their resistance known by dancing around, moving away from the saddle, swishing their tail or pinning theirs ears. In extreme cases, some horses become "cinchy" or "girth sour", terms that refer to a horse that has developed a perpetually bad attitude toward being saddled (mind you, this habituated attitude is not the horse's fault, but rather is the product of many attempts to express their discontentment without being listened to). Clearly, none of the above behaviors suggest a mutually beneficial and balanced partnership.
Instead of tying your horse to be saddled, I strongly urge you to find an open area (roundpen, arena, paddock, etc.) that will allow your horse enough room to move around if need be.
In an open area, drape the leadrope in the crook of your arm (there is a good photo of this in "Starting the Partnership Off Right"). In this position the leadrope is easy to grab if needed, while leaving both your hands free. Also, it prohibits you from holding your horse in place, which would defeat the purpose of this exercise.
This is a desensitization exercise because we want the horse's feet to stay still and have their demeanor be relaxed. Because the goal is desensitization it is important that your demeanor is nonchalant and relaxed.
Begin rhythmically throwing the saddle pad over your horse's neck, back and rump. If your horse moves at the motion of the pad, pull the leadrope slightly toward you so that the horse is directed in a circle, and maintain your rhythm of repeatedly throwing the pad over the horse's neck, back and rump as long as their feet are in motion or their body language tense. Only stop the motion of the pad once your horse can stand still and relax.
Repeat this on both sides of the horse and enough times to ensure that the horse understands that you and the pad are not out to harm him. A horse that can remain still and be relaxed is telling you he trusts the process.
It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that it is far easier to repeatedly throw a saddlepad, rather than a cumbersome saddle, onto your horse. Therefore, I recommend spending enough time desensitizing with the saddle pad (maybe even over the course of a few sessions) so that once you start working with the saddle, the horse is ready to accept it at a relaxed stand-still.
Once the horse understands that you have his best interests in mind, and that you are willing to consider his needs and feelings, he will likely transfer his confidence in the pad over to the saddle.
I am not suggesting that horses should never be tied to be groomed or saddled, but rather that enough time should be given to saddling in partnership that you are confident your horse is accepting of the process. If you do go back to saddling your horse tied up, I strongly urge you to periodically (every 3 or 4 times) take your horse back into an open area to saddle in partnership as a check up to be sure your horse is still happily accepting the saddle and pad.
(As an aside thought - as your relationship flourishes, you will find your horse wants to and chooses to be with you more and more. Ultimately, the bond and rapport ought to be so strong between you and your horse that tying them up to groom or saddle is really never needed because they choose to stay with you).
Lateral Flexion During Groundwork
Goal: To be able to bend your horse's head and neck around to the side as part of groundwork.
Instructions: Gaining control of the head and neck through lateral flexion is exceptionally important before riding, as it is the primary means by which you will stop your horse. Knowing that your horse can easily and confidently yield his head and neck is an essential component to maintaining your safety while in the saddle.
Stand next to your horse just slightly behind the stirrup of the saddle. I would recommend lowering the halter just a tad on your horse's face, as this allows it to have more feel on the sensitive part of his nose, enhancing the communication between your hand and the halter.
Drape the excess end of the leadrope over the horse's back so it is out of your way (doing so will leave just enough slack in the leadrope so that it looks like one rein).
Hold the saddle with your hand closest to the horse. This will help you stay with the horse in the event he moves. Then, with your other hand, simply pull the leadrope with a gentle motion toward you, so that the horse's head turns to the side, as if he's trying to see what's behind him.
Ultimately, we want the horse to softly flex his head around, tucking his nose toward his armpit. As soon as he does, release the leadrope.
As a horse is learning to mentally and physically yield to this request, there is often quite a bit of resistance against the leadrope. If the horse resists by pulling back against the rope, simply support yourself against the saddle so that you may maintain a steady pressure back. Do not pull any harder, just offer a steady feel and wait for the horse to find the position we are requesting.
Often a horse will move their feet in an attempt to get their head straightened back out. If they do this, just go with them, doing your absolute best to maintain a steady and consistent pressure with the leadrope.
Only release the horse's head once their feet have stopped moving and they "give" (yielding) their nose. When they do this, you will see their nose come down and in toward their armpit (versus up and away). You will also feel a markable difference in the leadrope, as all the heaviness will disappear and be replaced by lightness. This is one of the ultimate goals in riding, to have our horse feel exceptionally light in our hands.
Desensitizing with the Stirrup
Goal: To have the horse stand still and relax to movement of the stirrup.
Instructions: This is a valuable exercise to do on the ground first so that your horse is not overtly sensitive to movement against his sides once you are on his back. While we do want the horse to be sensitive to clear leg pressure, it is simply no good having a horse that dances around or wanders off at the slightest bit of movement. Remember, we are constantly striving for the balance between sensitization and desensitization.
Have the leadrope draped in the crook of your arm so that if your horse moved off, you would be ready to bend their head slightly, causing them to travel in a circle, not a straight line. Hold the stirrup with your other hand, and begin rhythmically moving it back and forth and up and down. It doesn't really matter exactly how you move the stirrup, as long as you do move it, so that your horse can become used to it.
If your horse moves at the motion of the stirrup, continue moving the stirrup until the horse can stand still and relax.
Repeat this exercise on both sides and with increasing intensity of the stirrup. The time to be sure your horse is confident with rapid, unpredictable movement against his sides is now, not once you're on his back.
These exercises, paired with all the prior groundwork we've covered thus far, provide a thorough foundation on which to begin riding. We will continue on next week with gaining control of movement from the saddle.
About the author: Emily Johnson, owner of Mountain Rose Horsemanship Training, LLC, located in Broomfield, Colorado, is an accomplished horse professional with a passion for bringing horses and humans together through credible and approachable instruction.
Emily studied Equine Science at Colorado State University before spending the following years traveling, mentoring under many accomplished trainers nationwide, as she developed her own natural horsemanship style. Her training methods utilize a direct approach the horse naturally understands, which she combines with her knowledge of human learning to create the most effective environment for both.
Emily specializes in areas that include young or troubled horses, as well as horsemanship that emphasize the mind and behavior of the horse. Her instruction reflects her passion for equipping both horses and humans for success on their journey toward partnership. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.