Have you ever wondered about the process involved in taking your equine friend from a ‘young and wild’, spirited, unbacked horse, to becoming a wonderfully responsive and responsible riding horse under the saddle? Do you perhaps currently have a horse or pony that needs to begin the next part of his journey; the part that includes carrying a rider for the first time?
Starting or backing a young or a green horse is a process which ultimately has the power to shape your horses feelings on being ridden for many years to come. Decisions made during those initial few weeks and months have the potential to impact your horses feelings towards carrying a rider for the rest of his life.
The process itself is not just about ‘riding’ the horse, but also introducing the horse to different training principles, which are the foundation for him to begin ‘schooling’ once the actual backing or getting a rider into the saddle is complete. This understanding is fundamental to your horse being able to move forward in his training, building week on week and month on month in his development, confidence and knowledge.
There are a few ways you can approach this; as quickly as possible being one of them! However I truly believe that taking things slow and steady when starting him off will allow him to grow in confidence. This confidence is both in you, the rider, and also in himself and his own abilities.
Rushing through this part of the process might get you into the saddle quicker initially, however coming up against roadblocks further down the road is almost inevitable – and will ultimately slow your horses training down in the long run
A horse who has had a chance to ‘work things out’ initially, both physically and mentally, is generally one that can, if necessary, figure things out if and when you need him to do so later in his training. Whether that be to navigate a particularly uneven piece of ground, or a difficult jumping distance, or even just being confident on the trail. The early methods you employ to teach your horse about being ridden will very often dictate his reactions when under pressure later.
Creating a Time Frame
I generally recommend taking approximately six weeks when ‘starting’ your horse. I feel that this stage of his training will end when he is happily working under the saddle with his rider and understands basic aids and questions the rider will ask. He will be essentially ready to begin a more comprehensive ‘schooling’ program.
But ultimately you must keep in mind that your horse will dictate the speed of the progress. If he becomes anxious or stressed at any point, rather go back a few steps and try again. He must be happy with each individual part of the process before you can move on to the next. This means that your plans must be flexible enough to allow for any detours or delays that may occur on the journey.
Consistency and Routine
Just like children, horses thrive within a set routine and boundaries. This becomes even more apparent when you are introducing new experiences into his day to day life.
Make sure that you have enough time to actually complete this process, before you begin!
A week here or thirty minutes there is not the way to introduce a horse to being ridden for the first time. You need to block out a regular daily slot for at least 6 weeks where you will dedicate that time to your horses training. If you cannot do this, perhaps finding a professional who can, is a better option for you and your horse.
You also need to develop a regular routine in how things are done. Will you groom first? If so, what is the sequence for your grooming? Perhaps you will ‘work’ first and groom afterwards. This is entirely up to you, however sticking to it on a daily basis will ensure your horse remains relaxed throughout the process.
The Importance of Relaxation
Over the next few weeks with your horse, one of the key indicators that you are on the right path will be how relaxed your horse is with his work. Often we only begin to think about relaxation when we are in the saddle and begin setting our sights on working up the ‘training scale’.
Relaxation starts from Day 1 – Part of your job as the person who introduces your horse to this new concept of carrying a rider on his back is to promote and, later, ensure this relaxation prevails.
Each horse, just like us, is different when it comes to how and what they find relaxing. It is your job to tailor your program over the coming weeks to ensure you do all in your power to keep your horse as stress and anxiety free as possible. This will not only allow him to better absorb what you are working on, but also will ensure he learns to ‘go forward’ in a relaxed manner as well. As you well know, relaxation is one of the basic building blocks to working correctly when being ridden.
Considerations for Each Individual Horse
The first of these is handling – and more specifically how and what handling has been done to and with the horse up to the point where you wish to ‘start’ him under the saddle. How he has worked with people in the past will have a great impact on how he will perceive you now as you begin to work with him. Basic respect for people is a must for all horses and will make your job easier when working with him. Also how relaxed and comfortable he is with being touched, led and just generally worked with on the ground will also dictate how much time you will have to invest in the initial weeks of his training.
We have discussed how you can begin incorporating groundwork into his routine HERE >>
Healthy is Happy
Another consideration before starting your green horse on his journey to becoming a riding horse is his overall health and wellness. All the basic checks should be made before you begin working with him. Things like having his teeth checked, his vaccinations up to date, his hooves seen by a farrier, an up to date deworming program in place etc.
Just like you, he will not give his best if he does not feel his best; and any pain or discomfort while introducing tack etc, can really leave a lasting negative impression on him
Quality over Quantity
The final consideration is how much time you have available. When working with horses, particularly younger ones, quality over quantity is generally the way to go. Shorter sessions, with a particular plan or goal will ensure you have his full attention; and also that he won’t become bored and begin to look for other ways to entertain himself!
Equipment and Facilities
Your initial week of working with your horse will require a few basic items if you are to use this time to your full advantage.
- A round pen / enclosed arena
- A lunge line
- A lunge whip
- A cavesson
- A reliable, calm and experienced helper!
- Time, a plan & a schedule
- A quiet stable / stall / enclosed area to work in
Make every experience a ‘happy’ one
As I have mentioned quite a few times now, how your horse sees this whole process has the power to influence his feelings about riders and being ridden far into his future. Therefore, focusing on trying to make each new experience a happy and relaxed one is vitally important.
This may take a little planning ahead on your part; things such has having an older, more experienced horse in the stable or stall next to him when you are working with him. This will help him to remain relaxed and, potentially, show him that there is nothing to worry about if he does become a little overwhelmed or anxious during those initial few weeks.
Keep in mind that a lot of the initial ‘introductions’ will happen in the stable. Things like the bit and bridle and then, later, the roller and saddle. You will use the stable when working through these initial steps – so having a quiet, relaxed atmosphere is absolutely essential.
Recruiting a Reliable ‘Helper’
Another part of the puzzle, which I strongly suggest you incorporate into your starting process, is a reliable person to help you when necessary. This person will know and understand horses. Keep in mind that your horse will look to the people around him to assess new situations. Having confident, calm and ‘happy’ people there will help his transition across to working under a saddle.
You don’t want someone who is nervous, anxious or just gets in the way due to not knowing or understanding what is going on. This will only serve to frustrate you and – in by association – scare or intimidate your horse
Your helper will be there to assist with the initial lunging of your horse, the initial introduction of the tack, particularly the numnah, roller and saddle. They will also be there to dish-out smooth, coordinated leg ups when the time comes to actually mount your horse. They play an important roll in many aspects of your starting process, so choose wisely!
Introducing Your Horse to Lunging
Before we even begin working on the lunge, it is important to firstly see things from your horses point of view. I would hazard a guess that up to this point in his life, he has been thought to work ‘beside’ you. This is true for grooming, handling, leading and just basic day to day interaction in general.
I have discussed lunging in more detail HERE >>
However, when you begin lunging for the first time, you are now asking him to work ‘away’ from you… This can be quite confusing for your horse
In order to help smooth the transition from ‘beside’ to ‘away’, your helper will guide your horse out onto, and around, the lunging track. You will remain in the centre of the circle, communicating with your horse. However, initially it will be your helper that will literally take your horse by the rein and show him what to do.
Keep in mind that you want to begin communicating to your horse from the ground with aids that you can, in the coming weeks, transfer across to being ridden under the saddle
Your body language, voice, lunge line and lunge whip all play an invaluable roll in this initial communication and each element has a corresponding aid when you are in the saddle later.
A Lasting Impact
The overall thing to remember during this initial first week of ‘training’ is that how your horse experiences things will most certainly have a lasting impact on all future interactions he has with people and riders.
I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping things relaxed – physically and mentally – and also the importance of routine and consistency during the coming few weeks.
Slow and steady wins the race; don’t rush things!
Taking a horse, by the hoof, on his journey to becoming a solid citizen under the saddle is a big responsibility and undertaking for any rider. Decisions made throughout those initial few weeks have the potential to impact your horses attitude to being ridden for many years to come, if not for the whole of his life.
The Starting Collection is a series of audio programs that will take you step by step on the journey of starting your horse, from the initial handling and groundwork, through to riding him away, under the saddle.
There are daily programs for you to follow, which will literally take all the stress, the confusion and the ‘lack of a plan’ out of the process for you.
All the programs in this series (as well as ALL past programs) are waiting for you inside of Daily Strides Premium. For more information, you can visit HERE >>
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