Part 1 of Thoughts on schooling the young horse (Country Folks Mane Stream, Oct. 2015) dealt mainly with establishing trust in the young horse, recognizing the natural reactions that he would have to the process of the demands of starting his schooling.
Waiting until the young horse was ready physically and mentally to start serious schooling that required weight on his back and, as a result, more stress on his joints and back, was emphasized. There is no magic number of years when the decision is made to begin under saddle work, but as a general rule I do not think of beginning ridden work until the horse is four years old. To some readers this may seem like an accepted statement of fact, others may decide that this is waiting too long. I would suggest that they read some of the scientific studies done on the anatomy of the horse, and how their bodies mature. Also published are breakdown statistics of horses ridden when young.
There is so much ground work that can be done, which was described in Part I, that there is plenty to do with your young horse. Indeed, when you first mount him, as soon as he learns to balance you and move with weight on his back, his knowledge of weight, voice and hand aids will result in responses that would lead an observer to think that he already had a few months under saddle.
I like to be riding the young horse in a Bitless Bridle. This way he will not be afraid of his mouth or the rider’s hand or contact, and if he makes a “mistake” will not be punished for it by experiencing discomfort in his mouth.
Initial training under saddle
The initial procedure of the first few times of mounting has been accomplished. The horse calmly accepts the prepared rider to first lay across his back and pat him on both sides, then jump off, and then if all goes well to get a leg up and sit astride. The first rider should be someone with good balance and a calm manner, and at first I like two other people to assist — one to hold the horse and reassure, the second to support the rider in a leg-up, supporting the rider the first few times so that if the horse reacts negatively the ground person can pull the rider off to safety. I have never, in all the years and all the horses that I mounted or assisted in mounting for the first time, had a horse have a negative response and put the rider in any danger. I have observed, however, in many cases where the horse was rushed or the preliminary steps not taken, when this step, which to the horse should accept calmly, has resulted in bucking or running and the rider falling. Not only inherently dangerous, this of course results in negative memories and feedback for the horse.
After this process borders on the boring for everyone involved, the horse is then led about with the rider supplied with a neck strap around the horse’s neck just in case, so that if she needs help in her balance she does not snatch on the reins for help. Of course the rider also has proper safety gear on, including a safety vest of possible. Gradually she takes over the steering, stopping and starting, with her aids supplementing the verbal commands and body language of the leader. The weight aids of the rider and learning that a leg hug from the rider means to go forward, will be the only new elements for the horse; he already knows stopping and turning in all directions from the ground work.
When the rider can safely walk all around the ring by herself using a slightly opening rein, and her voice aids assist the horse in the start and stop process, she is ready to be lunged on the horse. Remember that this process has taken several days at the very least, it is not a matter of how quickly to succeed, but how correctly to respond to the horse’s needs, so no reschooling has to be done. Retraining always takes longer. The initial leading work was done with the rider’s feet out of the stirrups as an additional safety measure, but now stirrups can be added.
Quiet and strengthening lungeing has been part of the young horse’s routine for at least a year now. Care was always taken not to stress his joints, or to force his body in a restricted position using head setting devices. The addition of a rider should not be a drastic change for the horse. It is important to have a rider who rides well and will help the horse learn his new balance by not getting in his way. The ground person has already led the horse several times at the trot so that if the horse in his first session misunderstands or spooks a bit and trots, the additional movement of the rider will not frighten him. Now the horse will be lunged with a rider, at first walking, and then as his body and balance improve, short sessions of trot.
This part of the process usually does not involve too much time as the horse is already familiar with most of what is being done. Now we are just starting to get him fit enough to carry a rider for more extended periods without risking physical or mental stress. A neck strap should still be included just in case, and as trot is introduced the rising trot will be emphasized to protect the horse’s back, with sitting trot started so that the aids for canter can be given correctly.
Before I canter the horse, the rider and horse have progressed so that they are off the lunge and now practicing transitions, and turns, and bending. Next is the gradual introduction of riding in company, walking over poles, and riding outside. He is already used to being led, long lined and maybe ponied on long walks outside. If possible let your horse be accompanied by another calm horse used to trails and gradually increase the distance ridden away from the stable.
Concepts of which to be aware at this time:
- Ninety-five percent or more “mistakes” which the horse makes at this time are not important. If you do not give a clear signal with focused intent on what you require of him, he will either do what makes sense to him or in trying to interpret your wishes just simply respond to the incorrect stimuli which was provided by his rider.
- This should all be positive reinforcement whenever possible. Negative reinforcement, which is interpreted as punishment or uncertainty leading to tenseness, is not the path to follow. “Making it more uncomfortable for him to do one thing so he does what is required” is an oft-quoted directive which requires of the horse reasoning that he usually does not possess.
- The horse determines the length of time any new lesson takes. The important thing is that the schooling always progressed positively, which actually saved time in the end, and the horse stayed sound physically and mentally.
- Experiment with how your particular horse learns. DO NOT DRILL!!! If he does not understand a request it is up to you to find another way to explain it to him. It is not up to him to try to figure out what in the world we are trying to ask him to do. Some horses do better with two short sessions a day. Some seem to respond to schooling every other day. You will know you are taking the wrong path if whatever you are teaching gets harder and you consider using force or punishment. Of course the horse is not allowed to threaten you-kicking, biting, rearing, have to be dealt with. But even these have to be examined. Most horses have a good reason for what they do. They really do not stand out in the pasture thinking about how they can “dominate” you the next day. Follow these guidelines and you really will have a partnership with your horse.