In last week’s article we discussed the difficulties of working with a new horse and how I approach it on the ground before riding. If you missed that article check it out here. In this week’s article we will discuss what I do after having worked the horse on the ground and deciding that it is appropriate to go ahead and get on. Remember that if the horse is not relaxed and compliant on the ground there is no good reason to get on, no matter who might be pushing you to.
When I first get on a new horse I make a big deal about mounting. I know I get a lot of looks from it and people assure me all the time that the horse is fine when you jump on, but I call that an unnecessary risk. Before I get on a horse I expect them to stand quietly at the mounting block. I will start off by doing my Circling the Mounting Block exercise. Once the horse stands I will evaluate whether he is relaxed and committed to standing. If the horse isn’t relaxed I will do one of the following exercises to help him relax: Lower the Horse’s Poll or Bending Exercise (if you don’t know what these exercises are check out our Membership Site for detailed videos). Once he is standing quietly and relaxed I will go ahead and mount.
I mount slowly and steadily checking whether the horse remains relaxed throughout the process. If at any time he gets nervous or wants to walk I will pause and get him relaxed again. The reason I mount slowly is so that I can catch the horse getting tense before he blows. I am sure you have all seen or heard about a horse freaking out while being mounted and injuring someone. If you break the process down into tiny steps you can check on the horse’s mental state each step of the way and make sure he is relaxed. By catching the tension as soon as it happens you can diffuse the situation instead of letting it build as you swing your leg over until the horse explodes as your butt touches the saddle.
A safe horse is a relaxed horse so I take any and every opportunity when first riding a horse to make sure that they are relaxed and confident throughout the ride.
Once I am on I ask the horse to walk off keeping in mind how the horse responded on the ground earlier. If the horse responded well to a bigger aid on the ground and needs it under saddle I will give it. If the horse didn’t then I A) shouldn’t be riding or B) will need to gentle coax the horse forward with just enough pressure to get him moving, but not enough to set him off. This isn’t an effective way of riding so I don’t recommend trying it unless absolutely necessary.
Once we are walking I will ask the horse to stop gently from my seat and bend to a halt if necessary to get the halt. If the horse is getting antsy and high strung under saddle I will skip stopping and focus on getting the horse to calm down on a smaller circle using the bend of the circle to slow the horse and yielding the horse’s haunches to relax him. In this circumstance I will probably end my ride once I get the horse calm enough to walk nicely and then come to a halt.
If the horse halts decently I will move on to checking out my steering. If the halt was sticky I will practice it a few times to make sure I have breaks while being mindful that there is enough walking in between for the horse to not feel trapped or shut down.
To check my steering I will gently pull one rein and wait for the horse to yield his haunches and follow the rein with his body. If he attempts to stop I will add some leg and if he yanks on me I will hold the pressure and wait. I will make sure that he gives easily to both reins before moving on to anything faster than a walk.
Once the horse is walking, stopping, and turning softly I will ask for a bit more speed while keeping in mind how my work on the ground went. If there was anything that caused the horse to get anxious or angry I will pay special attention to those moments to avoid anything escalating. After all, my goal for the first ride is to get to know the horse, figure out any problem areas, and avoid any sticky situations. In future rides I can start to pick apart the problem areas and fix the holes in the horse’s education.
When I ask the horse to pick up speed I won’t necessarily ask for a full trot. I will start with a soft forward aid and if the horse trot then fine and if not that is fine too. As I build the horse into a bigger walk towards the trot I will keep in mind the relaxation. I will attempt to keep the horse as relaxed as he was at the walk as he moves into the trot.
Once the horse gets to a trot I will again check out my steering and then my downward transition to a walk by slowing my seat and bending as necessary. If all goes well I will play with that a bit before continuing to the canter, where I will repeat the same steps. If I hit some hiccups I will address the issues and get the horse back to being relaxed and giving to my aids with some circles and yielding of the haunches. I make sure to never apply both reins at once unless the horse is relaxed and soft to avoid trapping the horse.
Once we have progressed through walk, trot, and canter I will have a fairly good idea of the horse’s training and holes. From there I might ask the horse for some collection or laterals or pop over some jumps depending on the horse’s prior experience and why I am riding the horse. All the information I gathered in this warm up will tell me what tends to make the horse anxious and what I need to work on to give the horse a solid foundation, which is normally my goal when riding. Anything else I do after is just to explore what else the horse may know or to get a feel of the horse’s further training.
By following the careful progression I have outlined above you are leaving little to chance with the new horse. You explore all the fundamentals right in the beginning so that you know that you have tools to fall back on should something happen and you know how the horse responds to different situations before you have any risk by working on the ground first. If you get nervous working new horses this process will give you confidence that the horse is relaxed every step of the way and unlikely to do anything dramatic. However, I still recommend having someone experienced with you when trying new horses just to be on the safe side. Also, remember horses feed off of our emotions so if you are nervous the horse will be nervous. Make sure you get grounded and mentally prepared on the ground before mounting and then address your own anxiety just as much as you address the horse’s anxiety.