Do you feel nervous when working with a new horse? A lot of people avoid working with new horses because their confidence comes from knowing how the specific horse will react to each situation and aid.

In this article I am going to break down for you how I approach a new horse in a safe manner to determine what they do or don’t know and where my trouble spots might be. As a trainer I work with a lot of new horses and often have to figure out the horse’s triggers on my own. Some owners would never admit that “x”, “y”, or “z” makes their horse spin, buck or bolt and some simply don’t know what triggers the horse, they just know they are scared.

Mark meeting London for the first time.

When I am working a new horse I will always do groundwork first unless I have seen the horse being ridden enough to feel the horse is basically safe. Although I know I can handle most mishaps I also know that I cannot afford to get hurt when riding is my source of income. In part one of this two part series we will look at how to do groundwork with an unfamiliar horse. In part two I will dive into how I approach mounting up and riding.

On the ground with an unfamiliar horse I am looking to see how relaxed the horse is, how he responds to pressure, and what triggers the horse. A relaxed horse is a safe horse so your ability to tell if the horse is relaxed or not is key to your safety. A good way to test all these things is to put the horse on a lunge line.

If at any point the horse proves exceptionally difficult I won’t go further. For instance, if the horse is difficult to lead we will go to square one and put him loose in the round pen. If he is difficult to lunge I won’t ride. If he is difficult to mount I don’t mount. The key to a safe horse is a relaxed horse so when it becomes difficult to complete a necessary step I know the horse isn’t relaxed and it is time to take a step back and work through that step.

The best way to get yourself in trouble is to rush through something to get it done and move on. Especially when you are working with unfamiliar horses be patient and thorough. Of course I can probably be accused of rushing a million times with my own horses that I know well and one day I will probably get hurt from it. If you are working with a new horse though that is definitely not the time to take a chance. You are better off taking your time and sticking to stuff that the horse is confident in. Once you explore that boundary then you can begin to push it and see what happens.

So on the lunge, assuming the walk to the lunging space went well, I will start off by asking the horse to move in a direction softly making sure he respects my space. If the horse moves off softly I can expect that the horse is sensitive and will respond nicely to my aids. If the horse explodes I know he doesn’t handle pressure and that needs to be fixed before I attempt to ride and of course apply pressure in the saddle. If the horse ignores me I will back up my aid. Then I know the horse is dull. If he then explodes I know he is dull and doesn’t accept pressure and if he responds nicely to the bigger aid I can be confident later in backing myself up and not getting in trouble for it. The key here is to be observant and take note of every response the horse gives so you know what to expect later.

Once the horse is going nicely one direction I will change directions. Again I am conscious of keeping the horse out of my space during the turn and using my whip or rope when necessary to defend my space. How the horse handles the change of direction tells me a lot about how he handles changed plans. A horse that changes direction easily is probably going to be fairly amenable to changing his mind on something when I ask. A horse that fights the direction change will most likely be a horse that only accepts direction when he doesn’t already have a plan in mind. Depending on how much the horse fights the change I will decide it I want to ride. If the fight is a full on tantrum I will fix that before riding. If the fight is merely a “do I have to?” I wont be as worried and I can feel confident in riding and backing my aids up.

If at any point the horse bolts, bucks, or rears I take note of that. If he is willing to do it on the line I have to assume he will do it under saddle and decide if I want to ride it out. If I know what causes the behavior I am much more likely to ride guessing that I can probably avoid the worst of it with care. For instance if the horse bucks when pressure is added while he is tense I can avoid adding pressure when he is tense to avoid the buck. I can gauge how much I want to press that button versus how much of a response I can handle.

If the horse is an anxious nervous wreck then I know anything and everything will set him off. In this case I won’t ride and I will get the horse relaxed before asking for anything more difficult.

Once I have figured out how the horse goes and changes direction I will try to press a few buttons with the horse. Most explosions occur when you mess up on your timing or confuse or upset the horse. I don’t do this a lot with my horses, but I do do it a when I first get to know a horse and before I turn a horse loose with a less skilled owner.

By rushing the horse or being unclear with my aids I can see how the horse will handle any sort surprise or confusion under saddle. If all goes well enough I will mount. If at any time the horse seems like more than I want to deal with we will work through the issues on the ground.

This is my basic “feel the horse out” lunging session before I ride a horse. Although a lot is going on in this short time, I can accomplish all of this in 5 or 10 minutes and also get the horse into a relaxed mindset before swinging a leg over. Next week I will explain how I approach the actual ride on a new horse.

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