Building My Horse From the Ground Up — Part 3

By now my colts are usually becoming pretty good thinkers and problem solvers.  They are figuring out that when I am doing something I am actually asking them to move in some way, and it is the colt’s job to figure out how I want them to move.  They are also figuring out that if they move the right way I quit asking, and if they move the wrong way my asking gets harder and faster.  Here is where I like to introduce my colts to the saddle, and  this is also when I start  lunging (or circling if you are a Parelli person) and ground driving.


Even the most desensitize colts can be afraid of a saddle.  One it is heavier than anything else you have put on them.  Most saddles also make noise, and they squeeze around your colts belly. So I have several steps I like to do before actually throwing the saddle on a colt’s back.

First you can take a long lead rope and put it around your colt’s heart girth.  Slowly tighten the rope while reassuring the colt that he is okay.  He may not mind this at all, or he may act up. If he acts up loosen the rope slightly until he settles down, then again. Repeat until he lets you tighten the rope without moving around.  Another step I take in getting my colts ready for being cinched is putting a surcingle on him.  This is a training device that is used for lunging and ground driving.  I may start ground driving using a surcingle, but typically I just ground drive using my saddle.  I use a light blanket when I use the surcingle.  I let the colt sniff it, then rub it along the colt’s neck and put it over his back.  Then the first few times I fasten the surcingle, I use my lunging whip to reach under the the colt’s belly and pull the girth underneath him.  First fasten it fairly loose then tighten it a little at a time till it is snug.

To get my horse use to seeing the saddle I will set it in the pen when I ground work my colt.  I will sometimes stick it on a barrel or sometimes I put it on the ground.  I let the colt sniff it and look at it several times before I pick it up and show it to him.

After I let him sniff the saddle a little and he is starting to think it won’t eat him, I will pick it up and let him sniff it some more.  I will then take the cinch or a stirrup and rub it on his neck to get him use to being touched by the saddle.  I try to start with a little lighter saddle and one that I don’t care if it gets knocked around.Now I see if he will let me put a stirrup and the cinch on his back.  Depending on how the colt is acting, I may put the cinch and stirrup on then take it off several times before I try to put the whole saddle on.With the stirrup and the cinch over the colt’s back I gently set the saddle on his back.  If he jumps and the saddle falls off, that’s okay, just start over.  Once he stands fairly well with the saddle sitting on his back I will fasten the cinch.  I start with it pretty loose but snug enough it won’t slide under him if he bucks.  I like to use a breast collar so that if it does slide a little it doesn’t slip clear under him.  After you have the saddle on and relatively snug.  Step back a little from your horse and see how he reacts.  Some colts are just fine others blow up.  Some trainers don’t like to let their colt’s buck.  I tend to turn mine loose and let them buck if they want.  In my opinion it is good for them to buck and realize that they aren’t going to get the saddle off.  I then take the saddle off and repeat, repeat, repeat.  I try to get to a point where my colt will let me swing the saddle on without spooking with in the first couple days of saddling.

From here on out I will saddle my horse every time I work with him.  Saddling just becomes part of our routine.  Even days that I just go out and don’t have time to do any actual work, I will throw the saddle on and leave it on for a couple minutes while I give the colt some grain.

Saddle Desensitizing

Once the colt is accepting the saddle  I do a little desensitizing with it.  I will slap the fenders, pull on the cinch and breast collar, and grab the saddle horn and rock the saddle.  When I do any of these activities, the colts first reaction is to move.  Just stick with it and continue to repeat what you are doing until your colt stops moving his feet.  Give him a couple seconds to rest then repeat.  In the picture on the left Gabby is grabbing hold of the stirrup and snapping the fender.  This saddle has really soft leather so the fenders move easily and make a great popping noise.



There are a few theories on lunging.  One is that you run your horse in circles to get him worn down.  The problem with this theory is that, much like an athlete, the more you run your horse in circles, the better shape they are in.  The first few times you lunge your horse he may get tired in five minutes, but over time it takes him longer and longer to get tired.

The second theory is that you run your horse in a few circles, changing direction often, to make sure he’s paying attention and listening to you.  If the horse I’m going to ride is well broke, I only trot them in this exercise.  If it’s a green horse, I may push them up to a lope a couple times around, but loping in this small of circle can be hard on the leg joints, so I don’t lope them much.

Start with your horse facing you.  We’ll start going left.   Hold the rope in your left hand and stick your hand out to the side.  You will hold the tail end of the rope in your right hand and swing it at your horse’s left shoulder.  As your horse starts to move away from the swinging rope you  keep him going in a circle around you.  If you need him to go faster, you can swing the tail end of the rope.  I try to direct my swing around the saddle area.  If he needs more encouragement you can pop him on the rump.  I try to keep my body positioned in the drive line of the horse, which is about level with your stirrup.  If you get in front of this line your horse will stop. Behind it and your horse will end up turning  his nose toward you.  Usually, I go three circles and switch directions.  To switch directions you disengage your horse’s hindquarter by bending your body and looking at his hind end at the same time you will gently pull his nose in toward you.  He should cross his back legs, moving his hiney away from you.  As you straighten back up, reach across your body with your right hand and grab the rope out of your left. Pick up the tail end of the rope in your left hand and swing it at your horse’s right shoulder.  From here it is just repeating what you did with your horse going to the left.  I typically go three circles to the left, switch and go three to the right. I perform this exercise over and over several times until my horse is paying attention to me and moving how I want him to, when I want him to.  The most important part of this exercise is not the running of the circles, but the changing of direction.  The more changes of direction you do, the better your horse will pay attention to what you want him to do.  Also this shouldn’t be a tug-a-war with your horse.  If he is pulling on the rope don’t pull solid pressure back on him.  Instead give the rope three good tugs and see if he quits pulling.  If not give him three more tugs.  I have found over the years that little bumps or tugs work better than solid pressure.

Ground Driving

Ground driving is basically driving your horse from the ground and not in a cart or buggy.  The reason I ground drive is so that my colts have a clear idea what I want when I ask for something with my reins.  Before I ride my colts, they will know how to stop, back and turn off a direct rein.  I will drive them enough so that when I finally get on their back they won’t be confused with what I am doing with the reins.  I will start ground driving with my colt in a halter then graduate to a loose ring snaffle bit.  Also you can use a surcingle to drive your colt or you can use your saddle.  I like to use my saddle and just run my reins through the stirrups.  When I’m first starting a colt on ground driving I will tie my stirrups together under the horse so that if he spooks my stirrups don’t end up on his back.  Also I do not use really “driving reins”, I just have a couple of lunge lines that I use for reins.

I start ground driving in a round pen. I will hook up two lunge lines on my colt’s halter, one on each side of his nose.  Then I will run the right line through the right stirrup.  The left line I leave loose.  I hold the left line in my left hand, right line in right hand.  I then ask the colt to lunge to the left while I stand in the center of the round pen.  To start with I want him to get use to how the line feels when it crosses the back of his legs.  I then start to move out of the center of the pen and start to fall in line kind of behind the colt.  I will then ask him to whoa and put a little pressure on the reins.  Then I repeat, repeat, repeat.  Once he is going good one way, I switch lines and have him go the other direction.

Now that he goes good both directions I will run each line through a stirrup and drive the colt from behind.  I start at a walk around the round pen.  I will ask the colt to stop and back a couple of steps then turn towards the fence and walk again.  If you have trouble backing your colt, apply a little more pressure to one rein than the other and the second he makes an attempt to back release pressure.



Eventually I want to get so I can drive my colt out of the pen, but I don’t attempt this until I can control him pretty well in the round pen first.  In the round pen I will maneuver him around barrels, over a tarp or bridge, in figure 8’s and anything else I can think of before I take him out into the wide open.  When we are driving in a field or down the road I will occasionally ask my colt to stop and back, then just stand still for a couple of seconds before continuing.  At first the standing in one spot can be pretty hard for a colt.  Start with standing about a half of second and build up from there.  I also try to find natural obstacles for my colt to go around, on or through.  

The length of time I drive my colts really depends on the colt.  Some catch on really fast and others take longer.  I won’t even consider getting on him before he will stop and back very well when driving.  And if a colt I have been riding has had a week or so off, I will saddle him up and drive him for 15 minutes or so before riding him.

We’re getting closer to riding.  I really do spend a ton of time on these ground working skill before that first ride, so that the first ride goes as smooth as possible.  It would really take a lot to over do any of the skills that I have written about thus far.  This is the foundation of your colts entire training, and like your house’s foundation, you want it to be as strong as it can.

Building My Horse From the Ground Up–Part 2

Even though this section is about starting colts any older horse can benefit from these exercises.  Especially if you have a horse that is pushy or bossy or shows little respect.

At this point your horse should be able to stand quietly while tied and being groomed and lead nicely without crowding you or rushing past you.  We also have worked on desensitizing our colt (which up to this point has been ground work, but desensitizing can also be done in the saddle).  Now we are going to start asking our colts to do some more advanced moves.

When teaching a colt anything new, I start with a small cue. Then make it bigger and bigger until I get the desired result.  Then once the colt starts to figure out what I want I refine them and make them smaller and smaller until the colt moves with just the slightest suggestion of what I want.  Also when first asking a colt to do something new, timing is very important.  You want to reward your colt for the slightest attempt at doing the right thing.  This will help develop him into a problem solver.  He will learn that when you are giving him a cue, he needs to do something to get you to stop, and it is his job to figure out what you want.  Most importantly you must not stop cuing your horse until he makes and effort in the right direction.  If your horse goes the wrong way and you stop cuing him, you’ve just trained him to go the wrong way when you cue him that certain way.

Lateral Flexion

Lateral flexion, to me, is one of the most important things to teach your horse.  It helps build softness in your horses.  It helps them relax.  And it is the key to a one rein stop.  Honestly  I’m a little nervous riding horses that don’t know how to flex their heads to the side.

To teach my horse to flex laterally, I simply stand beside my horse at the shoulder, facing the same direction as the horse.  I place my right arm over my horses withers, and with my left hand I grasp the side of the nose band of the halter and apply pressure towards my hip.  At first your horse will probably move around in circles.  Just stay with him and continue to apply pressure.  The second he quits moving his feet and tips his head slightly towards you release pressure.  Then repeat, repeat, repeat.  Eventually he will get so he will tip his nose all the way around to you.  Once he will reach his nose around towards you, you can hold his head over here for a couple seconds at a time.  Repeat with the other side.

Moving the Hind Quarters

This may seam like a pretty easy task to teach your horse, but it is very important that he learns it and learns it correctly.  We can easily move our horse’s rear end by pulling his head around and swinging the rope at his rear end, but we want to refine this so that when we are in the saddle we can disengage his hind quarters in and emergency.

The goal here is to be able to slightly tip our colt’s nose towards us and touch his side slightly behind where your leg would hang while riding (what I call foot position three) this will result in you horse crossing his back legs as he moves his hind end away from you.

To start I give my horse the cue as if he already knows what I want.  I tip his nose slightly toward me and gently touch his side.  Most likely he hasn’t a clue what I want and will just stand there, but if he happens to make an effort to move his rear end away from me, I release pressure, rub his neck and let him stand for a couple of seconds before asking him again.  If he doesn’t move I will apply more pressure with my hand on his side.  I progress from pressure to tapping his side, to swinging the rope at his rear end, to popping the rope on his butt.  I only up the pressure until I get movement in the correct direction.  Once I get movement the colt gets to rest a couple of seconds.  Then I repeat, repeat, repeat.  Always starting with the smallest cue and working up to only as big as necessary.

Once the colt is starting to understand what I want I ask for more steps.  Then I ask for him to do the same thing the other direction.  It is important to work both sides of your horse.  With a horse just because you do something on one side doesn’t mean he will understand what you want on the other side.  Also I don’t spend a lot of time working on this each session.  This is something your colt should pick up quickly and working on it a few minutes everyday should be plenty.  After my colts understand what I want from them, I move them a full circle each direction three times and call it good (Circle left, circle right, circle left, circle right, circle left, circle right).

In the first picture I show how I hold my rope, second picture is where I apply pressure, picture three is Cobain moving his hind end, pictures four and five are me moving him with just moving my hand and not actually touching him or you could say I’m driving his hind end around.

Moving the Front End

Getting your horse to walk around on his front end can be a little more tricky than moving his hind end.  I like to teach my horses to pivot on their hind ends (walking around with their front legs) for a couple different reasons.  One, if they are used in halter classes they need to know how to pivot. Two, it’s a lot easier to lead a horse that you don’t have to push around but will move nicely away from you when you step towards them. Three, it is easier to teach a horse to pivot under saddle if they were taught to pivot from the ground.

The most important thing to remember here is that a pivot on the hind is still a forward movement.  Your horse will still have 3 legs walking around one that is standing still.  Keeping that in mind, I start to teach my colts to pivot by walking them forward, then turning into them and ask them to step away from me.  What we are looking for is that the colt moves away from me and that he front leg closest to me steps over the other front leg.  To start we get one step and walk the horse forward.  So the pattern will go like this:  walk forward, get one cross over step, walk forward, get a cross over step, walk forward.  You want to make sure you are always walking your colt out of his pivots otherwise he will start backing his hind end around  Once he is doing one step well ask for two and build from there.  Don’t forget to repeat on the other side.

If you have problems getting your horse to step away from you, you can try a couple different techniques to get him to move.  To start I will pump my hand towards his nose.  Then I will push my thumb into the little groove between his shoulder and neck (see picture).  If he still don’t move I will twirl my rope at his shoulder.

Picture one, walking forward. Two, pumping my hand towards his nose. Three, where to push if he doesn’t move. Four, swinging my rope at his shoulder.  Five, he’s crossing his front legs over. Six, he moves with just implied pressure.

These ground work maneuvers are so important.  They are exercises that I go over and over till they are near perfect.  They are a great way to build a bond with your horse.  And they also help create respect towards you.  Even if you are riding an older, already broke horse, if he can’t do these simple maneuvers, go back and teach them to him.  I promise he will seem like a new horse.