Building Your Horse From the Ground Up — The First Ride

Okay, you’ve been working your horse from the ground.  You can lunge him, drive him and even stand in the stirrup.  Now we are ready for that first ride.

Before the Ride

When I go out and know I’m going to put a first ride on a horse, I don’t just catch him, throw the saddle on and hop on.  I go through all my pre-flight checks before I get on.  I will groom him, pick up his feet, lunge him, disengage his hind quarters, move his front end around, flex him, maybe drive him, and stand in the stirrups on both sides of the saddle.  If he seems good to go I will then throw my leg over, if he seems a little out of sorts I may just do some more ground work and put off that first ride till the next day.

The Ride

I have two different ways I put a first ride on a colt.  The first way is for if I’m nervous about a horse or the horse seems a little more nervous than I’m comfortable just hopping on and going.  This method involves having another person there to lead the horse around for you while you ride.  This is how I put my first ride on my mustang Cobain. Dan, my husband, was helping me.  Notice he is standing right beside me.  He has a hold of the lead rope.  In this picture I’m just standing in the stirrup.  Cobain is use to this, but I have Dan there for when I swing my leg over.

Then I swing my leg over and I’m on.  I keep his head flex over while I get my foot in the stirrup.

I then pet his neck to let him know I’m there and to comfort him.

Then I ask for him to flex his head to the right.  I will flex him several times each direction until I feel him relax a little.

After I flex him several times to each side and I feel him relaxing, I dismount and give him a couple of seconds to rest.  Then I hop back on and flex him a couple more times.

Now we are ready to move.  I will click and squeeze my legs a little while my helper starts to lead the horse.  My helper keeps a fairly short lead on the colt and is ready to turn him if he starts to act up.  Typically all goes pretty smooth because we put in so much time building trust.  I communicate to my helper what I want to do.  If I’m going to ask the horse to stop, I’ll say “We’re going to stop in 1, 2, 3, whoa”  This way we can both give the horse the correct commands at the same time.  I may ride around 10 minutes, having the horse do several stops and changes in direction and maybe a couple steps backward. Then I will call it a day.

When getting off, my helper stands in the same place they stood while I was getting on.  I swing my leg over and try to land close to my helper.

The second way I do a first ride is without some one holding on to my horse.  This is also how I will do my second ride on the horse that I had someone hold for the first ride.

After all the ground work and standing in the stirrup I will swing my leg over.

Once I’m on I will ask the horse to flex both directions for me several times until he starts to relax.

Notice in the second picture of Andy flexing, his head is lower than the first picture.  This tells me that his is relaxing.I will dismount then get back on and ask him to flex again.  Once I feel that he pretty relaxed, I will smooch to him and ask him to go.  A lot of times the horse won’t know what you want and you will have to pop them on the bottom to get them moving. Or if you have someone that can help you, you can have them move them around as if they are lunging the horse.

My first ride I like to walk and trot the horse and stop several times.  Some people like to also canter on the first ride, but I don’t.  Just a personal preference.  When you are done with your ride, you need to flex your horse’s head over to the side you are getting off on.  When you step off of your horse you need to land moving forward.  I try to land slightly in front of the shoulder of the horse.  Colts will often times give a little kick after the first couple of rides and stepping forward will help to keep you safe.



Building Your Horse From the Grown Up — Part 4 (After this we ride)

I know it seems like I’m spending an eternity on ground work with my colts.  Everything I have done up to this point can take a colt anywhere from a couple days to a couple of weeks to catch on.  The speed in which you progress will really depend on the colt you are working with.  For example, I just got a gelding to train for the 2012 Extreme Mustang Makeover in Fort Collins.  He was so willing to learn and easy to work with that I was on his back by day five.  It’s important that you read your horse.  When he does one step well move on the the next. It is really important that you don’t miss any steps, and some horses require more steps than others.  What I have covered so far is the minimum of what I do with my colts. Some colts require a lot more work on working with their legs than others, so I do different exercises that can help build more trust in that area.  Really the main thing is don’t try to rush.

We are now to a point where I want to get my horse ready to be mounted.   To be at the point where I consider a horse ready to practice mounting, I must be able to move all around the horse with out him getting nervous.  I need to be about to touch him all over his body and be able to pick up his feet.  I also like him to lunge well and understand what I want when I am ground driving.  If he pasts all these tests I start my mounting training.

I really like to break my mounting down.  First I want my horse to flex his head over to me when I ask for his nose.  Of coarse we taught this to our colt earlier so this shouldn’t be a problem (see Part 2).  So to start I ask for my horse’s nose then I pull down on the saddle horn kind of like I would do if I was actually mounting.  If he moves around, that’s okay, just stay with him and keep pressure on the saddle until his feet quit moving.  Once his feet stop moving release pressure on the saddle and the bit.  Then repeat until he doesn’t move when you put pressure on the saddle.  After he does one side well do the same thing on the other side.  I will work both sides a few times till he stands still each time I tip his nose and put pressure on the saddle.

Once my horse is standing there just bored with me pulling on the saddle I move on to actually putting some weight in the stirrup.  Like before I tip his nose over two me. Then I put just the toe of my boot in the stirrup.  I then start to bounce a little in the stirrup.  If I’m on the left side and my left foot is in the stirrup, my right foot don’t come off the ground for more than a second.  I’m really just doing little hops not actually standing in the stirrup yet.  Most horses will move around a little here.  You really want to try to stick with them, keeping their nose tipped and continue hopping until they stand still.  Once they quit moving their feet, take your foot out of the stirrup and release their nose.  Repeat until you can do this without the horse moving.  Then repeat on the other side.  Again do this as many times on each side as needed, till your horse will stand still when you put your foot in the stirrup and you hop a couple of times.

Now we are actually going to get all of our weight on the horse.  The way I like to do this next step is to start out like the previous step.  I will ask for my horse’s nose, then I will hop two times on the stirrup then on the third hop I stand up in the stirrup.  If you look at the picture you will notice I am leaning over the horse.  I have weight in the stirrup and I am resting my hip on the saddle.  If you horse moves around here just keep his head tipped over to you and stay with him until his feet quit moving.  Once his feet stop step down and let him rest a second.  Then repeat.  On my second time up I like to reach over and rub his neck a little and mess with the opposite stirrup.  Again I do this over and over until my horse just stands there and seems bored with me.  Then repeat on the other side.  This is the last step before actually swinging your leg over and riding your horse, so you want to make sure that both you and your horse are comfortable with everything up to this point.  If you feel like you just aren’t ready to swing that leg over, don’t.  Go back and do some more ground work and practice everything up to this point until you are both relaxed and comfortable.



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.




Building My Horse From the Ground Up–Part 1

Once my colts are desensitized pretty well and I am able to lead them and pick up their feet, I start focusing on preparing them for that first ride.  Now I know there are cowboys out there who like to just hop on and see what they got. Not me.  I want to know what I can expect from my colt before I even think about climbing on his back.  That’s why I build my colts from the ground up.

Ground work is the foundation to all the colts I start.  It lets me teach them what is expected of them.  And if done properly, the foundation you put on your colts can make them faster learners.

Everyday Ground Work

What I consider “everyday ground work”, is work that you do with your horse pretty much every time to take him out of the pen.  If you have a well broke horse you may not even thing of this as ground work, but if you are working with a colt this “everyday ground work” is a big part of his training.  Tasks that I put in this category are leading,  grooming, and standing tied.  If you are having problems with any of these areas, they need to be fixed before you try to do any further training with your horse.  Problems in these areas typically  means your horse doesn’t respect you.  Without respect a horse can be very dangerous.

How do I know my horse is being respectful?  You want your horse to walk nicely with you when you lead him.  If he tries to run you over or rush past you, he is being disrespectful.  Both are potentially very dangerous behaviors and should be fixed as soon as possible.  To remedy a horse trying to run over you, you can simply shove the palm of your hand into his cheek when he crowds your space.  This will not make your horse head shy, it just gives him a clear message that what he is doing is wrong.  It is very similar to another horse nipping at him if he crowds their space.

To fix the problem of my horse rushing past me, I start leading my horse and the second my horse passes my shoulder while being led, I give a couple of backward jerks on the lead rope to stop him then immediately back him a couple of body lengths.  I’m pretty aggressive when I’m backing my horse I expect him to move freely and quickly.  I don’t want to have to drag him backwards.  The more energy you use the better the back will be.  This may fix your problem after just a couple of times, or it may take twenty times.  It just depends on the horse.

Disrespect while being groomed or tied up is moving around.  The same process can be used to fix both of these problems.  Basically we want our horse to  move our horses feet so that he will decide standing still is the best option.  I take my horse out to the middle of the pen equipped with a halter and lead rope.  I give my horse the chance to stand still.  If he stands nicely I praise him and let him continue to stand while I start to brush him.  The second he starts to move around I trot him in a few circles then give him the chance to stand again.  If he stands still great, if not run him in a few more circles.  Eventually he is going to decide that it is easier to stand quietly than to  have to run in circles.

If my colts aren’t doing well with the everyday ground work, I don’t go on with more advanced ground work.  I just continue to perfect the basics.


A Little Work on the Legs

It is so important to get your horse use to having his legs touched and his feet picked up.  More than likely you will at some point want to have your horse’s feet trimmed, and it’s also good practice to clean your horse’s hooves from time to time.  If you are working with a colt that has never had his feet messed with, you probably don’t want to just run up to him and try to pick up his feet.  Odds are you will scare your horse, and you may end up hurt.

Once my colt is okay with me brushing his legs, I start working on getting my colt use to more handling of his legs.  What I have found works the best for the following is a nice soft cotton lead rope that is around 15 feet long.  Your colt should be use to being touched with this rope on his legs if you properly desensitized him to it.  If he is nervous about the rope go back and do a little more desensitizing.  Horses tend to get a little nervous when we first start messing with their legs, so it is important to try to stay relaxed and calm when performing these exercises.  If you try to rush this you will stress your horse, which will increase your odds of getting hurt.

To get started

Before I will ask my colts to pick up their legs for me I want to be sure they are comfortable with their legs being handled.  I accomplish this by using my rope first then moving to using just my hands.  By using the rope as an extension of my arms and hands, I can handle my horse’s legs while remaining at a safe position should the horse decide to kick.  The following pictures are of me working on Cobain’s legs.

Notice when I start I’m standing slightly in front of his shoulder.  I have a hold of the lead rope next to his head with one hand, and I am touching him with the tail end of the rope with the other.  I’m making sure that he isn’t going to spook from the rope.  I rub his shoulder with the rope, then move down to the outside of his leg.  If he is remaining relaxed I see if he will let me rub the rope on the inside of his leg.  If at any point he becomes a little nervous I just go back a step and restart from there.

Once he is okay with the rope touching the inside of his leg I go ahead and loosely put the rope around his leg. I then move the rope all the way up and down his leg a few times until he is completely relaxed with this process.  If he is standing nicely and seems relaxed, I will remove the rope from his leg and step back a couple feed and let him stand.  By letting him stand for a little bit, you give him a chance to process what has just happened.  More than likely, after a couple of seconds he will like his lips (a sign that he is thinking), and if you are really lucky, he will let out a big sigh.  Repeat with the legs.

If you are unsure about wrapping the rope around the back legs, you can use the alternate method of getting the rope around them.  For this you will need something firm to drag the rope with such as a carrot stick.  Stand by your horse’s shoulder and swing the rope so it wraps around the ankle of  your horse.  If you have properly desensitized this shouldn’t be a problem.  If he seems a little jumpy just keep repeating until he relaxes.   Also you want to take your stick and rub it on his leg to make sure he isn’t going to swat at it when you reach for the end of your rope (in the picture to the right I am using a whip, it happened to be what I had laying around handy) Okay now you want to swing the rope around your horse’s ankle so that enough of the tail is sticking out between his back legs that you can catch the end of it with your stick.  Using your stick drag the end out towards you until it is far enough out that you can reach down and get the end.  Make sure to keep a good grip on the end of the rope attached to the halter so you can pull your horse around if needed.

Giving to pressure

After the horse is comfortable with having the rope around his legs, I start applying pressure to his legs and asking him to give to that pressure by lifting his leg.  I first do this using the rope and eventually move on to using my hand.  Once again I will put the rope around my horse’s leg.  Let it slide down around the fetlock.  Then I apply constant pressure on the rope.  For starters I ask the horse to give me his leg to the front.  The instant the horse makes an effort to pick up his foot, release all pressure on the rope.  Then repeat, repeat, repeat.  Continue to repeat until your horse will pick up his hoof with the slightest amount of pressure.  Then repeat with the other legs.  At this point we aren’t asking him to hold them up for any period of time, we just want him to get the idea  that when we apply pressure he should give to that pressure.

Finally Picking Up the Foot

After my horse is giving to pressure of the rope well, I start using my hands to ask him to actually pick up his feet.  To start I position my self by his shoulder holding on to the lead rope with one hand.  I then run my other hand down the leg I wish to pick up.  If all goes well I apply a little forward pressure to his leg and he will pick up his foot.  Then let him put it down right away.  Then repeat, this time when he picks up his foot move it back and hold it up for a couple of seconds.  You may have to start holding it low so your horse can keep his balance better, but eventually you should be able to lift it as you would if you were going to clean it.  I work all of the feet this way, starting out with holding the foot up a second or two and then adding more time.  The goal is to eventually be able to hold his foot up long enough to clean or trim it.





Halter Breaking

Like every other aspect of training a horse, there are many views on how to halter break a colt. My view on the subject is quite simple, and it’s pretty much the way I view almost all aspects of training a horse.  I use a simple pressure and release method that seems to work quite well for me.

To start your horse needs to be equipped with a well fitted halter.  I like both nylon halters and the rope halters.  When halter breaking a colt I prefer to use a cotton lead rope because they are a little softer on the hands than other types of ropes.  If your horse is a little on the wild side you may want to wear a pair of gloves to protect your hands.

I start by applying steady pressure on the lead rope.  I continue to hold constant pressure on the rope until the horse makes any attempt at taking a step.  Then I release pressure on the rope.  At this point it doesn’t matter to me if he takes and actual step forward or if he just slightly rocked his weight forward.  With any forward movement at all, I release pressure on the rope.  This will get your horse thinking.  I give the horse a couple of seconds to think about what went on, then I’ll apply pressure on the rope again, wait for him to move a little forwards and then release pressure when he does. I will give him a couple of seconds to think again.  Then repeat.

After several times repeating, if my horse hasn’t taken an actual step, I continue to hold pressure on the rope until he gives me one full step.  The second I get that step I release all pressure.  If he completely refuses to move forward for me, I will step slightly to the side and apply pressure sideways instead of straight forward.  This pulls your horse a little off balance, and he will step to the side to regain it.

After my horse starts to figure out that when I’m putting pressure on him, he needs to take a step and I’ll let him rest, I start giving him shorter rest breaks.  He may only get a have a second with no pressure.  I try to get a rhythm going with my horse’s step where I apply pressure on the rope. He steps. I release pressure. Immediately pick the rope up again and ask for another step. And just keep repeating and applying only as much pressure as needed to get that step. Eventually the horse figures out it’s just as easy to follow you around.  The following pictures are some of Cobain his first halter breaking lesson.

Apply PressureRelease



Apply, notice that the rope is tight, but I’m not “pulling” on Cobain.  I’m just applying enough pressure to let him know I want him to come forward.

Release.  Your movements don’t have to be big.  You can see here the rope isn’t tight.  That means that I’m not applying pressure.

Cobain is a smart little guy.  He relaxed in just a couple of minutes and started just following me around.  Notice in the picture how low his head is and how his ears are sideways.  When that head drops like this you know your horse is relaxing and understanding what you are doing.

Halter breaking colts this way I haven’t ran into too many problems.  But because they are living creatures and have a mind of their own there is always a chance of something going wrong.  I’ve had horses before that would pull back when you put pressure on the rope.  In that case you just keep on  applying pressure till you get any forward movement.  The process is the same, it’s just a little more difficult.  I’ve also had horses that wanted to charge past me.  In that case I constantly switch directions,  working more in circles than straight lines.

By using this method to halter break your colt, you help him get his mind in the right frame for his other training.  He will figure out that when you are applying pressure to him, you are looking for him to do something, and he will start to search for the answer to the question “what does this person want me to do?”  When you get your horse so he’s looking to answer that question, he is in the right frame of mind to learn.


It’s All in the Release

When training your horse, it’s hard to not get impatient and try to force your horse to do what you want him to do.  But lets face it  horses average some where around 1200 pounds, and there is no way you are going to make him do anything he doesn’t want to.  I think it is easy for us to get caught up in trying to cue our horse and press them into doing what we want.  But in all honesty the horse doesn’t learn when we apply pressure.  He learns when we release the pressure.

No mater what I’m trying to get my horse to do, I follow this simple pattern. I ask until the horse makes the slightest effort to do what I want him to do.  As soon as he makes a try in the right direction, I quit asking and let him rest a second.  This is the point where your horse’s head starts working.

Let’s say we want to longe our horse.  One of the first things we need the horse to do here is turn his shoulder away from us.  So we apply pressure to the horse by swinging a rope at his shoulder. The second the horse starts to make even the slightest effort to turn you need to stop swinging the rope.  At this point your horse thinks, “hey that person was swinging the rope at me, and when I started to turn the person quit swinging the rope”.

Again you will swing the rope at the horse’s shoulder.  Because you released pressure before when the horse move away from the swinging, your horse may make a bigger effort to turn.  Once again the second your horse starts to turn release pressure.  Now your horse is thinking “yeah I’m pretty sure that that person wants me to move.  When I started to move again he stopped swinging that rope.” At this point your horse is probably starting to lick and chew a little.

Now that the horse is starting to get the idea, you can apply a little more pressure and see if you can get the horse to actually take a step in the right direction.  After you get a step, release pressure.  You will repeat this until he takes that one step with very little pressure.  Then you will increase pressure again working toward two steps.

This method works with pretty much anything you want to train your horse to do.  I use it to get my horses to cross bridges, spin, flex, anything.  The key is to develop good timing and release all pressure at the slightest try from your horse.  Eventually your horse will recognize that you are asking him to do something and try to find the answer to get you to release pressure.

Sounds pretty simple, right?  Well here’s where it gets tricky.  Let’s say you are wanting your horse to turn left.  You apply your pressure and instead of left your horse turns right.  Frustrated you stop applying pressure and straighten your horse so you can start over again.  Now you’ve just taught your horse to do the exact opposite of what you wanted him to do.  You must remember to continue to apply pressure until the horse makes an effort in the correct direction.  If he starts to go the wrong way, you can not stop applying pressure, in fact you could even increase pressure to discourage your horse from doing the wrong thing. Then when he makes a try at the right direction, release.

Training your horse can be made more simple if you can recognize when your horse makes an effort to do the right thing, and you reward him for that effort by releasing any pressure you may be applying to him.  When you are working with your horse try to remember that your horse doesn’t learn when you are applying a cue, but when you stop applying it.In this picture, I have Dollar’s head almost touching the ground.  There is no way I could pull his head to the ground.  To get him to do this I would apply and release pressure on his poll and nose until he realized what I wanted.  Once he got the picture he lowered his head.



Flexing at the Poll-Using Aids

In today’s world of horses, we are told to soften our horse’s face or to collect our horse.  Or we often wonder how do those people get their horses to carry their heads so low.  Any of these start with teaching your horse to flex at the poll.  For someone who is just learning how to train a horse, this can be pretty tricky to do.  Teaching a horse to break at the poll without any aids takes a lot of practice.  In this post I will tell you about several different riding aids a person can use to help them teach their horse to flex at the poll.

Draw Reins

When I was training my first horse I used Draw Reins to help me teach him headset.   There are many different styles of draw reins, and different trainers each have their opinion on how to use them.  Basically, draw reins are a continuous line that runs from one side of your cinch, through the bit, to your hands, back through the other side of the bit and to the other side of the cinch.  They really are a  single movable pulley.    When you pull your hands back it causes the horses head to move inward and down.  I recommend only using draw reins with a mild snaffle bit.  Also because draw reins don’t offer much in the line of stopping power, I like to pair them up with a regular set of reins.  Where a person connects the draw reins to their cinch depends on the individual and the style of draw reins they are using.  I’ve seen people hook them to the  center D-Ring of the cinch, running the reins between the horse’s front legs.  I’ve seen them hook to the rigging of the saddle where the cinch fastens to the saddle.  I personally prefer to hook them to the center of the cinch, but run them around the outside of my horse’s legs.  By using them this way, as the horse walks it bumps the reins.  Therefore, when I ride without the draw reins, if I need my horse to lower his head, I can simply bump the reins in rhythm with his steps.  (The draw reins pictured above are ones I made.  I just took a piece of yacht rope and fastened snaps on the ends. Notice that the pony is flexing at the poll and the front of his face is vertical.)

Training Fork and Running Martingale

These are two similar devices.  The training fork is primarily for western disciplines and the running martingale is used mainly for English riding.  The only real difference is that the martingale has a neck strap that goes around the horse’s neck.

To use either of these you simply fasten them to the center of your cinch (or girth) between the horse’s front legs.  If you are using a martingale, you will fasten the neck strap around the neck of the horse. And finally you run your reins through the rings and then up to you.

These devices work by creating leverage through the reins on the bit and on the bars of your horse’s mouth.  This happens when the horse raises his head too high.  The pressure encourages the horse to lower his head.

Running Martingale

Training Fork

German Martingale

The final aid used in teaching the horse to flex at the poll, I would like to tell you about is the German Martingale.  This type of martingale works in much the same way that draw reins do.  You have rope (or some have leather straps) that runs through the bit to create a pulley.  Unlike the draw reins, the rope on the German Martingale then fastens to rings on the reins.  Because these reins are attached to the bit you have a little more control of your horse than you would if you were just using draw reins.  When you have slack in your reins, the draw rein part of the martingale is working to help lower your horses head.

The German Martingale has four parts: the chest strap, which fastens to the center ring on your cinch; the neck strap, which goes around your horse’s neck; the draw rein, which runs through your bit and then you have the reins, which have rings on which to fasten your draw reins.

Pictured is Dollar with the German Martingale on.  In the second picture you can see that he has dropped his head, and it is now vertical.  The German Martingale should only be used with a ringed snaffle.  (Dollar is pictured with a curb bit, but the picture was taken to show how the martingale operates. Please if you decide to use a German Martingale, use it only with a snaffle bit.)

There are many different training aids on the market.  I think that before you run out and buy any of these, that you should try to borrow one see if  that particular aid will work for you.  Training aids can be great tools when used correctly. If you are uncertain if you are using any equipment correctly, ask a trainer or someone with more experience.  If you have any questions about these training aids or anything else, feel free to ask questions in the Forum section of this website.


Getting in Shape

As the weather starts warming up, and it continues to stay late longer, many riders are going to pick up riding again after a long winter break.  It is tempting to just go out and ride all weekend when the temperatures rise, but remember if you haven’t ridden all winter you as well as your horse are probably a little of condition for a long ride.  For this reason it is important that you and your horse ease back into a riding routine.

Horses are natural athletes; however, when we ride them, we ask them to exert themselves more than they normally would.  If you just pull your horse out of the pasture and ride him hard for hours, it can leave him sore.  This in turn can make him grumpy the next time you go to ride.   I like to start getting my horses in shape with short 40-45 minute rides the first week.  During these rides I do a lot of bending, flexing, walking and trotting with a little loping thrown in.  Over the next few weeks I increase my riding time and increase the amount of time I spend working on loping, lead changes and other strenuous maneuvers.  I may even allow my horses a day off here and there after a particularly hard workout.  The day off would consist of some light ground work and maybe a little riding with only flexing, bending and walking.

It is also important to get yourself in shape for riding.  An overweight rider is more of a burden to your horse.  And if you are already in pretty good shape, riding requires the use of muscles that aren’t necessarily used in other exercise routines.  Riding requires a tremendous amount of core strength to help maintain your balance.  Also if you haven’t ridden in a while a long ride will leave you stiff and sore.

After winter filled with cold days and little activity, you need to start your horse off slow in the spring.  Begin conditioning your horse with short rides to start, then build up to longer rides.  By doing this you and your horse will be less likely to suffer injuries or soreness.  You horse will then find your riding sessions more enjoyable, and he will be more willing to do what is asked of him.