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.

Saddling

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.

 

Lunging

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.

Pre-Flight Check

Any good pilot checks his aircraft to insure it is flight worthy before boarding.  Why shouldn’t a good rider check the safety of his mount before climbing aboard?  Before I even think about putting my foot in the stirrup, I have a check list of maneuvers I put my horse through on the ground to insure he’s safe to get on.  Like people, horses have good days, and they have bad days.  I like to find out what kind of day my horse is having  before I mount up.  Some days my pre-flight goes great.  My horse does everything I ask of him perfectly without hesitation.  Other days my horse may be feeling a little frisky and requires a little more ground work before we go for our ride.

To perform my pre-flight, I saddle and bridle my horse.  I don’t tighten the cinch completely. Just have it snug enough to keep it secure.  I then fasten a 15 to 20 foot long rope (I use nylon rope bought at a farm supply store) to the curb strap of my bridle using a bow-line knot.  Since the bow-line knot won’t pull tight, it will allow my rope to move to what ever side of the horse I am working on.

Flex My Horse Laterally √

First on my pre-flight check list is making sure my horse will flex when asked.  There will be several times during my ride that I will ask my  horse to flex, so I like to make sure he is flexing well.  To do this I pick up the rein on the same side that I’m standing and pull it up to the swell of my saddle.  If all goes well, my horse will tip his nose over to me as pictured.  If he doesn’t I hold pressure on the rein until he turns his nose to me.  Once he does one side well, I check the other side in the same manor.

Disengaging the Hindquarters √

After my horse is flexing well to both sides, I disengage my horse’s hindquarters.  To do this I  tip his nose slightly towards me with one hand, and using my other hand I cue him with the stirrup where my foot would be if I was riding in position three.  We go around in three circles with his legs crossing well. Stop and back.  Then go three circles the other direction. Stop and back.  If your horse is being a little stubborn, you may have to cue him a little harder.  If he is being a little naughty, make him turn three more circles to each side.  The reason I like to disengage my horse’s hindquarter is because it is part of my emergency stop.  I want to make sure my breaks are going to work.

Yielding the Front End √

Now that I have the back end of the horse moving like I want, it’s time to move the front end.  Standing by your horse’s head, start, leading him forward.  Turn and face your horse’s head and walk towards him.  I typically put my hands up, one by his face and one by his shoulder.  Start by asking for one step, where your horse crosses his front legs.  After one step, turn and walk forward again.  Take about ten steps forward then turn and step toward your horse again. If my horse is doing well, I perform five or six turns each direction, more if he is not doing well.  The first few times you perform this maneuver with your horse he may only take one crossover step.  As he progresses he should be able to take more crossover steps.  Horses that I have been working with for awhile can easily turn a half  to a full circle. Until you and your horse get the hang of this exercise it may seem a little tricky.  At first if my horse doesn’t want to turn I will take my thumb and push on my horse where his neck and shoulder connect.  I only push hard enough to get my horse to move.

Moving Hind End and Following the Rein √

This is another test I perform to get my horse’s hind quarters moving.  However, this time I’m going to use rein pressure to get him to move his hind end around.  While my horse is standing still, I take my rope and run it down his side opposite of where I’m standing.  I then bring the rope around my horse’s back legs, making sure to stay above the hocks, and stand  a couple steps away from my horse’s shoulder.

Now I gently apply pressure on the rope.  The object is for my horse to follow the pressure of the rope, turn around disengaging his hindquarters, and end up facing me.  To start you may have to pull a little harder, but after your horse gets the hang of this, it should only take a small amount of pressure.  Also the first few times you do this exercise your horse may try to turn the wrong direction and move around trying to figure out what you want.  Just hold steady pressure until your horse turns the direction you are asking him to move.   I typically run him through this two or three times on each side or until he performs the maneuver smoothly.

If you notice, when I put pressure on the rope, Dollar’s nose starts to come around, and as he’s turning he crosses his back legs, disengaging his hindquarters.  When he has finished, I reward him with a pat on the head and let him stand a few seconds.Lunging √

I finish up my pre-flight check with lunging my horse.  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 longe 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.

Tack Check √

Checking your tack before you mount up is an important part of your pre-flight check.  Most horses will puff out their bellies when first being saddled.  Because of this your saddle is probably fairly loose.  Take this time to tighten your cinch and make sure all the rest of your tack is on correctly.

Now that you’ve done all this work with your horse, you should have a good idea on how your horse is going to act this ride.  Remember sometimes your horse will have bad days where his mind is on something besides you.  On these days he may require a little more ground work before you go for your ride.  Other days, your pre-flight may go smoothly without any hitches, and you can get to your ride shortly after saddling your horse.  But unless you preform a pre-flight check you won’t know what kind of day your horse is having, and you might find out the hard way that he was having a bad day.