As we bring new horses into our program, our goal is always to learn as much about them as possible. We are looking to address ‘gaps’ in a horse’s education while giving them a solid foundation for riding. In this way, we hope to lay the groundwork so that our horses will be ready to embrace new careers in their future adoptive homes.
Before we ever sat on either Cassie or Jackson (both newer horses to our program) we had already spent a lot of time working them both in hand and in the round pen. They had been through all of our obstacles and been worked indoors, outdoors, alone and in company.
We had saddled them and let the stirrups hang down while lungeing, to make sure they didn’t mind the noise or the feel of something hitting their side. We did a lot of work with a flag, such as flapping it above their backs while walking to simulate a rider. It wasn’t until we had checked out all of these things (and seen that both horses reacted well!) that we rode Cassie and Jackson for the first time.
Once we begin work under saddle, there are several questions we ask our horses right away:
1. Can they stand quietly and remain focused while a rider mounts, checks the girth, and adjusts their stirrups? We always bring the horse up to the mounting block (rather than moving the block to the horse) and we expect them to wait until their rider is ready to go.
2. Can they follow the reins to the right and left, without using an outside shoulder to go in the opposite direction? This is very common at first and Jackson in particular needs practice on following the rein to make turns. By using the inside rein when the horse picks up their inside front foot, we can help the horse to understand what we want.
3. Do they brace and resist the rider’s hand, or do they have an understanding of rein contact? In other words, do we have brakes when we want them? An obvious way to check on this is to ask a horse to stop and back up. Ideally, we would like our horses to accept a soft steady contact while being ridden.
4. Do they understand basic leg aids, which for us means both going forward from a squeeze and moving away from the leg. Early on we want to emphasize the concept of bending through their entire bodies, and teaching a horse to move their hind end over off the rider’s inside leg is a good beginning. By teaching a horse to bend we begin to teach them about proper balance.
5. Lastly, we want to know how each horse will react to different types of pressure. Will they tolerate a lot of leg or spurs, what happens if we strongly ask for a halt or back up? If a horse has any triggers or explosive reactions, we want to know about them. At times, that means pushing the edge of a horse’s comfort zone to help them realize that they can work through challenges.
It’s all a part of the training process: we want to learn as much about each horse as we can, so that we have the best chance of matching them with appropriate homes in the future.