Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Restarting a Horse from the Beginning

EJG wrote: "I'm real unsure about a new horse and just need some help getting started. He was once ridden on trails but has been turned out for a couple of years. Naturally I want to be safe and he acted like a wild crazy horse when I first brought him here so I haven't attempted riding yet. Doesn't act like he's ever been flexed so I'm just starting at the beginning and working him from the ground, and over some trail obstacles in hand. I'll start ground working with a saddle soon. It's letting us get to know each other. I'm no horse trainer so if you can think of something I'm missing please let me know. Not looking forward to that first ride right now."

Seems to me you have a horse who came to you from other owners likely with all that baggage, good or bad, knowingly or unknowingly that those previous owners heaped on him. I have learned that in most all cases any descriptions from previous owners on what the horse did, how he performed, and what he is capable of, pretty much don't matter. I start the horse all over, like he was a 3 year old. If it's my horse or a horse I'm expected to put some work on, that's what I would do - start him over.  The more he knows and better he responds the faster you can go, but skipping things never pays off - never has for me anyway.

Groundwork is key and sounds like you are doing it. If it was me, I wouldn't take him in hand through obstacles as I'd be setting him up to refuse forward movement and if I had trouble getting him out of that, it'll make everything else I'm suggesting you do more difficult.

First thing I do is free lunge the horse in a round pen, controlling his gate and changing it from slow to fast and back to slow with lots of changes of direction. At first, I don't really care if the turns his butt to me as I just want forward movement out of him, but very soon I'll start requiring him to turn into me when he changes direction. When I back off and get him to stop, if he doesn't square up and give me both eyes, I'll drive him again. This is all key for establishing leadership - you moving his feet by driving him at will.

Soon, as you stop the pressure and back off he will give you both eyes. Stand sideways to him and he will likely approach you. Give him time to do so. I'm sure you have heard that a horse learns upon the release, so when you stop driving him, and back off and he gives you both eyes, make sure you give him some time to learn that upon the release of pressure he gets relief.  

Then I go to a halter and lead rope, usually a 14 foot lead and sometimes longer. Then I drive him around using pressure of the lead to get him to yield his hind end and face up with me. When he is showing signs of accepting, such as licking, chewing, eyes and ears on me, dropping his head, and generally body posture, I may pickup the slack in the lead rope and draw him to me. If he comes, I'll give him a break and pet on him. 

When he is good at this, I'll get him more used to giving to the pressure on the lead laterally by standing just outside his front feet, one hand on the withers and the other making the lead rope taunt until he give laterally, as soon as he tries to give, I'll release the tension, give him a few seconds to understand (this pause is necessary for them to learn) then ask again. Do it on both sides.  I'll ask him to give laterally and dis-engage his hind end as well, by bending his head again and using the stirrup to put alittle pressure on his barrel.  Again, just as soon as he makes an effort, release that pressure and begin anew. 

I'll pickup the lead to his front and ask him to move forward past me, then disengage his hind end and ask him to lead back past me in the opposite direction.  Some people will take a step towards his hind end to get him to disengage.  I don't generally do this unless the horse needs it in the beginning.  I prefer to use the lead rope to tip his head towards me when he goes past then use the lead rope to direct him in the opposite direction.  

When he is good at this, I'll do this again having him go between me and the fence. Then I can sit on the fence (like in the picture at right) and do the same drill. This has the added benefit of getting the horse used to seeing you above him. 

The commonality in everything that I am doing is that I am moving his feet and he gets a release when he does the right thing.

Back on the ground I'll sack the horse out by flipping the end of the lead rope over his back, around his legs, around his butt and his hocks. I'll flip the lead over his back and catch it under his barrel and put some pressure on him like where a cinch would go. I'll tighten it up and release, then tighten it up again for just a bit longer than release.

I usually loop the rope around a front foot and lead him forward by putting pressure (making the lead taunt) until he picks up his foot and I guide it forward releasing all pressure when the foot begins to move forward suspended in the air.

The common mistake people make is that when he doing something like flicking a rope over his back or around his hocks, if the horses has problems with it, like moving off or siding away from the handler, the mistake is that the handler will stop doing it, in effect teaching the horse that he can move to avoid the stimulus.  I suggest keeping at it until the horse shows signs of acceptance and stops moving his feet.   

Once I get a saddle on him, I'll do everything again. Sometimes on a young horse he needs a little time to get used to the saddle, but soon you are doing all the ground work with him wearing the saddle.
If I think he needs it, I'll ground drive him with the saddle on. Ground driving is excellent to reinforce giving to pressure with forward movement.  I use 23 foot yacht braid driving lines with bolt snaps. (I make my own driving/lunge lines, but many makers offer 25 foot lengths).   I'll run each line through the stirrups and attach it to the side of the halter.  When ground driving you can turn him into the fence in the beginning and don't be concerned about un-training him to face up when he disengages his back end, then you can also turn him away from the fence, stop him and start teaching him to back under the ground driving lines as well.  The video below is one I posted a while back on ground driving.  You have to be careful to stay back a safe distance, hence the 23 foot driving lines, and only use one line at a time when the horse is moving forward, otherwise you can make a young horse bracey.


Depending on the horse, all of the above may only take a couple hours, then you can mount. If necessary I mount laying across the saddle and rubbing his off side with the off side stirrup. When he is okay with all that and does not try to move off when I am mounting, I'll mount and sit, maybe only for a second or two then dismount, rub on the horse and do it again for a few second longer. After a couple of mounts, I'll mount and ask the horse for lateral flexion on both side. Then I ask for lateral flexion while disengaging his hind end.

If all goes well, and it usually does, then I can ask him for forward movement. If he is sticky, sometimes I'll have someone on the ground flag him to give him forward momentum. Occasionally I use the flag myself while in the saddle, but I'd avoid it on a young horse and it's safer to use someone on the ground.

If you are mounting and the horse is trying to move off, either forwards or away from you, don't continue mounting. Instead, get both feet back on the ground and quickly, with energy move his back end around a couple times, then give him a chance to stand quiet (this is his relief) before trying to mount again. You have to be able to laterally flex him and disengage his back end before you ride him, otherwise getting a bolting horse to stop is going to be more difficult.

If you are fearful, not just cautious, but actually fearful of getting on him, then don't until you aren't afraid anymore, otherwise you are setting yourself and him up for failure. He'll pickup on your fear, and when a horse gets frightened they usually run away.

I think if you are particular about what you are doing, and let how the horse is responding guide you, then you'll be just fine.

There are some good colt starting DVD videos out there. I would recommend picking one up. The top hands, in my opinion, are Buck Brannaman, Bryan Neubert, Martin Black and Craig Cameron.  Studying these and see how these guys go about working a horse, slow and deliberate, should make things clear to you.  Good luck to you and safe journey.  

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