Working a Young Horse

I’ve been working with a young horse all summer, who has really tested the patience and determination of his owner and rider, but thankfully she’s starting to reap the benefits.

He came to her as lightly backed, but we soon discovered that he’d been missing a key element in his training: consistency.

So we took him right back to square one, and the first couple of weeks were spent with them building a relationship and him learning the routine in his new home. He’s a tense, nervous little guy, and it comes out in bolshy behaviour, so his owner had to establish ground manners and wait until he started to feel confident before starting to work him.

Now because he had already been introduced to tack, lunging and long reining, not a huge amount of time needed to be spent notching up the girth hole by hole as he got used to the feel of the saddle on his back, but we soon found out that he had some undesirable behaviours when being worked in hand, such as napping, twisting his body, bunny hopping, and charging at you. The same when he was ridden.

When I first met them they’d had some positive in hand sessions, but not so positive ridden sessions and his owner had realised she’d bitten off more than she could chew and needed help.

We decided to step back and focus on their long reining. They’d done some long reining around the farm tracks, which were going well, but weren’t doing any long reining in the arena, only riding, which wasn’t going so well. I completely agree that young horses should be educated outside the arena as much as possible, but this little horse didn’t have good associations with the arena. I believe this was because he was upset and confused about the ridden process and it was in a less familiar environment.

I think it stemmed from the lack of consistency in his backing process, as well as his individual personality, but as soon as the youngster was out of his comfort zone he displayed his “naughty behaviours” of napping and not going forwards. Starting to understand his personality and behaviour, we began to formulate a plan.

The horse wasn’t comfortable or confident in the indoor arena. Neither was he confident about being ridden. So putting the two together was a recipe for disaster. I sent my client home with the homework of long-reining in the indoor arena, doing basic circles, changes of reins and serpentines to build her horse’s confidence of being in that space. By doing some basic ridden movements from the ground they will become familiar, so hopefully when his owner rides him and rides these movements they will be more familiar and hopefully less stressful so he doesn’t exhibit any of his insecurity behaviours.

They continued to long rein out of the arena too, and the next lesson we began in his comfort zone with long-reining. They did ten minutes of this until he settled. Then his rider mounted, and we did exactly the same from the saddle as from the ground. So what he was being asked to do was familiar, but with the ridden part being unfamiliar. He was dipping his toe out of his comfort zone.

You can almost think of the comfort zone as an island, and the aim is for the sea to recede, so the island becomes bigger as the horse grows in confidence and experience.

Anyway, they had a positive ridden session, with him starting to relax. They didn’t need to trot until walking under saddle was within his comfort zone. The next few rides involved less long-reining and more in the saddle time, adding in short trots when the conditions were right.

They got to the point in the next few weeks that his owner could get on at the yard, enjoyed their rides round the farm, and were having positive sessions in the school. I think it was to their benefit not to increase the ridden work until the consistency was established. The horse began to relax into his work: he knew what to expect, was familiar with his surroundings and handlers, so stopped napping and responded correctly to the aids.

Once the consistency was established, we started to develop the ridden work. We introduced trots for longer and longer periods, transitions, circles and changes of rein. I was pleased that he was taking it all in his stride because he was growing in confidence.

Unfortunately, they had a blip and the youngster started napping again. Instead of persevering from the saddle, I suggested they returned to long-reining for a few days. I’m not sure what caused the blip, but the horse strikes me as a worrier, so it’s best to reaffirm his comfort zone and then start to ask the questions again, and be on the lookout for the first signs that he isn’t understanding, before his behaviour escalates.

It didn’t take long to get them back on track, and this will be the first thing we do if he has a sudden lack of confidence again.

Bearing in mind that this horse doesn’t have the best mindset to new experiences, and isn’t overly confident, we need to teach him to open his mind to new experiences. So we need to reduce the stress involved. I suggested that his owner introduced the outdoor arena by long-reining in there first, and then to ride in there after doing most of their work in the indoor until the horse relaxes in that environment. Then she can begin to work him properly in that arena. Hopefully by not throwing him in the deep end and asking him to swim, he will benefit in the long term because the relationship between him and his rider will strengthen as he gets more confident, and then we can ask him to step into deeper water more quickly and he won’t sink.

Next up is to continue establishing the basics, improving his rhythm and suppleness, adding in more school movements and getting the correct response from her aids. Being naturally tense, I want to see him starting to relax his topline and become more free in his body before we move on from each stage as that change in his body language tells us that he is more confident and understands his work.

Accepting the Leg

A friend asked me for some help with one of her client`s horses last week, and it`s been really interesting and useful for me to experience.

This horse is only four years old and was backed last year successfully by my friend, but when the mare came back into work after being turned away for six months they`ve had nothing but problems.

When my friend approached me for help they had reached the point where the mare would lunge, and show off her beautiful, extravagant trot, but when ridden she would not move. Everytime the leg was applied she would pin her ears back and threaten to buck. Her teeth, back, and saddle had been checked and the vet had just given her a clean bill of health, concluding that her problems were a behavioural issue.

This was where I came in. My friend needed someone confident on the ground while she rode the mare, who would back up her leg and stand their ground when she gave a buck.

So I went to the house of my dreams – just picture it, brick four bedroom house with a terraced garden, spacious triple garage, small stable block with tack room, plenty of paddocks, and an immaculate arena with mirrors – and my friend lunged the mare to show me how she moved. And boy did she move well! The mare wasn`t afraid of the whip and needed it to be cracked a couple of times for her to respond to it, along with the voice. 

Then my friend got on, and I took her place in the centre of the school, holding the lunge whip. The theory was that we pretended to lunge the mare. After all, she was happy enough to be lunged, so we should utilise that to teach her that she should respect and respond to the leg aids. 

My friend asked her to walk on, with both leg and voice. The ears came back, so I waved the whip at her quarters, backing up my friend. After a moment`s thought, the mare walked on and was rewarded verbally. Once we`d established walking positively, we tried to trot. Again, I had to be assertive as the “lunger”, standing my ground when she kicked out against the leg and whip, and swung her quarters towards me, but she soon cottoned on to the concept. 

It`s surprisingly tricky to work like this as I had to remember not to be the leader in the exercise, as I would if I were lunging the mare because we were trying to build the connection between the rider`s leg and moving forwards. However, as soon as the mare resisted my friend`s leg I had to be quick to back up the leg with my pretend lunging.

We soon got there, and as soon as the mare had trotted without resistance one lap around the arena she was allowed to walk and had a big fuss made of her. Then we did the same on the other rein.

My friend felt she`d had a breakthrough, as the mare was actually responding well to her leg aids, albeit every so often she would try to assert her authority.

A few days later we met again at my dream house. This time, the mare walked straight on from the first leg aid, and I only needed to wave the whip a couple of times when the mare baulked at the leg. But overall there was a huge improvement, so the following day my friend asked the horse`s owner to stand in the middle with the lunge whip. Again, she was barely needed as the mare was accepting of her rider, much as she was before being turned away last year.

This sort of behaviour is not uncommon, and my friend and I both agree that it goes back to the old saying “ask a mare …”. Mares don`t like being told what to do, and things often have to be on their terms, and if you get a dominant mare she can give you some backchat when asked to do something different or new. If as an owner you aren`t quick to push the mare back into her box this backchat can grow into dominant behaviour – barging on the ground, nipping, kicking out, or napping.

Now we`re hoping to completely break this cycle in the next couple of weeks, with my friend gradually riding further away from me in the arena – so she is less dependant on my back up, and then I will be able to leave the arena hopefully, but be ready to step back in if the mare tries to revert to her old habits. I think this mare is quite dominant, so will always be tempted to try and assert her authority over handler or rider, so needs someone who won`t stand any nonsense, yet will work with her to fulfill her potential because she definitely has some talent.