Horse training doesn’t stop when you begin riding. In fact the entire purpose of groundwork is to teach your horse for being ridden. Actually it’s far more than that-it’s a system for building a communication line between you and your horse. In other words, it gives you an opportunity to present your horse with cues given in your way and for him to recognize and respond to those cues. So how do we transfer these cues to the saddle? This is part of horse rider training-and its just as much about extending that communication line between you and your horse as it is about training the rider.
First let’s talk about mounting a horse safely. In the old days or in the movies, people might have been happy to jump on a horse that was ready to gallop off the minute their butts hit the saddle. For most of us today though, we would rather have a safe horse that doesn’t run off until we tell him to. So the very first aspect of horse rider training is learning to mount and keeping the horse calm while we get on. This procedure can be used. First, grab the inside rein (the left rein assuming you’re mounting from the left side) and flex the horse a bit toward you. Pick up an eye of the horse. This reduces the risk of surprises, since he can see what you’re doing ( of course we’re assuming he’s well behaved, and won’t buck or run off on purpose). Now pick up the right rein as well, with your left hand. By putting some tension in the right rein, we tell the horse to keep the opposite hind leg planted (this would be the left hind leg). This keeps him from moving around as we mount. Put your left foot in the stirrup. Now with the reins in your hand you can grab a bit of mane or the saddle horn with your left hand, and grab the back of the saddle with the right hand. Push yourself up and exhale. Hold your position with your body against the horse before swinging your leg over. This gives you a chance to jump off if the horse is going to give you problems at that moment. If he stays calm and relaxed, swing your leg over and sit in the saddle, and breathe deeply and relax.
Now let’s talk about a few cues that can be used to move the horse. On the ground we learned that horses respond to pressure: apply pressure and the horse yields. In the saddle we can use the same technique. For a specific example, on the ground to move the hindquarter away from you, you apply pressure to the hind, then the horse moves and you release the pressure.
Let’s move the left hind while in the saddle. Start by turning and looking at the left hind (body language is always important – always look where you want to go). Pull on the left rein a bit to flex the horse to the left, and then start bumping with your left heel. When the horse moves his hindquarter, come off all cues (release the pressure), and he should come to a stop. You can encourage him to plant his legs by lifting up the outside rein (the right rein in this case). Repeat the exercise for both sides.
As we did on the ground, you’ll want to be able to move the forehand over in both directions as well. To move the horse to the left, lift up and out with your left rein. At first you can actually point your finger to the left to exaggerate the cue. Turn and look left (remember body language) and then kick the horse with your right foot on his side (remember horses yield to pressure – apply pressure on the right to ask him to move left). When he executes the movement, release your cues. Repeat in the other direction.
There isn’t space here to discuss everything in the saddle, but for the basics you’ll also want to go, stop, and backup well, before moving from walking to trotting and cantering. Quickly to ask him to go, sit up and straight, look where you want t go, hold loose reins, and kick both sides simultaneously. When he starts walking stop kicking.
To stop the horse, breathe out, sit down in your saddle a little bit and lean back, and lift up both reins. If he won’t come to a stop with this cue, slide your hand down the left rein and flex his head around.
These are the basic, basic moves of horse rider training-walk, stop, turn in both directions, and move the hindquarter in both directions. In future articles we’ll cover changing speeds and advanced movements like side passing.