When working with horses, whether yours is young or a seasoned veteran, you will face many training milestones. From your horse’s first ride, to his initial trip away from home, you will have to prepare for countless new challenges.
Developing a training strategy to help both of you succeed through it all can sometimes be overwhelming. This new series, with trainer and clinician Josh Nichol, is designed to guide you through an entire year of first experiences.
Here, Nichol begins by explaining how to effectively introduce the saddle. The following techniques apply equally to veterans who struggle when tacking up.
To help work through the following exercises, Nichol recommends using a soft rope halter, a 12-foot lead rope and a flag. Craft your own flag by attaching a plastic bag to a crop or dressage whip. Slice the bag into a few strips and you will be ready to begin.
“Keep in mind as you’re working through this series that introducing horses to new skills is something many trainers specialize in,” said Nichol. “This series is designed as a guide, but if at any time you encounter difficulties, it’s always a good choice to find a reputable professional trainer to help you along.”
Softness Through the Lead Rope
“Horses learn through the principle of pressure and release,” explained Nichol. “To train a horse without creating brace, you must keep his mind present and relaxed while rewarding every effort. That means releasing all pressure as soon as your horse tries his best to do as asked while you simultaneously ask him to release any anxiety.
“It’s a question of clear communication and timing and this is where the rope halter and lead rope play an important role.
“Whenever you spend time with your horse, be aware of any tension that creeps into your lead rope. You will feel pulling against your hand when this happens. Close your fingers around the rope, lower your hand and release as soon as your horse decreases the tightness.
“This is what I call ‘softening through the lead rope’ and it’s something I am constantly doing, whether I’m on the ground or applying the same principle to my rein while riding.
“It’s also important to consider that to create a soft feel in your horse, you must first offer the same softness you’re hunting for. If your body is braced and you have a death-grip on the lead rope or rein, your horse will be incapable of relaxing. Think of creating looseness through your hands and entire body and your horse should respond in kind.”
Introducing the Saddle Pad
Introducing your horse to a saddle pad is the ideal preliminary exercise to saddling. The goal will be to note your horse’s reactions and to remove any resistance.
Stand at a 45-degree angle to your horse’s left shoulder and lightly hold the lead rope in your left hand. Begin by touching your horse’s shoulder with either the flag or tail end of your lead rope, to get a sense of any fear or brace that appear.
“If this stage creates worry, don’t be in a hurry to heighten the pressure by placing anything on your horse’s back,” said Nichol. “Once you’re ready to begin introducing the saddle pad, gently throw it over your horse’s back while you remain attentive to signs of apprehension such as raising the head or moving away.
“If this happens, keep the pad in place as you ask for softness through the lead rope and remove the pad as soon as your horse begins to relax. If you release the pressure any sooner, you will have trained your horse to tighten. Keep this principle in mind as you work through all of the following exercises.
“Once you’re able to throw the pad on to your horse’s back and slide it off while he remains relaxed, try rubbing it over his neck, hindquarters and legs,” said Nichol. “Then use the pad as if it were a saddle and drop in onto your horse’s back with weight. Once you can maintain relaxation throughout all of these steps, you’ll have a horse who in the proper mindset to accept his first saddle.”
Simulating Cinch Pressure
“A simple way to teach your horse to soften to the front and rear cinch is to loop your lead rope around his barrel, at both the front and rear girth areas,’ said Nichol. ‘Tighten the rope around your horse’s body to create a snug pressure at one of the cinch areas and ask for softness through the lead rope. Remember to release the pressure the moment your horse relaxes. Praise him.
“If your horse swishes his tail, moves or kicks out slightly, maintain your pressure and ask for softness. Practice this exercise on both sides and then ask him to walk and trot around you until he remains relaxed through it all.”
“When introducing the saddle, it’s important to be mindful of the weight you are about to place on your horse’s back,” cautioned Nichol. “Introduce the saddle gently, until your horse becomes accustomed to its new feel.
“To avoid having your saddle slip off, keep one hand on the horn or pommel as you work through the initial steps. This will allow your horse to work through the pressure of wearing a saddle while allowing you to easily remove it if required for safety.
“Again, hold the lead rope loosely in your left hand or lay it over your forearm as you stand facing your horse’s left shoulder. Let your horse smell the saddle and, as always, remove any tension by asking for softness through the lead rope.
“If your horse remains relaxed, gently let the saddle fall onto his back. If your horse tries to move away, steady the saddle with one hand as you ask him to soften and stop his feet with the lead rope. As soon as your horse stops and relaxes, reward him by removing the saddle.
“Repeat this process from both sides. This is a big moment in your horse’s education and ending the training session here, while your horse is still attentive, will reap maximum rewards.
“When you’re ready to progress, pull the cinch around your horse’s girth area and hold it in place for a short moment. Ask for softness then release the cinch and praise your horse. Try again after he’s had a moment to register his success.
“If your horse is a natural and doesn’t react to the cinch, consider him well-prepared, but release the cinch anyway. This
reward will boost his confidence.
“Once your horse is completely comfortable with these steps, begin putting them all together.
“Place the pad over the withers and let it slide down to where it naturally wants to rest on the horse’s back. Lift the saddle and let it bump the horse’s sides slightly and remove any tension this might create. Once your horse finds this comfortable, let the saddle softly fall onto the pad. Hold the pommel or the horn and move the saddle slightly from side to side helping it find its proper placement.
“Reach for the cinch and wrap the latigo through the ring a couple of times and then pull firmly to tighten. Once again, undo the latigo and release as your horse relaxes. Praise and then repeat.
“The next step will be to tighten the front cinch and then proceed to the rear one if you’re using a western saddle.
“The rear cinch should be used from the very beginning to properly train a horse to relax in complete gear. As long as the cinch simulation exercise was practiced correctly, this should not pose a problem.
“Allow the cinch to lightly touch your horse’s underside. If it’s too tight, your horse will feel restricted. f it’s too loose, your horse could catch a hind hoof in the gap.
“After you’ve secured the saddle, ask your horse to take a few steps and then tighten the front cinch a bit more until it is quite snug. You definitely want to prevent any slippage that might cause a wreck.”
Asking Your Horse to Move Out
“I will usually keep a horse on the 12-foot line when I first ask him to move out with tack,” said Nichol. “This allows me to help him through any initial struggle.
“Ask your horse to walk as you help him soften through your hand. Once you sense that your horse is entirely comfortable, ask him to trot. Once that becomes easy, advance to the canter.
“The idea is to ask your horse forward comfortably while looking for a reaction to the saddle. It’s important to work through any resistance or insecurities while you’re still safely on the ground.
“If your horse does buck or rear, continue to move him forward until he begins to show signs of acceptance and relaxation. This is where gently shaking your flag to keep him moving forward is key. If your horse rushes out of control, stop his forward movement for both your safety and his. Generally though, your horse should never rest while he’s resisting the saddle.
“Once your horse is able to walk, trot and canter without worrying about the saddle, let him move freely in the round pen. It’s important to deal with any struggles he might have off the line before you transition from the ground into the saddle. Continue to send him forward if he is still adjusting to the new feel by bucking or rushing and remove all ressure as soon as he settles.
“I do think there is great value in treating the introduction of the saddle as a progression of separate pieces,” stressed Nichol. “Take your time. Training your horse to enjoy being saddled is a lesson that will serve him well throughout his life. It’s simply a question of investing time and consistently asking him softly forward.”