Of all the memorable ‘firsts’ you’ll share with your horse, none will likely generate the combination of excitement and apprehension quite like climbing into the saddle for your first ride.

Without question, asking your horse to take those few initial steps with you in the saddle can be daunting. In this article, trainer and clinician Josh Nichol shares training methods that will help you and your horse prepare for that all-important first ride.

Getting Started

“Your first ride is the natural progression of groundwork, which makes it crucial as ever to review past lessons before moving on,” said Nichol. “Begin by verifying that your horse’s mind is relaxed and focused as you ask him to soften through the lead rope while moving his nose, shoulder and hindquarters out of your space from both sides.

“You should also be able to ask him forward at a walk, trot, canter and back to a halt by using your intention, energy and flag if needed.

“It also goes without saying that by now your horse should be familiar with a sidepull and he should stand quietly at the mounting block. (See Mounting Block 101 in Horse-Canada March/April 2011.)

“It’s crucial that all of these simple questions generate a soft response rather than fear. If your horse still tightens when you apply pressure from the ground, you’ll be dealing with that same resistance from the saddle and setting yourself up to fail.”

Moving Off the Leg

“To transition into the saddle, your horse will first need to understand the meaning of your leg,’ said Nichol. “From the ground, ask your horse to remain still as you lift one stirrup and let it gently bump twice against his side.

“If your horse steps forward, praise him. If he doesn’t immediately respond, use your flag as additional pressure and keep bumping the stirrup until he moves ahead. Stop and generously praise the moment this happens.

“As your horse begins to consistently move ahead whenever he feels the stirrup against his side, pay closer attention to your lead rope. If you feel it tightening, continue to ask your horse forward as you close your hand and wait for a bit of slack to make its way back into the rope as your horse relaxes. Switch sides.”

Stepping into the Stirrups

“I recommend having someone hold your horse as you initially climb into the saddle,” said Nichol. “Stand in the stirrup while your helper asks for softness. As soon as your horse releases any tension, step down and praise him.

“After stepping up and down a few times, remain standing in the stirrup with your hips tucked over your horse and rub his neck on both sides. Once you feel your horse relax, step down.

“In order to simulate every step before you ride, swing one arm up and over the saddle and rest it on your horse’s offside. Look for softness through the lead rope and repeat until your horse remains relaxed and almost bored by this step.

“Next, ease yourself into the saddle. Praise your horse and give him the opportunity to absorb the fact that having you on his back is no cause for concern.

“It’s best to familiarize your horse with mounting from both sides from the beginning; eventually, we all find ourselves somewhere where only mounting or dismounting from the right will do.

“Once this becomes effortless, swing your free leg over but do not place your second foot in the stirrup. Sit for a moment and then dismount as soon as your horse is soft through the lead rope. Praise him and call it a day.

Passenger Lesson

“No matter how well-prepared a horse is, the extra weight and unfamiliar balance point of a rider will create brace in the young horse,” explained Nichol. “To help him cope, occupy his mind by having him concentrate on things he already understands.

“For this you will need to enlist the help of someone who understands the ins and outs of the groundwork exercises you’ve already worked on. Since familiarity is key, continue to use the rope halter. I recommend slipping it over a sidepull as this is the ideal training bridle to help you progress through the initial rides.

“Once you’re back in the saddle, your goal will be to do absolutely nothing other than concentrate on keeping your body relaxed while you follow your horse’s motion.”

Hold onto your saddle for added security while you consider the following:

“First, your horse’s instincts tell him to flee or buck when anything grips his back. Focus on breathing and keeping your legs and upper body as supple as possible.

“Second, young horses often forget who is on their back. Remind your horse that it’s you and not a predator by praising him and stroking his neck repeatedly. This will build his confidence while helping him figure out his new job.

“Begin by having your helper take hold of the lead rope in one hand and the flag in the other. He or she should begin by asking your horse to move his head, shoulder and hindquarters over, just as you asked at the beginning of your training session.

“Next, your helper should ask him forward into a walk, gently using the flag if necessary. It’s important to keep everything simple and give the horse an opportunity to work out his balance.

“Once your horse has softened to your presence and is feeling confident, end on this positive note.

“Later, when you’re ready to progress, loosely hold your reins while your helper remains connected by the lead rope. Nudge your calves against your horse’s sides to ask him forward. Give your horse a moment to respond. If he doesn’t, ask your helper to step forward while he or she gently shakes the flag. Praise as soon as your horse moves forward, let him travel for a few strides and then sink your weight down into the saddle to ask for a halt. Repeat until your horse responds immediately to your leg without the help of your ground person.

“Once you’re comfortable, ask your helper to remain in place while you increase your energy, gently squeeze your legs and ask your horse forward into a trot. Again, should he struggle, your helper will be there to add pressure and send him forward. Quiet your body and your legs as soon as he trots.”

Going it Alone

“If you’re feeling up to the challenge of starting your horse on your own, the following principles should get you started,” said Nichol.

“My first recommendation is to work in a round pen or small arena so that all forward movement can be encouraged. Then, verify that your horse understands the meaning of the rein. Standing next to him, hold the rein closest to you and gently pull it towards the saddle. Your horse should flex his neck slightly and look towards you.

“Release as he makes an effort to flex and repeat this exercise until your horse remains soft and attentive as a result of the pressure placed upon the rein. Work at this until it becomes effortless on both sides.

“Once you’re in the saddle, try again. Take hold of a single rein and gently bring your hand towards your hip. Do not release until your horse gives to the pressure. Practice this on both reins.

“Next, you’ll want to gain control of your horse’s hips. Pick up one rein and apply pressure in the direction of your horse’s hip. Hold until he steps under with his hindquarters. Fully release the rein and allow your horse to move forward if he chooses to. Alternate reins and move your horse’s hindquarters from side to side a few times, releasing only when your horse puts some softness into the movement of each hip.

“Once you’ve established this basic control over your horse’s hindquarters, forward should become the primary question. This will allow engagement and balance to develop.

‘”t this point in your horse’s training, I recommend allowing your reins to fall loosely onto the withers as you hold them with only one hand. It may be counter intuitive, but you do not want to risk interfering with your horse’s forward movement by holding on tightly to the reins.

“At this early stage, the key is to keep your horse moving. Praise him at all gaits and remember that where he goes is not that important.

“Your focus for now is to train his response to your leg. Gently nudge your legs against his sides while asking for a forward step. If he doesn’t respond, do not train him to ignore your leg by continuing to bump. Instead, empower your leg aid by shaking your flag until he makes an effort to move and then release.

“This is the same exercise you trained on the ground and your horse should be both familiar and confident with it. If he continues to struggle, dismount and redefine the stirrup from the ground. It’s always best to break down each element and clarify the question rather than increase pressure to a level that causes panic or an argument.

“Whether you’re working through these notable first rides on your own or with the help of a ground person, it’s important to keep building the expectations you have of your horse while realizing that there’s a fine line between building a young horse’s confidence and pushing him too far.

“It’s all about building upon past successes and challenging both yourself and your horse. As soon as you’re comfortable at the walk, trot and canter in the round pen, move into a larger arena and then perhaps an open field. Horses often become bored with familiar surroundings; do not fear challenging your horse’s limits and expose him to as many new surroundings as you can.

“Our next article will help prepare you for the trails. In the meantime, have fun and treasure the memories these first few rides will bring.”