Written by: Karin Apfel

Learn five strategies to help keep your horse focussed under saddle.

Thumbnail for Bombproof Your Horse Part 3: Schooling Under Saddle

Stacey Shaw photo

Schooling under saddle continues to instil or improve the basic lessons your horse was learning on the ground. Through lunging or long-lining you have developed a reliable stop and go button as well as the ability to read your horse’s body language. You know what he looks like when he’s attentive, balanced and relaxed.

For mounted work, the horse’s posture should not change. He still needs to be attentive, balanced and relaxed, go forward or slow down immediately on command. In addition, you can now add or refine more sophisticated responses to your aids. Your horse’s responsiveness will be trained and tested by the following basic manoeuvres. These should be practiced until fluent before tackling any obstacles your horse may spook at.

1. Lower the head
2. Rein-back
3. Leg-yield and/or shoulder-in
4. Turn on the forehand
5. Side-pass/full-pass

These manoeuvres result in a horse that is calm, supple and responsive, all qualities you will need to deal with unexpected difficulties.

Lower the head (sometimes called long and low, or showing the horse the ground) is essentially a stretching exercise that activates the back muscles and engages the hindquarters. It is the position opposite to the one your horse adopts when frightened. If you practice this exercise so that your horse will drop his head and round his back easily on request, you can help your horse relax more quickly when he gets nervous and you’ll have better control.

The rein-back shows softness to the bit and responsiveness to the leg and seat. It can also help you get out of tight spots. It should be a straight, cadenced, two-beat stride.

A leg-yield or shoulder-in is a lateral movement performed in either direction in which the horse moves both forward and sideways. The leg-yield has four tracks (each leg on a different track) and the shoulder-in has three. Both require concentration from your horse and are good for transferring the horse’s attention back to the rider and off of a perceived threat. It also requires flexibility from the horse and is a good test of his state of tension. If the horse is nervous, he will be too stiff to manage this manoeuvre.

The turn on the forehand is the ultimate test of your horse’s responsiveness to your leg aids. His front legs remain in one spot (stepping in place) while his hindquarters make a 180-degree turn. It is useful for opening and closing gates, but also works similarly to the leg yield to regain your horse’s attention and rebalance him so that you can pass by or over difficult objects without a shy.

The side-pass or full-pass is a completely lateral movement with the horse’s front and hind feet crossing over each other. When your horse moves directly sideways, you have a new way to approach or retreat from difficult situations.

Schooling these movements regularly and keeping them fluent is useful for substituting desirable behaviour for undesirable behaviour and will give you a large and reliable toolbox to turn to in tight situations. For example, you hit a tricky spot on a narrow trail and need to turn around without causing your horse anxiety. A turn on the forehand will accomplish this. While waiting to cross a busy road, you ask your horse to lower his head and flex at the poll to help keep him relaxed. Need to get past a scary tractor on the way to the ring? Try a shoulder-in or side-pass to keep your horse flexed, balanced and focused on you. When your horse’s attention wanders onto something in the distance, try a rein-back or turn on the forehand to refocus him. Be as proactive as possible and prevent spooks by working the horse in his comfort zone until he is able to move closer to the scary object. If the worst happens and something unexpected causes your horse to shy, staying calm and immediately putting your horse back to work will help you regain control and help your horse relax.

Training Obstacles

Besides having these exercises in your toolbox for real life situations, you need to remember the five key strategies mentioned in Part 1 (March/April Horse-Canada). If it is possible to train on the scary object (this may not work for traffic, exploding grouse or a loose, barking dog), utilize what you have learned though the groundwork. Keep your horse in his comfort zone for training purposes. This is the only place learning will occur, so you need to continue to set up training situations rather than waiting for them to occur naturally. Ride the horse very gradually out of its comfort zone. You’ll know you are within his comfort zone if the horse is alert to the scary object, but still responsive and soft.

As always, a good bombproofing lesson should look boring. Both you and your horse should come out of the session with a sense of calm confidence. If you only make an iota of progress in one session you are better to end on a good note than to push too hard and provoke anxiety. A thinking rider will protect his horse from dangerous situations and not ask the horse to attempt something that might injure or frighten him. Horses that have been rushed into scary situations will tend to be spookier because of it. On the other hand, a horse that has been allowed to stand and look and take it slowly through a rough spot will build confidence in himself and his rider and be much more relaxed and steady. Developing this sense of trust in the horse is the rider’s ultimate goal.