Solo has had a few quiet days this week. We had a busy carriage driving clinic hosted at Hawkridge followed straight away by my being away for two days. I try not to have breaks in a young horse’s training. I like to keep them quietly going forward six or seven days a week until I reach the stage where I can go into the stall, tack up and go out riding. I don’t consider the horse ‘broken’ or ‘trained’ at this point. I just have it to the point that I can simply go and ride the horse. Solo didn’t have the time off but neither did he get any new lessons. Just some relaxed ponying around the property. He was very struck by the carriages!
One of the high points when I am training young horses is that moment when you first ‘get on’. I usually do about four weeks work before I actually back the horse. My daughter Selena and I both share in the backing of the horses, pretty much ‘staking a claim’ to backing a particular horse when it comes into the barn. In Solo’s case, he had already been very nicely backed when we bought him, in fact, we both sat on him and were led around the arena when we first looked at him to buy. However, this is a special horse for us, we are going to keep him for a long time and he is too young to be riding much anyway, therefore we have been bringing him on through all the usual routines of in-hand work and lunging. The only thing we have not done with him is long line him. I will do some long lining through the upcoming winter, to keep him interested whilst trapped in the indoor arena. This gives me an option to excerise and train him without having weight on his developing back muscles or continuously circling on his developing joints. Keeping a three year old horse actively involved in a training program through a Canadian winter is a lesson in balance. I feel that I walk a fine line in terms of being able to work the horse’s mind and body without overloading it’s physique.
Initially when backing, we just stand on the mounting block and groom the mane, or pretend to brush the neck. I find the pretend grooming adds a touch of the ‘old hat and understood’ to a new and somewhat unnerving procedure. The next stage is to lean and push down on the saddle. Then, when the horse is completely comfortable with the working from above, with an experienced handler at the head of the horse, one of us will lean on the saddle, stomach first, and be led for a few steps.
All of these first steps take place slowly and in a work area where the horse is comfortable and relaxed. The horse does his normal work routine first, lunging or ponying. When it is obvious that the horse is quite happy to have the weight across him, I sit up and continue to be led around. We either mount from a mounting block or from the ground. To get from leaning over to sitting up, the rider swivels around slightly and the assistant feeds the rider’s left toe carefully into the stirrup. The rider then takes weight on the stirrup and brings the right leg over. The last thing is for the rider to actually sit up. We stay down on the horse’s neck for a few moments then sit up slowly and gradually.
The backing routine takes about a week and would be something like the following:
- day 1 – work around horse from above
- day 2 – work around horse from above and lean over saddle
- day 3 – work around horse from above and lean over saddle + walk a few strides day 4 – lean over, walk a few strides then slowly sit up
- day 5 – lean over, walk a few strides, slowly sit up, walk a few strides.
- day 6 – get on, walk a few strides sitting up.
We have had a few horses that took longer and I am sure there have been many whom we could just have got on and they would not have minded. My belief is that by stopping each day’s lesson after only one increment of the mounting process has taken place, I minimize the number of ‘difficult’ moments during the backing process. It’s sometimes hard to be patient.