The Best Baby Horsie

I have SO MUCH to write about and so much media that it’s a little overwhelming. Thunderbirdy has been his superb self, charging through the EM work already with great gusto, revolutionising his canter, and just being my bestest dance partner.

But today I want to gush some more about my Faith pony.

First, she actually looks like a horse now, which is a great relief. Not a super pretty horse, granted, but at least something horse-esque. We’re approaching her four-year-old year so mercifully it should be all uphill from here (SHOULD).

Her training is going great. Physically, all we’ve really achieved is a canter where all the legs go in the same direction and the ability to trot over poles.

All the training we’re doing right now is emotional. We’re talking about how standing still is a safe space, too. About how nothing I ask her to do is painful, and about how the thing I want is the easy thing.

We’re discussing how new things never mean punishment, but are neutral or result in praise when dealt with quietly. We’re talking about forward and straight.

Most of our rides are spent sparking these kind of conversations using obstacles or going on outrides. We’ve done little working riding courses and “jumps” (crosses small enough to just trot over). In fact, she’s more than ready to go into a connection and start learning throughness and bend. She just needs her teeth to be done first. For now I have her in a Nathe and ride on a long, floppy rein.

In the interim, we have quiet conversations about respect and patience. We acknowledge each other as strong-minded young women who both have valid opinions and realistic needs. Every ride, we’re learning to trust each other a little bit better.
We’re keeping it conversational. We’re keeping it fun.

I love this horse on hacks. She’s just a baby but she’s such a genuine baby – a nice, normal baby horse with no baggage and no vices who just loves to work. She prefers to lead, with her little ears pricked and her stride long and swinging through her whole body. Sometimes we still have our babysitter go in front for scary things, but she’s pretty good about everything. She has an honest little spook and if she’s unsure she just stops and has a look until she knows it’s safe.

Soon we’ll start bending and connecting and test riding. For now, we go on hacks. We fool around on a loose rein. We ride bareback. On Sunday, we’re going to her first ridden show. We’re doing ground poles, but if we just unload and stand at the show quietly all day, that’s cool too.

It’s not about what we’re doing. It’s about what we’re talking about. I’m in no hurry and I allow no one to prescribe to me what my journey with my beautiful baby horsie is supposed to look like.

The only opinions that matter are my horse’s and God’s. And I’m enjoying every heartbeat with them both.

Glory to the King.

Training Horses Update

Precious Emmy went from strength to strength in the past two months, so much so that her owner took her out of training in the end of February. We are still trying to find a new home for her, but for now K has taken her over, and her owner comes for a lesson whenever she can. I secretly hope to sell Emmy within the yard because she is such a gem, but she’ll go where God sends her.

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good Emmy jumping with her mom

That leaves me with the threesome – Savanna, Champagne and Titan. All three have been progressing steadily; Titan the fastest, of course, because he’s a starter and they are just so easy without baggage.

He has not been without his setbacks, though. He was just starting to cruise along nicely in mid-January, doing all his figures and trying out a few steps of canter, when he gave himself a very gory and melodramatic overreach.

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photo when injury was already about 4 weeks old and the giant flap of dying skin had been cut off. You don’t want to see the photos when it was new

This put him out of commission for a solid month. But he is a bright little button so when we brought him back into work, we got back on track quickly, and now he has walk/trot/canter in the dressage arena. He occasionally says he would like to buck through the trot-canter transition, which I blame on being an Arab. Maybe it’s just me, but every single Arab I’ve ever ridden has wanted to do that, and every single one has decided against it with some persuasion.

He’s a good chap actually, and typical of his breed; smart, sensitive, hardworking, and possessing both a cheeky streak and a sense of humour. He’s alert to his surroundings, which manifests as an honest and straightforward kind of spook, but also curious, which manifests as very quickly getting over a spook. In many ways, he reminds me strongly of Lancelot.

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Savanna has put on so much weight and muscle tone she’s nearly unrecognisable as the boring little brown horse that showed up here last winter. Her flatwork is pretty solid now, with all the Prelim work solidly installed. Her old running out habit has all but gone, and she jumped two 70cm rounds in March in a quiet rhythm with only a couple of poles down.

Unfortunately, the rhythm and relaxation just aren’t quite there yet. She still wants to run and pull, although usually not on the approach, but on the landing. I assume somebody used to get hidings if she jumped badly. All these nasty old issues keep rearing their ugly heads, but we’re squashing them one by one, and this will be a super horse once we’ve squashed them all.

With her child, I have scaled their jumping way back, because his nerves feed her nerves and then they both end up in a vicious cycle. I have to fix her first before we can work together to fix him. But on the flat, she has been everything she needs to be, even at shows. “Willing and obedient horse” was a comment I did not think I would ever see on this horse’s dressage tests.

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Champagne’s spooking, with me, is practically a thing of the past. If there is legitimate cause, she will still have a little spook, but I’ll say honestly that Thunder spooks more often than she does. At shows, it’s still a different matter. She’s controllable, but tense. So our main focus now is to get kids riding her and to get her to as many outings as we can.

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her condition is finally there, too

In our flatwork, as usual, I’m still working on getting her to use her body properly. Psychological and training issues turned into a whole vocabulary of evasive behaviours that we’re still slowly easing out. She no longer bolts wildly across the arena but you better believe if she doesn’t know what to do, that head is going into the sky. Showing her how good a long and low stretch feels was a massive breakthrough.

She has always been good at going “on the bit”, in terms of being soft in my hands, but it was always just a curl. I spent a lot of time teaching her to take the reins and actually connect to something, and then that became a long period of pulling and fighting my hand, but now we seem to finally be getting somewhere.

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losing back and withers and breaking at the third because child’s hands have gone on their own mission
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shortly after I yelled at aforementioned child about said hands; not truly through yet, but lifting somewhat
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how she generally works with me now: loin is lifting, base of the neck is lifting, hind end is starting to come through, and suddenly we have a topline

I’m planning to ship Champagne out to my next lesson with Coach J, to achieve both an outing for Champagne and Coach J seeing what Thunder is like when he goes somewhere with a girlfriend. Maybe Coach J will have some magical remedy. She’ll also do our in-house show in April and I plan to find a nice, quiet training show for Emmy, Faith, Champagne and Titan in the next month, so that’s what’s on the horizon for all of them.

Eagerly looking for another training horse, but loving these three in the meantime.

Glory to the King.

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2018 Goals: Training Horses Q1

I hope to pick up one or two more training horses in the next month or so, but for now, let’s look at the foursome that are booked in already. As the goal is to pass them on to their owners as quickly as possible, I’ll be setting quarterly instead of annual goals for them.

Champagne

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Pagney has taken time to get where she’s gotten, but we’ve still seen considerable progress. The first week we had her, it took three of us to lead her across the stableyard – in order to turn her out in the lunging ring, the only place that could hold her. Now, we’ve got our first trip off the property under our belts, as well as her first show. It was just our home show, but she only had one little spook and the judges thought she was rather sweet.

Having sorted the worst of the remedial issues, as well as getting all the physical things thoroughly checked out, we can hopefully move on to some proper schooling and showing now.

2018 Q1 goals:

Shows:

  • Early Feb: Pre-HOY – in-hand, show riding and show hack
  • Late Feb: HOY – in-hand, show riding and show hack. For both of these shows, my only goal is for her to have a good experience.
  • March: SANESA Q2, if, and only if, she coped well at HOY. At least dressage, probably prix caprilli and performance riding as well. If HOY was a bit dodgy, we’ll do a training show or something quiet.

General:

  • Improve on her habit of throwing her head and running forward when scared.
  • Improve the consistency of her connection, particularly through transitions.
  • Improve her trot-canter transitions to the point where I can get the lead almost all the time without bucking.

 

Savanna

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Savanna has also shown quite a lot of improvement, with most of the remedial work also out of the way. This year she will be competing in dressage with her child, but I really want to hand her over to him almost completely in the last quarter so that he can showjump her at 70cm in 2019. I’ll probably always recommend having this horse in half training to the clients, but my goal is to improve her to the point where it’s only necessary as a precautionary measure. Old habits die very hard and have a nasty habit of resurrecting.

2018 Q1 goals:

  • Confirm all the Prelim work, including the stretches, square halts, and the little lengthening.
  • Continue working on gymnastics to improve her carefulness to the point where poles down happen once in a blue moon. Prepare to start schooling over 70-80cm fences in the second quarter.
  • Jump at least two clear rounds at shows.

 

Emmy

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Emmy’s owner wants to put her on the market pretty soon, so if all goes according to plan she’ll sell during this quarter, but we’ll keep on schooling until that happens. She’s already giving me bits of canter and all the trot figures – including an obedient walk/trot test at our show, albeit with her nose happily in the sky and her spine bent like a banana – so we’re also going to look at her first show or two in February/March if the owner wants.

2018 Q1 Goals:

Finish preliminary schooling:

  • confirm a united and balanced canter, with transitions and circles
  • hack alone and in company
  • introduction to small fence

Introduce to shows:

  • go to a show and have a good experience.

 

Titan

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I’ll probably have Titan all year too, since his kid is pretty new and definitely not ready for a greenie, so he can only be handed over once he is really quiet and reliable in all situations. Still, we’ll take it one quarter at a time, with an eye on the eventual goal of the kid doing SANESA 2019 on him.

2018 Q1 Goals:

Finish backing:

  • introduce trot
  • introduce canter
  • introduce the big arena.

Start preliminary schooling:

  • introduce the figures
  • establish a united canter, including circles
  • introduce small, simple fences
  • hack alone and in company (he will be spooky; it doesn’t have to be perfect).

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I can’t wait to see my babies blossom into the horses their kids will love. Glory to the King.

 

 

Training Horses Update

The five horsies in training have been ticking over quite nicely.

In fact, for some of them, that’s probably an understatement. Emmy went from accepting tack to going on the lines quickly. During her first session on the long lines I thought she might be going to kill me since she spent quite a lot of time head flipping, running back and threatening to rear. In the next session, though, I saw sense and swapped my favourite backing bit for the thinnest little French link I have and the problem was mostly solved. Most babies like the fat single joint full cheek, but thoroughbreds and their small mouths would have to be different.

She still head-flipped a tiny bit, but I suspect that her teeth want to be seen to, and they will when my dentist comes again. So it wasn’t long before I was sitting on her,

why can’t my leg always be like this?

and then riding around. She had been ridden on the track about seven years ago, so as expected she didn’t mind me being up there, but she had kind of forgotten what aids were, so it took a little while to get her confident and relaxed in walk. But soon we progressed to the big arena in walk and trot.

She does like to fall in quite dramatically on the right rein. I strongly suspect an issue with a left tooth, so I don’t make too much of a scene about it, but it’s already much improved compared to this photo from her first ride. Even the head-flipping is much better, probably because I ride my babies on little or no contact and she’s starting to trust my hand not to hurt whatever it is that’s hurting in there. I won’t be putting this on the bit until we’ve sorted it out.

For now we’re walking and trotting figures in the dressage and had three or four steps of canter in our last session, so I’m pretty happy.

Champagne has been drawing shapes in the sand – even on the spooky end, which seems to be no longer spooky. We had to avoid it the other day because our oldest cow, Fiona, was lying right next to the arena fence, chewing cud and swishing her tail and making little Fiona noises, and Champagne just didn’t deal that day. Otherwise, she pretty much goes like a normal young horse now.

She is doing our in-house show next Saturday, so we’re putting some work into really schooling her now that the worst of the remedial stuff is out of the way. Her bend now matches left and right and since her teeth were done she’s a lot better about taking my left rein, so connection is better too. She struggles with all canter transitions, though, particularly right. She doesn’t buck through them anymore unless she’s very fresh, but on the right she struggles to get the lead, and the first few canter steps are generally rushing, tense and hollow. This has improved as her bend improved, and we were able to try a few changes through trot, but I don’t expect them to be great at the show.

I don’t really know what to expect from the show. I think she may be quite spooky of the new things next to the arena, like the judge’s gazebo, but I think as long as I stay calm we can work through it. Since it’s my show I can also show her the spooky things before having to ride her and schedule her time for when it’s quietest, so that’s rather a plus.

Titan also finally got over his nerves with the saddle and graduated to the long lines. Like most unspoilt youngsters, he handled these with aplomb and quickly learned all the aids, including halt from any gait. I don’t get clean halts from canter, obviously, but for me it’s just about knowing that whoa means whoa forever and always.

Somewhere between accepting the saddle and long lining, he also finally relaxed about – well, everything. One day he came into work and he was just totally chill and pleasant to be around, like he’d grown up overnight. He stood loose in the stable to tack up, he walked into the wash bay like an old hand, and he stood quietly when I had my first little sit on him. This has since become the norm, and it makes everything much more pleasant for both of us.

Yesterday we did the ride-from-the-ground exercise, and while he had a few moments of tension at first, he cottoned on very fast. Intelligent, willing horses are so easy when they quit panicking. So I hopped on and we did a few steps of rein back and a few steps forward. He was totally relaxed by the whole idea and much more concerned with staring at other horses in the field than with me on his back.

Antwone has been super. Three natural gaits made lunging fairly simple. He is very fresh since he only works once a week when I see him, but once we’ve gotten over the first five minutes of mad running, it didn’t take long to get the voice commands installed. He had one more colt moment where he thought maybe turning his bum on me would be a good idea and was very rapidly convinced otherwise.

So yesterday we moved on to the bridle. He was a bit of a pain to get it on, first because as colts do he was chewing the straps, and then because he put his nose in the air and with that fat little Friesian neck there was no way I was making it come down – highly embarrassing at somebody else’s yard – but once it went on he accepted it pretty quickly. He’s good to lunge in three gaits now (except he can’t really canter left in their smaller ring yet, but it’s like 8-10m so I don’t expect him to) so hopefully his people can put in some lunging and make all our lives easier.

no pictures of Savanna, sorry girl

Savanna has been back on track again. She was getting very much against my hand, both in the contact for connection and when I ask for whoa. Now I know technically I should school her to be more off my seat, but let’s be real. It’s a kid horse, it needs to stop when you pull the reins, the first time, every time. So I employed a pulley rein every time she wanted to rush or ignore my light whoa; if this was right before or over a fence then so be it. She can’t run at fences with her kid. This worked well, and yesterday she and her kid cantered quiet circles over a fairly big fence (for them) without any mad running at all.

For the pulling I was getting in response to asking for connection, I used a trick I learned from Coach K and held the numnah with my outside hand alongside the rein. This anchored my hand in place, so stopping me from pulling back, but also making it harder for her to pull forward. It kills the forearms but by the end she decided that not pulling was just a much easier option.

some of the happy group: Sunè, Renè, Lullaby, Midas, Nugget, Trooper and Titan

We also have grazing for some of the horses at last, which makes my heart very happy. If we’re honest, it’s mostly (non-harmful) weeds, but they’re ponies, they like weeds. Lulu and Trooper have already visibly gained weight after a week in the grazing. Thanks to the abundant provision of rain, a gift straight from the Hand of God.

Glory to the King.

Training Horses Update

The four horsies in training have been ticking over quite nicely.

In fact, for some of them, that’s probably an understatement. Emmy went from accepting tack to going on the lines quickly. During her first session on the long lines I thought she might be going to kill me since she spent quite a lot of time head flipping, running back and threatening to rear. In the next session, though, I saw sense and swapped my favourite backing bit for the thinnest little French link I have and the problem was mostly solved. Most babies like the fat single joint full cheek, but thoroughbreds and their small mouths would have to be different.

She still head-flipped a tiny bit, but I suspect that her teeth want to be seen to, and they will when my dentist comes again. So it wasn’t long before I was sitting on her,

why can’t my leg always be like this?

and then riding around. She had been ridden on the track about seven years ago, so as expected she didn’t mind me being up there, but she had kind of forgotten what aids were, so it took a little while to get her confident and relaxed in walk. But soon we progressed to the big arena in walk and trot.

She does like to fall in quite dramatically on the right rein. I strongly suspect an issue with a left tooth, so I don’t make too much of a scene about it, but it’s already much improved compared to this photo from her first ride. Even the head-flipping is much better, probably because I ride my babies on little or no contact and she’s starting to trust my hand not to hurt whatever it is that’s hurting in there. I won’t be putting this on the bit until we’ve sorted it out.

For now we’re walking and trotting figures in the dressage and had three or four steps of canter in our last session, so I’m pretty happy.

Champagne has been drawing shapes in the sand – even on the spooky end, which seems to be no longer spooky. We had to avoid it the other day because our oldest cow, Fiona, was lying right next to the arena fence, chewing cud and swishing her tail and making little Fiona noises, and Champagne just didn’t deal that day. Otherwise, she pretty much goes like a normal young horse now.

She is doing our in-house show next Saturday, so we’re putting some work into really schooling her now that the worst of the remedial stuff is out of the way. Her bend now matches left and right and since her teeth were done she’s a lot better about taking my left rein, so connection is better too. She struggles with all canter transitions, though, particularly right. She doesn’t buck through them anymore unless she’s very fresh, but on the right she struggles to get the lead, and the first few canter steps are generally rushing, tense and hollow. This has improved as her bend improved, and we were able to try a few changes through trot, but I don’t expect them to be great at the show.

I don’t really know what to expect from the show. I think she may be quite spooky of the new things next to the arena, like the judge’s gazebo, but I think as long as I stay calm we can work through it. Since it’s my show I can also show her the spooky things before having to ride her and schedule her time for when it’s quietest, so that’s rather a plus.

Titan also finally got over his nerves with the saddle and graduated to the long lines. Like most unspoilt youngsters, he handled these with aplomb and quickly learned all the aids, including halt from any gait. I don’t get clean halts from canter, obviously, but for me it’s just about knowing that whoa means whoa forever and always.

Somewhere between accepting the saddle and long lining, he also finally relaxed about – well, everything. One day he came into work and he was just totally chill and pleasant to be around, like he’d grown up overnight. He stood loose in the stable to tack up, he walked into the wash bay like an old hand, and he stood quietly when I had my first little sit on him. This has since become the norm, and it makes everything much more pleasant for both of us.

Yesterday we did the ride-from-the-ground exercise, and while he had a few moments of tension at first, he cottoned on very fast. Intelligent, willing horses are so easy when they quit panicking. So I hopped on and we did a few steps of rein back and a few steps forward. He was totally relaxed by the whole idea and much more concerned with staring at other horses in the field than with me on his back.

Antwone has been super. Three natural gaits made lunging fairly simple. He is very fresh since he only works once a week when I see him, but once we’ve gotten over the first five minutes of mad running, it didn’t take long to get the voice commands installed. He had one more colt moment where he thought maybe turning his bum on me would be a good idea and was very rapidly convinced otherwise.

So yesterday we moved on to the bridle. He was a bit of a pain to get it on, first because as colts do he was chewing the straps, and then because he put his nose in the air and with that fat little Friesian neck there was no way I was making it come down – highly embarrassing at somebody else’s yard – but once it went on he accepted it pretty quickly. He’s good to lunge in three gaits now (except he can’t really canter left in their smaller ring yet, but it’s like 8-10m so I don’t expect him to) so hopefully his people can put in some lunging and make all our lives easier.

no pictures of Savanna, sorry girl

Savanna has been back on track again. She was getting very much against my hand, both in the contact for connection and when I ask for whoa. Now I know technically I should school her to be more off my seat, but let’s be real. It’s a kid horse, it needs to stop when you pull the reins, the first time, every time. So I employed a pulley rein every time she wanted to rush or ignore my light whoa; if this was right before or over a fence then so be it. She can’t run at fences with her kid. This worked well, and yesterday she and her kid cantered quiet circles over a fairly big fence (for them) without any mad running at all.

For the pulling I was getting in response to asking for connection, I used a trick I learned from Coach K and held the numnah with my outside hand alongside the rein. This anchored my hand in place, so stopping me from pulling back, but also making it harder for her to pull forward. It kills the forearms but by the end she decided that not pulling was just a much easier option.

some of the happy group: Sunè, Renè, Lullaby, Midas, Nugget, Trooper and Titan

We also have grazing for some of the horses at last, which makes my heart very happy. If we’re honest, it’s mostly (non-harmful) weeds, but they’re ponies, they like weeds. Lulu and Trooper have already visibly gained weight after a week in the grazing. Thanks to the abundant provision of rain, a gift straight from the Hand of God.

Glory to the King.

Starters Update

Not having backed anything since July, I suddenly find myself up to the eyeballs in babies. Something for which I’m more than grateful – I love them, I feel like I have a vague idea of what I’m doing with them, but every single one is something totally new. And there’s always a leap-of-faith element to tossing a leg over a young horse for the first time.

Faithy is the greenest of them all, and thus progressing the most slowly of them all. I’m also taking it more slowly because I’ll expect more from her someday, and also because, as usual, I find myself crippled by doubts and fears just because it’s my horse. Somehow client horses just seem to be easier. It’s all in my head, of course. They go better because I chill the socks out and do what I know how to do without emotions getting all in the way. I worry far too much about my own.

Faith, however, has been fine. A quite normal three-year-old filly. Less wiggly to groom and bandage up, easier to get to go round in walk and trot. Still separation anxious, and the other day focused so hard on screaming at a buddy who was being brought in for work that she fell through the ring fence. As you do. Mercifully she’s a Nooitie and suffered only a minor bump to her fetlock, some bruises and a cracked ego.

I really need to sort out my own head space before we can make any real progress. It’ll be a matter of going to my knees and giving it to God; as usual, Satan is trying to hit me right where God can most mightily use me. That’s when I know the fight is getting real.


Teddy is by turns effortless and very challenging. He is a hard-trying horse and bright as a button, so intellectual training is dead simple. He’s also a very anxious horse who’s been both hurt and spoiled in the past, so emotional training is a lot less easy. The bridle was a complete non-issue after the usual mouthiness during the first session. 

The saddle is also fine until it slips, then we can get quite a melodramatic and frightened little crow-hopping fit. I really hate to see a young horse doing that. It’s very hard to sit out, for one thing; it’s also almost always out of fear, for another. So we’re taking the whole backing thing very, very slowly.

He also has an issue with standing in the wash bay. He likes to fly back as an answer to everything and can be quite impossible to get in without help, but once in he is OK, although I take the precaution of closing the gates in case he wants to wiggle. Most of ours plop in and then graze while I chuck the lead over the fence and do my thing (including Champagne), but he’ll get there.

Emmy has gone a bit quicker. She does have some racetrack baggage, but she’s older, more sensible, and more experienced. She is obviously backed since she raced a bit, but I start from scratch anytime I’m slightly doubtful.

As expected she took the bridle effortlessly. She doesn’t mind the saddle but can be very touchy about having the girth tightened – somebody obviously had the girth yanked on quite often in her past. (Pet peeve.)

Today I fooled around with hanging over her, flapping the stirrups and patting her all over loudly and she went to sleep, so I put a leg over and had a little sit. She was dead quiet, completely relaxed. I won’t actually ride her until I’ve done the long-lining to check that whoa is a thing (and rearing is not), but I think she’ll be quite nice. She’s a gentle soul.

I totally failed to get photos of starter #4, but he is adorable. He stays at another yard and I only see him once a week, so his progress will be slow. The yard is actually where I was a yard rat in my preteens, so I helped to back his dam and knew his sire well and knew him as a tiny foal (by then I was riding for Ruach). The sire is a Friesian and the dam a little Nooitie/Araby thing, and he is basically a 14hh dark grey Friesian with a dish face. His name is Antwone and I’m not quite sure yet if I’m OK with his being a colt, but he’s only three and doesn’t know it yet, so we’ll take it as it comes.

So happy to have a full training schedule again. Glory to the King.

The Backing Process

I’ve started a lot more horses in the past year than ever before, and it definitely shows in the techniques I’m using now compared to early last year. I thought I’d outline the process here both to monitor its progress and for interest’s sake.

First, the most important thing about the process is it isn’t an important thing. It’s fluid and adaptable and changes to suit every horse. The majority stick with the same principles and on most completely green horses it stays the same. But a tricky temperament, physical issue, personality quirk or remedial problem demands flexibility. It varies according to age, maturity, type and intended future use. Like everything about horses, it’s about listening, not teaching. All I’m sharing is a general pattern, not a one-size-fits-all quick fix.
So here it is.

Pre-Backing

On my own horses, good citizenship is required before backing can be done. They have to lead, load, tie up, stand for dentist – the whole nine yards. On a sale pony or client horse, to save time we do a day of “citizenship” between backing days, so it’s not a prerequisite for the horse to get in a box before I get on its back.

the earlier the better

There are a few prerequisites, though. First, he needs to be comfortable with human contact. Ideally he must crave it. He needs to be good to groom, not flinchy in any way, and enjoy being touched. He can’t spook at sudden movements or noises from us. He needs to be happy around us, but not ever aggressive. No nipping and no turning bums on us.
Second, he’s got to be good on the halter – not just halter trained but good. Good halter training introduces principles he’ll always use: obedience, carrying himself forward, the first voice commands and pressure and release.

Physically, I want him healthy and in good condition, at least three (preferably three and a half or four) and having just had his teeth done and any wolf teeth pulled.

Then we can move on to the first stage of backing.

Stage One: Lunging and Desensitisation

The first step is lunging. I put boots on from the word go because they’re usually a non-event, but apart from that he just goes in a headcollar.

Again, lunging can’t just be done, it must be done very well. It doesn’t help much if he just tears around at a mad trot. I only consider him trained to lunge when I have three forward, balanced and rhythmic gaits from voice commands. This develops the horse’s brain and body together. I may also begin to play with poles or free jumps – whatever the individual needs to improve his way of going. I certainly don’t mess with gadgets at this stage. I’m fixing the back end now; the front comes later.

pole work?

The walk and canter are immensely important. He needs to be comfortable walking or he won’t be when you get on him. I also like my babies to learn a really balanced canter now so I never have to fight with them when I’m on them later. Mine lunge for 20 minutes once a week long after backing is done; 5 minutes trot, 5 minutes canter each rein. The canter needs to be done all at once when the horse is fit for it. Cantering for this long on a 15m circle makes him very strong and balanced.
I make exceptions for young or immature horses. Mature horses that are well into their third year and four-year-olds can do it, but not babyish ones or newly three-year-olds.

When lunging is well established we begin to desensitise. I don’t do much. No tarps or bouncy balls unless the horse has a remedial spooking issue. You don’t have to do much if you do it right and become your horse’s anchor. I’ll flap a numnah at him and that’s it. Then I add the bridle because it takes the longest, lunging him wearing the bridle but with the line on a cavesson or headcollar at first and only adding bit pressure later, and then the lunge roller and finally the saddle. If he ever freaks out, I’ll know I’m going too fast.

lunging with bridle demonstrated by Destiny

Manners also have to be maintained here. If he’s jumping around while I tack him up, I shouldn’t be tacking him up yet!
Once he’s happy lunging in tack, we move on.

Stage Two: Riding from the Ground

Incremental steps are absolutely key. It’s vital to introduce only one thing at a time, and never more so than here. When I introduce the rider, I don’t want to be adding aids at the same time. I want him to have whoa, go, and turn aids before I ever sit on him.

Go aids have been established during lunging with the voice, but they have trouble making the connection to your leg. I use a funny exercise the Mutterer showed me to help with that. Standing beside the saddle, you hold the reins as if you were riding and give the horse the voice command to walk on. If he doesn’t, apply your heel to his guts (softly at first, obviously). Looks awkward but works beautifully.
Whoa and turn is established by long-lining, as well as rein back. It’s extremely important to make your aids soft and light. If you do that now, you never have to go back and fix it later. Again, absolutely no gadgets. Teach whoa before you try and teach frame.

Lastly, I use a turn on the forehand from the ground to establish the leg aid for turning.

Stage Three: Backing

Now for the fun part. This is important: at no point should the horse melt down. If he melts down, I know I’ve messed up. Bucking during backing is not normal. It means you’re going too fast.

First, and I start this right after adding tack, I stand and jump up and down on a block beside him until he’s cool with that. Then I start to put weight in the stirrup, lean over him, and stand up in one stirrup.

When I can lie over him without holding the reins and pat him loudly all over with both hands, then stand up in one stirrup and swing my free leg up and down along his butt, without anyone holding him, then he’s ready to be sat on.

A lot of trainers like somebody to hold the horse when they have their first sit. I used to, but since the yard was opened I don’t really have experienced help and began starting them on my own. I found this works far better. It removes a distracting variable. My new rule is that if I feel it needs to be held, I probably shouldn’t be sitting on it yet.
The first sit should just be another day in the life. I do my leg swinging thing and then I just swing my leg over and sit for a couple of breaths. Then I pop off and we’re done for the day. Walking off is NOT allowed at this stage. He must stand dead still as I mount and, in the next few sessions, wiggle my weight, swing my legs, pat his neck and bum, and bounce (gently). Once he’s cool with that we get some motion going.

Stage Four: Establishing Gaits

I start with rein back, for two reasons. Partially because from my long lining I know it’s an aid he 100% understands, and mostly because I lock up frozen stiff when presented with the first step forward. I nearly got killed by a youngster I pushed too fast a couple of years ago and that memory is not leaving anytime soon. The last thing he needs is for me to be nervous, so I keep it low key and take a step back. This reassures me that he’s not going to blow and reassures him that he can in fact move with me aboard, so then off we go.

The walk takes forever and a day. They’re usually not at all sure that it’s a terribly good idea to cart your butt around and convincing them otherwise cannot be rushed. I refuse to ask for trot until I have an excellent walk. In the walk I establish all the basics; at the touch of my leg he must flow freely forward and stay forward until I say otherwise; he must halt responsively from my seat and stand dead still until I say otherwise; he must turn with reasonable balance.

standing!

It is vital to ride him from my seat and leg now. Teach him that he never halts off my hand alone and he’ll never have to. Midas could halt and turn with both reins floppy in a couple of sessions. Taking the time to implement these responsive aids and forwardness saves months of work later.
Once a quality walk is firmly established, the trot comes quickly, and as soon as we have a good trot with good transitions we move on to canter. These days I do this in the ring, but I used to love the 35 x 15m oval we had at Ruach. They have to have their lunging really good to canter with a rider on in the ring.

If they are going to buck, this is when they do it. I’ve found it’s usually not a fear issue; they’re just figuring out their legs and sometimes it’s easier to try and throw a buck than to actually think about it. These bucks are very minor. They usually do it only once, you pull up his head and shout at him, and that’s an end to it.

It’s also important not to accept the wrong lead once the horse is confidently giving a few strides around the ring. Punishing him for picking up the wrong lead achieves nothing. I just bring him back and quietly ask again. Once again, get the leads right now and it doesn’t become a fight later.

Once we have three gaits in the ring or oval, then congrats, pony is backed! We move on to riding in open spaces and beginning proper schooling. Which, once backing has been done so painstakingly, is just fun.
Now for the million dollar question: how long does it take? As long as it takes. I no longer train a timeline, I train a horse. It certainly doesn’t take 6 or 8 weeks, that’s for sure. But the extra time is well, well worth it in the long run to create a willing, obedient, physically fit and well-rounded partner.

like this one ❤

Glory to the King.