As a horse owner, at some point you’re going to work with a horse that you’re not familiar with. Whether you purchased your horse sight unseen or at an auction, or you’re just not familiar with his training history, it’s important to take the time to get to know him so you can understand what his strengths and weaknesses are, and better understand what you’ll need to work on in the future.
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By going back to the basics and using my checklist, you can see how your horse reacts to basic signals, so you both can be on the same page going forward with your riding career.
On the Ground
Completing a few ground exercises before getting on to ride helps you simulate what your horse will do under saddle and also help you evaluate how he’ll react in the arena.
Walk around. Tie one rein to the saddle horn so it doesn’t fall down or get in the way, and ask your horse to walk around you. Take note on how he’s traveling. Does he have fire coming out of his nostrils? Does he have a hump in his back? Or is he walking around you in a relaxed manner? Be sure to work in both directions.
Back up. Untie your rein from the saddle horn, and ask your horse to back up by standing near your saddle on the left side, and pull your reins back so they’re in a similar position as they would be if you were riding. Notice his reaction. Does he willingly move his feet? Does he back crooked? Do you have to pull hard to get him to move?
Flex from side to side. While still standing on the left side of your horse, work on bending his nose to the left to see how he responds to bit pressure. Then move to the right side to see how he bends to the right.
In the Saddle
Once you’ve had the chance to do a couple of ground exercises, it’s time to complete your riding checklist. Don’t worry about the length of your first ride. Instead, take this time to learn how your horse reacts to different cues.
Mounting. When you get on for the first time, err on the side of caution, and make sure your reins are short enough that you have good contact. Before you swing your leg completely over the saddle, put weight in the left stirrup to see how he responds. If he wants to stand still, finish mounting. If he starts to walk off, dismount, back him up a few steps, and then let him settle before trying again.
Stand quietly. Once you’re on, give your horse some rein, and sit in a neutral riding position. If he tries to walk off, calmly ask him to back up a few steps, and then release your hand and sit again. Move around a bit in the saddle to see how he reacts; if he stands still you can continue on.
Flex at the walk. Pick up a rein in each hand, and ask your horse to depart into a walk. Have him bend his head in both directions. Notice how he flexes. Is it similar to how he flexed on the ground? Does he relax? Or does he pull against the pressure of the bit? Note whether he’s stiffer on one side of his body.
Back up. Even though you’ve already asked him to back on the ground, ask him again in the saddle. Keep his nose tipped to one side so you’re not pulling him straight back and to eliminate the possibility of him rearing. If his feet move freely, stop pulling. If his feet are stuck and he’s resisting, don’t pull harder; instead create energy with your feet. Once his feet start moving, release your hand to reward him.
Trot. As you ask for the trot, keep your reins fairly loose—but still have enough contact that you’re ready in case he takes off—and steer him to the left and right. Feel how he moves at the trot, how he steers, and how he feels when you ask him to bend.
Lope. Once your horse is responsive at the trot, ask for the lope. Start by trotting him, and let him ease into the lope. Guide him around on his own to see what he wants to do. Does he want to go forward? Does he drop his shoulder in and dive? Quit riding to see how well he’s paying attention to you. If he stops going forward, it shows he’s paying attention to what you’re doing. If he doesn’t stop, address it in a positive manner.
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