Another horse training missive: The first ride. The bone growth plates on a horse don't close until after the animal is at least five years old so real "work" should wait until then. But that doesn't mean we can't do things that we call getting the horse "backed" (have a rider on its back) or "started", perhaps when the horse is three years old. We've already covered how we can build trust, get the horse comfortable in following our leadership and leaning how to respond to what we ask, so by this time the horse should have learned how to learn.
I also probably would have taught the horse the basics of how to lunge (or longe, both spellings are considered correct) by this time as well and I'll address that in another message as I don't think it is a necessity and, like riding when a horse is not physically mature, it can do more harm on its body than good.
Even though we've already taught the horse how to stand tied up, I like to introduce the saddle with the horse loose or held quietly with a halter lead. The first few times I might just let it sniff the saddle and put it on and off a few times, even leading it around a bit, before tightening the girth. If you've taken your sweet time to this point the girth can be slowly cinched to be snug enough that the saddle won't slip under the belly but not so tight that the horse reacts and fights the pressure. The goal is you don't want the horse to even know how to buck; so don't push your luck.
I'll also by this time have had the horse comfortable accepting the bit in its mouth and even stood beside it and asked it to respond to slight pressure on the reins to turn its head to the right or left. I'll let the horse loose in the indoor riding ring or a small pen for short periods of time with the bit in its mouth so it gets comfortable having it there. I start with a simple snaffle bit; something that puts very little pressure on the horses mouth or jaw. I put my thump in the corner of the horse's mouth with my other fingers on the horses face behind the nostrils and ask it to open its mouth with slight thumb pressure. Once the horse is comfortable opening and closing its mouth when asked then I'll insert the bit. The bit lies in the mouth between the horses incisor teeth and premolars, so if you're careful when putting it in the mouth and the horse has no pre-existing dental issues, the bit doesn't come in contact with or bump the teeth. It lies over the tongue in the back of the mouth. This area where there are no teeth; in what is called the bars of the mouth. A properly managed bit shouldn't hurt a horse any more than a person putting metal objects in their mouth when they eat with a spoon or fork. It should be just one more sensitive and gentle way to communicate with the animal.
By this time the horse should be comfortable being led to beside the mounting block. Ask it to stand square; and walk around petting and scratching it from the ground and then from the mounting block itself. It's fine to set it up so the horse is between the mounting block and a wall so it can't easily move away the first time or two but you want it to be comfortable standing by the mounting block steps where-ever they may be. After a few sessions of this you can start putting some weight on the animals back with your hands or however you can lean over the animals safely. Although the tradition is to mount from the left there is no reason not to work from both sides of the animal.The idea is you want the horse to be so comfortable with all this that when you do step over and onto its back that it isn't overly concerned. If the horse and the mounting block are convenient heights you can get on and off safely without throwing you or your horse off balance. I like to use a western saddle for starting horses as they are a little more secure.
I'll usually have someone with me the first time I want the horse to take a few steps. Remember, the horse by this time knows how to do the untracking activity, back up, and follow other basic directions, so it already knows how to take direction from a handler. If you can "ask" a nervous horse to do something and get a response it'll be that much less likely to panic and "blow up" into a bucking bronco.
So once I do sit on the horse I'll let the horse just stand there. I generally have a little contact with one rein so if the horse get's excited I can direct it's energy by putting pressure on that rein to bend the horses neck so the animals nose and face is bent around toward my knee on that side. But there generally isn't a reason to bend it very far.
I like to have the first few rides end with an experienced assistant walking and leading the horse in a circle around the ring. I tell the person that if the horse gets jumpy I want them to drop the lead rope and get out of the way rather than try to out-muscle a bucking horse. But if we've done all the training slowly as described to this point, it is rare that a horse bucks when first being ridden. Ideally, the horse will follow them from a short distance and we'll walk around the ring in each direction and then I'll make small circles around the assistant if my horse feels the need to keep moving. If all is successful, get off, pet and scratch the animal, and repeat again another day. Leave the bucking for the rodeo cowboys.
Photo: This is Lauren working with an insecure horse that was here for some re-training last fall.