Thursday, May 6, 2010

Starting My Horse Under Saddle

Hello Mitzi,

I am a bit confused about how to start my new horse under saddle. Every time I pick up a magazine or go to a Equine Convention it seems that every trainer says something else. I see everything from groundwork and a gradual introduction to getting on the horse and riding him around in a couple of hours. I just wondered what your thoughts were.

Thanks. Linda, NY


Thank you for writing. I can understand your confusion. It is true that if you ask ten trainers a question you may get ten different answers, but generally if the trainer is working from an established method that has been time-tested, it should not be too different in theory.

One question for you is what kind of a horse do you want at the end of the training? Do you want a partner that trusts you, respects and listens to you, but maintains that "essence of horse" that makes us admire the species in the first place? Or do you want a horse whose spirit has been broken and is a subservient, depressed entity who has unquestioning obedience but is not a "horse" anymore?

You can probably guess from my description of the two horses which one I would rather have. There is not enough space for a detailed answer but I will give you some quidelines. First of all, does what the trainer is doing make sense to you and,more importantly, make sense to the horse? Horses are marvelously intuitive animals with an amazing memory which can work for you or against you.

I would say there are two main methods which are accessible to you. One would be GOOD "Natural Horsemanship". This would involve ground work which can be very positive or can be abusive. Round penning is an example. I use round penning to some degree occasionally, but it can be overdone so that the handler is looking for obedience from the horse because it has been deliberately frightened, chased until it is exhausted, and then submissively accepts the trainer. Good ground work and round penning should create an understanding between human and horse, so that the horse can relate to the handler. This carries on into the saddle work.

I believe that the training should be gradual, as it has been practiced for thousands of years. The violent round penning, working a horse all day, and then getting on him, in my opinion is more about the ego of the trainer than the welfare of the horse. This type of handling was necessary in the American West when literally there were hundreds and hundreds of horses that had to be worked with. When horses were used for the wars and for our calvary, these methods were used as there was just no time for gradual training. This is no longer true. We have the time.

If you want to relate it to you, if you were learning a sport, say basketball, would it be taught to you in a day of constant work, physical and metal, and then you were "thrown into the game" in one day? Of course not, but that is exactly what "one or two day" training does to the horse. Not only is this prey animal expected to understand and accept everything introduced to it, but then it is ridden a long time before it has developed the muscle and stamina to carry a rider. It is an abusive practice, geared for the person wanting a bit of a thrill, and the ego of dominating an animal larger than himself.

The tried and true method of taking many weeks or months to start a young horse is the best solution. You both learn to trust each other, and the horse truly understands and accepts his job. If I am told that a person successfully "broke" a horse in a day, I am not impressed, I am saddened. I have had too many horses brought to me months or years after this was done...all in need of retraining, or physically and mentally broken down.

There are many good books and many good trainers out there. Take your time on selecting what method to follow.