Question: I am going to get on my horse for the first time soon. She is 3 and I have been round penning her. She has had a snaffle on for the last 6 times and the saddle. She walks quietly and does not seem to be spooky. Should I get on in the round pen first and what other things should I be aware of?
Answer from April Reeves: You sound a bit hesitant to get on your filly. Here are a few things I would look for if someone asked me to get on a horse for the first time.
1. I really like horses that are trained by voice commands as well as physical aids. It helps to back up the physical aids and voice can be used to soothe and calm. It’s all a part of obedience on the ground first.
2. I test whether the youngster is laterally supple. I softly ask their face to follow the feel when I stand to their side and bring their head around. If they are resistant I will not get on until they are soft and giving. This lateral exercise can take a few weeks to accomplish.
3. I demand the youngster has impeccable ground manners. The baby must be able to walk with me and give me space and respect, and to turn and move without me running into him. He is to stop when I stop, not just because I pull back hard to get him to stop. He must be light on the lead with a bit of slack or drape in the lead. I don’t want to pull or push a horse around.
4. I do prefer to ground drive a horse in a bit for at least 3 sessions before mounting with a bit. I want the horse to understand turning and giving to pressure. I want the horse to halt and back a few steps.
5. If the horse is started in a halter, I will not ground drive first, but the horse must be compliant in all the above. By the 5th ride I will put a bit in the mouth, and ground drive them for two or three sessions. Then I will get back on with the bit. I always leave the rope halter on underneath the bridle with the lead attached to the horn.
6. I never break a horse for the first month in an english saddle. While some horses may be fine, I never put myself in that position. Western saddles have their place in the breaking process. I have a saying: “That horse never died before.”
Start your filly in the roundpen. Stay there for about 4 – 5 lessons, until you feel safe and comfortable enough to work in an arena. I don’t suggest taking a baby on a trail if you have not had a good deal of experience starting them. When you advance to the larger arena, have someone there with you for a few times or so.
Upon first mounting, I put my foot in the stirrup and stand up, leaning across the saddle. I often rub the horse on the neck. Then (if everything ‘feels’ good) I will get on the horse. If I don’t feel right I will get off and work on ground manners or whatever it was that triggered a ‘red flag’ for me. If I feel fine, I get on the horse with intention. If you hesitate or ‘mouse’ around the horse will pick this up and lose confidence in you. The result is that horses will do what they need to in order to get free from the situation: buck, run, leave.
I NEVER get on a horse while it is attached to a longe line. I feel that is a recipe for disaster, and have witnessed many people get into trouble with the handler at the end of the line not able to control the horse or understand how to stay out of trouble. I have seen a rider dismount in a hurry only to get tangled in the line and get hurt. I can jump off a horse faster than he can move so I need the freedom to do that. It’s another reason why I keep the halter on and the lead line tied in a mecate over the horn. If I need assistance I will have a handler walk the horse with me for the first time or two.
I simply do not put myself at any unnecessary risk with horses. I do the groundwork and get that horse quiet, obedient and as spook free as possible.
After you get on green horses for enough years you get a feeling for them quickly. I am working two Andalusian babies right now, and the filly just exudes quietness and softness. She is obedient and always gives me both eyes. I am more cautious with the gelding.