Friday, January 7, 2011

Saddle Up!

Time flies, suddenly it's a New Year. The Last two weeks having been action packed. Not only was it the holiday season. But big things have been happening on the farm; Sonny has been haltered, and taught to lead for the first time. He's also had his first vet check, and the biggest change of all, him and his mother, Fern, are now in with the main herd of horses, as is young Hope and her mother. The week before Christmas was crazy, with a whole bunch of school children on the farm during the day for summer horse riding camps that I run with a friend. I also met a lovely and inspiring New York couple who are in the middle of sailing the world, after getting to know them, they came to meet the horses and to learn to ride. Last but not least the wild stallion, Matai, had a saddle on f or the first time today. Oh and unfortunately the internet in my area has been completely down, so I could update any of my progress on my blog.

This picture is taken literally about ten seconds after I first put the saddle on. Breaking in Horses is not rocket science. It doesn't have to be traumatic for the horse or rider, and it doesn't have to involve 'breaking the horse', although in the hands of idiots, both these things happen. Also like the saying 'there's more than 9 ways to skin a cat' there are definitely many different ways of doing things with horses. Some good, others not so good. You can also be too nice or 'soft' with a horse and turn them into spoilt monsters or you can be far too aggressive and terrify them for life. It's a fine line. But hopefully I have gotten it right with my wild boy.

For me it is never a case of just deciding one day to go out throw a saddle on their back, girth it up tight and see what happens. I like to know that all my ground work is good, before I add a saddle into the mix. Matai's ground work is very good, by this I mean he can go in a circle around me calmly at whatever speed I ask of him, walk, trot, and canter. He also knows how to stop, turn his hindquarters and front end away from me when asked, back up, as well as react instantly to anything I ask.

So when I go to break them in I always check the ground work at the start of each session. It's a good way to see just what kind of mood the horse is in, and get them focused on the trainer before you start anything new. Matai was his usual charming self, and completely focused on the work at hand. So it wasn't long before I moved on to getting the next stage of getting the gear on him.

The way a horses mind works, it learns not from what you ask them to do but when you stop asking them to do it. For example when you teach a horse to go forward, you keep giving them the aid to go forward until they do it, then you immediately stop asking. They learn that going forward gets you to stop give that particular aid. Well that's the rough idea anyway.

So using this idea, the first step I did, was to get my wild boy, used to the saddle blanket. First, allowing himself to just be touched by the blanket. As soon as he stands still, for the saddle blanket, I take it away again for a few seconds. I repeat this until he stands still every time, then continue with the same method until you can put the saddle blanket anywhere on his body and he just stands happily without moving. Then same process again with the saddle, until he's happy having that taken on and off his back. Like I said there are many different ways of doing things, and this is just my particular way.

Now the next step is where the routine changes a little bit. When you do the girth up for the first time, I don't take it off again, I leave it done up tight enough that the saddle will stay on and not slip, but not so tight that it causes them any extreme discomfort. Because once it's on, you don't want them to learn that they can get the saddle off, no matter what they do. The wild boy, good little thing that he is stood there relaxed through the whole thing, not minding the girth being done up at all. I took a quick picture (above), and then it was time for the real work to start.

It always vital to get a horse moving forwards, rather than standing on the spot, when they are first saddled, because moving forward they can't do too much injury to them self or others. But some horses if allowed to just stand, will panic at feeling a girth done up for the first time, bucking and rearing and throwing themselves over backwards in panic. By sending them forward in a goo d trot, they can't do this, they can buck, but that won't generally, cause them any harm, and they soon learn that it doesn't do any good any way.

This was the case with the wild boy, Matai, he was happy with the girth being done up, walked out a couple steps, realized there was something wrapped tight around his middle, tensed right up, and as I asked him to move forward, he let rip with a series of bucks, that for the first time made him genuinely look like a wild horse.

He twisted and leapt, hit the ground humped is back and leapt, like a cat on fire into the air, with a series of grunting noises, to express the effort exerted in trying to dislodge the thing wrapped tight around him. All I could do was keep him moving forward in a circle, until he relaxed stopped his aerial maneuvers, and was ready to take stock of the situation. Which he did by trotting a few steps turning his body in to face me, then stood trembling, with an expression of a lost child asking for help. Poor boy, I walked over gave him a rub on the head for a few seconds, to say all was well and going to plan, then sent him around me again in a new direction. This time no bucking, a little tense, one eye on me, one eye trying to keep track of the thing tied to his middle. A few circles of this and he relaxed, with blinking of eyes and licking of licks, he could bring his full focus back to me again, turns out the saddle wasn't going to kill him after all.

Another rubbing his head to show all was well, and a tightening of the girth, a few more circles of walk, trot and canter, in both directions, and the stallion from the wild looked like he'd had a saddle on his back his whole life. This relaxed behavior and being at ease with saddle on his back, was the behavior I wanted to reward, so as soon as he was calm and quiet I whipped the saddle on off, and the lesson was over for the day, back to the barn for a feed.

Fingers crossed I will be sitting on his back in a few more days, and then the fun stuff can really begin.