By AnniePlease note that this is an informational blog post, not an instruction piece intended as a how-to in training a horse.
Every safe trail riding horse needs to be “bomb proof.” But what does that actually mean? The goal of Vista Verde’s dude ranch breeding and training program is to breed high quality performance horses that are not only phenomenal in reining and cow work but also enjoyable on a trail ride. Teaching our horses to be safe and well mannered starts with teaching them to expect the unexpected. A great horse helps makes a great vacation, after all!
Preparation is key when teaching youngsters. There are several methods we use in starting our young yearlings and 2 year olds to begin to learn how to be handled, saddled and eventually ridden. One of the tools we like to use when introducing young horses to be ridden for the first time is an old sack or grain bag tied to a 50-foot rope. This is a method of desensitizing young horses to their first time carrying something behind their eyes, where eventually a person will end up sitting in the saddle. Other key preparation training has already taken place to set this young horse up for being able to handle this stage.
When starting a horse to carry this noisy little bag, we make sure that our flag training, ground cues to go forward, stop, reverse and turn are already solid in the colt. We have already worked over this horse’s back from the fence, so he has been able to see things going on behind his vision and has shown progress in switching eyes, as objects (flag, pad, saddle, arm, leg, chaps etc) start on one side and end up across his back on the other.
Step 1: Let Him Be Curious
It is important to play off a horse’s natural curiosity and desire to play! Allowing them to be curious builds confidence to check things out and inspect new things rather than shying away from them. We want to develop their “thinking mind” instead of having them getting worried and letting their protective prey instincts take charge. Allowing the colts to follow anything out in front of and below their eyes is the best way to introduce anything new. It is a non-confrontational way to help them to inspect and accept. Being able to pick up and play with the object means the colt is ready and more comfortable with the bag. We will walk around dragging the bag behind us but out in front of the colt so he can clearly see it.
Step 2: Tossing around field of vision
Being able to toss the noisy bag in all areas and not have the movement startle the horse is the goal. This teaches them to accept commotion: people, wildlife, and activity going on unexpectedly around them. It also helps them become used to things happening behind them without those actions being cues to move or go forward. Riders taking off gear, jackets, hats etc is often a cause of discomfort for horses, and their reactions are sometimes seen as unexpected by riders. Once they are comfortable here, it lets us know that it’s now time to start touching the colt with the bag and rope.
Step 3: Touch all over
Most importantly, all horses should be desensitized to having things running between their legs (dogs, children, ropes) because at some point in their lives it is bound to happen. In the images you can see how I will purposefully swing the bag beneath the colt’s belly then drag it towards me and the colt from the opposite side. Again, this engages their “thinking brain” and teaches them not to react. This builds confidence between the horse and human as well. At this stage they start to check in more often and almost seem to ask a question like, “Is this something you want me to do something about?” Then you know you’re teaching the lessons that will build an excellent student to learn some pretty important things someday.
Step 4: Bag goes for a ride!
There are times when a sudden movement from a horse will send a rider off balance. If the worst case happens and a rider were to fall off, it’s important that the horse be prepared to have things be where they aren’t expected. This can help prevent a bad accident from getting worse. Obviously this is serious business. If a horse has been taught from the beginning to expect the unexpected, the odds are better that the horse will quiet and wait for help and check in, instead of letting their natural instincts of flight take over.
So we work this noisy bag all over the colts, ask them to walk, trot and lope with it. Let it drag around behind them, let it bounce annoyingly at their sides while they are moving out. Their response at that time will tell us just how bothered they are feeling. Sometimes they will scoot at the sudden recognition that something is there and they cant seem to get free from it, but with proper preparation beforehand, it is sometimes just a little scoot and then they even out. This will tell us what their response might be like for the first time it’s one of us up there instead of the bag going for a ride!