We took in a new horse at Hanaeleh a few weeks ago. She is an 11 year-old Quarter horse who is very sweet, and I was led to believe that she was trained to ride, just a little spooky on trail. Turns out, she might be spooky on trail, but she’s also been abused and has no real training under saddle.
First ride on Sierra is a Fail
When I got on Sierra on Sunday, the minute I got into the saddle, she pinned her ears back. That boded poorly. I was riding her in a flex-tree saddle, so I was relatively certain that I wasn’t hurting her. I pulled gently on the right rein, and she tensed up and gave a little crow-hop. So I pulled gently on the left rein and she responded, but was still upset. She didn’t seem to understand leg pressure at all, and when I tried to ask her to turn or apply any leg pressure, she tensed up and would crow hop, buck a little, or threaten to rear. After a few minutes it was fairly obvious that she (a) had no idea what I was asking of her, (b) she was afraid I was going to hurt her, (c) I should just get off because I was accomplishing nothing at that point besides upsetting her. So I hopped off.
I admit I was pretty angry after I got off and thought about about things- I spoke with two of her former owners and neither suggested this behavior. Not telling me about the fact that she is not trained to ride put me in danger and that upsets me to no end. I should never have been led to believe that Sierra was trained- she obviously is not.
Longing is also a Fail
I decided to try to longe Sierra to see if the issue was the saddle (I wanted to see the sweat marks). Once I put her on the line and picked up the whip, however, she began running at full speed around the arena. Her intense reaction showed me that she was obviously afraid I was going to hit her. Working a horse to exhaustion, often through threatening to hit the horse with the whip, and then getting on the horse and riding them is not training. It’s called cowboying, and it is abuse. Training should never include threats or fear. As I have written many times, it is physically impossible to learn when you are afraid- all that is learned is how to avoid abuse (hence the running as fast as possible- to avoid being beaten).
Training or Retraining?
At this point, there is the basic question- the horse obviously needs training, but how far back do you go? To be honest, horses who have been charroed or cowboyed often do well when they are taken back to the very beginning of training under saddle- it actually takes less time to train an older horse than a younger horse because they are more mature. In addition, the slower pace and less stress seems to help the horses with their confidence and helps to build the relationship of trust between the horse and trainer without putting the trainer at the same risk as she might be under saddle. I wasn’t sure exactly what Sierra had been through in her past, but her flight reactions showed that she was obviously abused at some point in her life.
Horses who have had their training rushed, or put through abusive training practices often have huge gaps in their training which are important- moving off of the leg, bending, giving into pressure, smooth transitions, balance, etc. are all important, but are often overlooked by those who are just looking to yeehaw their horse. It’s often just less work later to ensure all of the basics are covered when you are on the ground, and makes the transition to the saddle that much easier.
Going back to basics
I like to longe horses at the walk, trot and canter when I am first training green horses because it helps teach transitions, gives them the feeling of bit pressure, and they learn to listen to me on the ground, which helps when I’m in the saddle. Sierra’s intense fear at being longed, however, made me decide to forgo that part of the training for now. She needs to learn to trust me first- otherwise she is just going to go straight into her flight response. So I moved to another aspect of basic training.
In addition to longeing, I like to ground drive the horses before I get on their back as well. A horse in training should be able to be driven from the ground, with the person holding two lines as if they were reins, and the horse should be comfortable walking ahead. This is a great exercise for young horses because a person does not have to be on their back, and they can learn pressure either from a bitless bridle or a bridle with a bit, and can learn to turn and follow directions without also having to balance a human on their back. They can walk or trot with the person behind them, and can build up muscle as well. When the horse gets a little older, then can learn to pull tires or even a light cart without putting weight on their back. For larger, draft horses, who mature more slowly than other horses, this is a wonderful way to train the horse without putting stress on their backs.
Below is a short video of Sierra after about 10 minutes of working with her. At first she was very scared and her ears were pinned back, and she would bolt, waiting for me to hit her. But obviously I didn’t- whenever she would bolt, I would just get her to stop, readjust the lines, and ask her to start again. Whenever she would turn around and face me, I would do the same thing. At first it didn’t appear that she understand bit pressure at all, and refused to turn to the right, but after a few minutes of me gently pulling on the line and pressing on the other side of her face, she understood. She knows some- just not a lot, and whatever she does know is overwhelmed with fear, so it’s as if she knows nothing. When you watch the video, note that her ears are not pinned- she is comfortable and listening to me.
I will continue to ground drive Sierra until there are no flight responses, and she is consistent in responding to my cues. It might be a few weeks- it might be a few months. Until I can be certain she is safe with me on the ground, however, there is no point in me getting in the saddle. It is better to spend a little more time on the basics before moving onto more advanced training.
People who try to rush training end up with a horse who is not trained. I will take a horse who is well-trained by someone who is patient and kind over breed, color or conformation any day of the week. Abusive techniques don’t save any time, and they do not provide a solid training foundation. Horses who are trained using abusive methods will always choose to save themselves first when they are scared- either by fighting or fleeing. This puts any rider or handler in danger, as the horse has no reason to trust that the person will take care of him.
You will never develop a solid relationship with a horse who does not trust you. I think of all of the times that I was a little off-balance, and the horse I was riding would help me by moving so I would rebalance, or stop so I didn’t fall off. I owe my safety (and sometimes my life) to those horses and to that relationship. Some things it’s OK to rush- basic training under saddle and building a relationship with you horse aren’t one of them.