My first ride on Bravo in his new home arena was a terrific letdown. I mounted just fine and started walking him around on a relatively loose rein to warm-up. He was a little fascinated by the other horse and rider pair in the arena with me but wasn’t spooky about it- just curious. I bent him toward the middle of the arena and went to gently ask for a stop to check my brakes. He grunted and lightly bucked. I continued and circled him and he bucked again a couple of times. I flexed him and made him circle in both directions which seemed to get his focus back but I still had concerns. So many concerns. About everything. What if he does this all the time and the people I bought him from swindled me and unloaded him on me? What if my saddle doesn’t fit? What if he doesn’t like the bit I’m using?
I’m not usually quite so insecure but during the buying process there were several red flags that I ignored to follow my gut. The sellers were extremely pushy, evasive with information, and clearly on a timeline to get this horse sold. I know what you’re thinking… I should have walked away for any ONE of those reasons, let alone all three. I eventually did enough internet detective work to calm some of my fears that he was a fine horse these people just didn’t have much experience and are not very financially stable which I think was the root cause for the sales pressure. Ah, the internet…
Still, I know some lingering doubts remained after such a sour buying experience. Add those doubts to a bad first ride and it’s a recipe for anxiety.
Throwback to the OG blog logo
The first vet visit came a few days later and went a long way to helping me let go of some worry and rationalize. A painful wolf tooth and some ulcers from sharp points sure might make a horse unhappy in the bridle. I also switched saddles to allow me to pad up his complete lack of topline. I’ve only ridden a few times since.
3mo progress Top: Last night Bottom: Day he arrived
It was a perfect storm of situations, but a few weeks into working with him on the ground he started becoming grumpy and aggressive at the tiniest of requests. He also started jumping out of his skin in the crossties which was completely uncharacteristic of him. I decided to treat him for ulcers, which eventually made big difference. That couple of weeks where his attitude was crappy, though? I didn’t feel comfortable getting back on him. I decided I wanted to “re-start” him and find out what he knew by working with him on the ground. That way I could still feel like I was making progress and getting to know him even if I wasn’t riding.
I’ve never started a horse before and wanted to bond with him before I would potentially consider sending him off or having a pro put some training on him. I did some research, watched some videos online, and settled on trying some of Warwick Schiller‘s methods. He’s an Aussie cowboy who competes in Reining but has also built a solid reputation training horses of all disciplines. You could call his methods your standard pressure and release, be the herd leader kind of training but that would be a gross oversimplification. His training has evolved to focus much more on building a partnership and reducing the elements of adversarial, predatory behavior that can result from too much of that “show him who’s boss” dynamic. He has some lovely, logical training concepts that are applicable to all horses and riders. His methods are approachable, seem feasible for even beginners, and perhaps most importantly of all, seem to produce some benefits even if the trainer makes small mistakes in execution
I started doing groundwork loose in a round pen and also on a 15’ lead rope. Asking for all gaits (while loose in round pen) by applying pressure with a lunge whip until he gave me what I asked for and then removing the pressure. Since horses are MUCH better than humans at reading body language, the idea is to get him paying enough attention to you to you that he responds to just body language and you don’t have to apply much, if any, pressure. He is now quite responsive to body language and voice commands- I point to ask him to go somewhere and then one cluck for walk, two for trot, a kiss for canter, and slow whistle to transition down and of course whoa.
Sending him off with body language
I started out using Warwick’s method for getting a horse to change directions in the round pen but this particular method didn’t work well for me. He wants them to turn into the center of the round pen and at first Bravo would only turn to the outside when I asked for a change of direction. You are supposed to cut them off immediately and apply a bunch of whip pressure when they do this and make them turn back around in the original direction so they look for a different answer to that question. But because Bravo is 17hh of giant, flight animal, I had some difficulty putting extreme pressure on him- he would have just as happily run me over. So, after a few rounds of losing the game of chicken to a galloping horse I gave up on this method and broke it down into smaller pieces to get it done. I did it on the long line, instead, and moved on to the next parts of the training. Once I taught him to yield his hind end away from me when asked, the turning into the center became more natural for him. It isn’t particularly physically demanding work but it is mentally taxing for a young horse.
Yielding hind end to minimal pressure
The part I really like about this type of groundwork is that it has given me a huge chance to hone my observation skills and learn how to read his body language much better. We have a better conversation because he stays more focused on me- anticipating that I might ask him to do something at any time and I have to focus more on him to be sure I am communicating clearly and always working on improving my timing and applying or releasing pressure at the right moment. Warwick has newly included more elements of listening during his training. Horses communicate with their bodies too, and we usually just ignore the more subtle parts of their communications. Bravo was full of emphatic, teenage “No’s” in response to all of my training questions when we first started. He still has those moments but we’ve come a long way with this training.
My current opinion of this stage is that the groundwork is building a nice platform for mounted work. Our trust in each other seems to be growing and that’s really all I care about right now. He seems to recognize me as his person. He meets me at the gate and when I’m working around the barn he is always curious as to what I am doing. He is starting to approach the training the same way.
We are ready!
We have been together for three months and only now do I feel comfortable and confident enough to get him back under saddle. That’s real life! This young horse is teaching me plenty about patience and managing my expectations.