Spring is finally here and many of you are eager to get riding again. Maybe a friend has invited you for a trail ride and offered you a horse you don’t know well. Maybe you are anxious to get your green horse going again and see if you can develop him a bit more this year. YOU are anxious to get riding, but before swinging into the saddle, there are some basic things you should do to check if your HORSE is ready.
After you saddle up, use a halter and at least a 12’ lead for these exercises. There is more you can do after you bridle him: at that point I like to do a follow-up with a brief review of the lateral flexion and back-up (photos at end).
Lateral Flexion, both to the left and right. (Can the horse softly flex his neck when requested with the lead rope and the reins? He may react differently with a bit than the halter, so do this now, and after you put the bridle on.)
Jess is working with Buck, a client's horse. Here, she demonstrates asking for lateral flexion on the ground. Remember to work both sides!
Back-up. Can the horse back up with a soft feel? Or does he push into the pressure? If he pushes into the pressure beware, he will probably lean on your reins and he may not stop very well.
Does the horse understand how to move his hindquarter and forehand upon request? Is he compliant or resistant? Using steady pressure with your fingertips or the stirrup, ask him to move his hindquarter. This will help you see how he will react to your leg. If he doesn’t understand to step away from the pressure, or if he is scared of it, better to work it out on the ground than from the saddle.
Grasp the halter knot/clip, and ask for a backup. Make sure the back up is straight, and ask again if not.
Asking the hindquarters to move with the stirrup.
Following the feel. Send your horse out on a circle, both directions. See how he follows the feel out. Does he lead out one way better than the other? Does he pull on the lead one way and not the other? You’ll probably see the same pattern once you are in the saddle. Check his soundness as he trots around you. Look over your gear/tack and see if it fitting properly. The horse will tell you if he feels “fresh” and full of energy or exuberant bucks. If you don’t want to ride what he shows you, work him a bit more on the ground until he settles and looks like something you feel comfortable sitting on. Tighten your cinch (girth) one last time.
In these photos, Buck goes out on a circle, but argues a bit with Jess. He is less than smooth when asked to turn, and tends to dart forward, looking decidedly cranky. By the last shot, he has settled down, but Jess decides to run him in a round pen before riding, due to his elevated energy.
And in the round pen...
Flexion, one more time... Bridle on, Jess checks for lateral flexion, then flexion, with both reins at once.
Make this pre-ride check a habit. This sounds like a lot, but with practice it becomes second nature and only takes a few minutes. Don’t feel at all embarrassed or ashamed if you check the above and make the decision NOT to ride the horse. You can spend a lot of quality time with him on groundwork, stay safer, and prepare him for a successful ride in the future. I always take notice of the above details, even on my horses that I know well. I don’t always do each step as I’ve outlined it, but I do notice the pieces as I catch my horse, lead him, and groom him. And when I meet a new horse I spend time going through each of the above, generally getting to know the horse better — and letting the horse get to know me better — before I ever step up on him. If I find a big missing piece, I may choose to spend our entire session on the ground.
Next: How to mount your horse safely...