Often, I have clients who say, “my horse is bucking,” or “Sheryl, he is ready for his first ride, but I can’t get hurt — so I brought him to you.” I understand that getting hurt is not on anyone’s agenda, and to ensure your safety, be realistic with your abilities. When you feel you have brought your colt or horse as far as your knowledge has allowed, then by all means enlist the help of a professional trainer.
The first question on everyone’s mind is: “How long will this take?” Building a solid foundation and resolving issues takes time, and each horse is an individual. If I were to skip steps or rush through my program, not only would I be putting myself at risk, but also the owners’ safety. I can’t get hurt either! This is how I earn my living, so I also need to be realistic with my abilities, and bronc rider is not one of them.
My goal is to reduce the risk of a buck before I get on. There will still be issues I need to fix in the saddle, but by preparing the horse and completing effective groundwork beforehand, I am building the beginning of a solid foundation that increases my odds of a safer ride. With every ground lesson, I think of how it will benefit me when in the saddle.
My groundwork regimen begins with getting inside and outside turns in the round pen at the spot I have requested and the speed I have set. I focus on the body part I want to move, either the shoulder or the hip, and I make it clear for the horse to understand by my body position. The pressure I use depends on the horse — less for sensitive and fearful horses, more for dull or disrespectful horses.
The objective for each lesson is to get each step performed to perfection. It isn’t practice that makes perfect, it’s perfect practice that makes perfect. Repetitions are extremely important; this is how the horse learns what you are teaching. I will then sack out the horse to the lead rope over the entire body, including the legs. This will enable me to pick up and lead the horse by the feet with my lead rope. Next, with halter and lead rope on, I throw the saddle pad on and cue the horse to trot. My objective is to have the pad fall off and observe his reaction as it grazes his hind legs on the way down. If he bolts and kicks at it, then we repeat until he stops, turns and faces it. This is the reaction I’m looking for in order to keep me safe in the event I come off.
Next comes the saddle. I affix a long, 25-foot soft cotton rope to the saddle horn loosely to ensure an easy release at any time. Without halter and lead, I ask the horse to move off at a trot and complete an outside turn which places the rope around their hindquarters. Again, I’m looking for their reaction. If they buck and kick out at the rope, we continue in each direction until they softly move off the pressure which is teaching them to yield to leg pressure. For the fearful horse, I will work with the tarp. With the horse in the round pen at the opposite end, I will shake the tarp. If the horse bolts, I will continue shaking until the horse stops moving its feet and faces me. When they do, I stop. I’m training them to spook in place and face their fears. When I can lift that tarp and shake it from anywhere in the round pen and they stop and face me, that lesson is complete.
Next is work in the snaffle. From the ground, I ensure they are able to disengage hips from both sides softly, this is my emergency stop. I will also work on getting them to back up with energy. Teaching a horse to back up and move their feet freely will lend itself nicely to creating a proper stop. The reward for the horse is the release, not pressure. The release is the message that needs to be sent instantly. By doing so you are sending a clear and definite signal to the horse: “Yes…that’s it!”
I will then sack out the horse to the stirrups, then get on and off several times from each side. Once the horse feels ready, it’s time to get in the saddle.
Be specific with your training and evaluate your lesson plan. A general request will get a general response. Define your goals and the benefits for achieving them; this will make them worthwhile.