First Canter Steps Under Saddle!

Wiley is growing up fast! With a few trotting rides under his belt, it was time to try canter.

Just like when I first asked Wiley to trot under saddle, Wiley was put on the longe line. This way Wiley can focus on 1 variable of change-carrying a rider under saddle.  He doesn’t have to think about too much. I am in the middle giving cues and supporting him the whole time. Once again I chose Amy for the first canter ride because she is a quiet rider that won’t lock up if Wiley should pull a baby horse stunt.

Of course Wiley has no clue about canter aids under saddle, so Amy’s aids are only a pre-cue. Wiley is taking his commands from me. I just like him to get used to the idea of the under saddle aids. Eventually, he will start cantering off the pre-cue alone. Amy will only use her legs for transition to the canter and then take them off completely (no steering with them…that comes later). Her only steering is through the reins.

When Wiley first transitions into the canter, I click him after only 2-3 strides. This lets him know that the transition was correct. It also gives him a reward before he thinks too much about what is going on. After rewarding him for the transition twice, I go ahead and let him canter a full circle or so before a reward. In his 4th canter transition under saddle, I let him canter 3 full circles before giving him a  jackpot reward and ended it there. That is plenty for Wiley to think about day 1.

Caution: Baby Dinosaur Under Saddle!

For those of you that asked….Here’s the Video of Wiley learning to be a real horse!

I was working on Wiley’s upward transitions in the video (both walk and trot). I am using the voice commands that Wiley already knows from ground school to help transition him to tactile leg aids under saddle. You can hear me click after the first couple of transitions to tell Wiley he is on the right path. Wiley was super good. You can probably hear the tractor in the video. It was dumping garbage into the dumpster. It didn’t bother Wiley a bit. There were also 2 workers with string trimmers whacking the weeds. Wiley looked a few times, but it didn’t bother him too much. I guess when you are a dinosaur, nothing much bothers you!

You will also notice that Wiley is throwing his shoulder in at the trot. Since this lesson is about transitions and learning to carry a rider at the trot, I am purposely ignoring the shoulder. When Wiley is more comfortable with the forward aids, I will go back and add lateral controls. He already knows them. I just need to translate the ground school aids to leg aids. I skip the lateral aids in the beginning so that the lesson is really obvious.

Also notice that Wiley can already perform a basic back up. That is something that needs no translation from ground school to under saddle. Wiley’s ground school lessons have paid off nicely.

Time to Ride That Crazy 3 Year Old Horse!

Baby dinosaur’s big “Under Saddle” adventures are just beginning. Wiley is not quite 3, but I go so slow, that he will actually be 3 by the time he is ridden for more than a couple of minutes. I just couldn’t wait. As of today, Wiley has 4 rides under his belt. He is proving to be a pretty good little dinosaur.  My entire goal is to keep each ride under the stress threshold, so Wiley is relaxed enough to do some good learning.  Here’s how they went:

Ride 1: I just planned on refreshing Wiley’s memory on mounting and let him walk a bit. Unfortunately, it didn’t go as planned. He was fine as I mounted, and we walked around. But then, someone’s horse got loose and it ran right by the arena, dragging its lead rope behind him.  Oops. Not a good way to stay under the “stress threshold.” Wiley spooked, turned and faced the horse, but that was it. He didn’t run, jump or do any dumb baby horse stuff. How great is that? Of course he had his head up in full giraffe mode. I rubbed his neck and gave him the “head down” command. He just stood quietly. I was so proud of him. He was a bit nervous after that and no good learning was going to take place, so we walked a bit and I rewarded him. Then I got off while on a good note. Not  exactly the way I wanted to start him.

 Ride 2: My plan was just to repeat Ride 1 but with a relaxed horse. All went well. Wiley was good. Starting to move forward off my leg and doing a bit of turning.

Ride 3: I finally remembered to bring a clicker for this ride, to reinforce the “walk on” leg command. Worked like a charm. Wiley was walking off a tactile leg cue only (no pressure needed). We walked in figure 8’s, backed a few steps and stopped to chat with a friend. Wiley was so relaxed, you would have thought he was an old trail horse. He just stood quietly while I chatted. No fussing whatsoever. I am starting to really LOVE this horse! The picture below is immediately following this ride. What you are seeing is pure relaxation. He worked for all of about 5 minutes entirely at the walk, so he isn’t tired, and he didn’t have to pee. He was just THAT relaxed (this is normal behavior for a clicker trained gelding . They are so relaxed, they almost look drugged). I just got off, tossed the reins over the fence and took the picture. This is the “look” I want to see before moving on to the next lesson.

Wiley's 3rd ride. Clicker training for the walk transition.  5 minutes of work and Wiley is TOTALLY relaxed!
Wiley’s 3rd ride. Clicker training for the walk transition. 5 minutes of work and Wiley is TOTALLY relaxed!

Ride 4: Today is trot day. I like to start the trotting (or cantering) part really slowly. This is where “stuff” can happen. The added speed can sometimes stress a horse. I tacked  Wiley up and put him on the lunge line. After a quick warm up, it was time to bring in my friend Amy. Amy has a great seat, and I  trust she won’t lock up on Wiley if he should get nervous. Since Wiley is well trained on the lunge, the only added variable will be a rider on his back. He doesn’t have to think about much except carrying some extra weight. Amy used a tactile leg cue to ask Wiley to walk. I supported her with the lunge whip. Trotting went the same way. Amy pre-cued with a tactile leg aid and a voice command. Then, I supported her aids, by bringing the whip up to horizontal position (Wiley’s cue to trot). He trotted immediately. I clicked as soon as he transitioned. I gave Wiley a reward and repeated the process. After a few transitions, I waited longer before the click, eventually having Wiley trot the entire 20 meter circle. Wiley was perfect. No fuss. His body was relaxed. Most people would never know it was Wiley’s first ever trot under saddle. But I could tell Wiley’s mind was “processing” the lesson because he wanted to chew on the bit and reins when we were done. This is how he shows his mild anxiety. We will stay with this lesson until Wiley has fully processed it, and I start to get the “look.” It could take awhile, but Wiley will let me know when he is ready to move on.


Lunging a Horse Using Body Language

Most horses naturally respond to aids based on visual cues. They are constantly watching us to decipher what we are trying to say.  Unfortunately, we sometimes accidentally teach them not to pay attention to us because we are so inconsistent. We move ALL over the place. Horses are much more obvious with their visual intentions. They probably wish we were too.

There are 4 fundamental visual aids you can use to put pressure on a horse and act as your “gas” pedal. They are listed (roughly) in order of the amount of pressure they put on a horse.

1: Your eyes: Are you looking directly at the horse or not? The more you are looking at the horse, the more the horse thinks your intentions are directed at him, hence more pressure. You can look directly at your horse to increase speed while lunging and look away or to the ground to decrease speed.

2: Your shoulders: Are your shoulders parallel with the horse’s body or perpendicular? When you look straight at your horse and have your shoulders parallel/facing your horse, you are adding pressure and increasing speed on the lunge line. To decrease speed, you can turn your shoulders away/perpendicular.

3. How big do you make your body? Increase speed on the lunge line by making your body seem bigger. Lift your hands higher. Put your whip in a vertical position. These are all “go” aids when lunging. Slow your horse down by lowering your whip. Lower your hands. Make yourself look smaller.

4: How close are your to your horse? Step into a horse’s personal space and you definitely increase the pressure and therefore speed while lunging. Your horse will move away at a faster pace. Step away from your horse for a downward transition.

You can play with these aids to see which aid or combination of aids causes your horse to respond the best. For Wiley, you will see me step into his personal space and lift my whip to horizontal for a trot. Step closer again and lift my arms and put my whip to vertical means canter. Downward transitions are just the reverse. I do also sprinkle in the other aids such as look down for downward transitions. I am probably not as consistent as I could be.

Notice on the downward from the trot to the walk, I ask for the downward and then immediately have to pick up my left hand slightly to put a little pressure on to get the walk. With absolutely no pressure, Wiley will just turn and walk into the center. I have to play around with the aids to understand just how much pressure or lack thereof Wiley needs for each transition. Also, just like when you are driving a car, you need a bit more gas/pressure to get up to speed. As soon as your horse reaches the desired speed, take a little pressure off to signal that the horse did the right thing. You will see during the upward transition to the canter that my arms get big until he gets the canter. Then I drop them a bit but keep my whip vertical as a reminder.

At 2 years old, Wiley doesn’t lunge for exercise. It is too hard on a young horse’s joints. He does, however, do light lunging occasionally to learn how to lunge and to improve our communication. I want him to understand my intentions….when I want more energy out of him and when I want less. I also want him to pay attention to subtle movements in my body. Wiley isn’t fully trained on visuals. He still needs  a lot of “gas” to keep his attention, but he is getting better. When he is fully trained, he will be able to do all of his transitions without me having to walk into his personal space to support him. I will just stand in the middle and have him watch the whip. He will canter as long as the whip is vertical. Trot at horizontal and walk when the whip is touching the ground.

The video below shows Wiley at 2 1/2 doing some basic lunging off my body language. Notice his transitions are instant. He just needs to work on maintaining the pace without so much support. Also notice that I use voice commands. This will help Wiley transition into under saddle work.

Under Saddle: Day 1

Today is the day. I didn’t wake up thinking I’d back Wiley for the first time today, but all the planets aligned. I knew he was ready from a training standpoint. Plus, it was a warm 70 degree day right smack in the middle of winter (gotta love Southern California). Wiley had a couple of really big turnouts during the previous week, so I was confident he wouldn’t be overly excitable. And, most importantly, I had a friend with excellent riding skills that wanted to assist. When a day like this comes along, you just have to go for it!

Special Note: Wiley is only 2 1/2, so I am not planning on really riding him. Because Wiley is already so large, I am going to get him used to a rider on his back before he gets to full dinosaur size. I will putz around on him a few times and then stay off him until he is 3.

Getting Ready for the Big Day

A bit of prep work needs to happen to make sure day 1 in the saddle is as stress free as possible. Wiley has lunged lightly in the saddle a few times with no reaction. I have also worked with him a few days prior to make sure that mounting up would go smoothly. All the steps I went over with him are shown below. There is nothing earth shattering here. All of this is pretty basic stuff.

Horse’s First Day Under Saddle: Step 1

After a brief lunging session, I pulled down on the stirrup with my hand to get Wiley used to the feel of weight being put in the stirrup. I rewarded Wiley for standing quietly. I did this a few times to make sure he was good and relaxed. (Note: all the pictures actually show Amy demonstrating how I performed each step. I practiced steps 1-5 with Wiley before this day as part of the prep. All of these photos were taken the day Wiley walked with a rider on his back for the first time. When backing a horse for the first time, it is great if you have a friend to help you, but it can also be done without help. Amy is an excellent rider, so I know she will stay relaxed even if Wiley doesn’t. I stayed on the ground to handle (and comfort if needed) Wiley as he goes through this part of training.

Pulling down on the stirrup.
Pulling down on the stirrup.

Horse’s First Day Under Saddle: Step 2

After Wiley was thoroughly bored with pulling on the stirrup, I began to put my foot in the stirrup (as Amy is doing here). I made sure my toe made contact with his belly and moved it around a bit to get Wiley used to the feeling. Let’s face it, you are going to end up bumping your toe on your horse’s side while mounting sooner or later….might as well get that over with before you do it accidentally!

Putting the toe in the stirrup and letting Wiley feel it on his belly.
Putting the toe in the stirrup and letting Wiley feel it on his belly.

Horse’s First Day Under Saddle: Step 3

Wiley is good with the foot in the stirrup, so it is time to start bouncing up and down a bit. After each bounce session, Wiley is rewarded for standing still. Wiley needs to see the movement and feel the tug on the saddle to get comfortable.

Bouncing in the stirrups.
Bouncing in the stirrups.

Horse’s First Day Under Saddle: Step 4

Time to stand in the stirrup. Wiley takes a good look back, but doesn’t offer to move. Good boy!

Standing in the stirrups.
Standing in the stirrups.

Horse’s First Day Under Saddle: Step 5

Time to put the belly on the saddle. Sometimes the horse can get nervous when he sees you cross over the middle, and Wiley did give it a good look the first time I put my belly on him. He didn’t try to move away though. I slowly started petting him on his shoulder and hind end to get him used to movement and the feeling of being touched while on him.

Amy with her belly on Wiley.
Amy with her belly on Wiley.

These 5 steps were repeated for a few days until Wiley was completely comfortable. I performed them on both sides, so Wiley can be mounted from either side. Now he is ready for the big day. Just because Wiley is comfortable with me performing the steps above, doesn’t always mean it carries over to another person. Horses don’t always generalize well, so Amy repeated all the steps above (and that’s how I got pix!).

Horse’s First Day Under Saddle: Step 6

Finally time to get all the way on! Amy does this slowly but with confidence, making sure she doesn’t bump him on his rump while putting her leg over. At first, Amy maintains a low profile as she is doing here.

Staying low while giving Wiley a comforting pet.
Staying low while giving Wiley a comforting pet.

But soon, Amy can sit up and pet Wiley. He even stops paying attention to her- a sure sign he is ready for the next step.

Wiley is showing signs he is ready to move on.
Wiley is showing signs he is ready to move on.

Horse’s First Day Under Saddle: Step 7

Time to move the feet. This is sometimes a strange feeling for a horse. Wiley doesn’t seem overly bothered by it…although he is going to keep an eye on Amy just in case.

Wiley Under Saddle

Wiley was just a bit tentative at first, but it wasn’t because of the rider.  Wiley was trying to figure out what I wanted him to do, so he started offering up an alternative…the maneuver we worked on yesterday seemed to be a good choice. Check out the video below for his first steps under saddle. See if you can guess what we worked on the day before.

As always, when training Wiley to do something new, the session is really short. I know Amy is going to get off Wiley’s back in a few minutes, but Wiley doesn’t know that! The session needs to be short enough that Wiley doesn’t decide it is his job to get Amy off his back. Wiley gives Amy a short pony ride and then he is done for the day. What a good boy!

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