by Laura Crum
So in the last post I talked about sacking, saddling, and tying a horse around, and said that once you were done with these steps the horse was ready to ride. Are there other things you could do first? Sure there are. You could drive the horse with long lines, or lunge the horse with side reins, or do some other forms of checking up. Would I do these things? Not usually. Not until after I was riding the horse.
There’s a reason for this. You don’t want to put off getting on a horse too long. I don’t know how horses know that you’re afraid to get on them, but believe me, they know. If you keep putting off actually climbing on the colt, and stay endlessly dinking around on the ground, the horse will sense that somehow the actual riding of him is a big deal. And it becomes a big deal in his mind, too.
There’s a rhythm to the whole thing. Every horse is different, but with a typical colt you’re about two to three weeks into the process when you get on him. You’ve tied him and sacked him and saddled him and tied him around. He’s a little worn down by all this and somewhat inclined to be compliant and accept that new things are happening to him. Hopefully, he’s developed a little bit of trust that if he complies with what’s happening, it will be OK. And now is the time to climb on him. (For more about my thoughts on breaking a colt, I wove quite a story about this into my 7th mystery novel, Hayburner.)
Ideally the first ride is in the round pen. With no round pen we often did the first ride with the colt ponied by an experienced hand on an experienced pony horse. Or in the deep sand in the riverbed (at one ranch). The goal is to have a situation where if the colt panics, you have a chance of staying in control. We didn’t often have one panic, to be clear. I can only recall one that really came unglued with me, in all the years I spent climbing on colts. But yes, it does happen.
You really need to be a competent rider to start colts. It’s honestly no place for a beginner. On the other hand, I was no bronc rider—at any point in my life. And I helped start well over a hundred young horses in my 20’s and 30’s. But I was, at that time, a pretty competent, experienced rider, who could read a horse reasonably well. (At this point in my life I’m much better at reading a horse, but much less able as rider—the perks and disadvantages of growing older.)
The preferred place for the first ride is a solid round pen or bull pen—thirty to fifty feet in diameter, with ground of good deep sand. It’s best to have no one else in the pen. If the horse won’t stand still for mounting, it’s better to work on him learning to stand still than it is to have someone hold him from the ground. Said someone can really get in the way—and get hurt.
If you can’t mount from the ground you have no business starting colts. We would usually work the colt in the round pen first, and go through the things he had learned-- trot, lope, whoa on cue-- get him slightly tired. Too tired is no good—“stealing a ride” is not desirable. But tired enough that he was ready to stand still—a light sweat on the neck. At that point we would bring him to the middle of the round pen, and begin the process of teaching him about mounting. With some colts you ended up working on mounting for several days before you ever rode them. But with many the mounting didn’t take too long.
Basically, you pull the colt’s head gently to the left, and if you have done your tying around effectively, this is familiar and the horse yields easily. You put your left foot in the stirrup, and you begin hopping up and down and pulling on the saddle and what have you. The goal is not to scare the horse, but to get him used to you moving around there. If you have done your sacking thoroughly, this, too, is not usually a big deal.
If the horse wants to move, you keep him moving in a circle around you with his head bent to the left. If at any point the horse rebels against this, you need to go back to the tying around. But if he just walks around you in a circle you let him walk, often with you hopping along, one foot in the stirrup, one on the ground (being VERY careful that you are ready to jerk that foot out of the stirrup at any time). You don’t go further until the horse stands still.
Once the colt stands absolutely still no matter how much you hop and pull on the saddle, you pull yourself up until you are standing in the stirrup. Again, you are poised to leap clear of the horse. You have the horse’s head bent to the left. If the colt moves forward at this point, you step down and continue hopping around with him. And you repeat these steps until you can pull yourself up and stand in the left stirrup and the horse is unconcerned and stands still.
Once the horse is OK with you standing in the stirrup, you begin reaching over the horse, and talking to the horse, leaning over him, getting him used to the idea that you are on him. He needs to be aware that you are above him, on his back and be ok with this. The whole time you keep his head bent to the left with the rein and you are poised to jump off and pull his head to you if he leaps forward. You work on this until the horse is calm. If he does jump forward and you have to step off, you spend a lot more time working on it. You do not want the horse to feel fearful about you being on his back when you do sit on him. When the horse is absolutely OK with you being above him like this, you are ready to sit on him.
This is the moment of truth. The moment where you swing your leg over a horse is the most vulnerable moment for a rider—always. Even a good rider is vulnerable at this point. We tried, always, to have the horse calm and accepting of the idea that you were “on” him before we swung that leg over. It is very important that from the first ride on the horse learn to stand still for mounting and not move off until given a cue by the rider.
So yeah, when you felt the horse was ready-- calm and standing still and comfortable with you above him and on him-- you took a deep breath and swung that leg over, settled yourself in the saddle and found that right stirrup with your foot, hopefully without upsetting the colt. Once you were settled on him and ready to roll, you took a bit of time to talk to him and praise him, all the time keeping his head slightly bent to the left. And when you felt that he was ready, you asked him to take a step forward, while bending to the left.
The goal was to walk him in a small circle to the left, say whoa, have him stop and praise him, then bend his head to the right and have him do the same thing on the other side. If you got through this calmly and smoothly, your chances of having a “good” first ride were very high.
Of course, it doesn’t always go like this, though I’m here to say that with the colts I started, this was a more common scenario than not. But sometimes the shit did hit the fan.
Colts would startle and leap forward—there were two possible responses to this and you had to choose quickly. The truly great hands always just let the horse alone. If he wanted to scoot around that round pen, they let him ago until he wanted to stop. If he wanted to bog his head and buck, they let him do it and sat up on him and rode him until he was ready to stop bucking. Nothing makes a broke horse quicker and better than someone who can do this. Unfortunately, I was never that person. I know very few people who ever were that person. I have seen it done and it is really is the best way to start a colt. He learns early on that bolting and bucking just don’t do any good—and that lesson sticks with him for life.
However, for me and most people I knew, this approach wasn’t an option. I simply did not ride well enough to ride out a bucking horse. I have let one scoot around, but I was ready to grab his head if he started to put it down. And that is your second option. You double the colt, and if you’ve done your work well, you are able to get him in a tight circle, pulling his nose to your stirrup, and you just keep him going around until he stops of his own accord and puts slack in the rein. And then you praise him and release him and start again to get him to take a calm step forward, always with his head bent to one side or the other.
The other big problem was a horse that did not want to take a step. This was surprisingly common. We tried to avoid thumping on a horse with our heels to get him to move forward, and I never used spurs on a first ride. The usual approach was to pull the horse’s head around as if you were doubling him, thump on him as much as you had to with the outside leg, and release/praise him as soon as he took one step. Usually this problem went away after a couple of rides. But if it persisted, once we were sure the horse was not frightened by having a rider on his back, we would over and under him with the long snaffle bit reins that we used, and get him to jump forward (not on the first ride). From very early days it is important that the horse develop the habit of moving forward quickly and lightly in response to the leg cue.
A good first ride lasted maybe ten minutes, and the horse walked in circles in both directions and whoaed on command. He got a lot of petting and praise for doing this. Then came the mounting procedure in reverse, because you had to start all over again to be sure the colt would be OK with the dismount. It was a HUGE negative to have a successful first ride and then have the colt panic when the rider dismounted. So we always took our time getting the colt comfortable with the idea of the dismount.
Some people dismount and mount several times at the end of the ride to reinforce this. I think that’s a judgment call. Sometimes it can be a good idea—depends on the circumstances.
In the next post I’ll talk about early rides on a horse and what we tried to accomplish.
Gunner as a three year old—a green broke horse—I had put about ninety days on him at this point.