Breaking your horse to ride doesn’t have to be a scary ordeal for you or your horse. If you take the time to make the whole experience of introducing a rider to your horse as smooth and familiar as possible, it can be a rewarding and safe pleasure for both of you.
The best age to introduce a horse to a rider depends on the individual horse and his breed and conformation. It is usually a good idea to wait until the growth plates in your horse’s legs are finished growing. Some breeds mature faster than others. A quarter horse is typically ready to ride at age 2, while an Arabian might not be ready until age 4. It is also advisable to wait until your horse is mentally ready to accept carrying a rider. Remember that a horse is never too old to start under saddle training!
Before you mount your horse for the first time, he should already be willing and responsive to you on the ground. If a horse does not respect you on the ground, he will not respect you when you are on top of him. He should lunge in both directions, understand the words “walk”, “trot”, “canter”, and “whoa”, and be accepting of the saddle and bridle. Finishing your groundwork is the first step in saddle training your horse.
Be sure to lunge your horse before you start backing him. This serves two purposes. First, it gets him in the mind set of listening to you, and second, it ensures that he is not fresh when you get on his back for the first time. After you lunge your horse to a sufficient degree, lead him to a quiet corner of the arena and have someone come over to help you, preferably someone who is knowledgeable when it comes to horses. Have your helper hold your horse while you work with him.
Stand at your horse’s left side and grab the stirrup leathers. Lightly yank down on the stirrups and watch your horse’s response. If he is skittish about it, keep doing it until he relaxes. Once he is relaxed, bring a mounting block over and gently place your left foot in the stirrup. Again, watch your horse’s reaction. If at any time he shys away, quietly have your helper bring him back into position and try again. Go slowly with him and only move on to the next step when he is relaxed and accepting of what you are trying to do. Praise your horse when he relaxes and remains quiet.
When your horse is standing calmly while you have one foot in the stirrup, try stepping down on the stirrup and putting some weight in it. Next, lean over him and pat him on the neck and belly. When he is relaxed, take your foot out of the stirrup and praise him. Give him a moment or two and then do it again. Repetition is key, but don’t cram too much into one day.
Your next step is to put all of your weight onto your horse’s back while you are leaning over him so that he is supporting you. If this doesn’t bother him, you can slowly swing you right leg around and place it on the other side of him. Again, when he relaxes, you can slowly start to sit up until you are completely astride your horse. Pat his neck and praise him, then slowly get down, being careful not to spook him. Repeat this several times until your horse is completely accepting of it.
Next, make sure that your helper has control of your horse from the ground. Mount him and sit up, taking a slight contact with your horse’s mouth through the reins, then say the word “walk” while your helper encourages your horse to move from the ground. If your horse does not want to go, it is ok to carry a dressage whip and lightly tap him behind the saddle to encourage him to move forward, as long as the whip doesn’t spook your horse. If he only moves a couple of steps and then stops, this is okay. Praise him, dismount, and try again. Once your horse is walking, have your helper stop him from the ground while you give him the “whoa” command. Then ask him to walk on again. Once your horse has grasped the concept of “walk” and “whoa” you can start replacing “walk” with a slight squeeze with your calves until he understands that that is the cue to walk. You can also start replacing “whoa” with sitting back in the saddle and putting light pressure on the reins.
After your horse is walking and stopping quietly, have your helper start steering him left and right while you add your leg cues. After a few rides he should start to understand the cues for walk, whoa, left, and right. You can then have your helper attach a lunge line to your horse and ask them to step into the middle of the arena while you ride in a circle around them and practice starting, steering, and stopping your horse on your own. Once your horse shows that he understands your cues, you can have take your helper out of the picture completely and begin riding your horse around the arena. It is important to not prolong your horse’s first riding sessions. 10-15 minutes is a good time frame for your first riding sessions. Also, if your horse takes small tentative steps in the beginning, that is completely normal. Remember that he is learning to keep his balance with a top heavy human on his back. He will gain more confidence in his steps as he progresses in his training.
When you are ready to introduce “trot: to your horse, have your helper put him on the lunge line again. Start by walking your horse in a small circle around your helper. When you are ready, say the word “trot” and give him an extra squeeze with your calves. If he does not respond, you can try adding a light tap with your dressage whip for encouragement. If he trots a few steps and then breaks into a walk again, that is acceptable. Praise him and let him walk for a few seconds, then ask for trot again. If he trots and does not want to come back to a walk, have your helper put a bit of pressure on the lunge line to encourage him to slow down.
Only when your horse is confidently walking and trotting with you in both directions off the lunge line should you introduce canter to him. Young horses have a difficult time cantering in a small circle at first, so do not put him on the lunge line for canter. Try trotting him along the short side of the arena and when you approach the long side, gently put your outside leg back a hair and squeeze with your calves while saying “canter”. Again, it is okay to encourage him with a light tap of your dressage whip if he does not respond. Bring him back to a trot as he approaches the short side of the arena.
Once your horse has mastered the basics of stopping and steering, he is ready to move on to more advanced training. Just remember that everything in his training should follow a natural pattern and each lesson should build off the previous lesson. Once you have learned that, you are well on your way to owning a well trained, wonderful riding horse.