Reschooling the Thoroughbred

Chapter 7: saddle steps

I find Xcel to be a fascinating horse. When I'm working with him I'm checking him out to see how he responds to the things I'm asking him to do. Does something make him very excited? Confused? Angry? Hesitant? Afraid? At the same time I'm checking him out, I get the distinct impression that he's checking me out too. Because he acts as though he was handled roughly on the racetrack, I think he's expecting me to do the same, which, of course, I do not.

Over the years, I've found that very smart horses have a keen sense of fairness. Whereas less intelligent horses can be mishandled or unfairly disciplined and, to some degree, handle it or shrug it off, I think intelligent horses have less of a capacity to do so and have to be handled with this in mind. And, an intelligent horse learns very quickly and will learn bad things just as quickly as good things. So you really have to be careful what you are teaching them.

Xcel's intelligence is coupled with sensitivity and strong emotions. Part of this sensitivity is because of the amount of tension he carries in his body. Though he is getting better, he is not very settled in his stall and tends to walk quite a bit even while he is eating. Anytime I interact with him he has trouble being still and focusing, though this has improved significantly. This tension in his body causes him to over-react to simple things.

I was working one day to teach him to respond to pressure on his rib cage by moving away from me. This is an important skill I teach all of my horses before I ever ride them. I wondered how well Xcel understood this and how he would respond to it. While holding the lead rope in my left hand and turning his head slightly towards me as I walked him forward, I used the flat of my right thumb to apply a little pressure to his rib cage while saying "Move away." I was not too surprised when he took a swipe at me with his hind leg. I ignored this.

Now, some people would be surprised at my response, or lack of, to what many would believe was a challenge to my authority. That is one way to look at this. Another way is that Xcel had no idea that I was asking anything of him and responded to the annoying pressure the same way as he would to a big bug - by trying to push it away. Now it's not okay for him to kick at me but understanding why he did helps me understand what to do next. I needed to teach Xcel what I wanted, so armed with this new information that he provided me - that he did not understand what I wanted and was over-reactive enough to kick out, I first halted him, asked him to lower his head, then stroked his head and neck to calm him. I also stroked his rib cage.

This time as I led him forward, I used a lighter pressure with my thumb and then immediately placed my hand flat on his side and gave a little push as I said, "Move away." He stepped slightly sideways and I praised him. I repeated this and got a similar response. I praised him again and asked a third time. Before I could give the little push with my hand, he had already moved away. I praised him immediately and profusely. Yea, Xcel learns fast!

This little exercise is very important in many ways. One of the most important is my frame of mind. Some people may have been frightened or upset at being kicked at, which may have caused them to react to the horse in fear or anger. This type of reaction would make this tense, over-reactive horse worse. But I knew Xcel did not understand and I knew it was important to keep him calm in order for him to learn what I wanted. So I kept my mind clearly focused on what I was teaching him. I also made sure that I pictured in my mind, just what I wanted him to do. This always helps horses understand what it is that we want. In addition, I kept his head fairly low, just above wither height, made sure my signal was clear and that a reward followed. It is very important that you make the signal clear and quickly reward any correct effort the horse makes.

I repeated this exercise on both sides and also taught him to step backward from a signal on his chest. To teach him to step back, I followed the press of my thumb on his chest with a backward signal on the lead instead of a push with my hand. Xcel was already familiar with stepping back in response to a signal on his chest because of the leading work I had already done with him. I used a very light signal. Ultimately I want my horse to respond to just a touch, or even just me pointing my finger at him. I think it is very important to do this work before riding a horse. It helps the horse understand how to respond to the rider's leg even before the rider is on the horse.

Another exercise that I always do before I ride a horse for the first time is a great TTEAM exercise involving a saddle pad and some grain. Have you ever fallen off your horse and had it run away? Horses quite often are frightened when we fall off of them and may panic and run. But you can teach your horse to turn and look at you, instead of running off, by doing this simple exercise. This exercise will also accustom a horse to anything falling to the ground near him.

You'll need a saddle pad that you don't mind getting dirty, a little grain in a bucket and a helper (If you don't have a second person, put some grain in a "fanny" pack and fasten it around your waist. What you do is place the saddle pad on the horse's back in such a way that it will slide off when the horse takes just a few steps. Lead the horse forward. When the saddle pad slides off, immediately turn the horse around, put some grain on the saddle pad and allow the horse to eat the grain off of the saddle pad.

Some horses will startle at the saddle pad falling off. If your horse does, reassure him and quietly turn him around and lead him up to the pad. You need to do this exercise from both sides and all areas of the horse's body including its head and tail. I once had a very nervous young horse, kick the pad as it was falling - I am glad it was the pad and not me! It took a bit of extra work with the saddle pad (actually we switched to a small towel for a while) until the horse was comfortable and relaxed about the exercise.

I find most horses take to this exercise quickly and easily and Xcel figured it out after just a couple of times. He was not the least bit frightened by the pad. In fact, Xcel doesn't seem to be frightened of very many things at all. Now that I could see that Xcel had no problem with the saddle pad, I had to check how he would respond to being saddled. I also wanted to see which saddle would fit him.

Because I always have several horses, I have several different saddles. Some are for jumping and some are for dressage. I rarely ever buy a "new" saddle. I usually buy a used one from one of several local tack shops that sell used saddles. Because the shops allow one to keep the saddle for several days and ride in it, and used saddles are less expensive than new saddles, I find buying used is a very good deal! And if I eventually want to sell the saddle back, as long as it is still in good shape, I can usually sell it back for about what I paid for it. This makes it possible for me to have a variety of saddles to fit different horses and gave me several to choose from to try on Xcel.

I had an idea of how Xcel might be when it came to being saddled so he did not surprise me when he got very tense and began kicking out with a hind leg at the saddle as it was placed on his back. This is another thing that is very typical of racehorses. Xcel was associating being saddled with being very excited and running fast. It would take a bit of work for him to learn to relax about being saddled. This would take a lot of TTouch and maybe some food and other pleasant things to associate with being saddled in order to break this habit.