Last time on our “Working With Problem Horses” series, I wrote about working a problem horse under saddle. Since these posts are meant for more generalized situations, I didn’t write about the fact that some riders out there are struggling to get on in the first place. This can be a pretty frustrating and nerve-wracking point in the process of working with a problem horse since you feel as if you have less control in the saddle. Even though this part is tough, it’s necessary-and doable.
-Start off slowly—this is very important. For your safety and for the benefit of the horse (and you!), take this seriously. Rushing this process will not help either of you and can end up badly. Breathe, take your time, and let your horse acclimate. Start with something simple, like laying a blanket or tarp across the saddle. Anything that will desensitize your horse to having weight on their back.
-Do an exercise called the Dead Man’s Walk. This technique is used by a lot of trainers (usually in a round pen or on a lunge line). You will have to have two people (including yourself) for this exercise. Walk the horse to a mounting block and lay across the saddle with your chest and stomach on the seat and your arms and legs hanging down the sides of the horse. If the horse is responding well, have the handler walk the horse while you’re in this position. This allows the horse to get used to the feeling of a rider on their back while giving you a quick and safe escape route should things not go completely smoothly.
-Try some mounting work; this will also require two people. From the mounting block, practice swinging your leg over the horse’s rear and sit in the saddle. Then, dismount. It’s as simple as that! I like to practice mounting and dismounting from both sides on the horses that I work with because I believe in training both sides. If you ever need to dismount on the offside you can trust that your horse knows what you’re doing.
-Utilize the lunge line. It, and/or a round pen, will be your best friend. Although it shouldn’t be used as a crutch, it will be a useful tool when it comes to introducing a rider to a problem horse. This is a safe way to acclimate the horse while maintaining control, yet allowing the rider to begin introducing (or reintroducing) aids. Start with small circles and move to bigger circles as the horse becomes more confident with a rider on its back.
-Practice makes perfect. Repeating these exercises is a way of desensitizing your horse. Not only are you getting the horse used to a rider, you’re reinforcing the basic principles of groundwork, like respect and personal space. The more you practice, the more desensitized your horse will get, but don’t push too long in one session or continue to repeat the same exercise over and over again if your horse has already mastered it.
-Patience is key. This is not a one-size-fits-all process. Every horse is different and there are a variety of other factors that will affect how quickly the horse responds to this—or any—part of training. It’s important to be patient and understand that behavioral changes and training take time.
-Use good judgment. Assess your situation and make sure that you’re safely prepared to deal with it. Do you have the appropriate experience? Do you have the appropriate facilities? Do you have a second experienced person to assist? Do you need a trainer or more experienced rider to help you? Is this a problem that you’re willing to work through? Are you committed to this horse and a positive shared experience?
-Get a trainer. These situations are exactly what we’re here for! There’s no shame in admitting that you’re a little in over your head and asking for help—better safe than sorry. A trainer will be able to tailor each training session specifically to you and your horse.
Introducing a rider to a problem horse can be a little bit tricky at first, but stick with it and have confidence that your horse will acclimate. Desensitizing your horse will create trust between you and make working under saddle easier in general. Take your time with all of this—it’s a process, sometimes a long one, and don’t forget to breathe!