#6 The first saddling session

Welcome to article 6 of the series ’10 First times in Coltstarting’. In the last article we discussed the first circles and how to start lunging your horse. In this article I would like to talk to you about the first saddling sessions.

When they’re ready you can have them tied while saddling

So by now we’ve made quite some progress with our young horse and we’ve arrived at the first saddling session. Don’t misunderstand though; this is not the day you will be saddling and cinching your horse and then he is ‘started under saddle’.
When I start saddling I am aware that the following steps need to be taken in order for this to be successful:

  1. Accepting the pad or blanket
  2. Accepting the saddle (or preferably first the bbpad)
  3. Accepting the girth
  4. Accepting the movement and sounds of the stirrup leathers and stirrups
  5. Accepting the saddle in movement

These steps are equally important and need to be taken in the order named above. How long it’ll take is different for every horse though varying for instance between having taken steps 1+2 on day one and 3+4+5 on day two or…it taking a week or longer if the horse has already been scarred by previous experience. Make sure you offer your horse the time he needs.

So how does it work? How would I start with my young horse?
First of all you need to understand and be able to put to practise the principles of ‘approach & retreat’ and how to earn your horse’s trust. You can read more on this is: Relax & don’t worry. You will need to have experience with this or you’ll mess up the timing.
Simply put though it comes to this: to earn the horse’s trust by proving to him that you will not just barge through his thresholds. Approaching him with something scary until the point that he can still bare it and then retreating before it becomes too much for him; and repeat until he sees it’s not hurting him. By rewarding the behaviour you want you will be able to reset his boundaries with him.  

An example with the saddlepad:
My leadrope hangs loosely over my right forearm, my back is towards my horse and I’m holding the pad in my left hand. I offer my horse the pad first if he would like to sniff it. When he is ready I swing the pad unto his back (it’s not unfolded yet: so still folded in half, which is less scary to your horse). I see her tensing her muscles while I swing the pad but she stays put. As soon as the pad is on her back, I pull it back off and give her a second to relax and then I repeat the same. After 4 or 5 times she doesn’t tense up anymore while I swing the pad. I stop, offer her the pad to sniff if she wants it, and then give her some space to digest.

The next time I do this and she starts off quite relaxed with it (whether this is the same session or a day or week later) I can swing the pad unto her back and rub her everywhere with it. If she is okay with that I can open it etc. I take it slow and if she would have been really scared I might not even have touched her with the pad yet, I could have just swung it by her side until it didn’t scare her anymore. We are not breaking her in or sacking her, we are helping her gain confidence.

Lusitano stallion Heca ready to be saddled

*I know there are those of you who are afraid that the horse will start running and bucking when we saddle them for the first time, but please don’t saddle them up and cinch them tight. If the steps above are followed in the correct way and with feel there will be no bucking session 🙂

*Something else I would like to stress is to not tie your horse for these saddling sessions the first couple of times. Your horse is a flight animal and needs to feel he can flee if he really needs to. Tying him down could mean triggering his natural claustrophobia and if you then start swinging scary stuff around he might:

  1. panic more easily
  2. OR learn that he is not allowed to show his fear and go introverted. You may think your horse is then ‘saddlebroke’ but he is still terrified and will more easily explode later.

So the rule here is basically: if you cannot have your horse stand quietly on a loose rope….don’t start saddling him or playing with pads. I’ve seen too much accidents and stress with horses and their riders because of this common mistake, and it’s just not necessary. Give your horse the time and space he requires and he’ll gladly be your student.

Need more help with your young horse? Check out our: Young Horses page to get support.