Starting a young a horse under saddle with confidence – 8 key points

Back in the day, people used to talk about ‘breaking in’ a horse – it was all about taking control, tiring the horse out and it was undoubtedly not a nice experience for the horse. Breaking-in was a very anxiety-provoking exercise which literally involved breaking the horse’s spirit a little bit. There was little to no preparation. Today, thankfully, we live in a time where our understanding and thus our techniques have evolved. Now we speak of ‘backing’ or ‘starting’ a horse under saddle, which people see as the point at which have sufficiently trained the horse and you are ready to put a rider her back.

It starts with trust

To my way of thinking, the minute you start interacting with a horse, you are already backing her. The more trust and respect you earn, the stronger the relationship you’ll have. When you get to the point of asking her to carry you on her back, it will just be one more in a series of things you’ve asked her over the time you’ve been working together.

Grette and mom

Grette as a young foal, with her mother

Today I was working with Grette, the two-year old Friesian and her owner asked me “Who’s going to back her? When do we start backing her? How do we back her? Do I have to send her away to have it done?” I replied that by doing what we are doing, we are already in the process of backing her. We started backing her the minute we first started working with her.

Where is the line?

There is no line, in my mind between doing what we are doing now with ground-work and putting a rider on her back. Backing is just the next logical step. It’s just another exercise that we will do with her.

By the time that we come to back Grette, requests made on her back may feel different to her, but they shouldn’t worry her or make her anxious.

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For those expecting drama, it’s likely to be a complete non-event. This is because we will have spent so much time working with her, earning her trust, teaching her, asking her to do things, challenging her and every time we do that, she trusts us a little more. By the time one of us sits on her back, she will most likely not be too phased by it at all. In the beginning it will just getting on, sitting on her, getting her used to the feel.

Just like with everything, if you have laid a solid foundation by doing the kind of ground-work we are doing now, the actual backing will be easy. The first time you work with a green horse, you are backing that horse…not only when you eventually come to get on to her back. In my experience, if you have done the right groundwork, backing is only one more small step in the learning process.


     8 Points for successfully getting your horse confident under saddle

  1. Keep the sessions short – Like children, young horses have a short attention span. Ten to fifteen minutes of training time seems to be the sweet spot for most young horses being introduced to a rider.
  2. End on a good note – always try to end on a good note, this reinforces to your horse that he has done the right thing, and will ensure he seeks out the right answer in the next session.
  3. Hit the trails – hills, varied terrain, wildlife, water and interesting scenery provide a great venue for building the confidence, trust and dependability of a young equine. Leading your horse before you’ve actually started riding him is a great way to introduce him to the trail, and when he’s under saddle this can be a wonderful early training approach – once you have basic stop, steering and go cues understood.
  4. There’s no such thing as too much ground work – the more you do prior to hopping aboard to gain the confidence, trust, understanding and cooperation of your horse before you begin to ride him, the easier this next phase will be for both of you.

    Make sure the saddle fits well and is comfy. Take the time for your horse to get used to having a saddle and bridle on – way before you ride her.

  5. The long way is the short way – early preparation should be done done patiently and thoroughly. Taking it slow and allowing the horse ample time to trust and get comfortable with this new experience will set a solid foundation. Go to fast and the holes will show up later on and will ultimately slow your horses training down in the long run.
  6. Allow for ” soaking time” – Horses don’t forget what you did with them last – whether it be a day, a week or a month ago. Many good trainers have realized that giving a horse ‘soaking time’ which could be for as long as 3 days after learning something new, is the ideal way for faster progress. A horse who has had a chance to ‘work things out’ initially, both physically and mentally, has a huge advantage.  This horse will, generally speaking, become more capable when figuring things out if and when you need him to do so later in his training.  Whether that be to navigate a particularly uneven piece of ground, or a difficult jumping distance, or even just being confident on the trail.
  7. It’s easier to start a horse with two people rather than one – Of course you can back your horse on your own, many people do (and I have in the past) – but I much prefer having two people. It gives you more options. For example – one person can lead and the other can ride, one can steady and reassure the horse while the other gets on the horses back. With two knowledgeable people it can be a great advantage when backing the horse. Having a confident, calm and ‘emotionally balanced’ person there will help the horses transition across to working under saddle. Avoid nervous or ‘chaotic’ people.8. Last and definitely not least – Relaxation, relaxation, relaxation! remaining relaxed will allow your horse to feel good about this whole riding thing…and better absorb the lessons.  It will also ensure that he learns to ‘go forward’ in a relaxed manner.  As you well know, relaxation is one of the basic building blocks to working correctly when being ridden. Relaxation is the KEY to EVERYTHING you do with your horse.


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