The Hollywood illusion of the badass cowboy throwing himself on the bronc and riding till he flies off or the horse gives up is not only dangerous, it’s stupid. Yes, some first-time riding horses will buck, but the point is to set them up so they aren’t tempted to try. That makes for a much more pleasant and less bone-shattering experience on all sides.
Here’s how it works.
There’s quite a bit of prep work involved. We have to teach the horse to tolerate being groomed and having her feet cleaned, lead, stand, move over when requested, move forward or backward ditto, wear a saddle, wear a bridle (with or without bit in the early stages–there are schools of thought; I’m with the one that says use a bit), get used to flapping objects such as stirrups and reins, and it’s also a good idea to teach the verbal gait commands for when you want to teach the horse what the touch commands are from the saddle: “Walk,” “Trot,” “Canter,” and a rather important one: “Halt” or “Whoa.”
This takes at least a few days and often a couple of months. With this mare, we started in March and backed her in August–longer than I would normally, but I have other horses and, you know, a living to earn, so there we were.
That first ride needs at least two people in order to be truly safe: someone to stand on the ground and hold the horse (preferably an experienced horse handler), and someone to do the actual sitting part. The latter person needs to be a very quiet, balanced, experienced rider whom the horse trusts, and who has the ability to surrender control to the ground person and to stay in place regardless of what the horse may decide to do. It helps if she’s a little bit nuts. That’s usually me. (Experienced horse people, a few years back, when we were training another of the herd: “You let your trainer do what while you’re riding your 5yo breeding stallion?” He was loose in the arena, no reins, while trainer worked him in walk and trot and, if he felt like it, canter. I was on his back, going with him whatever he did.)(Uh. Yeah. But I raised him from birth. I trusted him.)
This time we had a not very small, very strong-minded, highly intelligent mare who had been dangerously aggressive when handled around her right flank. Another perspective on the experience, from the ground person (with special fantasy-magical-weirdness element), describes that situation here. That’s part of why it took so long to get started. There was No Way In Hades I was putting a leg on that horse until she was good and ready.
And then finally, after much work, she was. Herewith, illustrated courtesy of Traci Castleberry, is the saga of Ephiny’s First Ride.
Short form: Woooowwwwww.
We were going to do this last week, but Camilla-the-War-Mare tromped Ephiny’s left fore so hard she was lame for several days, so we had to postpone. Horses. I swear. (A lot.)
So this week all was well. Traci had a lesson on Khepera (our lovely Evil Gelding) first. Ephiny was totally with the program–right there and waiting for her turn. Interestingly, Camilla didn’t push for a lesson at all. It was Ephiny’s day.
S started by renewing her acquaintance in groundwork and bodywork, establishing herself as a safe place to go in case things got scary. Ephiny was a little dubious. Last time they worked together, she got worked through all kinds of trauma especially on the right side. But she settled down and S handed her over to me. “Do that you do to get connected.” So I did a little groundwork, leading, and so on. We were settling in–then Khepera Left. The. ARENA!!!!! Massive Ephiny-freakout. She was mad. Ephiny, when mad, grows to 19 hands and Explodes.
So we got Khepera back into the grooming area, eating hay. We both calmed down. Mostly. S took a potty break. I noodled a bit. Ran the stirrups down and did some weight-in-stirrups play.
Ephiny abruptly started to sing a happy little song. No more mad.
She had thought that when K left, the lessons were over and she was going to get put in, too. That was why she was mad. She wanted her lesson! She wanted her Ride!
So we did a few bendy bits.
And then we went over to the mounting block and did our hangin’ out thing.
S came back and got back into the mix–and we did the mounting thing. (That’s dangerous. If the horse takes off, you can crash. She stood like a rock, bless her heart.)
Then I sat quietly, doing nothing but slightly turning my body on bends, while S did bodywork with Ephiny, showing her how to connect when there’s a monkey on her back. Like so:
And hey! First gear!
VERY interesting experience. Ephiny was solid to mount, back like a tabletop, good broad barrel. Totally ready and balanced, though at first she kind of forgot she had a left rear quadrant.
She was actually more unbalanced left than right–amazing considering her major right-hind issues at the beginning of the training process. We have to work on that. One thing she did that really interested me was want me to sit very light, very up in the torso–floating upward but with my seat solidly plugged in. That felt amazing.
She has a wonderful walk even at this stage, and she’s so happy and so into it. At the end, she and S shared a moment.
And so did I.
Then she got to run a little bit and show off, though she really just wanted cookies and hay, please.
I think that gives you the sense of what kind of rocket I was sitting on.
And that was Miss E’s Big Day. It was the best first ride I’ve ever had with any of my young ones. She was ready, she was solid, she has no holes or anxieties. She had one big spook but did the oatented Lipizzaner thing, bless her: tucked me into her back and we flew along together. She settled right down, no lingering effects–also a Lipp trait. Look how relaxed she was in the debriefing:
It’s a privilege to ride a horse of this quality–and to get to be the first person ever on her back? Woooooowwwwwww. Not to mention all that Lipizzaner hard-wiring. She knows what she’s for. She’s going to be such a great riding horse.
Hey, she already is.
Next step: groundwork, handling, and if she asks me to get on and someone is there to spot us, we’ll go for it. Then we’ll have S come back for another formal session and maybe some work on steering and brakes.
And that’s what it should be like.