Retraining the Saddler

Renee, I will confess, I have not read your article on retraining the THB; I will confess again that I don’t like THBs – that being the reason I did not read the article (sorry if I offend you by saying this).
Now I need a bit of advice (ironic isn’t it). I was progressing very nicely with my dressage lessons (leg yields, half pass, shoulder in the works!), but now my mare got too much pregnant and my trainer felt she should rest now in preparation for foaling. The owner of the (very small) stable yard is very good to me. He and the trainer decided to put me on the owner’s Saddler gelding. The horse is quite handsome, with a lovely long, arched neck. He is well mannered and friendly in his stable. The owner keeps the horses very relaxed in the “open – plan” stables; the dividing walls in the barn style stable block is only about 1.8m high; so the horses can see each other all the time (except when they lay down to sleep)
Now for the crunch: the gelding has been through a few Saddler trainers. They all did their “weird” training methods on him. He then was trained by a flashy, “windgat” dressage trainer that taught him things he was far from ready for (passage, few beat flying changes canter etc.). We now have the following problems: 1.] The horse is very tense. He was taught the Saddler walk – and it is difficult to get him to walk “flat footed”. 2.] He canters at break – neck speed, and does flying changes by himself. 3.] He anticipates: sometimes he thinks he will canter now, and turns side ways in anticipation of being asked for the canter (as Saddler trainers do turn the horses towards the rail to “throw” the horse into the correct lead canter) – it is then difficult to get him to walk straight again. 4.] He hates legs on him. With the Lane Fox saddle the legs are away from the saddle; when the legs are put on him, it means “go harder / faster”. This means he doesn’t want to take leg yields (just rushes forward faster & faster), and it is difficult to bend him “around the leg” in a circle / half circle.
We are spending a lot of time to try and get him to relax. We do a lot of walk work (also in patters). We have worked the head lower and neck rounder. He is starting to relax, but sometimes tenses up and goes into the “jog” / Saddler walk; then it is difficult to get back to a pure walk. The trot is much better (given that my legs don’t touch him, difficult with a Wintec dressage saddle!). The canter needs a lot of work still. The problem is that he needs a lot of patience; usually I am someone who doesn’t get angry easily. But after “begging” him for a pure walk for half an hour I sometimes get angry – I hide it away from my trainer and the owner. But the other day I worked him alone – and when he started with his jogging again, and then wanted to canter, I smacked him. I regretted it straight away – but the horse, after the freight it got, settled down a bit (!!!). I made a resolution that I will never do it again, he is not the type of horse where this will work – it will tense him more. I will work more on my patience. We also have done a lot of work on my seat to control speed – something wonderfully new for me!
Question: what else can I do? If you don’t have any more answers, and only feel sorry for me, I will understand…
We have also started backing my SA Boerperd mare. Fortunately no “farms were bought” (although I was shown in no uncertain terms that it could happen any moment if she felt like it). She is quite “hot” (and obviously still very inexperienced) but is progressing nicely. A lot of walk work (patters) with a bit of trotting (patters), desensitising, and long lines etc. What I have learned on the “seat” with the Saddler gelding helps a lot with her. Why am I relating this: please feel sorry for me, currently I have no settled, “lekker ryperd”…!


Charles, Charles, Charles. I will start off by feeling sorry for you. The last time I got off to a rip-roaring start with a superb horse I got pregnant.. Hee hee. You have taken on quite a challenge in this horse but if you see it like that, a challenge, it may help out with the patience… who am I kidding. You did not miss anything in my article as I am still madly trying to finish Part 2, which discusses the actual training so none taken! (Offense I mean) The last time I sat on a Saddler, we got as far as the arena gate and then she exploded into a mass of quivering jelly and refused to move – even after her owner got on her and tried to beat the daylights out of her. I get the tension thing – they get spoiled like that, and it is such a pity.

This problem has taken a few years to evolve I would imagine, so know it is going to take a few years to correct! That is the first and most important thing to remember when a horse needs re-schooling and especially one that is this tense. Generally speaking, people try to teach their horses things too fast, before they are ready physically and mentally to do the job being asked. That results in the horse knowing all sorts of ‘tricks’ but they are not executing them properly. I cannot even count how many pupils I have had telling me that their horses are doing wonderful half passes, when upon further inspection, they are doing no more than a simple leg yield and the horse is most definitely not bent in the direction of movement! There is a definite ‘scale’ of training and the achievement of one tier will lead to the next, along with the exercises that go along with that. Schooling a horse is measured in years, not months. Often riders try to teach their horse one movement after the other, but the basics are not in place. Now it sounds to me like this poor gelding has had that happen to him. He has been scared out of his wits, been taught one ‘trick’ after the other, and still has no idea of what is expected of him.

Have you ever sat in class, perhaps at Varsity or at a lecture or a conference, and had no idea of what the lecturer was on about and everyone else seems to be totally absorbed and all you are praying for is ..'please don’t ask me a question… please don’t ask me a question…’ and your palms are sweaty and you are in an adrenaline overdose..? I think this boy is so scared to be asked a question because he is not really sure of what humans want from him. He knows there is punishment coming if he does not get it right, but he is not sure what the question was. He has been taught so many conflicting things that he is not sure what answer you want. Horses like that will often explode into an entire repertoire of things that they know when asked the most simple thing – exploding into flying changes, leg yields, canter strike-offs and the whole lot, one after the other, because they are hoping one of those tricks was what you were asking…!

There is definitely a balance issue here – by cantering faster and faster and changing legs, he is telling you that he is so tense it is unbalancing him and that is also why he is doing that. Think of tension in the canter like running downhill fast – you speed up and speed up until you can’t stop even if you wanted to. That’s what he is feeling in the canter. He speeds up and then must change legs in order to regain his balance. I have seen it often.

So, what to do! There are two aspects to the type of work you are going to need to do with him, and the first and most important part is a trust issue. This horse is going to have to learn to trust you. Now, that does not mean you fatten him up on carrots and the two of you stroll of into the sunset! First, he must realize that you are in charge. I use lock on for that (also called ‘join up’ by Monty Roberts). The horse must understand that you in control. When you are in control, it means you are not afraid and that you know what is going on, in his language.

When you throw a group of people into a stressful situation, you will notice that they will gravitate towards the person who seems to quickly gain an understanding of the situation, seems to know exactly what to do and shows the least fear. Suddenly the group gets quiet and the ‘leader’ tells them what is going on, what they need to do and who is going to do it. Suddenly they are less afraid and they focus their combined energy on the task at hand. That is what you are trying to achieve with a lock on. You are trying to focus the horse’s nervous energy on you and make him understand that you know what is going on and what he needs to do. Once you have achieved that, a small measure of trust is built.

With that trust, you are now going to ask him to step out of his comfort zone and learn that you are not going to ask him to do anything he cannot do. An easy way of doing this with the nervous wreck is to put a feed bag on the floor, with him on a lead. A pressure halter can also be used if the horse is very difficult and tends to explode. Of course the plastic bag becomes a monster and he will snort and prance and not want to go near it (being a saddler.. hee hee). If he is happy with bags, find something he is scared of – a sheet of blue plastic on the floor might be a monster to him. Be creative! You are going to ask him to step up to the bag. Then move away. Then step up to the bag, then move away. With each forward step, use lots of praise. If he backs up, keep backing him up and ask him to stand. In that way, you are still in control. Ask him to step up again. Keep your voice low, keep your body language quiet. When he finally steps up to the bag, praise. (you can use food if you want, but often nervous horses will not eat anyway!)A good reward is once he steps up to the bag and stands for even a split second, turn him away, walk him right away and around before coming back. That is a mental reward for him. He may need a small tap on the rear end with a crop to move forward the first time. If he moves forward after that, no more taps. If you are scared you may lose your temper, rather leave the crop. (I use a dressage crop.) This is the kind of work that can be done with him every day, even twice a day if you possibly can. Once he steps onto the bag (or the thing is scared of) you will see him make the connection – it is so acute you can almost hear the penny drop! He suddenly realizes that you are right, and that you will never ask him to do anything that you are not sure he can. A strong trust will be built on that. Keep up with the ‘trust games’ and keep reinforcing his understanding that you are to be trusted. Parelli Horsemanship is an excellent tool that helps the horse in exactly this area. The different ‘games’ are in fact carefully chosen exercises to reinforce trust and obedience issues. A clear warning though – once you have gained this horse’s trust, be very careful that you do not do anything to compromise it! It is a fine thread that is easily snapped! Once lost, you will find the horse reverts back to his old ways, and usually even worse!

The second part of your training program will need to address the issues under saddle. The first thing you should do is to stop the canters until you have improved the walk and trot. If you keep riding the canters as he is now, you are not teaching him anything, not improving anything and all that happens is the poor way of going is reinforced until it becomes habit. Stick to walk at first, because you are going to have to teach him all about leg. Very basically, start in halt, apply your leg aid softly, if he walks on praise him and repeat. When he understands the walk aid, move on to ‘walk faster’ – in walk, apply your leg aid and if he walks faster, praise. Same for trot. This is a process that happens over weeks, not minutes please. The slower you take it, the more eager he will be to learn and the better your results. I would introduce a good lungeing program, starting with leading him and teaching him the voice commands. Also, when leading him, you can teach him to move away from pressure by applying it to his side and asking him to step away from it. (I use the vocal command ‘siiide’ and always ask my horses to do that when I take them into the stable.) Once he understands the voice commands (include ‘slooowly’ and ‘move on!’)you will be able to translate that into the riding part, giving the voice command as well as the leg aid. Slowly he will begin to understand what you want. Once his walk and trot improves, and he is starting to understand the aids, you can introduce canter. Exercises to improve his balance are vital – polework, uphills, downhills, volte’s and serpentines and plenty of transitions will improve his balance. That will improve the work under saddle vastly.

The trick is really patience. Hard I know but it is vital. When he jogs, bring him back gently and ask again. Try to vary the work so that by the time he wants to evade one exercise, he is already onto the other.

This is a long road and there are no quick fixes that are going to help – only time and patience. The reason he reacted so well to the smack, was because he understands ‘no’ so well! What you need to teach him is to focus on the ‘yes’. People spend so much time ‘fixing’ while on their horses, they forget to focus on what they want that is right. The horses learn what NOT to do, but are never really sure of what they SHOULD be doing.

That help? I hope so.

Commiserations on the whole having a nice riding horse thing – the best part about working with my previous horse was that finally I could get on and NOT FIGHT! Having worked with problem horse after problem horse, I forgot what a superb horse feels like! I get it!

Let me know how things go!

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