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Backing and Riding Away Your Young Horse

by Michelle Holtmeyer
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There’s a lot to consider before you get into the saddle of your young horse, so it’s well worth taking the time to read our thoughts on preparing to ride, based on your experience of training youngsters. We explain you what is important.

At what age should a young horse begin to be ridden?

There’s no hard and fast rule as to how old a horse should be before it is first ridden. Some of the larger, taller breeds may be physically mature enough to be gently ridden at three, or three and a half. Other breeds, such as Icelandic horses, are late maturing and do not usually start their ridden work until they are five. It’s about waiting until the horse is physically mature and confident, and that varies in both breeds and individuals. After you’ve followed our groundwork tips and are confident you are both ready, it’s time to back your horse – that is, to get on for the first time.

Preparing to back your horse: the groundwork

A well-handled horse is usually much easier to back than one that has not had much experience of people. The young horse should be taught the basics as soon as possible, such as having its feet picked out and being led. Some people begin by putting on a foal slip (halter) for an hour or two on the day of birth. Groundwork means teaching your horse the basics that will set it up for success later in life. It also means literally working with you on the ground, not in the saddle. Build trust by encouraging your horse when it does the right thing. He or she should be confident with you all around their body, as well as accepting of your touch. Use light pressure to indicate you want your horse to move and remove the pressure and offer praise as soon as it responds.

Teaching your horse to lead and lunge well, and to walk, trot and stop when you ask, is a firm foundation to build on. Working on the lunge is also an important part of the groundwork for riding. If a horse is confident working in walk, trot and canter wearing a lunging cavesson, roller and side reins, it will greatly assist when the time comes to wear a bridle and saddle for the first time. Keep your sessions short, don’t push the horse too hard and stop on a positive note. Your horse will remember that next time. When your horse accepts lunging, you could also try long reining, as this is a great way to build trust and it’s fun as well. When your horse is calm and accepting of everything you do on the ground, and is wearing a saddle with confidence, it’s time to move to the next stage.

First steps with a young horse – Backing your horse and riding away

Once your horse is used to the saddle, but before you actually sit in it, it’s a good idea to get it used to the idea of someone leaning across its back. In this way, he or she has the sensation of weight without having to carry it anywhere. You can do this by gently leaning over from a mounting block. If the horse accepts it, take the pressure off and praise it. Some people also use lightweight sacks with some straw in them as a “pretend rider” to acclimatise the horse to carrying a bit more weight.

Your horse’s first experience of riding should be with a lightweight, calm and experienced rider. Make sure you have two other helpers as well so they can assist with easing the rider gently into the saddle. At first, the rider should lie slowly and calmly across the horse’s back, only progressing to putting their legs down and sitting upright if the horse is completely relaxed. If at any point the horse becomes tense, go back a step until confidence returns. Once the horse accepts the rider, move to the “ride-away” stage by walking on the lunge, and eventually trotting. Take it slowly!

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