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Check this list before you take that first spring ride

Published: 4/29/2015
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

It's spring! The days are growing longer. Tender shoots are emerging. Birds are chattering excitedly. And horsemen and women everywhere are brushing the dust off their saddles.

The itch to ride is strong this time of year, but with many horses fresh from the long winter off, don't neglect your homework. It's wise to never assume anything. Whether you've been riding this horse for years, just got him back from the trainers, or he's fresh out of the back 40: before you saddle up, determine your horse's level of education and understanding.

How do you know if your horse is ready to go, or, green as the grass just coming up?

Many times, a horse can pack people around and get by okay without really understanding what is expected of him or having any foundation in place. This may work for a while, but when he gets in trouble, he will need something to fall back on. In high school, I sat in the back of my pre-calculus class and winged my way through, mostly with help from the smart kid next to me.
Did I have a solid understanding of what I learned in that class? I wouldn't bet on it.

When you're riding your horse, you really are betting your life on that foundation.

I like to do this “pre-flight check.” It's well worth the time, even if everyone is riding off without you. It may spare you some bumps and bruises, and it will help gear your horse up for the right frame of mind.

Check out these exercises. If you find one of them not to be working out so well, you may need to spend more time in that area. Spending the time getting that particular piece solid not only ensures a pleasant ride, it could save you and your horse's life.

Can you on the ground:

  • Touch him everywhere? (After a winter of being wild and woolly, some of their domesticity may have been traded in for survival instinct.)

  • Saddle up without flinching, scooting, snorting, bucking, etc?

  • Send him loose in a safe, confined place with good fencing carrying the saddle and have him travel comfortably and relaxed?

  • Have him pack around something foreign, like a pair of chaps or your coat, without him losing it? You're going to be sitting up there so you might want to see how he reacts to something lifeless first.

  • With a halter and later a bridle, can you bend his head left and right on a float most of the time? Without being able to have your horse follow your lead rope, you may not be able to have him follow your reins. I don't drive my car without reliable breaks and steering, and I'm sure you don't either. Yet many times, people ride with the assumption horses should understand, when, in fact, they have not been prepared to know what they're meant to do.

  • Can you send him on the ground in a halter and later bridle left, and then right? Again, this goes back to steering. It's very important that when he does go left, he look left, and when he goes right, he looks right. Not going to the left looking right or vice versa.

  • Can you slow and stop them reliably on the ground?

  • If your horse gets troubled, can you, with confidence, help him come back down to earth and work through it?

  • Can your horse drag something without being too worried? In the horrible event that you fall off and get dragged, you want to know your horse isn't going to head away at breakneck speed from the thing (you) traveling behind him.

Can You Under Saddle:

  • Mount from both sides without the horse traveling, scooting, bolting, tensing up, etc?

  • Reliably turn left and right, go forward, slow, and stop?

  • Touch them with your legs and hands in different places and move around a bit without a huge reaction?

  • Take off your jacket, adjust your hat or helmet, or blow your nose? Don't take this one for granted...

  • Help your horse through any goblins or gremlins lurking around in a way that suits him?

There are many, many things to add to this list, but these some absolutely vital exercises. Some I learned from good teachers, but many I learned from colts who taught me that I was going too fast and expecting too much.
If you can't get a piece going smoothly, don't fret. Taking the time to get things working right will help ensure you and your horse many safe and enjoyable rides, and after a good collection of those safe and enjoyable rides, you may find yourself riding along on one heck of a partner.
That's better than money in the bank!

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4/30/2015 kas bond
Well worth the time it takes to do these safety tips. I hope those who read this article will take the time to use these and pass them on to other riders. Thanks for those of us that are in our 'golden' years and don't get out in the cold and snow to ride for at least a good 5 months in the bitter north!! HTTY (happy trail to you)
4/30/2015 Julie
Great list of things to work on with your horse to see if they are mentally prepared for a ride. I've found over the years that if you cannot get your horse to do something from the ground, you are not going to get your horse to do that same thing from the saddle, which may put you in a very dangerous position. Don't skip the ground work and then get angry at your horse because he's not prepared to do a maneuver when you're on his back. Preparation and checking in with your horse is a great reminder for all of us.
4/30/2015 Cindy
I'd like to suggest the No. 1 safety tip+ Wear a helmet!"

"Love means attention, which means looking after the things we love. We call this stable management." - George H. Morris