How To Start Out An Unridden 8-Year-Old Mare?

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Hi there,

I found your blog a while back, and I’ve read every post, I really like the way you think!!! I have a question for you if that’s alright. On December 4 (my 29th birthday) I was given the best gift any horse crazed person could receive, an 8 year old quarter horse mare. She is so sweet, but she’s never been broke! Now, she’s not wild or anything like that. She has been raised really well, she’s easy to catch and stands tied, picks up her feet nicely, loves to be groomed and fussed with. She has had a saddle on years ago, but no one has ever got on her.

So here is my question I guess: Where do I start? I know I should run through ground work with her just to make sure she does know what I am asking her. But then what’s the next step?

Should I just throw a saddle on her and see what happens? It’s been years since she’s had anyone really work with her, she’s just been out in the herd, and it’s also been many years since I’ve worked with a green horse and to be honest, I’m a little scared of
her! She’s huge!

I would really appreciate some advice on what direction I should go to get my sweet mare going and turn her into the great trail companion I know she can be. Thank you so much for your time.

Carly

I notice you haven’t had this mare very long, and I’m not sure how much horse experience you have, so I’m going to first suggest that you find a trainer or horse person in your area to at least come observe your mare, if not get her started off for you with some basic training. I myself am a “hands on” girl, so it’s hard for me to give that advice, I like to do everything myself….but I just say it mainly for your own safety, as well as wanting your mare to get a good start and not get slowed down too much by beginner’s uncertainty.

That being said, I will go ahead and give you some tips that I would use myself for getting your mare started. If you have confidence around horses, you might go ahead and try them yourself. If not, I stress again the need for a trainer to help you in the beginning stages of starting this mare riding.

Your mare sounds like she is comfortable being handled, so that solves many issues with training a horse right there. If she has been saddled before, chances are it won’t freak her out to try that again. I would put her in a safe corral (one that is strong enough that if she blows up and bucks she won’t jump out or hurt herself on the fencing or anything in the corral) and lunge her a little.

If you aren’t sure how to lunge her, I have a good step by step blog post on lunging a horse to help you get started. You should work on this for a month or so before advancing to riding. Lunging a horse will help get its focus on you, get it following your commands, and take a little of the hyperness out of a horse at the beginning of a ride or working session, which helps it settle down and do as you ask a little better than if you just catch a horse up and throw a saddle on it and get on it. So lunge your mare first, at the beginning of each training session.

When you are lunging her, you can start to introduce more things into the routine. For instance, put a saddle on her and then lunge her. This gets her used to the feel of the saddle when she is in faster gaits, which can seem weird if a horse isn’t used to it. If she spooks at the flopping stirrups, that’s fine—you want to get all this stuff over with before you get on. So let her spook, just keep her lunging in a circle around you, and ask her for different gaits, changes in direction, stops and let her stand and rest whenever she has done a good job with something.

Rest and petting is the best reward you can give a horse—treats and hand-fed goodies will mess things up and take the horse’s mind off of the lesson and it will only think how good those treats are and will get pushy. So just pet her, let her stand for a minute, then ask her to do something else, or repeat what you just did with her.

You can also introduce the bit while lunging. I would suggest a smooth O-ring snaffle with a thick mouthpiece. This is the gentlest bit you can use. Some like to use a full-cheek snaffle, which has the same mouthpiece, but has bars on the side of the cheeks to keep the bit rings from pulling through the horse’s mouth. When choosing a bit for the beginner horse, make sure that the mouthpiece (the part that goes across the tongue inside the horse’s mouth) is as thick as your finger or so. That’s what you want for a beginning horse. A thin mouthpiece is more severe and can cut or permanently hurt your horse’s mouth. A more advanced horse can wear a thinner mouth piece since he has already learned to give to the bit pressure and it won’t damage him as much as putting it on a colt who has no idea what to do with it.

If you choose a different bit, if it’s a severe one or one that doesn’t fit correctly, it can really mess up your horse from the start, and she won’t be any fun to ride. I like hackamores, bosals, and bitless bridles, but for starting out a colt, the plain snaffle mouthpiece is a really good choice. Your mare will mouth the bit, or chew on it, most likely. This is because she isn’t used to the feel of it in her mouth, and a horse will try to spit it out, push it out with their tongue, and chomp on it to show their frustration. But like anything else, practice makes perfect. She will learn to carry it in the corner of her lips with no problem at all. Put the bridle and bit on her underneath her halter or lungeing cavesson while you lunge her. Either take the reins off the headstall or tie them up safely to the saddle horn or wrapped around her neck and tied up so she can’t step on them. Then lunge her.

So when she will lunge at a walk, trot, and canter with the saddle and bit on with no sign of spooking or discomfort, that’s a good sign she will ride out just fine. I myself would probably go ahead and get on her at this point, but if you want to take extra precaution that she will behave when you get on, you can do one more thing in preparation. Get some long reins and snap them on to the bit rings, run them through the stirrups of your saddle, and then stand behind her and ask her to walk forward. Use the reins to ask her to turn left or right. This will teach her to obey the pressure of the reins, and it is called long reining, or ground driving, and this post will help you learn how to ground drive a horse. In a sense you are directing her just like you would if you were riding her, but without the added danger of being on her back. If you can control her completely with the long reins (turns, stops, trotting, slowing back down, etc.) then you can be more assured she will obey the reins when you get on her.

I usually get on a horse while it is standing relaxed in the corral. Make sure your saddle is fitting correctly, the cinch is tight enough that it won’t turn when you get on, and the horse is happy and relaxed. I usually hold the reins together in my left hand near the saddle horn or withers of the horse, and put my left foot in the stirrup and kind of bounce up and down a little to see if my movement against the horse’s side is going to spook her. If so, continue the bouncing and pet her a little every other minute or so, until she doesn’t spook or look worried that you’re bouncing on one foot next to her. You can also pat the back of the saddle, all over her hindquarters, etc., to make sure that being touched on her back isn’t going to send her bucking up a storm. You want to mime all the actions from the ground that you might do from the saddle, to prepare her and make sure it isn’t an issue. Any action that is an issue (you pat the saddle and she jumps, or you raise your arm high over your head while standing near her side and she throws her head up in the air and snorts wildly) tells you that she needs more groundwork. Keep doing the action that she doesn’t like, without hurting her, until she really doesn’t care about it anymore. For instance, if you rub your hand along her back, over her hindquarters to the top of her tail and she takes a couple of steps forward to escape your touch, you need to keep doing that same motion until she stands still and doesn’t move or act worried anymore.

Then I move on to where I can stand in that one left stirrup and lean over her back (but don’t swing your right leg up and over yet) and pet her all over with your free arm—all over her neck, the other side of the saddle, her hindquarters, etc. Then step back down and pet her and let her relax and think about it. Then stand back up in your stirrup and pet her some more, leaning over her back so your weight is on her back, not on the stirrup your foot is in. If at any time she moves or jumps, you should try to stay with her, but if she gets explosive, just quickly step back down to the ground. Then repeat everything multiple times until she doesn’t move or act worried.

When it’s all old hat to her, go ahead and swing your right leg over the saddle and get it into the stirrup. If she wants to walk forward, by all means let her. You do want her to feel free enough to move. I would just pick up your inside rein (left rein if she is turning left in a circle) and keep it a little short until you see how she is going to behave. If she jumps or spooks, really tighten up that inside rein to keep her in a small circle. If her hind end is disengaged (turning around her front end) then she really can’t spook or buck very well. So pull her in a circle as she walks. If she doesn’t walk at all, encourage her with a little clucking sound and leaning forward a bit in the saddle. You don’t want her to freeze up and stand motionless, because then she might really jump and buck once she does come unglued from her “safe place”. So what you really want is for her to walk quietly in a circle. Use this time to continue petting her neck and shoulders, talking to her in a soft voice, keeping the inside rein a little short in case of trouble. If she does well for several circles, you can start working on changing directions and circling to the right, stopping and standing, turning and starting off again, making larger circles or even figure eights, etc. That’s the common scenario for the first rides I usually put on horses. Don’t over-do it, you don’t need to be cantering on the first ride. Trotting is fine, but a horse can get a little scared when it first trots with a rider, so be prepared for it to want to go a little too fast, or to lurch to a stop suddenly. Just remain calm, ask it to move forward again, and work on it some more until it isn’t an issue.

In any event, stay safe and have fun. Enjoy your new mare!