Friday, August 19, 2011

Training for the Weekend Rider

Weekend riders used to make me crazy.

I long held the opinion if you were going to own a horse you needed to ride the dang thing. As a kid I scorned my friends who didn't ride every afternoon during the school years and both days on weekends.

Once I became an instructor and started getting students with their own horses I was notorious for climbing all over them if they hadn't been on them during the week.

There was no way they could hide it either. I had taught too many students who rode only once a week, on dudes or my school horses, to not recognize a rider warming up her butt from a week off her horse.

As the years passed I began to slowly get it. Well cared for horses don't mind much if they're ridden or not and many weekend horse owners love and take excellent care of their horses.

People can love their horses, need their horses and only manage to ride at their lessons or on a weekend trail ride a couple times a month.

The key was to create lessons which covered the needs of my clients and helped them progress. If they could only succeed by riding more often then they were capable of I was setting them up for failure. Not a good trait in a riding instructor.

I didn't let them off the hook though. I would try, through example, to show my students what was possible through daily riding and be blunt about what it would take to reach the higher levels of horsemanship.

The biggest problem with a rider who can only ride once a week or so is finding a horse who will continue to be soft and compliant when he is ridden a few times a month.

I have found horses for clients in the past which were soft and easy to ride and be around. Within a few months or a year the horses would become "bad," or "difficult," sometimes it would be about being caught or getting pushy. Sometimes the horse would become broncy or start bolting.

The problem almost invariably, at least at the beginning, was the horse was fresh. He hadn't been ridden in a long time and decided he liked it that way. So he'd act a little stupid and scare his rider into backing off. This suited the horse just fine and the problem would soon escalate.

Before you know it there would be a rodeo on the weekends instead of a nice trail ride and the horse world loses yet another needed horse owner.

What started as simple fractious behavior has built up to create a frightened and/or angry horse and owner. Horses don't find fault, in themselves or the people around them, they do find trust or distrust. When he acted up he was simply goofing, now he can't find leadership and is in trouble every time he comes in to be saddled. So fight or flight steps in.

What's the answer here?

This is where ground work comes in.

Hate to say it, but I'm not talking about 44 games, advance and retreat, or the dance of the seven veils. I'm talking ground work.

I want my horse under saddle, attached to a longe line and working hard. I'm gong to have a longe whip to show direction and insist on compliance if need be.

I  want the line so I can hoist his head where I need it hoisted, not wait until he chooses to be my friend. I want him saddled so he learns that when it is on we're going to work, not play. I want the whip for forward momentum and shoulder control. I want him to decide ground work is so hard he can't wait for you to knock it off so you'll get on his back and leave him alone.

My basic plan for a weekend rider with a feisty horse would be to encourage her to get out more. Even one extra fifteen minute session on the longe line can make a world of difference in a horse's attitude. Three or four would be better.

If a horse hasn't been ridden awhile and I think there's a buck or two in there I might turn them out first. If I do this I just turn them out, no input from me, no saddle or bridle. I'll give them half an hour or so, then catch him, saddle, long line and off we go.

I'm wary of turn out with a fresh horse, I worry about explosive play on an horse which hasn't been warmed up. It's a good way to blow tendons, tear muscles etc. so I'll avoid it if possible. I am all over turning a horse out after he's been worked, a good roll and slow cool down is a great way to end the day.

When I first start my fresh horse out on the line I want a trot. If I can get a walk right off then I sure don't need to be longing him. I don't want a bolting charging run either, this is about work NOT play.
So I'll ask for a trot. I don't care if I have a speedy trot, a flagged tail, whinnying or looking around, not yet anyway.

I do step in for bolting, bucking, cutting across in front of me or turning to face up.

For bolting I yank him down. I'll take a step to his hip and pull him towards me, breaking his forward momentum. When he stops I ask for the trot and send him out immediately, no "Good boy," (he's not) and no "I said WHOA you son of a goat!" (he's not). I just keep asking for the trot until I get it. Then we start working. He gets a good boy when he's completely on task, not before.

For bucking I get to spanking hard with the longe whip, speeding him up with authority and some aggressive body language, THEN I yank him down and send him out at the trot.

Cutting across in front of me gets pretty much the same treatment as bolting, except I'll slap him pretty hard with the whip across the shoulder. A shoulder coming towards me is very pushy and I'll do what it takes to push him back out.

Facing up without me asking irritates the tar out of me. This is not friendly submission, it's an evasion and I get it cleared up immediately. I slap the ground behind the horse, coming closer and closer to the shoulder until he heads out again. If he gets whapped, so be it, he had plenty of warning.

I don't have my horses face up, I like them to stay parallel and let me approach, but that's another story for another day.

Eventually we have a good trot going and I begin to transition the horse up and down, trot, extend trot, jog and eventually walk. I ask for lots of halts, lots of changes of direction.

When my boy is working well I start to transition in the lope.

Before I'm done I want a quiet horse, not whinnying, not looking around, just soft and sweet and working.

He should be sweaty too.

If the horse has an issue under saddle I'm dealing with, I'll get on, sit for five minutes or so and get down. That's it for now.

The reward for listening is me sitting quiet, with a lot of sweet talk and pats and then we're done. I add more time in the saddle and less on the line as the behavior improves.

If the only issue is freshness then I just get on and go for my ride.

If this is more training than the weekend rider is ready for than I suggest taking lessons, or trying a share/lease arrangement.

The main point I want to make here is, there is nothing personal in your horse's behavior. It's just the need to get those muscles working, a need so strong you can lose his brain completely.

A little more time and a consistent work plan can get that brain back in short order.

I'm just glad to know the weekend rider is out there, doing her best to balance a full life and keep her horse a vital part of it.


  1. Great post, thank you. Very well-presented.

  2. I get nervous lunging fresh horses on an actual leadrope - I did it once with my idiot OTTB - he bolted, and when I tried to slow him down by pulling his head towards me (he was in a halter, so that's all the sotp I had) his hindquarters slipped out from under him and he completely crashed and slid for about 10 feet, dragging the rope out of my hand.

    I'll admit it - it was one of my first (read: only) times lunging a really, really fresh horse, so it left a pretty strong impression and I've been leary of doing it ever since. I got lucky and there were no serious injuries, but it could have turned out differently.

    Still, it worries me to haul on the halter/bridle of a horse bolting in waaaaay too small of a circle around me - I feel like they just need one little pull to have the whole crash-and-burn thing happen again. Is the key in making a REALLY big move towards his hip to keep things balanced when yanking him down?

  3. I hate being a weekend rider (when my mare is actually sound)...but I simply refuse to give her up just because I can't spend the time with her that I did way back in high school.

    I also haven't found a boarding solution closer to home that has as much turnout as she is getting for the price. MOST places tend to do 2-3 hours a day of turnout and since I can't be there everyday, I'd rather drive an hour and have her be a fat and happy pasture potato 12 hours a day! Then I can enjoy her when my life gives me a few hours to spend with her -- and if she's sound enough, I hop on and we walk around for a while so I get my fix.

    It's not what it used to be, but it is what it is. :)

  4. All those reasons you listed are exactly why I am not a weekend rider. I've been known to get up at 4:30am or ride in the dark of winter to get those extra rides in. Honestly, it may not be just for the horse, I myself need the consistency in the saddle to continue to stay supple and focused. It is also my Zen time and I get a little nutty if I go more than 48 hours without my butt in the saddle!

  5. Becky - You need a bigger circle. It's best to work on how to pull a horse to you. It's essentially kicking their hip out on the ground.
    Practice with a quiet, broke horse. Find the spot (looking at the hip, eyes, shoulders, hips and knees all lined up)where you can pull without a lot of torque.
    A longe line is quite a bit longer than a lead rope.
    I never let a horse on a lead rope circle around me BTW.

  6. Feel free to write a few more of these. I've been lazy this summer, I can put in some excuses but that's all they would be. All I can say is thank you, horses, for retaining so well what you have been taught. And also for not letting me fall on my lazy out of shape bum.

    And to all the readers: please note the lunging instructions. Do NOT chase a horse, yelling and snapping a lunge whip. They may step over it. IF they do, do not try to pull them to a stop. you can pull their heads between their legs and flip them. It will be bad. Or they could slow down and kick you. That's bad. too.

    Mustang Hatty

  7. I have a really hard time understanding why people ask their horse to "whoa" and then allow them to swing and face them on the lunge line. Doesn't that defeat the whole purpose of a whoa? When I ask my horse to stop, I want her feet to stay where they land. Great post by the way :)

  8. Yes, I love this post. It makes so much sense. Thank you

  9. OK, I've got to ask.....are you disguising your writing style, and writing the latest Fugly blogs?

    The $350 article reminded me of Mort, and the newest, "Pleasure and Pain," reminds me of what you have told us of your training career progression, with the all-around horse experience early in your career, your fondness for neurotic fireballs, and "my discipline is about as far from WP as it can get." The writer also has a knowledge of Morgans, like you have shared with us.

    The writing style is so different that I hesitate to ask, but I just had to!

  10. great article, thank you!

    I'm doing groundwork with a very freaked out gaited mare right now, and I'm finding it so hard to strike a balance between being firm with her - if I flick the longe line at her, she acts like I'm about to beat her, and indeed, from all her behaviors, I'm pretty sure she has been beaten - and if she ignores my 'whoa' command once and I pull on the line and she ignores that then I pull harder, she comes to a dead stop, swings her butt out (so I don't beat her to death) and stands, eyes rolling and snorting. I got a bit sick of her last week and when she wouldn't stop or even walk and instead gaited, I pushed her on, but she panicked and flailed around. I can't tell if I'm getting somewhere or not, or if she's taking the p or not.

  11. Jill- With a horse like this I ask for everything in smaller increments. I'll accept a tiny try, and ignore most of the flailing. If the horse panics and bolts I'll keep working on them in a calm, easy manner util the horse sorts out she won't die if she listens.

  12. Good post Mugs. I used to think like you did- horses are for riding, not petting! But I gradually realized that not everyone wants to ride (unbelievable!) and quite a few take excellent care of their pasture ponies.
    I'm in a phase right now that keeps me from riding every day or even every other day ( as is my custom) and I am suffering (mentally and physically) - but my horse- he loves the break!

  13. BEST ever Lunge lesson I have read!!! I am a "lungeing expert" i.e.
    I was in charge of lungeing school horses before the lessons in the winter when it was cold and they had a day off, and they had NO turn-out and are full of hard feed because it is winter ...
    I was, I am, I will lunge pretty much as you describe. Trot only, and ZERO tolerance for bolting, bucking, or shouldering.

    If you do not mind suggesting it woudl be great if you could pin that post or re-write the luneging lesson and keep it in one of training lesson folder.

    Simply because it works, and it is full horse sense, without games etc ...Sometimes riders know how to lunge properly a relaxed horse, but they do not know how to deal with disobediance on the lunge.

    Thanks Mug, you are giving a great service to "normal" riders ^-^

    P.S: yanking works for shutting down any non-wanted behaviour. But be convinced about it, especially with a fresh horse, wash, rinse and repeat as necessary!

  14. Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men?

  15. Thank you. I do work towards very small goals with her - we're still on walk/halt/walk after about 3 weeks, and I don't make her do long sessions. She's scared, but also looks for reassurance when she's in a calmer frame of mind.

  16. I liked this post Mugs. I felt my hackles go up in the beginning, because I've been a weekend rider (and really, not even that) for the last several years. I love our horses, provide excellent care for them & know they're happy, so I've never felt bad that with my life demands I didn't have time to work them. It was, however, very aggravating to be looked down on by people who were regular riders and couldn't fathom that my horses were earning their keep by being my equine therapists.

    I've never been a huge MUST RIDE kinda girl & I think it's because I was a horse crazy kid who didn't have any horse exposure until I took lessons as a teen. Lesson kids don't get a chance to just spend time with a horse & enjoy them; it's all about the riding. So the last few years have fulfilled that need & I'm finally finding myself wanting to ride. Great timing, because I finally have time to ride as well. I'm also lucky enough to have two horses who I can hop on after months off and they're the same horse they are when fit & ridden regularly. One of those horses is a "crazy thoroughbred" heh.

  17. Muriel- Thanks! I am hoping to get some help reorganizing my archives so thry are easier to use...cough, cough, look the other way in embarrassment.

    Jill-I think you're right on target.

    Jen- No attacks here, I have a new venue to vent these days.

  18. Thank You!!!
    Lots for me to love in this post.
    1. Forgiveness and acceptance for the weekend stuff. (My life is pretty full! I still like the horse!)
    2. Very concise and understandable lunge lesson! I've got one that faces up out of avoidance - I never knew how to handle it...
    3. Straight talk about - um - alternative approaches to (insert tricky proprietary training method of choice here)

  19. on a lucky week, I ride three times. more usually its just two times. the unlucky weeks its just once or even none at all.
    but my horse is never "acting up". even after a two week break. why?
    24/7 in a huge pasture with other horses. Exccellent cure for problems like hyperactivity or stifness. bolting, rearing, bucking, if they are from the long time in a stable, are gone in no time.
    I strongly suggest everybody to find a boarding stable, that offers maximum turnout.