Welcome to the first part in a new series charting the journey of an unbroken four year from his first steps on the lunge to (hopefully!) becoming a well-rounded competition horse.
The horse in question is called Reggie. Reggie is not exactly what you would call a 4* stamp, however I have high hopes of him becoming Badminton Champion 2015 – it just may be the Grassroots rather than the main event! He is out of a lovely hogged lightweight cob mare standing about 15hh and by a TB/ID stallion (Colville Ely) whose TB side comes from Another Hoarwithy. What I think you’d call old-fashioned breeding! At the moment he stands at about 16hh although he isn’t quite ‘finished’ yet. He was foaled in August 2009 and is therefore a four year old.
The Journey Begins…
I was looking for a nice middle-weight sort to back, break, bring on and sell. Reggie’s advert photo was particularly uninspiring but I thought he would be worth a look. In the flesh he had slightly less bone and feather than I’d feared, a nice intelligent head, fairly straight movement, fairly wide flat feet (a hand-me-down from his mother I suspect!) and had too much white for my liking. However he seemed reasonably pleasant and I thought I could see past the hair and grass belly to quite a nice smart horse. I ran through the positives and negatives on the drive home, rang the owner to haggle over the price and returned two days later to pick him up. I also had a quick word with my farrier (who happens to be my yard owner) to apologise in advance for his feet!
Reggie didn’t particularly fancy loading – he’d get half way up the ramp, then spin and run off. Apparently he’d been taught to load last summer and learned very quickly and was very good to load, however he hasn’t been near a trailer since then and it took us 15mins and a couple of lunge-lines to persuade him in. He’ll have plenty of practice at this with me and to be honest I think it’s more of a trust/groundwork problem than a loading one per se. Once the basics are established on the floor I suspect he’ll be quite happy to follow me wherever I ask him to go. He had a similar issue once I’d got him home when I asked him to go through the narrow door into our stable yard. The next day he went through perfectly so hopefully the loading will follow the same pattern.
Starting From Scratch
I’d been quite careful to find out what he had and hadn’t had done with him in the past. He’d apparently never been lunged, never had a roller on, wasn’t brilliant to tie up and wouldn’t have his mane pulled. He is also a little bit twitchy about his ears. No huge potential problems there, but I think it’s important to know before you start making assumptions.
I like to get started and get on with things so after a morning chilling in the field (with a headcollar on just in case I couldn’t get hold of him again!) I chose a time when I knew the yard would be quiet and went down to start my fact-finding mission. I always handle unbroken horses and ‘unknown quantities’ with gloves and a lungeline just in case. I caught him very easily and popped him in an empty unbedded box where I tied him loosely to some thin baler-twine so that I could see how good (or bad) he actually was to tie up, but in a scenario where if he did get loose he was still contained within the stable. I spent about half an hour in the box with him – running my hands all over, picking up feet etc. and as he seemed absolutely fine with me handling/brushing him all over I started on the hair-removal mission. He was very good indeed to have his tail pulled – I started with a tail-rake to judge his reactions and progressed to pulling it properly. I also pulled his mane from about 9″ long to about 6″ long. Having been told that he wouldn’t tolerate this I wasn’t really surprised to find that he was completely fine about it. It’s often the case! The mane needs another session but at least I now know that it is possible!
The next step was trying him with a saddle cloth – no reaction (although he’d been rugged before so had at least had something on his back). I then gently laid a roller over his back and secured the girth at one side, making sure that he was happy with the loose end swinging around and banging off his legs. Round to the nearside and I carefully reached under him to pick up the free end (having already established that he was happy being touched under his girth area). I gently put some pressure on the free end so that he felt it against his girth area, then buckled it on. Not too loosely as if he reacted to it I didn’t want it slipping back and provoking him further. I carried on grooming and tighted the roller incrementally over the next 5-10mins. No reaction. I asked him to move sideways in both directions so that he could feel the pressure round his girth as he moved – some horses are fine standing still but freak out when they move and realise that something is strapped round their belly. All was still well so it was time for a trip out into the world!
I took him in the school and tested his leading ability. I spent 10mins teaching him to walk, halt and back up on a loose lead-rein and with voice commands. I don’t want to have to pull on a leadrope to ask a horse to halt – I want to walk by his shoulder and have him watch me for cues. He very quickly understood walk, halt and back-up. I then swapped to the other side to ensure that he understood the same commands whichever side he was being led from. Gradually I let the lunge line get longer and longer until he was walking a ~15m circle with me walking a ~5m circle at the centre.
Very nearly lunging! I repeated this in the other direction until I was happy with him walking and halting on the lunge on command. Then came the exciting bit and I asked him to trot on. I was almost disappointed that there were no fireworks! After a couple of circuits in trot in either direction I decided to call it a day. I was rather pleased at how things had gone and quite pleased with my new purchase. He definitely looked more ‘sports’ than ‘cob’ once he got dehaired and he has rather a nice trot and a good desire to learn. I think he was very bored where he was and at that stage where he was desperate for some interaction and something to engage his brain.
I repeated what I’d done for the next couple of days, but I added in some poles – nothing taxing, just a few randomly placed single poles in the arena so that he got the hang of a) stepping over things and b) looking out for his feet. It adds a little bit more interest to the sessions and helps keep a young brain focussed! I fairly quickly place fillers and wings in the arena and expect horses to move round them and between them. At the end of each session I started doing a few minutes work with a mounting block.
I start off by asking the horse to halt next to the mounting block and stand still until I ask it to move on again – you can let the horse sniff the block and check it out first. I then very slowly, very quietly step up onto the box until the horse is happy with me stepping up, standing above him (Reggie found this a little alarming at first) and stepping off the block. Always talk to the horse while you’re doing this so that he gets used to your voice coming from above him.
Once he was happy with this I started standing on the block and moving my arms around, patting the saddlecloth on both sides and generally getting him used to a range of unexpected noises and movements. I ended with standing on the block leaning my arms on his back – the first step to accustoming a horse to feeling weight on its back.
Achieved this week:
- Leading from both sides politely in a headcollar and loose lungerein
- Wearing a saddlecloth and roller and having his girth tightened
- Walking on, halting and backing-up on command
- Walking, halting and trotting on the lunge (lunging in a headcollar at the moment)
- Getting used to the mounting block, a person on the mounting block and the feeling of weight on his back.
- General grooming, feet picking-up, mane and tail pulling and feathers trimmed with scissors.
Goals for next week:
- Wearing a bridle (he has already had a chiffney on so has at least had a bit of sorts in his mouth – although it wouldn’t have been my first choice!)
- Further lunging in bridle and side-reins
- More mounting-block/leaning-over work
- Starting long-reining around the school and paddocks.
- Using a small set of clippers on his legs and getting used to them around his head.
- Farrier! He is booked in to have his feet trimmed and balanced tonight.
So that’s it for chapter one – a sound and hopeful start. I’d be interested in any comments or questions. Please feel free to post them below.