05 Sep How to Train a Horse: Step-By-Step Guide
Everyone has heard of the old stories of cowboys jumping on bucking broncos in order to “break” them. Contrary to popular belief, training a horse to be ridden the right way is much simpler and a lot less dangerous than the old ways of the Wild West.
If you’re interested in training a horse to be ridden, there are some steps to be aware of in order to make the process easier:
- Build a Bond
- Master Groundwork
- Desensitize Your Horse
- Get the Horse Used to the Saddle
- Get Your Horse Used to Weight In the Saddle
- Apply Pressure Under Saddle
When it comes to starting a horse, (the term used to describe training a horse under saddle) there is no rush to master all the steps at once. In fact, if you master all these steps in one day, you probably missed something that you’re going to have to go back and correct later. Catering to your horse and their acceptance of what you’re teaching them will benefit you in the long run.
Step 1: Build a Bond
The first aspect of training any horse is to build a bond with them. If a horse doesn’t trust you or feel comfortable around you, it’s going to be much harder to get them to do what you want them to do. Giving your horse time to get to know you will make communication between the two of you much easier.
So, how do you bond with a horse? Here are a few ways you can build a connection:
- Spend Time With Your Horse
- Create Positive Associations
- Learn How Your Horse Communicates
When you build between you and your horse, your horse will start to want to with you instead of going back to its herd or stall. The horse will start to consider you as a member of its herd. As most of the training techniques I use mimic the natural behavior of horses in a herd, this is a great place to start.
Spend Time With Your Horse
Spending time with your horse is one of the best ways to build your bond with them. Horses are creatures of routine and repetition, so the more you often you spend time with them, the more familiar and comfortable they may feel around you. In the wild, horses spend their entire day with their herd. As you spend time with your horse, they’ll start to see you as part of the herd.
There are many ways you can spend time with your horse; you can groom them, bathe them, braid their mane, let them graze on the lead rope; hand-walk them around the property. The more time you spend with them and the more variety you add to your activities, the fonder of you the horse will become.
In the beginning, focus on low-stress activities to do with your horse. This will encourage them to associate you with calm and peace compared to stress and frustration.
Create Positive Associations
It’s important that your horse associates you with positivity instead of negativity. You want your horse to think of you as a calming presence rather than one that is always requiring work and frustration. Taking time to focus on low-stress activities with your horse, having a positive attitude, and rewarding the horse when it’s due will help the horse see you as a good presence.
It’s easy for horse trainers and riders to subconsciously slip into demanding too much from the horse and not giving time for the simple enjoyable things. I know I’m guilty. I can always tell when I’ve become too focused on training rather than the relationship with the horse because my horse will start to get frustrated…and so will I!
Horses associate people with the atmosphere the person creates. If you create an atmosphere of pressure and stress, the horse will get anxious. If you create one of safety, calm, and peace, the horse is less likely to get worked up.
A great way to create positive associations for your horse is to make things fun! Mix up your routine, include a challenge, and simply have fun with your horse.
Learn How Your Horse Communicates
Another reason to focus on the bond with your horse is so you can learn how your horse communicates. What does your horse like and dislike? Are they scared of particular things? When you take the time to get to know your horse, it will help you to prepare for what you make come across in training later on.
I have a funny POA pony who is afraid of just about anything. Since I took the time to get to know him and bond with him in the beginning, I knew that when I started desensitizing him, it would probably be hard for him to handle. Knowing this, when it came time for desensitizing, I worked extra hard to not only be rewarding and patient with him but also very thorough in my training.
You may wonder how long it will take for you to bond with your horse. The time frame will be determined by your commitment as well as your horse’s personality and history. The great news is that you can constantly be building a stronger bond with your horse, even after you can ride them.
To check out more ways to bond with your horse, read our article, Bonding With Your Horse: 8 Simple Tips That Actually Work.
Step 2: Master Groundwork
Groundwork is the foundation for any training you plan on ever doing. Groundwork is basically any training you do on the ground with your horse. There’s a saying in the horse world, “If you can’t do it on the ground, you won’t be able to do it in the saddle.” Likewise, if you can’t get respect on the ground with your horse, you’re sure not going to get respect under saddle.
When it comes to mastering groundwork, there are a few key exercises to be aware of:
- Standing Still
- Properly Leading
- Getting Your Horse on a Circle
- Moving the Hind-End
- Moving the Shoulders
Groundwork is a great way to introduce new training to your horse. If you want to train a horse under saddle, groundwork would be the first place you start. While many people may be tempted to skip this step, it is vital to the success of not only your relationship with your horse but also your horse’s understanding of what you’re asking them to do. If you’re interested in getting step-by-step instructions for teaching your horse groundwork, you can check out my online course here.
A horse that can’t stand still is either not paying attention to you or they’re invading your personal space. Teaching your horse to stand still will encourage them to look to you for the next step to take.
Have your horse on a halter and lead; stand facing your horse on the end of the lead rope. All you have to do is stand still and allow the lead to be slack. As soon as your horse takes a step out of their original position, shake the lead rope to ask the horse to back up. Make your horse back-up a good few steps so they understand that walking off is wrong.
If your horse doesn’t back up right away, shake the lead rope harder until the horse responds. Keep giving your horse the option to walk off, but always correct it if the horse chooses to.
Leading a horse is a simple task, yet many horses struggle with doing it correctly simply because they’re never required to. This exercise will not only teach your horse how to lead correctly but also establish that you’re the one in charge.
Having a rope halter, lead rope, and lunge whip on-hand, simply start by leading your horse. The correct position for the horse to be in is at your elbow on the side you’re leading them on.
If the horse walks slower than you, encourage them to stay at your elbow by waving the lunge whip behind you. If the horse is pushy and tends to try and walk in front of you, immediately stop and make the horse back up. Repeat until the horse responds correctly. Practice starting and stopping, increasing your speed, all the while requiring the horse to stay at your elbow at a steady pace.
Flexing is when the horse bends it’s neck to the right or to the left. This groundwork exercise will teach your horse how to respond to the pressure applied by reins. Your goal is to get your horse to turn its neck so its nose touches just behind its shoulder.
With the lead rope in hand, bring your hand out and up to the horse’s withers. There should be moderate pressure on the lead rope, asking the horse to bend its neck towards the pressure. Now, the horse may bend its neck right away, but it may not give completely to the pressure.
If the horse’s neck is bent towards you but you still feel pressure on the lead rope, the horse hasn’t completely given to the pressure. Continue to hold the pressure until the horse dips it’s nose even more and you feel the pressure release. As soon as you feel this in your hand, immediately stop asking and reward your horse. Do this both to the left and then to the right.
Softening is when the horse lowers it’s head when pressure is either applied to the poll or to the lead rope. Teaching your horse to soften will help them better accept the bit and pressure on the bit when that time comes. It can also be life-saving in a dangerous situation. If a horse gets its head stuck in a fence, the horse will hopefully respond to the pressure and keep its head down instead of freaking out.
To teach your horse to soften, simply grab the base of the lead rope that clips to the halter and then apply slight pressure down to the ground. The horse should lower its head to respond to the pressure; if they do this, you can immediately stop asking your horse.
If your horse tries to fight the pressure by yanking their head up, just keep steady pressure on the lead rope. As soon as the horse even drops their nose in the slightest, release the pressure.
Getting Your Horse to Go Around You in a Circle
Getting your horse to go in a circle around you while on the lead can help you in so many ways. This is really the essence of working your horse even though you’re not on them. Being able to get your horse to go in a circle around you means that you control the movement of your horse’s feet.
Moving a horse’s feet is the best way to teach them right and wrong. You want to teach a horse that doing the wrong thing is hard and means more work. So what do you do when your horse does the wrong thing? Immediately start to move their feet around you.
Teaching your horse to go on a circle is simple. Encourage your horse to walk forward and to the end of the line. Keep the momentum going. If you need to, use a lunge whip to encourage them to keep moving.
If the horse starts to drift in with its shoulder, simply point the lunge whip at their shoulder and take a step forward. Your body will act as a wall. Your body should be parallel to the barrel of the horse, as this is the best position to keep driving your horse forward.
Moving the Hind-End
Moving or disengaging the hind-end is another way to make your horse move their feet. When I say “moving the hind-end,” I mean that I directly want to see the horse crossing one back leg in front of the other to move away from pressure.
When you can disengage the hind-end, you are taking away all the power from the horse; it’s basically like the emergency brake. A Horse’s power and forward motion come from the thrust of the hind-end, so if you can take the power out of the hind-end by getting the horse to step over, then that means you control the horse’s power.
You’re going to take a few steps assertively towards the hind-end of the horse. As you do this, lift your hand closest to the horse with the lead rope in it up and over towards the horse’s withers, encouraging the horse to bend its neck towards you.
The pressure applied to the lead rope as well as your presence moving towards the hind-end of the horse should encourage the horse to step away from you and the pressure. If not, use a lunge whip to encourage the horse to step around. As soon as the horse takes a step away from you and crosses one leg in front of the other, release the pressure.
Moving the Shoulders
Moving the shoulders is the third great way for moving your horse’s feet. To me, this exercise is all about the horse respecting your boundaries. When horses tend to step into our bubble, they’re usually using their shoulders or front-end. With this exercise, I want to see the front legs of the horse step away from the pressure, stepping one in front of the other.
To do this, Stand a few feet in front of your horse, facing them. Next, step very assertively towards one particular side of the horse, putting the hand closest to the horse, up towards the horse’s eye (not to touch them but simply to make a wall for the horse to step away from) in your other hand, wave the lunge whip towards the same shoulder encouraging the horse to step away.
As soon as the horse steps away, release the pressure. To read more in-depth about these groundwork exercises, check out our article, 5 Best Groundwork Exercises for Your Horse.
Step 3: Desensitize Your Horse
Desensitizing your horse is when you get them used to things that they aren’t otherwise used too. When it comes to training a horse under saddle, you’re going to want to desensitize your horse to help them get used to things on their back and around the stomach and pressure on their sides.
So, why should you desensitize your horse before putting the saddle on them? Here are a few reasons:
- To Build Trust
- To Prepare Your Horse for the Saddle
- To Get Your Horse Used to Pressure
Believe it or not, but desensitizing your horse will make it much easier to get the saddle on your horse the first time you try. Horses are flight animals, so their first instinct is always to flee. By desensitizing them to things they’d otherwise what to flee from, you’re creating a more confident and trusting animal.
Desensitize Your Horse to Build Trust
Desensitizing your horse is another way to build trust between the two of you. Horses are flight animals and naturally want to flee things that scare them. By encouraging and training your horse to get over its fears and not be afraid, your horse will learn to trust you and what you’re asking of them.
Since this is a trust exercise more than anything, it’s important to remember that your horse is looking to you for guidance. In order to communicate calm and safety to your horse, you have to be calm and patient.
The best thing to do to help your horse gain trust it to reward them and make a fuss over them when they do good. Be sure to do this as you work on desensitizing.
Desensitize Your Horse to Prepare for the Saddle
Desensitizing your horse will help them to get used to things on their backs, things touching their sides, things swinging over their back, and things around their stomach. Saddle pads, tarps, and plastic bags are great materials to use for desensitizing. They fit to the horse, make noise, and blow in the wind; perfect things for a horse to get used to.
Rubbing materials all over your horse’s body will help your horse to prepare for when the tack is placed on them. If your horse tries to keep moving away from the material you use, simply hold the material to their body until they stop stepping away. This teaches them acceptance of the scary item.
To learn more about desensitizing your horse and the technique involved, check out our article, Bombproof and Desensitize a Horse: The Ultimate Guide.
Desensitize Your Horse to Pressure
Another thing your horse will have to be introduced to when it comes time to start them under saddle is pressure on their sides, on their back, and on their mouth. This pressure will come from your hands, legs, and seat while you’re riding. You’ll want to start getting your horse used to this pressure before you actually get on them.
To start desensitizing a horse to pressure on their sides that will come from leg aids, start with groundwork. When you go to ask a horse to move its shoulders or its hind-end, apply pressure to where your heel would be by pressing your thumb into the horse’s side.
This will teach the horse to move away from the “leg” pressure, just as they should when you’re riding. As for desensitizing your horse to pressure on their face, go ahead and put a bridle on them and let them get used to the bit. Practice flexing with the bit in the horse’s mouth so the horse can see what it feels like.
Step 4: Get the Horse Used to the Saddle
Now it’s time to put the saddle on your horse! It’s important to remember that all of this is a new experience for your horse. Knowing how exactly to go about this part of the training will help to keep you and your horse from getting frustrated and overwhelmed.
So, how do you get a horse used to the saddle? Here are the steps I would take:
- Get Your Horse Comfortable With the Saddle On Its Back
- Attach the Girth to the Saddle & Desensitize
- Add the Stirrups to the Saddle & Desensitize
Every horse I’ve ever worked with was somewhat nervous the first time tack was put on them. When it comes to this step, repetition is key. Spend time simply putting the saddle over your horse’s back and pulling it off. Take all the time you need dropping the girth at the horse’s sides and pulling it around them. Let your horse canter around the round pen as long as it needs to get used to the stirrups at its side.
Putting the Saddle On the Horse’s Back
When you put the saddle on the horse’s back, don’t overwhelm your horse all at once. If you’re doing this with an English saddle, take the stirrups off beforehand. To get the horse used to the saddle, rub the saddle flap all up and down the horse’s body as you would when desensitizing.
Next, put the saddle over the horse’s back, leave it there for just a few seconds, then pull it off. This way, you’re deciding when the saddle comes off, not the horse. Do this repeatedly until the horse gets used to the saddle being laid on its back. From there, start to increase the amount of time you leave the saddle on the horse’s back.
Make sure you practice throwing the saddle over the horse’s back from both sides. This will help the horse become truly comfortable with the motion. When the saddle is on the horse’s back, lift the flaps, smack the saddle with your hand, move it as if you’re adjusting its position. All this movement will get the horse desensitized to the saddle.
Attaching the Girth to the Saddle
Once your horse can stand calmly with the saddle on its back, it’s time to add the girth or the cinch. What I’ve noticed about this is that the thing that usually freaks the horse out the most is when the girth is only attached to one side of the saddle and it hangs down by the horse’s legs.
To get your horse over this, attach the girth to one side of the saddle, then just work rubbing the other end of the saddle all over the horse’s legs and belly. When you feel comfortable, you can even swing it back and forth under their belly.
Once your horse is comfortable with this, go around to the other side of the horse and pull the girth around their barrel. When you’re doing this, always have the horse’s nose pulled toward you so if they freak out, they’ll just disengage their hind-end, giving you all the power.
As soon as you’re able to get the girth tightened so that the saddle won’t slip, undo the girth, let it fall back to the horse’s side, then repeat. By doing this, the horse doesn’t have the time for a “freak out.” Most people tighten the girth, then immediately let the horse buck it out or gallop around the round pen until they wear themselves out. This, however, teaches the horse to associate the girth tightening around them with freaking out. This can be dangerous for the handler when tightening the girth.
Once you’re to the point with the horse that you can tighten the girth and have them stand quietly, then you can encourage then to move forward around the round pen. Yes, they might buck but at least they don’t associate the immediate feeling of the girth being tightened with bad behavior.
Attaching Stirrups to the Saddle
The next thing to do if you’re using an English saddle to start your horse is to add the stirrup leathers and stirrups back to the saddle. The way I do this is I first put the saddle and girth on the horse, then I attach just one stirrup on one side of the horse and let it hang.
The horse will probably be scared of the feeling of the stirrup against their side. Be careful; if the stirrup is on the opposite side of where you’re standing, the horse may try to shy away from the stirrup and accidentally run into you.
What I would do when I first put the stirrup on the saddle is I would make the horse move its feet. Ask the horse to go in a circle around you, change direction, move their shoulders, move their hind-end, and back up. Allow very little time between the exercises in order to keep your horse’s mind preoccupied so that they can’t worry about the stirrup.
These exercises will not only keep your horse busy, but it will also get them used to the feeling of the stirrups on their side. Once you’ve done this with one side, put the stirrup on the other side and do the same thing. When the horse is comfortable with the single stirrup, add both stirrups.
Step 5: Get Your Horse Used to Weight In the Saddle
When your horse is finally to the point where they are comfortable with the saddle on their back, the girth around their barrel, and the stirrups at their side, it’s time to start getting your horse used to weight in the saddle. For many horses, this will be the first time they feel a substantial amount of weight on their back.
So, how do you go about getting your horse used to weight in the saddle? Here are some tips:
- Desensitize Your Horse to Weight Being Added
- Lay Across Your Horse’s Back
- Sit on Your Horse
Patience and caution will help you best when it comes time to add weight to your horse’s back. Being able to read your horse’s body language will be able to help you understand when you can advance to the next step or ease back and go back to the basics.
Desensitize Your Horse to Weight Being Added
I usually start desensitizing a horse to the weight being added to their back as soon as I get them simply by showing them affection. I’ll put my arm over their back, lean on them, and pet them to get them used to the feeling of weight on their back.
From there, I’ll lay both arms over them and I’ll jump beside them as if I was going to mount up. This is all done in a non-working atmosphere in order to get across to the horse that it’s fun and I’m just goofing off.
Lay Across Your Horse’s Back
When it comes time to start getting your horse used to weight in the saddle, I always start by simply laying over the horse’s back on my belly. Doing this will allow the horse to feel my weight, but it will also allow me to get off quickly if I need to.
When you go to do this, Always have the horse’s nose turned to their side in order to disengage the hind-end if the horse wants to move. Remember, when you disengage the hind-end, you take the power away from the horse.
If you have someone else around to help you, you can even practice laying across your horse while the other person leads the horse around the pen. This will help the horse get used to carrying your weight.
Time to Sit On Your Horse!
When your horse is comfortable with you laying across their back, it’s time to sit on your horse! Do this cautiously and patiently. Always have your horse’s nose turned in towards you so that they can’t freak out. Simply start by putting your foot in the stirrup, applying weight but not swinging your leg over the horse’s back. If your horse is good with that, try standing in the stirrup.
From there, swing your leg over, sit in the saddle a few seconds, then dismount. Remember, the idea is you should be choosing when you get off, not the horse. By giving the horse just a few seconds to process what’s happening, you’re not overwhelming them or causing them to get worked up.
Repeatedly do this so that your horse gets used to the motion of your mounting and dismounting. As you continue, you can increase the amount of time you stay in the saddle.
Step 6: Apply Pressure Under Saddle
Once you can sit on your horse, it’s time to start applying pressure to ask your horse to walk forward, turn their head, move their hind-end, or back up. This is where you will see the benefits of what you taught your horse during your groundwork sessions. The horse’s reaction to your pressure should be the same reaction to the pressure applied during groundwork.
So, how can you help your horse respond to pressure under saddle? Here’s what I would do:
- Remember Your Groundwork Training and Mimic Cues From the Saddle
- Reward the Smallest Try From Your Horse
- Apply Pressure, Then Release
This is where the riding begins! From here, you can ask your horse to walk, trot, canter, jump…whatever you want your horse to do. Advance at your horse’s pace, of course, but understanding this training aspect will be the key to the rest of your training under saddle.
Remember Your Groundwork Training and Mimic Cues From the Saddle
Now that you can sit on your horse, it’s time to start asking them to do things. Remember, you’ve already taught a lot to your horse when working on groundwork. You can now use your groundwork skills to get your horse started under saddle.
The very first exercise I would start with is getting your horse to flex their neck side to side. Do this by bringing your rein to your hip and holding until the horse drops its nose and gives to the pressure. As soon as the horse responds, make a fuss over them and reward them.
Another easy exercise to practice in order to get your horse to start getting comfortable with moving under saddle is by disengaging their hind-end. This will also start to introduce them to the feeling of leg pressure.
To do this, flex your horse’s neck by bringing your rein to your hip. Keep hold of the pressure in the rein while you gently apply leg pressure behind the girth on the side that the horse is flexed towards to signal to your horse to move their hind-end. As soon as the horse takes a step with their back leg, release the pressure.
Hopefully, this can draw a picture for you as to how groundwork applies to riding. Sticking to easy exercises when your horse is first under saddle will be best. Your horse will be able to get more comfortable with a person on their back all the while learning how to respond to a rider.
Reward the Smallest Try From Your Horse
In any part of training a horse, it’s important that you reward even the smallest try from your horse. This is applicable especially when it comes to riding. You want your horse to associate a person on their back as good, not as bad. One thing many new horse trainers do (I’m guilty) is asking too much from a green horse.
You never want to ask too much from a horse that has just started under saddle. This is a whole new experience for the horse and they might not understand what you’re trying to communicate. Ask for small first steps and reward your horse greatly so that they learn what the correct response is.
Desensitize Your Horse to Movement in the Saddle
Once you’re on your horse, you’ll want to start to get them used to a person in the saddle. This would include a person wiggling their foot to try and get it in the stirrup, getting in a tw0-point, standing and sitting in the saddle, even bending to the side of the horse to move a gate.
I rode a horse that freaked out the slightest movement of the rider, probably because the horse was never desensitized to movement in the saddle. When it comes to training a horse, the ultimate goal is to have a safe and trusty horse to ride. The first step to making this goal a reality is by getting them used to things happening in the saddle.
The best way to go about desensitizing your horse to movement in the saddle is to repeatedly do the action. If your horse tries to walk off or shy away, keep the horse’s nose tilted to your knee as you do the movements. That way the horse will just disengage their hind-end. As soon as the horse can stand quietly while you do the movements, stop and reward the horse.
Once you’re to this point with your horse, the rest of their training under saddle is self-explanatory. You can teach your horse to go into other gaits by applying pressure and releasing pressure when the horse responds. You can teach them lateral movements by starting on the ground then applying what you learned on the ground to in the saddle.
I once had a riding instructor tell me “training a horse is just common sense!” Once you understand how horses think and react, it’s much easier figuring out how to train them to do the next thing. If this is your first time training a horse, I always recommend having an instructor or trainer you can consult and get help from.
Now that you’re in the training game, check out our article, Training Your Horse to Jump: Easy Guide.