Restarting Halo, Part 2
By Jonathan Field
In the first article of this series "Restarting Halo" we met Halo, a five-year-old Warmblood cross with a seemingly unpredictable tendency to buck. Although Halo had been ridden in the past, his bucking indicated that perhaps something was missing in his training or that there was a possible physical problem. After examining Halo for physical reasons behind his bucking and not finding any, the best approach for Halo was to begin with a “fresh start” and develop a solid base.
I started this process by building a language and a relationship with Halo and thoroughly desensitizing him to an array of objects and situations. Since Halo has a tendency to become very introverted and sullen, I used plastic bags, tarps, balls, and other situations to help teach Halo a new way of coping by staying conscious and aware rather than building up emotions to the point of explosion and bucking. These exercises brought us together in a broader relationship and helped develop our communication so that we could figure out a solution for whatever was causing him to become pent up and then explode into bucking fits.
The next step, and the focus of this article, is to have Halo learn to accept the saddle and then to accept me as a rider, as well as learn some important yields that we will need in order to have a safe ride.
Creating Neutral Lateral Bends and Disengaging the Hindquarters
I asked Halo to bring his head around laterally and have him do three things: bend, stand still, and relax. I started standing next to Halo with my lead rope folded up over his withers; I wanted to simulate as much as possible the position I would be in when riding. Then I reached down the lead rope and picked it up, asking his head to come around towards me. I wanted him to follow the feel as I picked up on the lead. If he resisted, it is important I held a pressure but did not pull on him. When he bent, stood still, and relaxed in this position (not leaning tight on the lead rope) then I released. I practiced this over and over so that it became a patterned response.
After bending his head and neck in a neutral way, I put my other hand on the hindquarters and asked those hindquarters to yield while maintaining Halo’s head and neck bend. By asking Halo to cross his hind legs over, I gained control by taking the power and straightness away.
Why is this important? If Halo bucks when I’m riding him or when he’s saddled, my ability to access the hindquarters and have him disengage by crossing his back legs over will determine whether I’ll be successful in having him stop.
Accepting the Saddle Pad
It is very important to take your time while getting the horse to accept the saddle pad, and this should not be rushed. The emphasis here is to touch and rub the horse with the saddle pad all over his body right up to his ears without any adverse reaction. Be sure to practice this on both sides of the horse.
I took the same approach with the saddle pad as I did with the tarp, bag, and ball, using rhythm and relaxation as I approached and retreated to areas where he was less accepting.
I saddled Halo for the first time and you can see that the result was an intense buck! Halo was on a 22-foot line, which let him move around me and buck at a further distance. I didn’t do anything in these first few moments except ask him to move forward and stay away from me. My intention here was to get him to move until he freed himself from the mental and emotional response of bucking.
After this initial forward movement was established, I began shutting down the bucking whenever it came by disengaging the hindquarters and not allowing him to grab himself and continuously get better at bucking. By practicing this I got control of the “off” button. The delicate balance was to take control and stop the bucking by disengaging the hindquarters without losing his willingness to go forward.
From Bucking to Relaxation
Once Halo had gone through the bucking behaviour, showed signs of relaxation, and did lateral bends willingly, he was ready for the next step, which was for me to ride him. For our first ride together, I chose a rope hackamore because it has the exact same feel as the halter. I didn’t use a bit yet because if he started to buck and I needed to pull on the rein, a bit would only serve to further aggravate him by causing acute pain in the mouth.
Here’s the progression leading up to this point: an in-depth program of ground skills, lateral bend, and hindquarter yield — all with the rope halter. Then I change to the rope hackamore for the initial rides.
I tested my neutral lateral bend with Halo again, only this time with the saddle on, and also yielded his hindquarters several times on both sides. This is a good test before putting a foot in the stirrup. If he reacts when I’m in the saddle, this is exactly what I’ll ask him to do: bend and disengage. I won’t allow him to stay straight, which is a very powerful position for the horse. I am NOT going to “buck him out” while I ride him. If he looks as though he’s going to “grab himself” and buck, then my defense is to use the indirect rein and yield the hindquarters around and get the hind legs to crossover.
Mounting from Both Sides
Mounting the horse from both sides is critical. The horse needs to accept the feel of your weight separately on each side. You’ll notice that I just put my weight in the stirrups without actually swinging a leg over the saddle. I placed my weight over the saddle and then got down again, repeating this several times as I rubbed the horse all over. This is a “half mount” so I don’t have to commit myself to getting on and the horse becomes accustomed to the motion.
Just the action of mounting and putting weight on your feet in the stirrups and the weight of the saddle on the horse’s back can build tension in the horse. A good plan is to step down, move the horse out again, and see if the half mount caused the horse any tension.
It doesn’t take great observational powers to see that Halo had built up a bit of tension during the half mounts. He blew again and started bucking!
You’ll notice that I didn’t allow any slack in the rope and I actually brought his nose towards me. This action is asking him to bend, disengage, and face me.
I continued to do this over and over, sending him out and disengaging him, until he was able to do it with relaxation, without bucking. I redid my half mounts until I could step down, send him on, and have no reaction. At this point I felt Halo was ready for me to put my leg over for a short ride.
The first thing I did after settling in the saddle was ask for a lateral bend. The lateral bend is critical: I ask for this bend before I saddle, before I mount, and then when I get on.
After having him bend, I took Halo for his first forward steps and soon he was walking calmly without issue: his head was level, his eyes looked alert and engaged (not shut down), his tail wasn’t clamped or swishing, and he was on a loose rein.
After allowing him to walk calmly for a short period of time, I asked the horse to disengage his hindquarters with a turn on the forehand. I don’t assume that all the ground skills I have done will automatically fully transfer to riding, so I repeated this several times.
Halo’s First Trot
I decided to take Halo for his first trot. You’ll notice that Halo’s head came up a bit at the trot and he was short-strided. Even though these are signs of some resistance, he allowed me to ask him to move forward and he followed through with the request. He got tight a couple of times and showed signs that he could buck, so I disengaged him, brought him to the walk, and then back to the trot until he could relax while trotting.
Ending the Session
I didn’t ride him for long on this first ride we had together — maybe a total of 20 minutes. The goal certainly was not to build up a big sweat! In this photo we’ve just finished this session together and I made it a point to rub Halo and just “hang out” with him for a while. This kind of meaningful physical contact and time together is important — it’s part of our communication and relationship building process.
Halo and Solo Saddle Time
After our first riding session, I took off Halo’s hackamore and turned him loose while saddled, allowing him to just roam around the arena with the saddle. I stayed in the arena and kept him moving around (and not rolling with my saddle on!) so that he was just packing the saddle and strolling around with it. I sent him around at a trot and he never bucked at all.
Ultimately Halo will be an English horse, but packing around the Western saddle is great because it has movement from the stirrups, saddle strings, and latigo pieces. This post-ride period also provided Halo with decompression time.
I wouldn’t want to pull the saddle, put him in a stall, and have him think, “Oh my goodness, was that ever torture!” I wanted to give him time to relax and be completely at ease in the environment where he just experienced being ridden. If he had built up any kind of sweat, I would stay with him until he was dry, walk him out, be there for the letting down process, and then the session would be over. The session should come to a closure with relaxation and no stress or anxiety.
For more in-depth information regarding riding a young horse, disengagement, and the early stages with a reactive horse, refer to Jonathan Field’s Natural Foundation home study program, DVD #1, “Safety: The First Step to a Great Ride,” available at www.HORSEJournals.com.
Track the progress of Halo in the next part of this series, "Restarting Halo, Part 3: Heading Towards Success."
Examining for Physical Problems
With any horse that exhibits symptoms of unwanted behaviour or lack of performance, I always check the horse thoroughly for physical problems. These issues may include poor saddle fit, teeth problems, feet issues, injuries, saddle galls, etc. Before bringing Halo to me, his owners had him thoroughly examined to be sure he was not bucking due to pain or any other physical reason.