The age-old question for any one working with a green horse – when is the “right time” to introduce the saddle to my training horse?
There will always be a variance of opinions and tactics that every individual horse trainer has for introducing the saddle. The main point is to take any training at the pace of the horse – it depends on what stage the horse is at in his training overall. You’re not going to run before you walk; you need to be able to take the steps to get there.
If the horse had been properly started, you should be able to handle it on the ground in a well-mannered way. In other words, your horse should be a pro at haltering, leading, picking up all four feet, used to being touched all over, basic ground work like round penning and knowing the basics of the gaits and the cues for those gaits.
Some trainers will introduce the saddle at any point during training; however, I personally prefer to build a trusting relationship with my training horses before I start throwing the scary things around. Therefore, the steps I mentioned in the previous paragraph come into play before I introduce the saddle. I want that horse to trust me and look to me for guidance in any situation that it will be unsure of.
Once my training horses are comfortable and trusting on the ground, I introduce the surcingle to start. This introduces them to the sensations of being saddled and cinched up without the weight and flopping of the stirrups to scare and distract them.
After I have them working all gaits comfortably with the surcingle, I introduce the saddle pad and then the saddle. Some horses are overly-sensitive to quick movements, so you want to make sure that it is accustomed to things swinging up and around its back before you just throw the saddle up there. I’ll slowly tighten the cinch a little at a time, always watching the horse to judge its reaction. Slow and steady is the way to go!
Once I have the cinch secure and of adequate tightness, I will lead the horse around and let it get used to having the saddle on with me next to it. This is where the trust training comes into play — hopefully by this point, I have enough of a trusting relationship that the horse will look to me for assurance and guidance about this contraption I’ve introduced. If this step goes smoothly, I’ll move on to round penning and let the horse adjust to the saddle through its gaits.
Every horse is different — training will not make progress if you don’t adjust your training regiment to each individual horse. Take the steps to build up your horse’s confidence, and everything will fall into place for training!