Today was the best day! As far as we know, rescue horse Bourbon has only been ridden once. He pulled a cart for the Amish his whole life so, at some point, someone has probably sat on him, but he doesn’t know anything about being a riding horse. His foster family has been doing groundwork with him, and he tended to get anxious when they would get into a mounting position. He would lift his head up suddenly, and basically question what their intentions were when they got in position to mount up. We spent a couple days getting him used to standing quietly with someone leaning over his back. We scratched his butt, fed him carrots and helped him get past his anxiety.
Once he was sufficiently calm, our next step was getting him used to having weight on his back. We went into the round pen with two buckets stacked on top of each other to use as a mounting block. I held the lead rope and Bourbon’s kid, Marissa, stood on the buckets. Marissa’s mom stood outside the pen, took pictures and refilled carrots, probably the most important job! Bourbon got a carrot when he stood quietly.
We started by having Marissa put one foot into the stirrup and hop up and down to get him used to the motion. Next, she put weight into the stirrup. Then she used the stirrup to launch her belly over him. We actually walked in little circles like that, to get him used to the weight on his back, but keeping her in a position where she could bail off easily if he started to buck or do anything silly.
Finally, she swung a leg over and sat for a few moments before sliding off again. The whole time I praised Bourbon and fed him a carrot every now and then. We walked around the round pen with no issues whatsoever. We had already established the whoa command on the ground, so we had that down pat. To start moving again, Marissa tapped or squeezed gently with her legs.
These ex-Amish horses are as broke as can be, as far as what they’ve been exposed to, but they don’t know much about being ridden. We have to teach them the language of riding. That includes verbal commands like “whoa” and the kiss/cluck noise (which they may know from pulling a cart), and more importantly the aids (rein and leg commands).
Our last step was taking the lead rope and jerry rigging reins and letting Marissa ride around the round pen with me on the outside. Bourbon was absolutely perfect from start to finish. Part of that is because we prepared him well and did our homework on the ground first before trying to ride. An equal, if not bigger, part is that Bourbon is a good, sweet horse who wants to have a relationship with his people and do his job well. This is a horse who has WORKED. He’s 14 and has the body of an old man (we’re hoping to turn that around). We show up and say, “Guess what? You’re done pulling a cart, but now we’re going to RIDE you!” And this horse says, “Okay, sure. I’m game.” That is special. Not every used up horse has such a fantastic, willing attitude about starting a new job. These standardbreds are something special.
A couple notes about our process… some people are against using treats to train. I am not. When I go to work, I expect a paycheck. When the horse works, there should be something in it for him. Otherwise it’s nothing more than slavery. Treats are a good way to turn training into a game that the horse wants to play.
We used a treeless endurance saddle because Bourbon is still gaining weight and filling out his topline. A treeless saddle is less likely to be uncomfortable for him. It’s basically a glorified bareback pad. That saddle is probably the single most useful piece of tack I’ve ever owned because it fits a variety of horses.
You’ll notice we didn’t put a bridle on him either. At some point we’ll try him in a bit, but I like to use the least amount of tack possible. If a horse can go bitless, I prefer that, but I’m not opposed to bits. I ride my thoroughbred bitless and I ride King in a bit. I do what’s right for the horse, and my own safety. Bourbon is very laid back, has a solid “whoa” command and isn’t the type to take off. I felt comfortable having him in just a halter for his first ride.
You might ask why I put the kid on him first instead of doing it myself. Two reasons. First, she weighs less than me. Second, it’s her horse. I don’t want to train the horse for her. I want her to learn how to train the horse herself. She can now take what she learned with Bourbon and apply it for the rest of her life. That’s horsemanship. Plus, it’s a huge confidence booster for a 13 year old girl to start a horse under saddle. She needs guidance, but she doesn’t need someone to do it for her.
I could not be happier with how Bourbon’s first ride went. People are so focused on how horses look that a horse like Bourbon can easily be overlooked because he’s scarred up, has a big ole jughead and isn’t at his ideal weight. Bourbon proved today why I’m so passionate about helping these rescue horses- because some of them are worth their weight in gold despite being a little beat up on the outside. Bourbon is only going to get better looking. He’s going to shed out and have a shiny blood bay coat, he’ll gain weight and he’ll look like something that will make people turn their heads. Eventually he will look on the outside as pretty as he is on the inside.