The time has come to saddle your young horse for the first time. Through all the preparation you have been doing this lesson should go smoothly.
Get the horse desensitized to the pressure of the girth by using your lead rope around his belly to apply pressure. Put the rope over his back, grabbing the end of it and bringing it under his belly just like you would a girth. Pull up on the bottom of the rope with your right hand, and down on the top of the rope with your left hand. Pull and release gently at first. Watch your horse’s reaction. If he is pinning his ears or raising his head, continue to hold the pressure until he puts his ears forward or lowers his head a bit. Gradually tighten the rope with more pressure until you can get it about as tight as it would be with the saddle.
Once he accepts the lead rope, use a soft rope and put it around his belly. Your goal is to get him used to pressure around his middle while going forward. Don’t do this if you are not good at handling ropes or are not confident that you will release the pressure at the right moment. You want the clip of the rope on the bottom, under the horse so the pressure is released immediately. Lunge him forward on a circle to the left. Start at a walk and add pressure with your right hand on the rope around his belly. Hold and release on the rope just as you did at the stand still. If the horse bucks, runs, speeds up his gait, transitions to a faster gait, or gets worried in any way hold the pressure on the rope until he slows down/stops.
Your horse will most likely be fine at walk and probably at trot too. Most horses get worried at the canter, and when the rope starts to slide down his belly and toward his hips. If he gets worried and start bucking or kicking, hold the same amount of pressure until he takes one canter stride (or stride of any gait that is not bucking or kicking) then release. Gently put more pressure on the rope, increasing it until the horse either relaxes and you release, or until he reacts then hold until he relaxes. You will have to add pressure at the canter until the horse can canter forward while you put pressure on the rope without bucking or kicking out. Soon the horse will break to a trot, release the pressure when he does, then hold until walks. You may even be able to get him to stop in response to the pressure and that is the goal. Be sure to lunge the horse both ways. When the horse is comfortable with the rope where the girth will be, let the rope slide back a little bit then repeat the process until the rope gets all the way to his flank. Now the horse’s flank is an extremely sensitive area and your horse will most likely buck/kick when you add pressure here, so if you don’t feel comfortable doing this it is ok to skip this part and only use the rope where your girth will go. However, if you feel confident that you can hold and release the pressure at the correct time then it is a good idea to desensitize your horse to this sensation.
Introduce the saddle pad, allowing the horse to investigate and sniff the pad. Click while he is touching or looking at the pad (if he is worried about it), take it away, then feed. Repeat this process until the horse is targeting the pad (keeps touching it with his nose, and is not afraid). Touch the horse on the shoulder with the pad. Click when he is showing a sign of relaxation while you rub him on the shoulder with the pad. Make sure to click when the pad is on the horse and he is relaxed, then take it away and feed. Continue doing this with the pad on his withers, back, hips, and touching him on his sides with it. Do this on both sides of the horse. Once the horse is comfortable with you rubbing him with the saddle pad, start setting it on his back. Set it on his back where it would normally go. When the horse is standing quietly and relaxed click, take the pad off, then feed. Repeat this, leaving the pad on a little longer each time until he can stand relaxed with it for a couple minutes. Then leave the pad on, when he is relaxed click, don’t take it off and feed. Make sure to do this exercise on both sides. If for some reason the horse gets worried about having the pad on his back go back a step and have him target the pad. I also like to have the horse walk around with the pad on to get use to having something on his back while moving but without having the sensation of the girth, which will build his confidence. Set the pad on his back, ask the horse to move forward with the halter, click and feed for him walking forward relaxed.
I like to then introduce the surcingle before jumping right to the saddle. By doing so I am breaking down the saddling process into easy pieces the horse can understand and be confident doing. I have the horse target the surcingle just as I did with the saddle pad. I then place is on his back (with or without a pad) clicking each time I put it on. If your horse is worried go back a step and make sure he is confident targeting the surcingle and having it touch him all over his back and sides (same process as the pad) before moving on. If he is cool with having the surcingle on his back you can then progress to tightening the girth. When reaching under his belly for the girth, make sure you are facing forward toward the horse’s head. You don’t want to put your head underneath his belly. Bend forward at the waist standing near the shoulder, and reach your right arm under the horse. Grab the girth and bring it up. Don’t immediately tighten the girth. Just have it touch the horse, click, release the girth (without letting go of it, just bring your hand down which loosens it), then feed. Repeat this a few times, make sure the horse is relaxed by showing a sign of relaxation before moving on. Then, you want to tighten the girth without buckling it. Just hold the girth in your right hand and the billet straps of the surcingle in your left hand. Bring your two hands together, gradually tightening the girth. Tighten it a little bit click, release the pressure, then feed. Continue to do this until you are tightening the surcingle as much as you can with just your hands and your horse is staying relaxed.
Next, you will start to buckle the girth. Start on the first hole. When you buckle it click, feed, then unbuckle. Do this at the first hole a few times then move onto the second hole do it a few times and so on. When you have it all the way tight (not super tight but tight enough that it won’t come off if he were to buck) click, loosen the pressure, feed, and repeat. If your horse is very worried about this process you may have to take the entire surcingle off after loosening it each time, and walk away for a moment before coming back and doing it again. The walking away releases the horse’s mental pressure of you being close to him, the surcingle tightening, and it being on him. By taking it off and leaving you are showing him that he isn’t trapped; a predator doesn’t walk away. When you have buckled the surcingle tight enough for it to stay on a few times and he has stayed relaxed, you can then ask him to move with it on. Start small and ask him to walk with it on first. I like to have him lunge or be loose in the round pen so that you can still control and help him at first. Click and feed when he walks a few steps with it on. Keep doing this at the trot and canter both way, slowly rewarding more steps in both directions. It is important that you lunge him instead of leading him as he could land on you or kick you if he gets worried about the saddle. Don’t get too worried if the horse bucks the first time with the surcingle or saddle, this is normal. Repeat this lesson every day for 3-7 days, or until the horse is completely confident being tacked up and wearing the surcingle. It’s a good idea to practice all the ground work with the surcingle on before introducing the saddle.
Introducing the Saddle
Introduce him to the saddle using the same method you did with the pad. You can use an english or western saddle depending on preference, you can also put the saddle on with or without a pad at first. Once the horse can target the saddle on the ground and while you hold it, start to swing the saddle up and down next to the horse as if you were going to put it on. Place your saddle on your hip and use both hands to lift it up and across your body just like you were going to put it on his back. Continue swinging the saddle up and down until the horse is comfortable with it. Click while the horse is relaxed while you swing the saddle up and down, stop swinging, then feed. If he is worried about the saddle moving in any way continue to move it until the horse relaxes. When he does, click, stop moving the saddle, then feed. Next, swing the saddle up and rest it on his back, clicking each time it touches his back. The idea is to teach the horse that something pleasant happens each time the saddle touches his back. Take if off and on multiple times until he is calm while you do that. Practice saddling on both sides.
Combine all the parts once they work well separately. Put on the pad, then saddle from the off side the first few times so you don’t have to walk around the horse to undo the girth. Be aware when you are crossing in front of the horse that he doesn’t get scared and run over the top of you. Check his body language before walking in front of him. Tip the horse’s head toward you when you go to grab the girth. Face forward and grab it quickly and quietly. Tighten the girth smoothly and promptly without rushing. Make sure the girth is tight enough to stay on but not super tight that will make his first experience uncomfortable. It’s a good idea to practice this process on an experienced horse first, because it is extremely important to have the saddle firmly secured if he goes to buck. When the girth is tight, back away while keeping an eye on him as he may buck at any moment. It is a good idea to know where your whip is and place it a few feet away from the horse so it is easily accessible. Then you can start lunging him so he can get used to the sensation. Send him off on a lunging circle. Be ready to send him away from you if he starts to buck.
With all of the lessons you have taught your young horse leading up to saddling he shouldn’t be worried too much about it. If your horse bucks with the saddle the first time that’s ok. He is allowed to buck on his first time being saddled, every other time he is ridden or saddled he should behave, and you as the trainer should expect that from him. Every session after, immediately yield his hindquarters to stop the bucking and make him change directions and go into a canter when he bucks. Quiet horses won’t be bothered with the saddling process itself, but they are usually the ones that explode and start bucking once they start moving their feet. Get him lunging around you, and just hold on to the rope and follow him until he stops bucking. Some horses will buck toward you as they will look to you for safety, so be ready to get out of the way or move him out of your space if possible. Just continue to lunge him, changing directions frequently until he relaxes. Click and feed the horse when he is moving relaxed with the saddle on. Doing this will tell him that you like when he is relaxed and that he should repeat that behavior. When you go up to feed him stand to one side of him of the other. Don’t stand directly in front of the horse in case he were to spook, start bucking, and run over you. Review the earlier groundwork lessons with the saddle on, giving him the chance to be at ease moving with it on his back. When he is calm and listening end the session. Then turn him loose with the saddle on for a few hours in a round pen or arena to give him a chance to get comfortable wearing it.
Repeat this process for a few days until you think the horse is completely comfortable moving with the saddle on his back. Once he is good with the groundwork while wearing the saddle he should be ready for his first ride.