My client was from Wheatland, WY. She was barrel racer who bred high-end barrel horses. They typically bred to a stallion named Frenchman’s Guy; a quarter horse known for his speed, agility and trainability. He’s everything you want in a barrel horse. In the barrel world, he’s royalty. The first horse they brought to me was their 4-year-old mare that was going to be the daughter’s barrel prospect. Impeccably bred and had the brain for the discipline - quiet and trainable. But she had one major issue. She wouldn’t stop bucking; as soon as they put the saddle on her, she’d go for a good 5 to 10 minutes...then stop, standing stiff as a board, then blow again. This was 10 plus years ago and I wasn’t keen on, not educated enough to check for medical issues. I just trained the horse for what I saw in front of me. And this one had a major problem.
How did the problem start? I can’t blame it on one particular thing but I’m going to put my money on what I believed, at the time, to be the culprit. They took her to a 3-day colt-starting clinic about three months prior. To say I’m not a fan is an understatement. In fact, I don’t see many around anymore. My trainer, Josh Lyons, is the king of starting horses in a few short days. In fact, he won “Road To The Horse” several years back; competing against the worlds best colt starters. But...even he doesn’t do colt starting clinics. Never has. Some horses can handle three days of non-stop information that they can hardly process; some being very, very few. Let’s just say most cannot. And likewise, most owners don’t have the knowledge to teach it correctly in a few short days. Overall, it’s a bad mix.
Starting a horse is the most important aspect of horse training. It can truly make or break (no pun intended) a horse and his/her career. A horse with amazing natural talent is great, but if they won’t accept, or don’t trust, a rider then they are not going to succeed. Laying a foundation that builds your horse’s confidence is vital. That said... this mare was a mess, to put it kindly. She was super quiet on the ground, but the minute she knew that saddle was coming, it was over. She wouldn’t stand still for me to put it on, let alone try to cinch her up. The owner was great, and very realistic. They knew they had a major problem and gave me as much time as I needed. At the time I didn’t know it, but the fact that the owner gave me endless time really took the pressure off me and the horse; it allowed me to go at the horse’s pace. I started her in the round pen; just basic ground work and desensitization. Inside and outside turns, ropes, bags; she didn’t really react like I thought she would based on what they told me about the saddle. I thought sacking her out would make a huge difference. But it was minimal. After about 10 days of that, I started working with the saddle. My first attempt, I had her bridle on and a lead rope attached. She moved in circles while I tried to put the saddle on her. For 10 minutes we went round and round until she stood. I was so set on getting it on her that first day I worked quick, cinched it up as tight as I could while holding onto the lead rope with a death grip because I knew she was going to blow... off I sent her. Boy did she buck... like a NFR (National Finals Rodeo) bronk horse, high and tight, one after the other; once around the round pen, twice, three times... it felt like a half hour, then... she stopped dead! And I mean dead. That only meant one thing... she was going to blow again if I moved her or the saddle. So, I did what any reasonable person would, sent her forward, away from me, hoping she just needed to keep getting the bucks out and she’d be ok. We repeated this two more times before she trotted out and was comfortable with the saddle. We tried again the next day mmm and basically got the same response. Saddling day three: same. Day four: same. Day five, six and seven....bucking for days. It was probably about two weeks into saddling that I finally realized she wasn’t happy doing things my way and that I had missed something vital. I had started countless horses this way and it has always worked. Until this mare; it wasn’t working for her. She needed a different approach. I had to figure out what her way was. So, I backtracked... week one review, week two review. I then realized it wasn’t any one thing. It was all the things.... putting the saddle on, adjusting it to sit right on her back, letting down the latigo on the off side, bringing the cinch under to tighten it in the left side. That was the point in her training that needed to be addressed... and probably many things after that as well. For the next three or four days I just put the saddle on and off, on and off, on both sides until she stood relaxed. That’s was the key, relaxed. If she wasn’t relaxed, I wasn’t ready to move on. Next, I remember it vividly, wiggling the saddle while it sat on her back, uncinched... for days. Next, slapping the cinch against her girth area on both sides, again for days until she didn’t react; until I could cinch up the saddle and have her stand still relaxed. After that, I finally asked her to walk off... and She. Didn’t. Buck.
That was it, I figured it out... I did it her way and figured it out! I owe that mare a world of gratitude; She was one of the first horses that taught me how to train a horse. That...Every. Single. Horse. Is. Different. They all need to go at their own pace and what I am doing isn’t and shouldn’t be standard for every horse.
The owner came to visit about three weeks later and I was just about to start riding her. We had come so far! I said “My way didn’t work. She needed me to back off and do it her way....” She was with me a total of four months and we were walking and trotting under saddle when she went home. A great turnaround for a horse that wouldn’t stop bucking. When the owner came to pick her up, she said that she remembered what I said about needing to do it the horse’s way; she said that really stuck with her. And from that day forward, it stuck with me too. It’s never about how fast you can get it done, it’s always about how you can get it done so the horse understands it and has confidence doing it. That’s the day I learned the meaning of training a horse...from the ground up!
John Lyons Certified
Horseback Riding Lessons
Jessica Forliano is a John Lyons Certified Trainer specializing in Problem horses / behavioral issues and starting young horses and ponies under saddle. Her passion shows through the accomplishments of each of horse or pony she works with as they reach their potential in the show ring.