As Chico accepted all these new things, I also did training sessions where I would lead him out into the canyon...just me and him on foot. Sometimes he was saddled, and sometimes he even had 2-liter bottles tied to the saddle. He was very relaxed with me out alone. He never became upset and would go anywhere I asked. I know he trusted me pretty completely. Once, we walked by a washout that someone had thrown a bunch of tin and cinder blocks in (to apparently stop erosion). I was leading him, and as we approached, he saw this "horse trap", and slowed down to eye it warily as we passed it on the narrow trail. As soon as we'd passed it, he reached out and touched my arm with his nose...to reassure himself that I was still there and we'd made it through okay. I was very touched. I've seen horses touch other horses that way when they are uncertain about something, and I took it as a huge compliment from Chico.
I also tried to pony him from Cody, and most of those sessions went okay, but they progressively got worse and worse. For one thing, Cody was not a super well-broke horse, and she knew I was distracted by leading Chico, so she'd try to pull things. The other problem was that I think Chico might have been biting her on the butt sometimes when he was following down a trail, although I never actually caught him doing it. A couple of times, Cody would get angry and start bucking and all I can think is that Chico was annoying her (or I was, because I was trying to ride her one handed, when she hadn't progressed that far yet). We went out ponying Chico several times, and the only time I ever had a spill was when we saw a piece of logging equipment and Cody was uncertain about it. Once we'd passed it, she tried to speed up, and I pulled back with one hand on both reins (because Chico hadn't sped up and the other hand was back trying to pull him along). Cody panicked and bucked, I fell off into the soft mud, then her and Chico ran all the way home. On this ride, Chico was tacked up in full regalia, soda bottles and all. Todd said that he saw those two coming over the hill at a full gallop with soda bottles just a flapping and Chico bucking. That was the only time Chico had ever bucked with the saddle on, and I wasn't around (I was picking myself up from the mud at the time) so that doesn't count. :) After this incident, Cody's disrespectful behavior escalated to the point where she was attempting to buck me off every time I asked her to canter (not just when leading Chico). I caught on after I fell off two more times, and from then on, I was ready for her when she tried. Next time, we were cantering, and she tried her little stunt, I already had my hand slid halfway down the rein, so I quickly pulled her head to my knee. She was caught off-guard so tried a few more buck jumps in her surprise, then quit. She hasn't tried to buck me off since. It only took me stopping her once.
Another activity that I made sure to perfect with Chico was yielding his hindquarters to stirrup pressure (eventually to be leg pressure) back behind the girth. Clinton Anderson emphasizes that controlling the hindquarters is the key to controlling the horse’s movement. I also figured that if he knew to move off one leg pressure, that could at least get us moving the first time I was up on him (so that it didn't turn into a frozen horse that didn't know she was supposed to move with leg pressure, like happened with Cody (because I didn't know what I was doing)). The first time I pushed the side of the stirrup into his belly, he tried to cowkick at it. He didn't know what I wanted, and so was defensive. I just yelled at him and continued with the pressure until he moved away from it, then I stopped, praised him and gave him a treat. He did try to cowkick at the beginning of the second session, and that time I got after him more severely. He didn't try that again, and instead moved away from the stirrup pressure. As he gained a better understanding of that exercise, he did it more and more willingly instead of being kind of annoyed that I was poking him.
By this time it was spring 2007 and Chico had mastered lunging, obeying voice commands, lateral flexion, ground driving, and saddling. He was also desensitized to the stick and string, tossing the rope, stirrup slapping, 2 liter bottles tied to the saddle...by all accounts, he was ready to ride, but I was still not sure he'd take a rider's weight without reacting (even though he'd always calmly accepted everything else). I know I cannot ride a bucking, panicking horse, so I wanted to be REALLY sure he was not going to buck and panic with me on him. So, I had Todd help me tie 2 40-lb bags of wood pellets to his saddle. I figured if he could handle carrying 80 lbs of dead weight, then a rider should hopefully be easy. I managed to get him to walk, trot and canter a few strides in both directions before I had to stop him because the bags had started to slip out of their bindings. He acted like he'd carried those bags his whole life! I was so shocked by how non-reactive his was. At that point, I decided that I had worked up the courage to give him his first ride. He'd proved to me that he was not likely to do anything stupid at all. I just had to remain confident.
That next week, I had a friend come over and work with Chico with me. After watching Clinton Anderson's colt starting video, I agreed that the first ride should be done with a person on the ground directing the horse as they are used to being directed. Then the rider can slowly take over control as the horse accepts the weight and new feelings. I asked Windy to work Chico like I do. First, I demonstrated the voice cues and lunging exercises, then I had her master them with Chico. He listened to her very well; there was no confusion in the change over to another person. She worked him for a long time because we wanted to make sure to get all the spunk out before I tried climbing on him. Once Windy was comfortable, and Chico was respectful, I practiced putting weight in the stirrups, then getting down, then doing it from the other side. He stood patiently. Then, I wanted to have him walk and feel my weight move, but still be able to slide off easily if he panicked, so I stepped up and laid over the saddle, ready to slip off if I needed to. Windy led him around, while I patted his sides and kicked my legs around. He took it fine...he looked at me like I was a little funny in the head, but it didn't worry him. Then I stepped up and sat down into the saddle, then got off right away, then did it from the other side. I mounted and dismounted a few times. I also flexed him with reins that I'd clipped onto his halter. He flexed very lightly. Then, while sitting in the saddle, I had Windy lead us around some more, so that Chico got used to this new feeling and me above his head. He was fine with it, so then I told her I was ready for her to send him out on the lunge line with me as a passenger in the saddle. I had the reins just in case I needed to do an emergency stop. Windy sent him out at a walk around the perimeter of the round pen. Then, when I said I was ready, she asked him to trot. He broke into a trot with no problem, then she asked him to walk and he brought himself back down. We did walk and trot both directions for a while and he was being so good, so I told Windy I was ready to ask him to canter. I just wanted to get it all over with so that I wasn't afraid to do anything with him. With some trepidation, Windy said okay, and off she sent Chico at the trot, then canter. He broke into a fluid canter and did several laps around the pen. Then we did the other direction. Chico was awesome. I could not have asked for a better first ride on any horse. This was Chico's first ride, my first time giving a horse it's first ride, my first time training a horse, and we did it! And this horse was a "wild" mustang. Windy was impressed that he was so good. That first ride gave me a lot of confidence, and the next time I rode Chico, I did it by myself in the round pen. I always wore a helmet, and that next time, I had Todd come out and observe just in case Chico did something stupid and I fell off. But he was great again. Again, we worked up to the canter, and I also worked with him yielding his hindquarters under saddle, and steering with the halter and reins. At this point, I had not changed Chico over to a bridle and bit. I was toying with the idea of going bitless.
About Chico's 4th or 5th ride, I took him down to the neighbor’s indoor arena to ride him in a bigger confined space. He was a bit on edge there, because it was a new place with new horses around, but he did well and listened to me. We did not canter there because he was being a little bit stiff due to nerves, and I didn't want to chance losing control of him. We did lots of walking and trotting. He was definitely pulling on me a lot more in this bigger space and was not as soft in his face. The neighbor commented on how sensible he was for being just a young 3 year old (she raises arabians). She also asked why no bit, and when I said I was thinking of going bitless because I thought it was gentler, she showed me the bit that she likes to start her horses in. It was a double jointed loose ring snaffle with a big lozenge made by Korsteel. I started researching the bits and decided that I'd get one and transition Chico to a bit before I tried riding him out on the trail. You also just have more control with a bit if anything does go wrong, so I felt more comfortable. I ended up getting a JP Korsteel Hunter Dee snaffle with a copper center. It is my favorite bit and I later got one for Cody's bridle and eventually for Catlow as well. It is very gentle (doesn't pinch their tongue or poke the roof of their mouth), and it is very comfortable for them to hold; it just fits the contours of their mouth. Chico transitioned easily into the bit, so it was time to try our first trail ride!
I had it all planned out. I was going to lead him down into the canyon, then mount in the bottom, and ride him up the other side going away from home. I figured this would be the best way to warm him up, and ride him without him feeling like he had to rush to get home. Plus the going up hill part would wear him out and make it less likely that he'd bolt or do anything silly (even though he never showed that he was likely to do that...I was just being very careful). So off we went. I did do a little lunging at home first, but not much. On the way down into the canyon, Chico followed obediently as usual (he does try to snatch grass, but I try to prevent that). We did some lunging in a few open meadow areas. We crossed the creek in the bottom, then I did a bunch more lunging with Chico, practicing his voice cues and changing directions. Then I did a bunch of desensitizing with the rope and slapping the stirrups on the saddle. Chico behaved as usual, so I decided it was time and I mounted up. I did some lateral flexing as well as yielding the hindquarters. Then I straightened him out, pointed him up the hill, and asked him to "walk". He strode out eagerly and with strength, pushing us up the hill. He did break into a trot a few times, but I just sat deep, gave a little jiggle on the reins and said "walk" and he came right back down. He was forward and curious, a good little horse. Once on top of the canyon rim, we rode through the fields. As we came down a grassy hill, he kept wanting to break into a trot, and I'd already felt the ride was a great success, so before it went bad, I dismounted and led him down another trail back into the canyon. Once in the bottom, I lunged him a bit more, then I mounted back up and rode him all the way home. He was great.
These are the pictures I took to document the successful completion of my first trail ride with Chico...Thanks for holding him, Todd!
The next weekend after our first trail ride, I took Chico to a 1 day Horsemanship Clinic at Katie's. At this clinic, we did a morning full of ground work including leading and sending over and around obstacles. In the afternoon, we did mounted exercises, including the passenger lesson around the arena. This was my first chance to canter Chico outside of the round pen. He did really well with picking up the canter and slowing back down as asked, but he wasn't as good at steering. At one point, I was trying to ask him to cut across the center of the arena (to dodge some of the other riders), and he was stiff and pulled against me, then had a little tantrum (not quite a buck, but a tantrum). I caught him right away and bent his head around to my knee, got after him a little bit with my heel (asking him to yield his hindquarters), then we went on as though nothing had happened. Katie's clinic really did wonders for Chico and I...we did have quite a good bond before this, but after this day (spent ALL day together this first time at a new place), he was even better and he'd become less reactive to me lunging him or touching him while lunging with the stick and string. And I was quite proud of him...he was definitely one of the most well-behaved horses there. www.whetzelhorsetraining.com
I did go to a private lesson at Katie's one more time early that year with Chico. We worked at the canter doing the cloverleaf pattern to teach Chico to follow his nose a little better.
A few weeks after I'd started riding him regularily on the trails, Chico found a porcupine in his pasture (described on a previous post), and ended up developing a huge infection and high fever at the injection site of the anesthetic on his neck. I took this next picture on my way out to the pasture to catch him and ride him the day I discovered the infection (if you look closely you can see a lump on the underside of his neck).
Here you can clearly see the lump in his neck, although I hadn't noticed it yet.
When I caught him and tied him in the barn to groom him, I noticed that he just wasn't acting like himself. Instead of being curious about everything, he was kind of subdued. As I brushed under his belly, I could feel the heat radiating from his body. Then I noticed the huge lump in his neck where the infection was. We had the vet out and he had to be on antibiotics the next few weeks. He recovered quickly and I started riding him again a week later.
After that, I spent the rest of the summer riding him all over on the canyon trails. I did more training on Chico, and also on Cody that summer. Both of them learned to side-pass, and do shoulder yields while walking. They also learned some vertical flexion.
Continuation of training with Cody and Catlow that summer in next post….