When I was a young girl, I had a retired racehorse, named Ticket. Ticket-to-Ride had been her registered name when she began her thoroughbred racing career at the ripe old age of 2-years-old. Her career lasted a staggering 1 year before she sustained two great injuries on her legs on two separate occasions. Her previous owner decided that she was too unbalanced and clumsy to be a racehorse so she sold her to me for the same $500 that I sold my outgrown pony, Cocoa for.
When I got Ticket, her wound was still fresh and it took me nearly 4 months of picking off her proud (or dead) flesh, rinsing out with saline, and then applying healing ointment and wonder dust (fly powder) before she healed physically. Mentally though, she had some issues with trusting humans after her rough start at a life that was full of injury and pain.
I now faced the daunting task of training a completely green 4-year-old mare who did not trust humans at all, especially me, her tormenting nurse-aid. With the help of the stable owner, my riding instructor, and 100s of books and magazines from my local library, we finally found the right routine that eventually got me on her back. I’ve highlighted the basic steps of what worked for us as follows:
Step 1: Building Trust
Every day for about a month, I spent as much time with Ticket in her stall as I could. I didn’t mess with her too much, except for grooming and turnouts. I just sat next to her stall or snuggled her and gave her treats until she seemed more comfortable with me being around and even seemed excited to see me.
Step 2: Getting Used to Tack
Once she seemed to trust me, and I no longer feared those kicks and nips that she used to give me, I started getting her used to having a bit in her mouth and a saddle pad on her back. As soon as she was comfortable with me putting on her bridle and laying a saddle pad on her, we moved from the stall to the cross-ties in the aisle to start working on the saddle. She had a lot more problems getting used to the saddle than any other part of her tack. It took me nearly 3 weeks of just bringing the saddle near her side before she was calm enough for me to put it on her back and another week before I could cinch up her girth (or saddle strap).
Step 3: Commands and Lunging
At this point, Ticket had already learned a few basic commands, like “walk-on,” “whoa,” and “back” from our daily trips back and forth to her turnout pasture. This was the point in which we moved from the stall and cross-ties to the riding arena. Some people would wait until after teaching lunging before getting her used to her saddle, but I had ample time while she was recovering so I improvised and got her used to her tack before her leg had completely healed.
I had a friend help guide her as I let out her lunge and wiggled the whip at her. We reinforced her basic commands and then introduced “trot,” “move out,” and “move in.”
Step 4: Backing
As soon as she had mastered lunging, came the process of me topping or backing her. Starting with one person holding her lunge-line and another holding onto a lead snapped to her halter, I began tugging at her stirrups until I was certain she was calm. I then climbed atop her. She moved effortlessly beneath me. I believe that it was due to all of the time that I spent gaining her trust and lunging her that this first baking experience went so smoothly. Of course, once we started cantering, galloping, and jumping she threw me a couple of times, but it was still mostly smooth sailing.
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