I held his saddle pad by his nose, so he could smell his own scent on it. I let him play with it for a little bit to allow him time to remember what it was and to get comfortable with it. I then rubbed the saddle pad all over his body to remind him that it was nothing to be afraid of before I gently put it on his back. Four long months passed without a saddle on his back, four months of healing his leg from a long ago injury on the track, and four months of him being filled with mischievous energy at not working for so long.
Usually, when a horse is off for a long period of time, you do groundwork with the saddle on to get them used to the feel of the saddle and the cinch again before you even think of getting back on. I usually work with a horse for three to four days on the ground with the saddle on before I put my weight on the horse’s back again. I want to make sure they get any and all bucking out, and I want to remind them that I’m the alpha, that they can trust me in the saddle, and that I’m the one that can move their feet; not the other way around. This time I can’t do my usual routine, because his surgeon wants me to ride him at the walk for three weeks before I am allowed to trot or lope him; we’re doing everything backwards.
Luckily, he and I have a strong relationship. I go out of my way to spend a lot of time with my boys without asking them for anything; which I believe is a huge part in training a horse. I think a lot of people overlook this step; they just want to ride. I understand the desire to ride, because these past four months have been excruciating. However, if you don’t work on the relationship part of it, your horse won’t take care of you, won’t go that extra mile or into that extra gear for you, because they don’t feel they are working in partnership with you.
I often go out to the pasture and sit in the middle of it, and let them come up to me when they want to. If something is spooking them like the fox, I hang out with them until they calm down, and I make sure we play a lot. My grandpa always encouraged play time with horses, and I still do it today. Shandoka and I used to run all over the paddock together, Chaco and I now do this, and Harley likes to grab hold of my jacket or scooper to play a little tug of war.
Also, when Chaco was on stall rest for two weeks, I often found myself right behind him or under him. I often walked under his neck while he was eating, and he slept with his head on my lap. Then, there were the times I tripped and fell into him. What did he do? Turned and looked at me wondering what the heck I did while not moving an inch. He allowed me to pull his stitches without any numbing agent while kneeling directly under his belly. Not once did he hurt me, so even though I was a little nervous about getting back on him, I completely trusted him.
For three days we did our walking rehabilitation time with the saddle on, and he accepted it like no time passed without it. On the fourth day, it was time to climb on. I first pushed down on each stirrup with all of my weight. I then stood on the fence while putting my leg across the seat of the saddle pushing down with my leg, and then I slowly slid into the saddle. His ears moved back towards me, waiting for a cue. I told him I loved him, pet him all over, and then I clucked. He moved off easily and smoothly and with full confidence. His ears went forward and he seemed happy! I was wondering if he would be happy or grumpy, because he has worked hard since he was one-year-old. With all of this time off, which he enjoyed, I wondered if wanted to retire. His ears spoke volumes; he was anything but done.
How did it feel for me? It was the best fifteen minutes I’ve had in months. Three weeks of riding for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, and then 25 minutes before we can trot and lope, but I tell you I’m thrilled with walking right now. I kept hearing my grandpa tell me how the best jockeys danced with their horses. We danced Grandpa!