When does a training session start? When I swing my leg over the horse’s back? When I pick up the reins? When I ask for the first step of trot after the warmup walk?
No. My work with a horse begins before I ever put a foot in the stirrup, before I tighten the girth, before I even touch him. My work begins as soon as I walk up to the horse. As soon as he is aware of me, I get feedback about how he feels and what he is thinking. It’s up to me to turn that feedback into opportunities for learning.
Does he come toward me or turn away from me? If he turns away, I don’t take it personally. Many of the horses in my program have good reasons to feel unenthusiastic about a human with a halter - or they may just want to hang out with their friends instead of with me right now. Rather than feel annoyed, I use the extra time it takes to quietly catch such a horse as an opportunity to create trust and connection.
Does the horse brace his neck and raise his head away from the halter? If so, I don’t think “He’s being a jackass who is making my job harder.” I know he’s doing it out of habit, or because he is anticipating discomfort. Rather than wrestle the halter over his nose and ears, I work on getting him to lower his head and relax until I can slip the halter on slowly and smoothly. I use the extra time it takes to establish a sense of calm relaxation.
Does the horse lead like a willing, respectful partner, or does he have other ideas, like lagging behind me or charging ahead? Is he with me, or is he focused on something else? Is he aware of my personal space? Leading is an opportunity to establish boundaries, focus, and confidence.
Does the horse seem to enjoy getting ready to work? I try to keep or deepen a calm, focused mood while grooming and saddling. A horse who flinches or pins his ears as soon as he feels the curry comb or the girth may have ulcers - or, more commonly, he expects an abrupt, unpleasant sensation. Again, this is useful feedback for me. I slow things down and experiment with different kinds of touch and grooming tools to see how we can make things better.
Does the horse stand quietly at the mounting block, or does he fidget? If he is anxious or impatient, I may just place my foot in the stirrup and take it back out, then walk the horse around the mounting block and repeat. And then, I may get on and off a couple of times - or I may get on, work for a while, and then get on and off a few more times. The mounting bock is an excellent opportunity to teach or remind a horse that patience is a virtue.
By the time I pick up the reins and start the under-saddle part of our work, I have laid a foundation of calm, trust, mutual respect, confidence, and focus. We begin our session on a positive note.
It took me years to figure this out. A long time ago, when I was young and stupid, I used to not give a lot of thought to grooming, saddling, mounting, etc. I reasoned that my clients didn’t pay me to give their horses a spa day - they paid me to ride. There is truth in that statement. I still cling to the old-fashioned belief that that horses become good riding partners by being ridden consistently. Horses are athletes. I still believe in the value of wet saddle blankets. On the other hand, I could have made life for my younger self (and the horses I was working back then) a lot easier if I had taken a few extra minutes to establish the tone and mood of our work before climbing on their backs.