Your youngster also might've gone through physiological changes during the winter that could affect saddle and bit fit, Rick adds.
Rick and his wife, Bonnie, operate Rick's Custom Colts, Wheatland, Wyoming, a training facility where Rick starts several young horses - for pleasure, ranch work and competition - each year. His training methods focus on developing confidence in horses through feel, respectful leadership and gentle techniques. He also conducts horsemanship clinics, and competes in working-cow horse and ranch-horse versatility.
In this exclusive Web-only article, Rick offers tips to help you get your colt - or even seasoned mount - started on the right hoof this spring.
> Get a seasonal checkup. You want to start with a healthy horse, Rick says. If your horse is ill, he won't feel like working, and you could mistake that for laziness or misbehavior. Also, conditioning an ill horse stresses his system and could cause further health issues. To ensure your horse is healthy, work with your veterinarian to check his vital signs (pulse, respiration and temperature). Also, monitor his behavior and movement for signs of illness or lameness. Further, vaccinate and deworm your horse to cleanse his system and boost his immunity.
> Schedule an equine dental appointment. "Checking your horse's mouth is more important than you might think," Rick says. "There are a lot of things happening in there.
"Your horse's teeth might've changed during the winter, especially if he's young," Rick continues. "He might've lost his temporary teeth and started cutting permanent teeth. Or, his teeth could be worn down from grazing, creating sharp, painful points."
In either case, it's important that you have an equine dentist check and adjust your horse's teeth so they don't interfere with the bit - and his training.
> Call the farrier. Trim and/or shoe your horse, and correct any hoof-structure problems to prevent stumbling and stress points that could cause lameness.
> Gradually change his ration. If your horse has been on pasture or a maintenance diet all winter, gradually increase his fiber (hay) and energy (grain) ration as you increase his activity. Adding too much energy too soon puts your horse at risk for colic or a muscular disorder called tying up, also known as azoturia, exertional rhabdomyolysis and Monday morning sickness.
> Sack out your horse. Start on the ground, in a round pen, with your horse outfitted in a rope halter and lead. Rick prefers not to tie a horse. "I've seen too many accidents tying young horses," he asserts.
Begin sacking out your horse - or rubbing objects all over his body - to refresh his memory and accustom him to your presence. "A horse doesn't forget what you've taught him," Rick says. "You just have to help him remember. As far as I'm concerned, you can never do too much groundwork."
Rick rubs a horse all over his body with such things as a brush, rope and blanket, but you can use anything you want. "I'm honest with the horse," the trainer explains. "I want him to know from the start what a rope, brush and blanket are - not when it's time to saddle and ride him."
> Longe your horse. "Longeing helps a horse stretch his muscles, work out the fresh and warm up," Rick says. "A horse could hurt himself if he bucks or plays and his muscles aren't warmed up or in shape."
Rick uses a rope halter and a 25-foot line when he longes his horse. He also uses a buggy whip as an extension of his arm. In addition to longing your horse in circles in each direction, Rick also advises teaching him to flex his neck in each direction, and yield his shoulders and hindquarters.
>Saddle up. When your horse obeys your ground-work cues, prepare to ride him. Rub the saddle pad all over his back, accustoming him to the feel. When he's relaxed, gently lay the saddle on his back. If you slam it on his back, it won't be a pleasant experience for him.
Check your cinch adjustments to make sure they fit your horse. "He might've gained weight during the winter, and an overly tight cinch could cause galls," Rick says.
When cinching your horse, Rick recommends pulling the latigo through the cinch, and keeping steady pressure while you wrap the latigo through the cinch two or three times. "Your goal is to get the cinch snug enough you can get a finger between your horse's barrel and the cinch, but not so tight that you cut your horse in half," Rick advises. "Some horses are sensitive in the girth area, and it might swell or become sore if the horse has a lot of winter hair rubbing or is overweight. Periodically check to make sure you're not galling your horse. You might have to body clip the girth area to remove heavy winter hair so the cinch lies flat."
Next, tighten the back cinch so that it rests loosely against your horse's barrel. Then step back, and allow the horse to soak in the situation. "Some horses will think about it, some will pitch and some will stand calmly," Rick says. "Take your time, and things will fall in place."
> Mount. "The biggest mistake I see people make when mounting is climbing up and slamming into the saddle," Rick laments. "That will set off a horse."
Instead, the horseman says to quickly put your foot in the stirrup and step up. Then softly lower yourself into the saddle. "When you commit to getting on, do so quickly and softly," he says.
As you mount, Rick recommends bending your horse's head to the left slightly, so you can turn him into - not away from - you if he blows up.
> Start slowly. Once aboard, start with Rick's simple lateral and vertical suppling routine, outlined in "Down the Fence," December 2005 WH. Next, ask your horse to walk to the left. "That way, if he blows up, you can circle him."
Walk your horse in both directions until you're both confident, then jog. "Gain control of your horse at slower gaits before adding speed," Rick advises. "And continue to ride him in a round pen until you're both confident."
The trainer says not to overwork your horse to the point of exhaustion in the beginning of his training. Signs of too much work include shortness of breath, coughing, soreness and/or cramping.
> Leg up your horse. When you're ready to ride your horse outside the pen, start by walking him one mile, focusing on maintaining control and consistency. When you've achieved that, jog him one mile and walk him home. Each day build on the speed and control, advancing to a slow lope and gradually adding hills to your routine.
"Keep in mind: It takes at least a month of steady riding to get a horse in shape," Rick points out. But taking time to safely condition your horse after a winter break will maximize your enjoyment during the prime riding months.
For more information on Rick and his programs, contact 700 Road 44, Wheatland, WY 82201; 307-401-0122; www.rickscustomcolts.com.