Breaking in a horse is not something that should be undertaken by anyone with little knowledge or experience of horses. A novice or nervous person should take the horse to someone who comes highly recommended for their sympathetic breaking and handling of youngsters.
If you consider that you do have the relevant experience, but have never backed a horse before, take advice from an expert at every stage of the process and always have a knowledgeable helper on hand while you are backing the horse for the first time. You may also find these tips handy:
Before breaking in a horse, you should handle him as much as possible. If you bred the horse yourself or bought him when he was very young, this handling should have been going on for years. Regular handling and desensitising will ensure that the horse will be more relaxed about having a human climbing on to his back.
First, get your horse used to the saddle pad, then the bit and bridle and the saddle, first without and then with the girth done up — and let him feel the stirrups against his sides. With a sharp horse the process of desensitising in this way, with tack and also external stimuli, such as plastic bags and loud noises, can take weeks or months. It isn’t something you can rush, but it will reap rewards when the time comes to back him.
While some will prove tricky and may take months to break in, others will be comfortable with a rider on their back within a few days.
Be prepared to be flexible in your approach, all the time ensuring that the horse is comfortable with the experience.
You will need a handler to lead him around and also to give you a leg up if you are not using a moveable mounting block.
Lunging is a particularly useful tool for young horses and they should become familiar with the lunge long before you proceed to back them. On the day you decide to climb into the saddle the lunge may be used to take the edge off their exuberance and get them listening to you.
If the horse is spooky, stressed or simply doesn’t have his mind on what you are doing, don’t get on. Defer to another day.
Safety should always be paramount in the backing process, and, for this reason, you should always wear a crash hat and a body protector.
Once the horse is calm and focussed on you, ask your handler to give you a gentle leg up, or use a mobile mounting block and put your foot in the stirrup. Do everything slowly.
However you are getting on, don’t put your leg over the horse straight away, but lean over the saddle until your full weight is on the horse. Get your handler to walk him around while you are in this position. Don’t be in a hurry to move on to stage 9. In fact, getting to the next stage where you are sitting up in the saddle may take several days or even weeks.
Provided the horse is calm — try scratching him just below the withers to relax him — you can now put your leg over the saddle and sit up slowly and calmly. Use your voice as a soothing aid. Leave your feet out of the stirrups in case he spooks and you need to dismount quickly. When you feel that he is happy with what you are doing, pop your feet in the stirrups as your handler leads you around.
Patience, time and a sensitive approach are the keys to breaking in a horse successfully. A job done well will give you solid foundations on which to build a successful career with this horse. Take the process too far too fast and frighten the horse and you risk creating problems far into the future.