I read that Tom Dorrance used to tell people that "the horse will do what he's been prepared to do." I read it, and re-read it and applied it over and over to multiple incidents in my mind-both good and bad. Each time it made perfect sense.
I thought of an incident 4 years ago where I got bucked off of my horse in a very bad way. For days I felt like it was unprecedented, that it came "out of the blue." True, the horse had limited rides-maybe 20 total, 17 of them being in the indoor arena and just 3 of them outside of it-but I had been loping on her, waving a flag, teaching guests on her just the ride prior, and she felt the best she ever had.
But what I took for granted was that this horse was super-sensitive. Every single time previously I had spent at least 20-40 minutes on groundwork-covering the rope, the tarp, the flag. On this day she was my second horse of the afternoon and I knew I was running short on time when I finally got around to saddling her. She was looking around. We were in the outdoor arena and her mind wasn't with me. I went through my standard groundwork a little quicker than normal-flag, check. Tarp, check. Rope-not great but good enough-check. I got on and she immediately wanted to move out. I let her trot a ways and leisurely did a one-rein stop to the left. When I released she trotted off again and I leisurely did a one-rein stop to the right-and then she BLEW UP. This wasn't a casual bronc ride. This was the stuff that pictures are made of! I came off hard, hitting my face on the saddle horn and my horse went on bucking around the full length of the arena.
I felt betrayed really. I felt like I trusted her and that we were beyond something like this. What I failed to understand at the time is that I betrayed her by my lack of preparation. My trust shouldn't have been on a prey animal that survives by flight (and flight has many forms) but rather,
in my preparation of that animal.
Fast-forward a few years to a couple of different colts, Tucker and Julio. One of them Tucker, is a horse that I rode for the first time, the other Julio, is Shayne's horse who he rode for the first time, but who I did all the groundwork in preparation for Shayne. As you might imagine, preparing the boss's colt can be a teensy bit unnerving!
Luckily for me, I had learned from my bad experience and went to work getting these colts VERY prepared. I spent 3 weeks on groundwork only-working on getting the basic groundwork maneuvers refined and smooth. I incorporated ropes ALL over the horses, swinging them over the horses from the ground, from the fence; throwing the rope over their flank, letting it hang around their legs, leading them by a front foot, getting my rope around their hind feet. Roped them on a circle, roped them with their halter lead rope wrapped around a fence. I basically did much of the same with the flag and tarp. I showed it to them in every single way imaginable. I did this every day for 3 weeks and incorporated different and various movements as the horses showed they needed them. As an example, Julio was extra touchy around his backside and would sometimes kick out when the rope touched around his butt. So every day I would get my loop around his rump until he was comfortable, then I eventually started leading him up with the rope around his butt from the fence then from the ground.
They were saddled each day during the groundwork as well.
Towards the end of the 3 weeks, I started doing their groundwork in a snaffle bit and mecate rather than halter and rope. They got very comfortable in their headstalls and performed all the same movements beautifully. We worked on lateral flexion from the ground and even got our first soft feels and they were backed a bunch from the slobber strap, too.
Their first ride was uneventful really!
Just as you might hope it would be. We rode in our halters the first ride just so that they didn't have anything extra to think about other than us on their backs. But by day 2 we were in the snaffle bits. The horse's mouths were quiet. They were getting their first backing steps and soft feels right off. They moved out without trouble. Shayne flagged me off of his colt on ride 2. I was swinging my rope off of my colt on ride 2. The horses never got tight; they never hopped up, shook their heads or tried to buck.
The horses did what they had been prepared to do. They were prepared to be confident. They were prepared to be quiet. They were prepared to be responsive yet unafraid. And 15 rides later, their expression is still the same even though they are learning more each day and being challenged in new ways - not easy for young horses.
A lack of good preparation is still preparation-it's just unhelpful at best and completely counter-productive at worst. If, for example, you yank on the horse's reins to get him to go back, you have inadvertently prepared him to brace in his head or to brace in his feet or in a worse case scenario-to rear. You have prepared him for trouble. However, a horse that is prepared with a soft feel (where you pick up on the reins and the horse tucks his chin and softens at the poll) will be more likely to back properly or stop properly. If you spend time getting the horse soft beforehand, you have
prepared him to feel of you and to draw him back where he is more engaged with his hindquarters.
If a person continuously hangs tight onto the reins of a horse that is forward or afraid, that person may have inadvertently prepared the horse to kick-out, or buck or have a bad expression. However, if the person has prepared the horse by allowing it to move out at a walk, trot and lope on a loose rein first (Buck maintains that this is necessary before holding the horse in a soft feel at these gaits) then when you actually pick up on the reins, they'll learn to get soft and rate rather than to push against them.
Even an older, seasoned horse benefits from continued preparation. Every now and again I just get on and ride a horse that is further along in his education. But 95% of the time, I do a quick check of his groundwork. Is he rolling his jaw? Are all four quarters moving balanced and with rhythm? Is he good with the flag? Can I pick up the tarp and get it all around him without him being bothered?
In our client horse program, and in our guest program we work hard to prepare the horses for anything and everything. And in our horsemanship program, we teach our guests how best to do this with their own horses too!