A few days ago a friend asked me a question.
“Is it a disgrace if a horse bucks and squeals on the first saddling?”
“Disgrace” is a pretty strong word and I don’t think I would use it to describe the situation, so let’s go with the word “bad” instead.
I don’t think anyone would argue that it would be preferred if a horse did not feel an urgent need to buck and squeal. We would all like to think that the first time a horse was saddled was a virtual non-event – sort of just the next thing to do and no big deal. This happens a lot and if the preparation is right the response to being saddled for the first time is more of a whimper than an eruption. But sometimes times a horse will throw a tantrum or display a strong degree of negative emotions.
So is it bad if a horse does buck and squeal? As you might expect the answer is not a simple yes or no. It’s complicated.
Firstly, we could rejoice in the fact that the horse expressed its true feelings. It’s not always possible to assume that just because a horse did not behave badly that it did not feel bad. Sometimes a lack of animation when a horse is saddled for the first time can be a sign of suppressed emotions rather than okay emotions. You can’t be sure if the horse feels comfortable or is shut down. However, if a horse does throw a tantrum you can be pretty confident it is not shut down, which is a good thing and highly desirable.
On the other hand, if a horse does buck, squeal, rear, run panicked or freeze when saddled for the first time, it suggests that not enough was done to prepare a horse for the experience. Something was missing in the lead-up work to ensure the fear and anxiety was under control before saddling. Most horses can be gradually introduced to the idea of wearing a hunk of leather on their back and having it strapped firmly to their midsection with stirrups banging on their sides, in such a way as to minimize the stress that the first experience may induce.
However, there is a big BUT to this.
Most lead up work to preparing a horse for saddling involves ‘approach and retreat’ type methods where the stressful experience is introduced in increments and then removed the instant the horse shows signs of relaxation or acceptance. The trainer approaches with the pressure and then removes the pressure before the horse has a meltdown (there are various ways of doing this, which I won’t go into here). In this way, a horse adapts to the feel of the saddling and learns to accept it.
But the difference between the preparation training for the first saddling and the actual first saddling is that in the build-up training pressure is applied by ‘approach and retreat’ principles, whereas the first saddling utilizes a ‘flooding’ technique. In flooding, the pressure is applied and not removed until the horse gives up and the dust settles. This is an important difference because with repetition of the approach and retreat methods a horse learns the pressure will go away and comfort will be returned. But with flooding, there is no relief or comfort because the pressure from the saddle is not going away until peace and calm return to the world. It’s just the way it is when saddling a horse because the saddle can’t be removed and the pressure can’t be removed until the trouble is sufficiently quelled to remove the saddle.
Some horses will panic and buck when they realize they are stuck with the saddle and it is not coming off just because they appear worried. This could mean that in the preparation work the horse never became okay with the saddle, but instead, the horse had learned to just hold it together because we had taught them the saddle would be removed in a moment or two. That’s the difference between a horse accepting the saddle and tolerating it. For many horses in this position, it almost becomes a necessary evil to have a bucking fit in order to learn to become okay with carrying the saddle. It’s unfortunate, but I believe there are a few horses where a tantrum is necessary before they can find acceptance of the saddle.
In my opinion, even though we would prefer a horse did not buck and squeal when we first saddled it and did everything we knew how to do to prevent it, that’s not the biggest sin we can make. I believe the “bad” (or “disgraceful” as my friend would say) thing is if we were not aware it was going to happen and it caught us by surprise. If we didn’t see the trouble building, then we have some self-examination and self-improvement to do. After all, we can’t help a horse feel better about being saddled if we can’t even detect how it is feeling. The secret to avoiding a meltdown is to prepare a horse before the meltdown happens and this can only happen if we are aware of the volcano bubbling underneath before it erupts.
So I am less concerned about a horse bucking and squealing when saddled for the first time than that a person may not be aware it was going to happen. If you are aware the buck is inside a horse there is a chance you can do something about it before it happens. If you are unaware of the trouble there is a good chance you won’t see the buck the next time and the time after that and the ill feelings may continue for several sessions.
Is it a disgrace if a horse bucks and squeals on the first saddling? As I said, it is complicated.
Photo: Lorena is preparing Forest for saddling by introducing the feel of a rope around his midsection to mimic the pressure he will experience from a snugly fitted girth. Note that Lorena can apply or remove the pressure from the rope to accommodate the emotional needs of her horse as he becomes more comfortable with the feel.