Tricks of the Trade

This page will discuss little tricks and techniques in the basic handling of the green horse. This will relate mostly to very green unbroken horses typical of that found on NZ stations (large farms): the NZ ‘Stationbred’.    These commonly have had very limited exposure to people. The American equivalent is free range ‘Mustangs’, Australia: ‘Brumbies’, Argentina: ‘Creole’ – the foundation to their wonderful polo mounts.  

Nowadays, most horses in NZ are bred on very small farms where they have continuous exposure to people and handling.  But, green horses still exist in the hills. They are sometime uncut diamonds, if you know how to train them.

I will discuss different approaches, including unsavoury ones that I know are used, but decline to use myself.  Techniques vary according to the geography in which horses are being trained. What you can get away with in the open flat plains of Australia or Argentina can kill you in the hill country of New Zealand or the Canadian Rockies.  For example a bolting horse in the former is no big deal, just ride him out i.e. push him harder. A galloping horse does not buck.  Do this in hill country and one or both of you is going to get hurt.


Rather than write thousands of words I will try to put the info into short phrases, then comment as little as possible.  These will be piecmeal. 



Just be with them

Have the very green horse close nearby as you work on others. Have him in a small yard if he does not yet tie. If he ties bring him each day and leave him tied.  Being tied with hay net all day long does no harm. 


Have a dog

Having a dog running around while working with any green horse is constructive. It breaks up the continuity. 


Never set a schedule 

Allow progress to set itself on the basis of how you both feel each day. Setting objectives for each day leads to trouble

Work every day or several times each day.  Do the same stuff several times each day with breaks in between.  When you finally back him, leave him in the yard, then go back and do it again 2 or 3 times the same day. This puts you both in a mindset which is essential in this work. 


Work both sides

Whatever you do on one side do the same on  the other. This includes mounting


Repetition over and over

Use the number 12. When you have got to the stage of putting on a saddle, don’t do it once each morning. Do it 12 times. Same with mounting. Each morning mount 12 times from the near and 12 times from the off. It builds your confidence too. Same with the cover, the bridle: on and off 12 times ever morning.  Once you are riding and he is starting to move off  when mounting (they all do) go back to repetitive mounting in the yard. 


Avoid teaching vices

Once a horse evades 3 times you have taught him a vice.e.g. never try to bridle or  drench a green horse when he is tied up, he can pull back and blow you right out of there. Untie him and back him into a corner or do it in a race. When drenching have a good grip on the halter and never allow him to pull it out of your hand. Do it right first time. 


Use a special lead

When grooming or handling legs have in your hand a special lead onto the halter that allows you to bend him slightly towards you. If something goes wrong he cannot veer away and kick you. 


Push the boundaries

Feel your way up tp the point where he will over-react then back off just a little eg grooming: once he accepts the brush groom faster and faster. How far can you go down the legs? 


Use water

Have a strong volume hose. There is no easy way to hose for the first time. Assuming you have taught him tie properly and will not pull back, get a full flow and just DO IT! Go for the shoulder. He is going to freak out but don’t stop. When he goes forward you go further forward to balance him. When he goes back you go further back. Within minutes he will settle down. Then you can start working the legs. If and when he kicks immediately spray the leg he is standing on, the split second he reacts with that leg go back to the first that he is now standing on. You will wear him down. Do it front and back. 


Lifting legs

Don’t be in a hurry. I am often riding for 3 days before I try lifting legs. The first objective is to be able to groom or run your hand down right to the hoof without him reacting. Achieve this and you are 80% there. If and when he rests a hind leg on the tip of the hoof, cup your fingers under the hoof and lift the leg forward and up for a few seconds then let back down. He will not react.  Lifting the leg back and up is far more demanding. Don’t be in a hurry to do this. Do it after you have been riding for several days. The same goes with lifting the front leg forward and up. This is an advanced position. 


Use the long stick

You will need at least 2.5 m. stiff strong bamboo or the NZ flax stick is best. Lunging whips are useless. They are too heavy and the tail is only applicable to a horse that is lunging perfectly. You can rub him all over or tap him low on the hind legs to see if you have a kicker. Another test for a kicker is a tap on the hind-quarter just below the base of the tail.  A non-kicker will hunch his hind quarters downwards. If you have a kicker get him lunging at walk then tap each hind leg just before he lifts it off the ground in a rhythm. 


Use some help

Don’t be a hero. Teaching lunging and driving for the first time alone can be very difficult. Use someone at the head to get the idea through to the horse. 



Teach very rudimentary lunging before driving. The sensitive horse can easily blast and get away from you when driving. There are some tricks you can use to maintain control:

Use extra long reins

Feed the off rein through something fixed like a D or short stirrup by all means


Feed the near rein through a stirrup leather wrapped up in such a way that the rein comes free when you pull hard outwards. If and when the horse takes fright and bolts drop the off rein and hold tight on the near rein. It breaks free and you have him in a lunge situation. Why the near? : because most horses will bend naturally to the near side when driving. More on that later


Chronic pullers

If you have a hot chronic puller - the sort of horse that wont walk out and breaks into a jog the whole time - try riding in the dark at night



When loading a float or truck for the first time, lay a continuous spreading of hay from well in the paddock right into the float.  


Use elastic girths when first introducing the saddle. Do up just enough to hold the saddle in place with no rider. A girth-proud horse is much less likely to object. 

Before trying the saddle, test him by puting a roap around his girth and grip the end overlaps on the side of the horse with one hand. Get him to walk foreward with lead rein in other hand. You can tighten or loosen the rope by twisting to test his reaction.  Just puting on a saddle and cinching up tight is problimatic. He can go into a bucking fit. 

Always use breast plates on the young horse, once riding, to keep the saddle foreward. 



When first introducing the cover tie lengths of bale twine to the hind straps  and use a 1 m length of wire with a hook to pull the straps up inside the hind legs and attach.  Once clipped, run the strap-ends through the metal D, twist,  and feed back through the eye of the hook, then pull up tight.  This stops the hook from catching on something and becoming unhooked. It also remedies the problem of old hooks getting too weak in the leaf spring. A cover coming off the hind in the paddock is bad news.  


When first teaching lunging ask for very few circuits in the beginning. 2 circuits, one way, is enough on day one. Then build slowiy each day. They sour quickly and you can end up in a battle that you may well lose. He may go round so far, then stop at a particular location on the circle.  Have someone to tap him up with a long stick at that location. Sure this stuff can be done alone, but on occasions, 2 is easier. 



Gain submission, maintain momentum.

Given that the objective is to start with green semi-handled horse, and end up that he is safe to ride by competent riders, there are 2 approaches to training:  fast or slow. Both work. What does not work is part way between. For my first couple of horses I used the slow approach. I was handling the first for 3 months before I rode him. I was very green too. Over time I adopted the fast approach which is the only economic method when one is handling numbers or is a professional trainer. The hours required in the slow approach before backing is probably 10 times that of the fast approach. The slow approach builds trust and tolerance in the horse. The fast approach uses confusion and submission. There is only one prime objective in the fast approach: get in the saddle and ride. Once riding, momentum must be retained i.e. riding decent distances every day for at least 2 months.  If we take our foot off the peddle the horse has time to think, ‘What’s going on here?” and may start coming back at us. 


The biggest problem professional trainers have is they gain submission and stability but once the horse is handed over to its’ owner they will not ride him enough. This spells big trouble. The freshly backed horse has to be ridden no less than 5 days/ week for at least 2 months. Only then can we give him a spell. If you are riding enough, the horse will gradually lose weight. But, here is where the horse is made, not during the foundation work.


The fast approach requires submission. This submission is a result of confusion. Confusion is acquired by intensive activities that are foreign to the horse. We pile on these activities in an intensive, all-day, every day, program.  If we know how to do this most horses can be under saddle within 3 days. On one occasion I bought a horse from a neighbour who was 3 hours ride away. He had recieved no handling. I rode down, got a rope on him, taught him to lead a bit, then lead him home from my horse. He had never been off his home farm. When he got to my place he was totally confused. I put a pack saddle on with weight (sand bags) and lead him down the road for another half hour to a neighbour’s yard, then put a saddle on him and rode him home on a halter. I had gained the submission but then came momentum - riding every day. He was eventually sold to a middle aged women with only moderate confidence and never put a foot wrong. These horses end up just as quiet and trusting as those produced by the slow method. 


John Whitaker once kicked a hornets’ nest by saying publicly that most horses when taken away from home into a confusing foreign environment can be immediately ridden. All the touchy feelies were up in arms. All sorts of muck was slung in the media. But, John Whitaker is absolutely right. AND this approach does NOT do harm.


These magic horsemen who demonstrate standing on a horse that has never been ridden in front of a high paying crowd are using this phenomenon.  The horse has come from a lovely green paddock at home, been transported for the first time in its life and immersed into a crowd of several hundred. He is totally confused and hence submissive. For the record, I know for a fact that ‘magical’ horsemen carefully select which horse they will use prior to the event.  Many are rejected. It is not magical and these guys are not necessarily good horseman. They are money makers.


One of the best things we can do is lead off another horse. Then start adding weight to the saddle. Should you have wide open country lead him for 5 hours a day. Throw in some lunging and driving. You can be riding within 1 week. Going slow does not necessarily produce a better or more stable horse. The real training starts once we are in the saddle, fast or slow. My most joyful memories will always be that moment when I am in the saddle and that distinctive feeling arrives when I know I have got him. He is calm. He is safe. All I need to do now is keep riding.  Nothing can compare.