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Training a Percheron as a riding horse

From: Jeff

Hi there, I've been reading through the list archives and while I've found a bunch of tid-bits to help me, I'm working with a problem that you havn't touched.

I'm working with a percheron, and this guy's a member of the ton-club. He's very sweet, and doesn't have any *bad* habits. He's just so big that the amount of force I use on my Saddlebred doesn't seem to be "heard" by him. I can effect a responce but I have to get very forceful.

I'm trying to finish teaching him to listen to the bit, but I don't have someone to train him professionally, and when I ride him, he doesn't mind being saddled (or even when I cinch the girth), nor does he mind it when I put his bit on. He just stands there, like the big impressive monolith he is. I mount up and quite unlike my saddlebred who starts "circle-dancing" he just stands there.

At this point I feel like I'm doing good because he hasn't showed any sign of discomfort. Then again, he hasn't showed any sign of being awake either.

Maybe I'm a bit gunshy about really cranking on him in part beacuse I've been accused of over-doing it with my Sabblebred, "Blondie". Then again, I'm used to her and the way we commnicate.

Usually this is what happens, after loungeing him for a few turns to warm him up, I'll mount up. For the first minute or two I'm gentily nudging him and giving him the "go" kick (mild) looking for the start button. After getting him started I'll start asking him to make turns, he's usually good at doing about what I ask of him with turning either way. I find that if I have to pull a rein to either side to get his attention then I really have to crank on him to get him to turn. I also found out that appearntly he can walk a straight line with his nose touching his ribs. After about 5 minutes of asking and rewarding him for good preformance, I try asking him to stop. Either he won't stop, or won't start up again afterwards.

Sometimes I'm wondering if he feels my "limit" of using too much force and is walking all over me for it. I mean I'm not using any devices to assist me mechically. Just a straight bar 6" snaffle bit on a fairly typical bridal and headstall. No maringale, no cable-halter, no crop or quirt.

He doesn't spook real easy, but when he does he doesn't spook normal either. sorta like a WWII air raid siren, starts slow, builds steadliy until he's at full speed (which is a very bumpy ride BTW). Which leads me to my next question. Is there anyway to work with a horse to help smooth out their gait? I've heard of methods involving laying landscaping timbers out in a radial patern and then lougeing a horse in that circle to force them to change when they pick up their feet, but I just though it was one of those terible ways to train a horse (like the really heavy weighted shoes for the gaited breeds, etc)

Thanks for all the good work keeping us waiting on baited breath for our email every week :)


Hi Jeff! Yes, you can train a Percheron as a riding horse. It will help if you try to avoid comparing this horse with your trained Saddlebred, though. ;-) That's really an "apples and oranges" situation -- less because of the breeding than because of the training.

What you've described isn't just a typical draught horse, it's a typical GREEN horse that hasn't been frightened by anyone yet: Quiet, gentle, willing, and perfectly happy just to stand there all day.

You've made a good start with this horse, but I think you can do better. You should have a whip with you whenever you're in the saddle, and you should use it appropriately, to reinforce your leg. If you find that you have to escalate your aids, something is wrong, and your horse is learning the wrong lesson. Horses are not born understanding the aids -- that's why you are working so hard to teach your horse what you want when you say "turn please" or "walk please" or "trot please". Horses ARE born with an innate ability to learn what we want, if we'll just explain it to them clearly and spend a little time listening to them, too.

There is nothing SEEMINGLY less sensitive than a green horse. You can put a bit in its mouth and pull until the horse bleeds -- it still won't know what you want. You can kick until you're exhausted and the horse is badly bruised or has cracked ribs -- it still won't know what you want. You're teaching the horse a new language, and until it understands the basic concepts and words, you won't be able to communicate effectively -- and you won't increase the effectiveness of your communication by yelling more and more loudly. Imagine someone giving you orders in a language you don't know. If you don't know what the command is, will it help if the person repeats it over and over? Will it help if the person screams louder and louder? Think about this.

Your young Percheron needs to learn what you want from him. That's where your whip is going to help both of you! From work on the longe line, he should already know what a light tap on the hindquarters means. Now you can apply this under saddle, by using your legs GENTLY to indicate "forward please", and then by repeating the same signal -- no escalation -- and immediately following up with a smack on the hindquarters. Then, as soon as the horse moves forward at all, praise him. This will help him learn that the signal for "forward please" is a small, quiet leg squeeze, not a small squeeze followed by a larger squeeze followed by an even larger squeeze followed by a sharp kick... if you teach him the former, you'll be able to use lighter and lighter aids as his understanding increases and his reaction time decreases. If you teach him the latter, you'll be one very tired rider. ;-)

Similarly, he can feel the rein pulling him, but he obviously doesn't interpret this as a turn-signal -- YET. Stop thinking of him as a Percheron and start thinking of him as a horse: Turn him as you would any other horse, from your seat and legs and upper body FIRST, with the reins acting last and least of all the aids. "Big" isn't the same as "insensitive". Use visual aids to remind both of you to turn -- cones or buckets can serve to mark the centers of circles or the insides or the outsides of curves. Poles on the ground can help you work on your steering.

Unless your horse has an exceptionally long shoulder and hip, you're going to have a hard time getting the kind of smooth gaits you're used to. That's another area where it's not really fair to make the comparisons between this horse and your Saddlebred. But any horse's gaits can be improved if the horse is helped to become more flexible and supple. Horses early in their under-saddle training are doing all they can to learn how to move naturally whilst carrying riders, so the process of gait improvement can't really begin until this horse has done enough under-saddle work to become comfortable and responsive. When your horse has the basics down, and can walk, trot, and canter comfortably in both directions, changing gaits smoothly and promptly when you ask, you'll be ready to start doing all sorts of exercises to help bring out his potential.

Don't give up! Percherons can make wonderful riding horses and terrific hunters, so if this horse has the conformation and movement to make a good riding horse, you're going to have a lot of fun.


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