When I bought Madigan two years ago as a yearling, his future as a riding horse seemed incredibly distant. He seemed so small, so immature, so baby. I endeavored to teach him things that the internet and my vast collection of horse training books said a yearling should know: how to tie, how to crosstie, how to stand politely for the farrier. He was unfazed by wearing a blanket or a saddle pad or boots. Anyone could handle him- Johnny regularly led him to and from the barn and could put his blanket on or take it off. Teaching Madigan essential baby horse skills was a breeze; it seemed like he was born knowing them. I’m sure this is a combination of genetics, innate personality, and good handling by his breeder.
When the pandemic forced the closure of the tack shop for a month last spring, I bought a 4 lesson package from my neighbor and planned to take a few dressage lessons on Candy. Of course, Candy was lame with an abscess for our first scheduled lesson. I didn’t want to waste the day, so I grabbed Madigan for a groundwork session instead. He’s been attending what I dubbed ‘Baby School’ every week since.
So what happens at Baby School? Lots! Early lessons focused on teaching Madigan the basic principles of groundwork- staying out of a human’s personal space, moving away from the stick, becoming comfortable with the stick touching him. Madigan struggled mightily with staying an appropriate distance away from the human; he’d climb into laps if he could.
He learned to wear a saddle through a series of small, methodical exercises. First, he wore an old, beat-up Wintec without a girth while he walked around. He was allowed to touch it, chew on it, paw at it- whatever he wanted to do. His trainer periodically pushed it off him, but he was never more than mildly curious about what object had suddenly landed in the dirt beside him. A girth was eventually added, which did not concern Madigan at all. Soon, he was wearing a lightweight western saddle and getting used to the feeling of stirrups flapping and bouncing against his sides.
Teaching him to stand at the mounting block and be mounted was another series of incremental steps. He was asked to stand next to the mounting block for a few minutes nearly every lesson while his trainer walked up and down its steps. She often stood on the top step scratching his withers or his rump. Eventually she began to lean on his back from both the left and right sides of his body. Madigan was largely unconcerned about this; I think his trainer and I were more concerned that he would fall over because he frequently dozed with a hind leg cocked up. Adding the western saddle and putting one foot in the stirrup was no big deal because he was used to wearing the saddle and used to things touching his sides. When his trainer swung a leg over him and sat on his back for the first time, it was a total non-event. He stood there quietly, eyes half-closed, probably wondering when this boring session of baby school would end. He was led around by the assistant trainer for his first few brief sessions with a rider, then progressed to circling on the longe line, and is now being ridden with no leader and no line, just like an adult! (Well, an adult with extremely questionable steering.)
There’s been plenty of work that’s unrelated to riding, too. He’s traipsed through a pile of noisy crumpled plastic bottles, played with a giant ball (his favorite), stood on a horsey pedestal (very useful for getting him comfortable stepping into trailers), and learned to stand still and wait for help when a rope is wrapped around his leg. Baby School often occurs against the backdrop of a busy lesson and boarding barn, so he sees other horses entering and exiting the barn, he sometimes shares the arena with other horses, and there’s always noise from a dog, child, or vehicle.
Baby School even has field trips! He tagged along to an event last fall, hiked a trail with me this winter, and went to a schooling dressage show to compete in the sporthorse in-hand class this spring.
Now my petite yearling is a giant gawky adolescent horse. He’s more physically mature than he was even a few months ago, and it’s exciting to see him progress towards becoming a truly solid riding horse. My goal is to take him on some easy trail rides this fall and perhaps point him at a show or two. There’s no hurry, but what once seemed very far away now seems very close- and that’s exciting!