The first day didn't go quite like I expected, but it all worked itself out.
I started bridling him in the cross ties a week or so ago just to make sure that bridling was a non-issue. In December, he was difficult to bridle as he refused to lower his head. It's a non-issue now. In fact, he happily slurps up the bit with no assistance from me. I am sure it helps that I've been coating the bit with a swipe of molasses.
Sunday however, was the first day that he worked in the bridle. Someone suggested I hang the rope halter over his bridle and attach the lunge line to the rope halter. That was a brilliant suggestion and one that fit in perfectly with my plan. I wanted him to figure the bit out on his own without me tugging or pulling on it.
As it turns out, it wasn't the bit that gave him a scare but rather the saddle. It took me a few minutes to figure out what was wrong. As we walked out to our lunging area, he kept humping up his back and scooting his hind legs underneath himself. At one point he whirled and tried to bolt with a big old hump in his back. This was before I had even asked him to move out.
At first, I thought he'd been stung by a bee. He had this wild look to his eyes, and he acted as though his butt hurt. I got him to stand still and rubbed my hands all over his body. Nothing seemed wrong so I asked for a quiet walk. When he seemed okay, I asked for a trot. The hump returned, but I decided to let him work it out himself. When I asked for the canter, all hell broke loose.
The hump in his back turned into a full on bucking fit with his hind legs camped under his belly. He couldn't buck very well since he couldn't get his hind legs to work. I let him bumble around a few times before bringing him back to a halt. I had him change direction which improved things slightly.
When we were finished, I brought him back to the barn and gave my saddle's fit a good looking over. From what I could see, it's a little wide on him, but other than that, it looks like a good enough fit. While not a perfect fit, the riser pad does help it sit level, and there's certainly no bridging or rocking.
After thinking it over, I realized that the stiffness of the saddle had surprised him. Even though he was started under saddle two years ago and ridden a few times by the trainer in December, it's still been several months since he's felt a saddle on his back. The surcingle and half pad that I was using were very soft and flexible, totally unlike the saddle.
I changed my game plan for the second day. I saddled him like before with the bridle and rope halter, but when we got to the arena, I hand walked him for a few minutes and spent lots of time having him yield his hindquarters and backing up. He didn't want to do any of these things, but I insisted. I also wiggled the saddled, lifted the flaps and smacked them around a bit, and tugged on the girth.
Little by little I saw him start to relax. By the time we got to the lunging, he was much less surprised by the saddle. I asked him for a walk and was happy (relieved) to see him walk out without the hump in his back. I eventually asked for a trot and finally a canter. For the first few canter strides, he humped up his back again, but he quickly stretched out.
When I felt that he had had enough time to feel the saddle on his back at the canter, I walked him back to the mounting block like I've done every day for the past few weeks. With no fussing or worry, I climbed on and rode around just like we've been doing bareback. He was very quiet and willing. We did some bending exercises and then rode a few figure eights. There was no hump in his back and he seemed eager to please me.
I know he could feel my smile. The whole neighborhood could see my smile; it was that huge. I've worked him every day since Sunday, and he's only gotten better and better. We're just about ready to start trotting.