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Issues From The Saddle: Speeding Up A Slow Horse

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

I was at the Equine Expo in Massachusetts last week and enjoyed your clinics immensely. Quick synopsis of my quarter horse…I got him a year and a half ago from the barn I used to ride at and he’s about 15 years old. They sold the farm and wanted to give their horses to good homes and Zip was one of the horses I used to ride. He basically was a walk, trot horse for the younger kids so he’s very dead to any of the aids I give him. I’ve tried some of your techniques with urging him on with my seat, then kick and last resort pop him just to make him walker faster but it always seems to be a struggle and I’m not afraid of hard work and determination but he sometimes gets the best of me. I’ve also tried asking him to canter and he’s not too happy with me, he’s now bucked me off 3 times. I think he’s very happy with his walk, trot life but I would like a little more. He picks up the right lead but it’s a work out for me just to keep him going and when I feel him slow down and try to urge him on or go to the crop, that’s when he gets angry with me and the mean Zip comes out. I thought maybe he was ring sour so I took him out into a field and we cantered once, twice but the third was the kicker and no pun intended. He gets this little bug up his butt and phew I go off. Of course now I’m a little intimidated when I ask him to canter because I said after the second time a third was not going to happen…nice idea. I’m trying to be “Captain Kirk” but I think it’ll take more time! I’m sure you must get overwhelmed with questions but any suggestions would be of great help! Thank you and I’m going to try and attend your 2006 Easthampton, MA clinic if $$$ prevails. Thanks for your knowledge and happy riding!


Answer: Lori,

Speeding up a slow horse is an easier problem to fix than slowing down a fast horse, but nonetheless, it can be a challenge, as you have seen with your old beginner’s horse. You raise some interesting issues which I see as, 1) you may want more from your horse than he is capable of or willing to give you; 2) you may have gotten greedy in his training; and 3) you now have a leadership and confidence issue with your horse.
If your horse was represented to you as a 15 year old, I’d be willing to bet a huge wad of cash that he is considerably older. Horses are almost always older than we remember and without registration papers, especially in an older horse, it is difficult to pin down the horse’s exact age. Your horse has been a champion beginner’s walk-trot horse for many years and it may not be reasonable to try and make him into something he’s not, just because that is what you want, especially when he is good at his job.

You cannot fit a square peg into a round hole. What makes him a good beginner’s horse is exactly what you are fighting: laziness. It is not that an older horse cannot be retrained—he can; but as you have seen, it requires a skilled rider with good timing, authority and confidence, because he is very set in his ways (both physically and mentally). So my first suggestion to you is that you consider moving on to a horse that is more suitable to your riding goals at this time. It is always easy to find a good home for a decent beginner’s horse.

The fact that your horse has bucked you off three times does not bode well for your ability to correct this behavior. Every time a horse has success (gets released from), he learns something and you cannot unlearn what the horse already knows. I wish I could take back all the times I have gotten greedy in my training and asked for something once, twice and then three times, and then regretted it.

It is a hard training concept to grasp but rewarding the horse with good timing is critical; that means not asking over and over, but being happy when you get the response you asked for and moving onto something else. Asking repeatedly usually unravels the horse’s responsiveness. Rather than asking your horse to canter three times in a row, I’d ask him for short spells of canter, throughout his workout, always looking for the opportunity to reward him (let him stop) when he is compliant (moving the way I want).

If he moves into the canter when I cue and goes a few strides forward, I might stop him and let him rest and do something easy. A little while later I’ll ask again, making sure I only stop him when he is moving the way I want. Gradually over time I would ask for a stride more until he is cantering all the way around without resistance. By giving him time, he has gotten in the habit of being obedient without a big fight and he has gotten some conditioning to make it physically easier for him too. Every time the horse has been released for doing the wrong thing (like bucking or resisting), he has scored major points (sometimes big ones from the sounds of it), so you are starting the training game already seriously behind on the score. There are several Q&As on my website that may help about horses that buck at canter and about a training concept called ‘ask, tell, command.’

Your horse is unresponsive to the leg and has learned that he can sull-up and outlast anything that you can dish out in an effort to get him moving. As soon as you take a break in the kicking or hitting (from exhaustion), he is rewarded. This is extremely common in beginner horses and is not hard for an expert to fix. There are also lots of Q&As on my website that talk about motivating a horse to change his behavior. The more set a horse is in his ways, the more motivation (pressure) it is likely to take to change his behavior and the more likely he is to resist the change.
It requires a strong and confident rider to dish out the appropriate pressure that motivates the horse and to ride through the aftermath when the horse’s temper flares. There is an old saying in horse training, “It always gets worse before it gets better.” That means a horse with established behavior is not likely to roll over and give it up just because you put your foot down; he will resist until he is convinced that his efforts are futile. Your horse has already had a great deal of success in not having to canter, so he has reason to be convinced otherwise.

You don’t have to give up on this horse, but I think you need to be more realistic in what you ask of him. You need to back way up and just ask for good transitions from halt to walk, so that he transitions with a very little seat and leg pressure. Before you begin working on cantering, your halt-walk-slow trot-fast trot transitions should be smooth and the horse should be moving obediently off of your leg. Timing of the release and the appropriate amount of pressure are critical to success and unfortunately that is not something I can help you with over the internet.

Any horse, whose behavior you are trying to change, must be able to “see the light” and figure out what he has to do to get out of the pressure and to make his life peaceful and comfortable. That is why in natural horsemanship we have the concept of “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.” Sometimes it is important to focus on rewarding him when he is good, rather than punishing the bad, so the he knows and looks for the easy part of the equation.

I hope this has helped. Good luck with your horse.

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