Issues From The Saddle: Not Wanting To Go Forward Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

I have seen you several times at the Equine Affaire in Columbus over the past few years and respect your training skills. I have a particular problem with one of my horses with “not wanting to go forward” & I sure could use your help. Just to give you a brief background about my horse and me, I am 44 yrs old and just start riding about 5yrs ago. For the first 1 ½ years I took lessons & worked at a local stable one day a week. I would consider myself a confident intermediate western trail rider. I have 2 middle-aged geldings, which I keep at home. The 1st one I’ve had for about 2 ½ years now. The other horse that I am having a problem with is named BJ. I’ve had him for about a year now. He is a 10yr old Tennessee Walker. Overall he is a great guy, but from time to time he can be a little stubborn and will test my leadership. When I first brought BJ home he was a lot “buddy/barn sour”. I couldn’t even get him to leave our property (we live in a rural area on a dirt road). With some ground work & a little patience he overcame the fear of leaving our property. When both horses go out together, BJ is much better. The specific problem I am having is that BJ will not go forward when we get to certain areas of our ride. We ride on the edges of all the dirt roads around us and an occasional field. Generally, he is OK when there are open fields on both sides of us, but when we get to certain wooded areas he just stops & will even back up. He does startle somewhat easily, but I try to reassure him. I don’t want to force him forward if there is something up ahead that he is afraid of (I can’t figure it out what it is). What I’ve done so far has not really been successful, and I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong & I need your help. What I have done so far is to 1st kiss to him, and then apply light leg pressure (no spurs). When that doesn’t work I apply stronger constant leg pressure, while all the time keeping him facing forward. Usually, when I do that he will even start to back up. When he backs up I tell him “whoa” & he will stop. Maybe after 30seconds or so of constant strong leg pressure he might take a step or two forward. Immediately after he takes that first step I release the leg pressure, but then he stops again. I have also tried kicking type leg pressure and even a smack on the butt with the end of my leather rein. None of which had any great success. I have also tried changing his focus by working him right there in small circles, backing him, turning on the forehand & haunches. He does all these willingly, but he still will not go forward willingly. It may take me ½ hour just to go a few hundred feet. I can feel that he is tense and not relaxed (I try to stay very calm & patient). Only when he knows that we are almost done with our ride will he drop his head, snort & relax.

Thanks for your help!

Answer: Ray,

As always, it is hard to totally diagnose a training problem, without being able to see the whole picture. I find that an objective and knowledgeable observer will always see more than the rider thinks is going on. If I had the chance to observe you and your horse in action, both when you are having trouble and when you are not, I might have something totally different to say to you. But for now, with this imperfect means of communication, I will share with you the thoughts that go through my mind, based on experience, as I read your description of the problems you are experiencing.

First, whenever a horse refuses to move forward, I always want to look to a physical cause. Is there a saddle fit problem or a lameness or chiropractic issue that is preventing or discouraging the horse from forward movement? In your case, if the horse is only refusing at this particular place and he is moving freely forward at all other times, then it is probably not physical, but I would still rule it out. For instance, a small pain from the saddle will make the horse more stressed; then when you add additional stress (like going into the scary trees) the horse reaches a melt-down point that he might have tolerated were he not already stressed.

The next thing to look at is the training of both the horse and the rider. Does the horse have solid fundamentals of training, meaning he knows how to respond to the aids to go, stop and turn and he has a strong work ethic that makes him understands that he should not question the authority of the rider, even if that means he has to do something he doesn’t want to do. Horses are such willing animals that we often mistake willingness for training; because he is willing to do what we ask of him, we tend to think he is trained to do it. He’s not really trained until you can ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do and he is still compliant. Often willing and compliant horses are thought to be trained when they really aren’t. Your horse may need to go back to some fundamental training.

Also, it is a very strong trait of human nature that makes us always place the blame squarely on the horse: “my horse goes too fast,” “my horse won’t do flying lead changes,” “my horse bucked me off.” Most of the time, it is the rider causing the problem by either giving confusing or conflicting signals to the horse or asking him to do something that is not possible like go and stop at the same time and thus forcing him into noncompliance (a very common rider error). One thing I have seen repeatedly in my career is that when horses are backing up, it is usually because the rider is pulling back on the reins (typically in an effort to stop the horse, but instead it makes the horse back up further). So always look within and try to understand what you are doing to make the horse react the way he is.

One thing that is clear from your email is that by trying and failing repeatedly, you have most likely trained your horse to be disobedient. Whatever your horse is doing when you release him, is what you are training him to do. So every time you have asked and failed and given up, you have trained your horse that by refusing, he gets what he wants. You are better off not asking a horse to do something than to ask and then fail to reinforce your request.

Two things will help you in this regard: first, make sure your horse is obedient to you in less challenging circumstances. Work both from the ground and the saddle on refining your control and improving your relationship with your horse (there’s lots of information about this on my website and in my groundwork videos), before you tackle the woods again. Part of the reason he doesn’t want to go into the woods is because it is scarier and he doesn’t trust your authority or leadership. Secondly, when you are ready to tackle the woods, at the first sign of your horse balking, get off and lead him through. I might even drive him in a circle around me as I make him pass through the woods, so that he learns that not only will balking not get him what he wants, but it will make him have to work harder. Don’t take your horse away from the woods to correct him (as you describe), continue to make him move into it because he may prefer a little hard work away from the woods, over actually going into the woods.

Finally, there is a concept in training that says that however a horse is acting at a particular time is how he is most motivated to behave. In order to change his behavior, you must apply enough pressure to motivate him to change. Depending on how motivated he is to act that way to begin with, that will determine how much pressure it takes to motivate him to change. My guess is that you are not applying enough pressure to motivate him to change. Sometimes a spanking will go a long way with a horse like this. Numerous mild corrections (nagging) are not always effective in motivating the horse to change and often result in an angry and irritated horse. I’d rather see one harsh correction than continuous nagging (and so would the horse).

There are numerous Q&As on my website that may help you with this horse, so be sure to spend a little time reading and thinking about it. You’ve made a lot of progress with this horse so far, from the sounds of your email; I think you’ll be able to work through this rough spot with your horse, with a little hard work and persistence. Good luck!


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