Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Question: Hi! first of all, I wanted to say that I saw your clinics at last year’s Equine Affaire in Massachusetts, and you’ve stuck with me as one of the trainers that I find really helpful and knowledgeable. Anyway, my 7-year-old Quarterhorse pony, Rufus (don’t ask, it fits him!) was abused until he was 6 years old. My instructor bought him and I helped to train him FROM SCRATCH. When my family moved, I bought him and transported him up to Vermont, our new residence. We had problems with him throwing me off for no reason, but it is all solved. Background on me- I’m a 14 year old girl and have been riding for 8 years in our old home in Northern Virginia. I ride English, but none of this Hunter crud, I EVENT! I am as experienced as one my age can be in training horses and showing horses, and I bought my first horse, Rufus, with my own money earned from years of mucking stalls. Ok, so the problem is that for the past week Rufus has refused to trot. Period. One day I took him out to ride and I could barely keep him walking. What he does is when I push him forward at ALL he tosses his head in the air, and not just a little toss, every time he does it I can see his star and he’s gotten off the ground a few times. He doesn’t seem to be doing it out of malice; his ears are relaxed, not back. If I do manage to get him trotting, it’s only for a few steps. I’ve tried with the spurs and crop, but to no avail. The thing that gets me is one day he’s cantering and jumping and the next he’s like this. I tested his back, it’s fine, and my trainer and I can detect no lameness. We decided to test if he’s hurting at all. We gave him some Bute and a little later I rode him. The idea was that if he still acted up with the bute then it was attitude, if not, he was hurting. Well, we did it, and he still acted up, but certainly not as fiercely. I COULD get him trotting, and keep him there for about 5-10 minutes at a time, and there was no rearing involved. So what does this mean? I’m desperate for answers, since my instructor recently got hurt when a horse fell on her. Please message me back! PS- I was wondering if you were doing any clinics in the northeast or New England, if not you SHOULD! many people up here are now avid fans and would love to see another clinic! and i found out that you’re NOT coming to the Massachusetts Equine Affaire this year! How COULD you? you HAVE to come next year!
Gennie and Rufus
Answer: Hi Gennie,
Wow! you are a dedicated and motivated young woman and I am impressed with all that you have accomplished at your age. BTW- I was just like you when I was that age 🙂 Normally I don’t answer Q&As right away (because I have about a month of them in front of yours) but I am concerned about your situation and your safety. Whenever I see a big and sudden change in a horse, I am always suspicious of a physical problem. I think you’ll need to rule that out before anything else. I would have a vet-chiropractor take a look at him. Although about 90% of lameness issues are below the spine and hips, it could be that your quarterpony has some back issues that are making him reluctant to move. I think your experiment with the bute may be pointing toward that. An equine chiropractor will be able to examine his spine and see if anything is out of alignment. I have seen some amazing results with this.
Once a physical problem has been ruled out, then you can focus more seriously on the training side of things. Your horse is refusing to move forward and that will often lead to rearing. There are several Q&As on my website about rearing, which is one of the most dangerous behaviors a riding horse can have. The solution is always to move the horse forward. When a horse is balking (refusing to move) it is usually best to turn him in one direction or another to unstick his feet. I would probably want to do some groundwork with the horse to see if I have problems moving him forward from the ground. When you get back to mounted work, you may want to proceed in the round pen with some competent help on the ground to help you move the horse forward. Realize that when a horse refuses to move forward and you force him to, sometimes he explodes forward, so that’s why you might want to be in the round pen.
When a horse becomes non-responsive to the aids, I do not like to kick harder and harder or use more spur because you are then training the horse to be heavy and non-responsive. Instead, I might ask once lightly with my legs and then spank him very hard with a crop, right where my leg touches him. But again, this may cause the horse to explode forward, so you must be a good rider to do this (and it sounds like you are).
Often a flag will work better with this type of horse than using any kind of physical pressure. A flag is just a 4′ stick with a plastic bag or piece of tarp on the end. The sound and visual that it makes really gets a horse’s attention. Start in the round pen on the ground and ask the horse to move off into a trot. If he does not, shake the flag at his hip. Be careful not to over-use the flag at this point, we want him to stay sensitive to it until this issue is resolved. Later, we’ll come back and desensitize the horse to the flag so he is not afraid of it. Time and time again, I have seen lazy horses that sull up when you ask them to go and no matter how hard you kick, whip, throw the rope at it, or anything else, they just ignore it. These horses are not responsive to more physical pressure, but they will usually respond like crazy to the mental pressure of the flag. Work through this issue form the ground with the horse, then when you are ready to try mounted work again, have your trainer stand in the round pen and flag the horse if needed. Although you can ride with the flag, it is a little trickier, so it is best to have someone on the ground to help you.
Most importantly, get your horse checked by a vet or equine chiropractor and rule out a physical problem before taking further action. Keep up the good work in progressing your riding career; you will go far with your determination and experience. I would love to be at Equine Affaire MA every year, but they like to rotate different trainers through their program and I will be doing some horse fairs and clinics in New England throughout the year.
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