Leg-Sensitive Horse

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Leg-sensitive Horse
Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have been given a 12 year old gelding that I am very much attached to and enjoy riding. The problem is that he has had some past abuse issues and under saddle he is a nervous wreck. On a trail ride, he will mainly jig the whole ride, like he wants to run. However, he is not a ‘hot’ horse by nature. It seems he has been “trained” or it seems more like abused to the point of acting this way. We have come a long way in respects to ground manners (he is now an angel when it comes to handling) and even have some progress under saddle, as he is not bolting anymore. He is highly sensitive to leg pressure (actually, he is highly sensitive to everything), to the point that I only ride with my weight because leg pressure sends him shooting off into a tizzy. However, when I am on the ground with him and I put pressure on his side with my hands (to ask him to step sideways or move over), I get zero reaction. I would like to teach him to yield to my legs and bend, eventually going into side passing and pivots. I would also like to teach him to go on the bit rather than behind it. (His old bolting habit was to go behind the bit and run.) So far, asking him with my seat and legs down into the bit has not worked. In fact, this results in a hyper, hopping mess of a nervous horse. I ride in a loose ring snaffle and I really stay off his mouth when I ride (Western horse, light to no contact). He is not very responsive to this bit and responds better to weight in respects to stopping when working in an arena. (He responds to the tiniest half-halt) On trail, I have to haul on him to stop him much of the time. I need suggestions as to what I should do next? I am continually working on relaxation under saddle using half halts. Also, how do I teach a calm-down cue under saddle?

Thanks so much for some advice!

Answer: There are quite a few questions here, but I’ll give it a crack to try and suggest some solutions to your problems. First, I should say that it sounds like you have made a lot of progress with this horse, so you should feel good about that and continue on whatever path you have been on to this point. Secondly, let me say that I learned a long time ago that it’s very difficult to make a diagnosis and recommendations on horses when I am not actually seeing your horse’s behavior. I have always found that the rider’s interpretation of what is happening and what he or she is actually doing is not always the same as what I might observe if I were there in person. But what I’ll do is answer your question in terms of what I most commonly see when people are dealing with issues such as you describe.

First, I’ll address the jigging on the trail. Most often, when your horse jigs, the rider picks up on the reins to make him stop, but then does not release the reins (or only releases minutely) the instance your horse walks. And/or the rider does not trust your horse to walk and so keeps hold of the reins and pretty soon your horse is jigging because he is anxious about his mouth because the rider is holding the reins too tight. Also, in anticipation of the jig, the rider is typically perched forward in a tense position, with her center of gravity in front of your horse and your horse associates this position with trotting. At this point, it’s a chicken or egg scenario and the rider thinks she is holding the reins tight because your horse is jigging and your horse thinks he is jigging because the rider is holding the reins too tight.

The solution that I have always had success with is to pick up high on the reins (sitting back on your pockets at the same time) when he breaks into the trot, and the instant your horse walks, drop your hands dramatically to your horse’s neck with a very loose rein, your hands actually laying on your horse’s neck so he can feel them. He may only walk a step or two before he trots again, then pick up and release dramatically (the rein drop has to be very dramatic so that your horse notices). Soon he will associate walking with a totally loose rein and that is what he wants (that is what any horse wants). Also, it really helps to concentrate on the walk rhythm and really sit down on him hard and make sure you’re not tensing in your seat in anticipation of your horse breaking into trot. Often in this situation, people tense in their seat thinking that your horse is going to break into trot and pretty soon, your horse thinks he is supposed to be trotting because he feels the rider’s weight shifting forward. So make sure you’re sitting well back on your seat bones with loose and relaxed joints. Trust your horse to walk on a loose rein. If you feel him tense up like he might trot, just sit relaxed. Do not correct him unless he actually breaks into a trot. That way he learns to trust you too and he learns that he is only corrected if he actually trots. Don’t get sucked into the vicious cycle of you pulling all the time and him jigging all the time.

Your horse sounds very sensitive. Another way of describing a “hot blooded” horse is one that is highly sensitive to environmental stimuli. That means ALL stimuli (sight, sounds, smells, touch, weather, movements, etc.). With horses that are sensitive to leg pressure, the temptation is to always brace your leg out away from their sides to keep your leg off them. This is the worst thing that you can do for two reasons. One, when you do use your leg, it feels like a real jolt to him (it requires a big movement of the leg). Secondly, when you brace your leg it causes you to tense and that leads to jerky motions on your part, which will make a sensitive horse reactive to the leg. Keep your legs relaxed and soft and always in close contact to your horse’s sides. This will not only help desensitize him to leg contact but also remove the shock factor that happens when the leg is held off his sides. Again, make sure that you’re sitting well back on your horse and not perching forward in anticipation of his forward movement. This is very common but the result is that your horse wants to move more forward when your weight is forward, in an effort to get back under your center of gravity. So sit back on your pockets and down on your horse’s back and keep your legs relaxed and close to his sides.

If your horse is going behind the bit, it’s likely related to all the other problems and stems from your horse being pulled on too much. Forward or sensitive horses fall into this trap easily. Because the riders are less than confident on them, they tend to sit tense (forward) and clutch on the reins. Which increases your horse’s anxiety (from the pressure on his mouth) and the tense position makes your horse want to move more forward. Horses are herd animals and as such, when their rider is tense, they will tense. Herd animals are programmed to act like the animals around them. So, before your horse can learn to respond properly to the bit, he needs to learn to trust the rider and work on a loose rein (way loose). I would spend a lot of time with this horse working him on a loose rein with a low and level frame. Once he works steady and calm in this frame, only then would I ask him to come up onto the bit, with the lightest amount of contact possible. Contact is contact, whether it’s one ounce or ten pounds in your hands. A very sensitive horse will likely only tolerate very light contact. I might try riding your horse in a rope halter, a bosal or a bitless bridle at first to get him to relax and accept contact without pressure on his mouth. When you’re ready to ride on contact with a bit, you may want to try a fixed ring snaffle, such as a D-ring, egg-butt or full cheek. These bits make it a little easier for your horse to balance on the contact than a loose ring snaffle does.

For a calm-down cue with hot horses, I like to use two techniques. First teach your horse to lower his head on command both from the ground and mounted. A horse has to relax when his head is down low. There are many techniques for doing this. Light pressure on the poll will teach your horse to drop his head from the ground (be sure to release the pressure at the first hint of a drop). The rope halter is an especially useful tool for teaching a horse to drop his head. The first few inches of head-drop may be tough to get but after that he will make big drops all the way to the ground. Be sure to release the pressure immediately and lavish praise on your horse when he drops so that he becomes addicted to this calm state. Once your horse learns this from the ground, it’s much easier to do it from the saddle. Teach him a rein cue for a head drop. Lift up lightly on one rein (make sure the other rein is totally loose) and wait until your horse drops his head slightly to release. Be sure to drop your hand as he drops his head so that he does not hit the bit and punish himself for dropping his head. Then go through the same process of release and reward so that he learns to drop it all the way.

The second calm down cue would be the one-rein stop and disengagement of the hindquarters. Disengagement happens when your horse crosses his hind legs and all forward motion ceases. Disengagement takes away your horse’s flight response and therefore puts him in a submissive and calm state of mind (even if only for a moment). To do this, lift the rein up toward your opposite shoulder so that it’s an upward, diagonal pull (it’s essential the other rein is loose). Pull slowly and softly, this is not intended to be a harsh or quick movement. Hold the rein up until you feel his hindquarters disengage and then drop the rein all the way down to your horse’s neck and he should stop. If not, repeat. So every time your horse gets squirrelly, pick up on the one rein until your horse disengages and stops. Soon, your horse will begin to slow and relax when you just begin to lift one rein. The one rein stop is far superior to pulling on both reins, which causes your horse to stiffen his neck and jaw and lean into the pressure.

It’s sad but true that many horses that have been trained using brutal and relentless training methods, have terrible emotional baggage when being ridden. Even if those techniques are no longer used. Imagine what it’s like for a horse to be constantly criticized and tortured with inhumane apparatus, day in and day out. He will learn to do what he needs to do in order to survive this treatment, but he will be emotionally scared, possibly for the rest of his life. Be understanding and patient and try to make his training as drastically different as you can, using as little in the way of artificial aids as possible. Consider some of these ideas and they may help you make even more dramatic progress with your horse. Good luck and let me know how it goes!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com

Issues From The Saddle: What To Do With A Horse That Bolts, Runs Off With Rider

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

I enjoyed watching you present at Equine Affaire in MA this past November. I have been riding a good 15-20 years but most intensively the last 5-6….I have a 13 year old Thoroughbred cross that I ride in dressage. I have had him almost 5 years. He has always been on the tense, spooky side but all spooking was usually in-place or a short-lived minor scoot. I have an outdoor arena and this October he began bolting with me across the arena. Then out of arena into his “safe” paddock, then into the field where I ultimately bailed out as I felt a fall was inevitable. He does not buck while bolting but just stiffens his neck like a rock grabs the bit and goes, out of control. My trainer saw this happen during a lesson and was concerned this was obviously becoming a habit. I always dealt with it by putting him right back to work, even when I fell off, I got right back on. I did dismount a few times and back him up with the dressage whip and then got back on. He is clever and strong and I cannot find a way to stop him when he stiffens his neck when he bolts. I brought horse to a stables mid-December for indoor arena winter board. Horse did it again, twice, in the indoor, with the trainer there. I fell off twice, got back on….Sadly, I have now become afraid, anticipating the spook that will cause the bolt. I am still working him and he has improved. The bolt, I’m pretty sure is induced by a spook. I don’t believe he is bolting just because. What gets him spooking at home you ask? Roosting wild turkeys in the woods behind arena and revving engines (car) but especially the ATV. In the indoor, again revving engines and any noise from outside arena…of course snow sliding off roof is a biggie. The horse is progressing in his dressage and his musculature has changed dramatically, he is quite fit as well. My trainer describes him as a 4-5 year old mentality even though he is coming 13. I think I need some basic ground manners reestablished….1. do you think your ground manner dvd will help me on my way? 2. If I attended the Heritage Farm clinic do you think I would get enough of what I need with this specific problem? 3. Can you suggest another plan of action for me?

Michelle

Answer: Michelle,

Runaway horses are dangerous for you, for the horse and for others around you and it is a problem that should be corrected immediately; but once again, it takes an expert hand to correct such a serious problem. Regardless of what is triggering his episodes of flight, he is extremely disobedient and he has learned this trick well. Probably, the sounds he is spooking at are just a trigger mechanisms; the runaway behavior is well engrained, learned behavior that he has had success with and there is nothing you can do to unlearn that. A skilled rider can correct this behavior and prevent it from happening and eventually, with no further episodes over a long period of time, the horse’s routine behavior will not include bolting, but he will always know how to get away with it if he chooses to.

There are two keys to dealing with a runaway: prevention and cure. Keep the neck bent to prevent the horse from bolting and be able to use the ‘pulley rein,’ quickly and effectively to stop the horse in a safe and highly effective manner.

Your horse cannot grab the bit and run off without stiffening his neck first. Any time you need more control over any horse, whether he is spooking, bolting, or being otherwise disobedient or fractious, you want to keep the neck slightly bent, with the nose to one side or the other by lifting one rein. In that position, you have more control and can pick up one rein to gain leverage over the horse. When his neck is stiff and straight, you are in a pound for pound tug of war that you cannot win because his head and neck weigh more than your entire body. This is why using one rein is more effective than using two; two reins encourages your horse to stiffen his neck and brace against the pull on the reins.

As with all training, timing is everything and the rider must be able to see ‘what happens before what happens happens.’ Your horse will give signs that he is thinking about bolting, like reaching for the bit, throwing his head up or straightening and stiffening his neck. This should be met with sudden and harsh correction before he grabs the bit and bolts, with one rein to re-bend the horse’s neck and check his obedience.

The pulley rein is described in detail in the Q&A section of my website and is a means to stop a runaway horse, using one rein, but without turning the horse. It is dangerous to try and turn or circle a runaway horse because the chances of him falling are good. The pulley rein gives you a means to apply leverage with one rein, with a slight bend in the horse’s neck and if you are skilled with the pulley rein, you can stop any horse right on his nose.

Your trainer is right to be concerned that this horse’s dangerous behavior is escalating. Certainly doing ground work will help with the horse’s obedient frame of mind, but this is an engrained riding issue that will have to be addressed in the saddle, by someone who is very competent at dealing with runaways. In clinics we always deal with training issues as they arise and this problem of yours is definitely part of a bigger-picture problem that a general horsemanship would address. As long as the horse does not pose a danger to the other riders, you and he would most likely benefit from the clinic; however, I think the MA clinic is already full to riders.

Not knowing your riding and training capabilities and not being able to see the big picture, it is difficult for me to prescribe another course of action for you but hopefully this has given you some food-for-thought on which to make some decisions about what to do with this horse. You should definitely consider some professional training or finding a horse that is safer and more suitable.

JG

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.