To Spur Or Not To Spur

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
When and how should I use spurs to prompt my lazy horse?

Question: Dear Julie, I’ve seen your show on RFD-TV about how to lower your horse’s head. In the episode you mentioned something about spurs, how to use the spurs at the right time and it’s not always a good idea to use on a lazy horse. My question is when I get ready to ride my horse, how do I make it go forward? Do I need spurs? I kick and pull but it won’t move forward. Does my horse need more training? I need advice. –Bryant

Answer: Hi Bryant,
Thanks for watching the show. We get lots of feedback from people on how much they learn in each episode and often they say they watch the show again and again and pick up something new each time. The truth is, there is a lot of info packed into a half-hour show and there are always things I wish I had more time to address. You touch on several really good issues in your question and I need to make a clarification about when to use spurs and when not to.

When talking about getting your horse to lower his head and round his frame, I always talk about using a lot of leg (not spur) and that you always increase leg pressure when you increase rein pressure. There are many articles in my Training Library that address the horse’s frame, lowering the head and collection and volume 5 in my riding DVD series, Refinement and Collection gives extensive instruction as well.

Before you ask for any horse to lower his head and round his frame, he must be moving freely and willingly forward in all gaits. This is a much more basic and fundamental stage of training which far precedes collection and rounding of the frame. Forward motion is one of the most fundamental tenets of classical horsemanship. Anyone who has ever started colts knows this—you cannot teach them anything (stop, go, turn) until they are moving freely forward. Free and forward movement is the basis of all training.
If your horse is not moving freely forward on command in all gaits, you must address this fundamental problem before you can ask a horse to lower its head or anything else. As with all training problems, you must first and foremost consider a physical cause. You’d be surprised how often people pour thousands of dollars and hours into training when the horse was acting that way because he was in pain—an ill-fitting saddle, a painful bit, a sore joint, a rib out of place that only hurts when you ask him to canter (right before he bucks you off). With a horse that is not moving willingly forward, it could be any of these and dozens of other physical causes. Best to have your horse assessed by a vet to rule out any issues.

Once a physical problem is ruled out as a possible cause of the horse’s refusal to move forward, then you can look to the horse’s training. First off, does he have any clue of what you are asking him to do? You’d be surprised how many horses are being ridden regularly but have very little actual training. When it comes to responding to the bit and cues, it has to be taught by someone. Often I see horses that just simply are untrained even though they are packing a rider down the trail with no problems. A horse must be taught how to respond to rein pressure; it does not come naturally to a horse. If your horse is lacking basic training, watch my video on Bit Basics and you can easily learn to train your horse for a light response and low head carriage.
The next thing to consider is whether this is learned behavior by your horse? In other words, does the horse know better (to move off your leg) but is acting this way now because it has worked so well for him in the past? It doesn’t take much of a perceived gain for a horse to learn that his refusal gets him what he wants—many insensitive horses will gladly endure the kicking and spurring from a rider if it means he doesn’t have to lope circles or do any work. Again, there are articles in my training library that may help if this is the case.

However, as is often the case, and the topic of an episode of Horse Master we just taped (it will air in May ‘11), in some cases the problem is that the rider is giving the horse conflicting signals by pulling back on the reins when she wants the horse to go forward. If you are riding a lazy horse or one that is reluctant to move forward in some situations (like when approaching a giant mud puddle—as in the case of the episode we just taped), and you pull back on the reins, the horse will choose to take that as permission to stop. Any backward pull on the reins inhibits forward motion; that is a fundamental truth that you should always remember. In some cases, we do want to inhibit forward motion, like when asking the horse to stop or collect his frame (but he has to be moving freely forward first). But in many cases, riders are pulling on the reins, inhibiting forward motion when they don’t really mean to, like when the horse spooks, balks, backs or is just plain being lazy.

Remember that forward motion precedes all other training concerns and when you need the horse to move more forward, you must reach forward with your hands towards the horse’s ears. If you pull back on the reins when the horse is not moving freely forward or even just keep your hands in a neutral position, the horse is unlikely to move forward. Actively pulling back on the reins of a lazy horse or one that is not moving forward for any other reason will always make the problem worse.

As to your question about spurs, let me clarify what I said on the show and how I feel about this artificial aid. I said that, to me, the use of spurs is not a good choice on a lazy horse. It is not an aid to make a slow horse faster; it is an advanced-level aid for advanced riders to use on advanced horses to motivate them to a higher level of performance and do more difficult maneuvers. If the problem with your horse not moving forward is simply because he is lazy and has learned to ignore a polite request from your legs, then he needs to be reminded to respond to a light leg.
I prefer the use of the crop to reinforce your leg aid, rather than the spur, in the instance of the horse not moving forward off a light leg cue. A spur will often make the lazy horse even duller to your leg and make him sull up and balk even more. Kicking harder on a lazy horse also does not work well because the lazy horse will tolerate the pressure and just wait for you to quit kicking from exhaustion (which doesn’t take long).

To use the crop as a reinforcement to your light leg aid, in a horse that is trained but not responding, ask once lightly for forward movement with a shift of your weight forward and a gentle bump with your calves (and a dramatic forward reach with your hands). If he ignores your polite initial request, immediately reinforce your leg cue with a sharp spank with the crop right where your leg cued him (make sure you keep reaching forward with your hands—a lot!). If done right, this will undoubtedly send him expeditiously forward, but do not contradict yourself as most riders do by then pulling back on the reins (and punishing him for doing what you asked him to do). Let him move forward freely and only stop him when he is voluntarily moving forward, without any pedaling from you.

Then ask your horse again lightly to move off your legs, prepared to reinforce with the crop again if needed, but always giving him the opportunity to respond to your light aids first. If your timing was good the first time and you used adequate pressure to motivate the horse, the second time you ask with your legs, he should step right off. But you may need more than one spanking before the horse begins to take your leg cues seriously again. With good timing and the right skill level of the rider, the horse will be moving freely forward in minutes. Again, this is a tip for refreshing a trained horse that has become unresponsive– you would train a young horse that didn’t know better a little differently.

I did a “Quick Tip” for Horse Master recently, which may be airing soon, about the use of spurs. Basically it said that spurs are neither a piece of apparel nor a fashion statement, they are an artificial aid. And like many artificial aids, they have a propensity to be used incorrectly, even abusively and they can become a crutch to good riding. I believe that spurs should only be used by an advanced rider that has excellent control over their balance and leg position; inadvertent/indescriminant use of the spur will confuse a horse and can be downright dangerous on some horses. I also believe that with an advanced rider, training a horse to do advanced maneuvers (like collection, lateral movements or other maneuvers that require more effort from the horse), the spur can be a useful tool to motivate the horse to try a little harder. I have written a lot about “finding the amount of pressure that motivates change,” so I’ll let you read up more on this concept by visiting my Training Library (http://juliegoodnight.com).

I think that covers your questions and answers to a few you didn’t ask too! Thanks for watching Horse Master and keep learning!
Enjoy the ride,

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
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If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

Understanding Your Leg Aids

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Understand Your Leg Aids
The “natural aids” are the tools that you were born with that allow you to communicate to the horse what you want him to do while you are riding. Traditionally, there are four natural aids, the seat, the legs, the hands and the voice. If you have attended one of my clinics or seminars, you already know that I feel very strongly that the primary natural aids, the seat, legs and hands, should always be used together, in a coordinated fashion, stemming always from the use of the seat aid first. I also teach that there are actually seven natural aids, the others being your breathing, your eyes and your brain.

For riders learning to use the aids to stop and go, I teach the “gears of the seat,” neutral, forward and reverse, to ask the horse to keep doing what he is doing, move more forward or stop or slow down. Neutral gear is sitting straight up over your seat bones in a relaxed and balanced position with your center of gravity right over the horse’s. Neutral gear tells the horse to keep doing what he is doing until you tell him something different. You should ride in neutral almost all the time. To ask the horse to move forward, you inhale; shift your center slightly forward (a clear signal to the horse to move forward); at the same time allowing your arms to move forward giving a release to his mouth and your legs to fall slightly back, closing on the horse’s sides and asking him to move forward.

The aids are reversed to ask the horse to stop or slow down: exhale, shift your center of gravity slightly back, while you arms come slightly back and up, closing the front door for the horse, your legs relax on the horse’s sides. As a rider progresses, the leg aids become more articulate to control different parts of the horse’s body for turning and more refined and controlled movements. The rider’s hands control the horse from the withers forward, but the seat, legs and hands together control the horse’s body from the withers back to his tail.

To simplify the use of the leg aids, I teach that there are three leg positions, using the terminology neutral, forward and back. The neutral leg position is when the rider’s leg hangs straight down, close to the horse’s sides, in the balanced position with ear-shoulder-hip and heel in alignment. Light pressure on the horse’s side from the neutral leg position will cause the horse to move his rib cage away from the pressure. This would be useful when asking the horse to arc his body and bend in a circle, as the rib cage moves out, the shoulder and hip bend into the circle. The forward leg position is applied by reaching toward the girth with your calf. I find it easiest to apply forward leg cues by twisting my lower leg and allowing my heel to come toward the girth or cinch.

Pressure from one leg at the forward position will move the horse’s shoulder away from the pressure or ask him to bend in the shoulder. When horses turn, they prefer to lean into the turn like a bicycle, thus dropping the shoulder and lurching onto the forehand. Light pressure with the forward leg position will ask the horse to keep his shoulder up and bend properly in the turn.

The back leg aid is applied when the rider’s leg shifts back a few inches behind the neutral position and it will ask the horse to move his hip away from the pressure. Again, this leg aid might be used in turning and bending the horse, to keep his hip in toward the center of the circle in order to be properly bent. Good hip control is also important for leads and lead changes and more advanced movements such as leg yielding (two-tracking) or side passing.

Leg aids work together but the rider might be using each leg in a separate position. For instance, if you are using the forward leg position with your inside leg to achieve an arcing turn, your outside leg would be in the back position to also keep the horse’s hip in place.

An ancient saying in horsemanship is that the inside leg gives impulsion and the outside leg gives direction. In other words, the inside leg is the gas pedal and the outside leg is the steering wheel. To control the horse’s entire body, the rider must be able to control the horse’s nose, the shoulder, the barrel and the hip. While the hands control the nose of the horse, the leg and rein aids work together to control the shoulder, barrel and hip.

Experiment with applying a light pulsating pressure with one leg in either the forward, neutral or back positions and feel how the horse will yield that part of his body to the pressure.
–Julie Goodnight
Coming Next on Horse Master and in print:
Julie Goodnight helps you put the techniques she demonstrates on her Horse Master show into action with your own horse. Watch NEW Horse Master episodes shot in Texas at the Banshee Ranch (http://bansheeranch.com/) throughout May, 2010 on RFD-TV every Wednesday at 5:30p EST —Direct TV channel 345, Dish Network channel 231 and on many cable outlets then visit www.horsemaster.tv and www.juliegoodnight.com for articles related to each episode, the gear used in each show, and for training DVDs and publications. Goodnight will feature a main training theme first shown on Horse Master in every column printed here. Plus, see clips from each show at: http://www.horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html and check out specials and even more clips on Julie’s Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/horsemaster.tv.
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Gears Of The Seat

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Gears of the Seat

Question: Hi Julie,

I got to watch one of your clinics at your horse expo last weekend about using your natural aids and how your pelvis has 3 gears: forward, neutral & reverse. I just read your article about “How to open your pelvis for smoother riding”. I guess I have a couple of questions I’m trying to sort out in my head.
1) I’m working on my Parelli Level 1 right now. He says we are to “smile with all 4 cheeks”. Is your “forward gear” & opening your pelvis basically the same thing?
2) When I use my psoas muscles like you described that feels more like what I would call a “driving seat”. Is that correct?
3) Is your opening your pelvis similar to Centered Riding? I want to be a better rider for my horses and I want to be as natural as possible. Sometimes some of these things seem contradictory, but maybe it’s just the way they are worded. I really enjoyed your clinic and thought you were a terrific clinician. Keep up the good work!
Thanks,
Jane Cozad

Answer: Jane,

Thanks for your questions and I think I can help clarify things for you. As for your question regarding Parelli’s teaching technique of having riders “smile with all four cheeks,” I am not sure exactly what he means. Although it’s a clever and amusing thought, it does not really explain what specifically you’re supposed to do with your seat when you ask a horse to move forward. To me, it implies clenching your buttocks muscles, which you definitely don’t want to do. Clenching buttocks muscles sends a message of tension to your horse and it will often cause a horse to tense (butt clenching riders make for butt clenching horses). I think that what he may mean is to increase the energy in your seat and legs to ask your horse to move more forward, and in this regard, it’s similar to what I teach.

I use the “gears of the seat,” as a simplistic method to teach people to use all three of their primary natural aids: seat, legs, and hands, in a consistent and coordinated fashion to signal your horse to slow down or speed up. It’s also a technique that teaches people to use their seat/weight aid first and foremost and to use the legs and hands secondarily, in response to what the seat is doing. Your seat/weight aid is the most important natural aid, the aid that is in the most contact with your horse, but unfortunately the least likely to be used since most riders rely on their hands and legs. So often, riders are confused in their aids and are giving conflicting signals like pulling back on the reins to stop at the same time their weight is moving forward, which causes their legs to move back and close on your horse. So the hands are saying, “stop,” while the seat and legs are saying, “go.”

I like to teach people to ride in neutral gear, in the vertical position with the pelvis open (back flat), which tells your horse to keep doing what he is doing. You ride in neutral gear almost all of the time, using forward and reverse momentarily when you want your horse to speed up or slow down. The “gears of the seat” technique gets your horse and rider both to feel the rider’s center of gravity move as the primary signal to stop and go (forward and reverse gear). For instance, when you shift into forward gear and you relax your stomach muscles and let the top of your pelvis tip slightly forward so that there’s a little bit of weight on your crotch, this moves your center of gravity forward, a clear signal to your horse that you want him to move more forward (at the same time your hands move forward giving a release on his mouth and your legs move back, closing on your horse’s sides). When you want your horse to stop and you shift into reverse gear by exhaling and compressing your shoulders down toward your spine, it moves your seat bones forward and down at the same time your center of gravity moves back and this asks your horse to slow down and drop his back, bringing his hind end up underneath him and stopping on the haunches (at the same time your legs will relax on your horse’s sides and your hands will come slightly up and back, applying resistance to your horse’s mouth). As a rider advances in her riding, she will learn to use her aids in other combinations for more specific transitions, collection and lateral movements.

Using your psoas muscles to engage your pelvis is basically the same thing as using a “driving seat,” because it’s asking your horse to engage his hindquarters (which he needs to do for both speeding up and slowing down) but it depends on what you do with your other aids (legs and hands) that will cause your horse to move more forward, to move into collection or to stop. In other words, once you engage the seat, you could apply resistance with your hands and relax your legs and your horse would stop. Or you could apply legs and resist with the hands and your horse would drive up into the bridle in collection. Or you could apply legs and release slightly with the hands and your horse would drive more forward. The important thing to keep in mind is that you do not use your buttocks muscles (or cheeks) to engage your seat bones. Instead, you use the abdominal muscles, more specifically the psoas muscles (similar to the muscles you use to cough).

You will find the technique of opening the pelvis in many riding theories because it’s an essential part of proper riding position; it’s not necessarily a cue. It’s only through an open pelvis (opening the angle on the front of your hips between your hips and thighs) that you can learn to absorb the motion in your horse’s back and learn to use your seat aid to communicate with your horse. Some of the confusion you’re having has simply to do with semantics. If you tip the top part of your pelvis forward, the bottom part goes back; if you tip the top part of your pelvis back, the bottom part goes forward. So sometimes people refer to moving your pelvis forward or moving your pelvis backward and they actually mean the exact same thing, they are just talking about opposite ends. When you tone your psoas muscles, it will cause your pelvis to open and your seat bones (the lower part of your pelvis that is in contact with the saddle) to push forward and down. When you relax your psoas muscles and push your stomach out, it causes your seat bones to lighten and weight to come onto your crotch.

Although there are varying techniques in teaching riding, for the most part clinicians are saying the same thing, just explaining from a different perspective, some more clearly than others. My approach is always first and foremost to help riders understand the theory behind what they are doing and how to use their aids in a natural and relaxed manner. The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re studying a variety of techniques is to keep your mind open, try new things, but come back to what works best for you and your horse. Good luck!

Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com

Issues From The Saddle: Rearing Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie Goodnight

I am writing to you in regards to my horse’s problem with rearing, as someone that is experienced in horse behaviour I can not find the cause that is triggering the behaviour, it’s like one minute is his normal self which a good natured, relaxed and laid back and the next minute he is running backwards then twisting himself inside out finishing with a rear that the black stallion would be proud of and then he is back to his normal self as though nothing has happened. I can’t work it out there is nothing the rider has done there is nothing in his environment that upsets him and there is nothing physically wrong. I have no reasons to explain his behaviour if I had I would be able to solve the issue. The only thing left is a neurological disorder or he is trying to tell us something but I just don’t get it. Do you have any advise? I am at a total loss!

Leonora

Answer: Leonora,

The behavior you describe sounds pretty volatile and dangerous, so first I would caution you to be careful about your own personal safety and to consider getting a professional evaluation of this horse. Since you do not give much history on this horse or his training and experience, and since I cannot actually see the horse in action, I really cannot say what might be causing this reaction or what the solution might be, but I can give you some things to consider.

First, I think it is important to rule out a physical problem. It is quite possible that your horse could have a problem in his back, ribs or hips that causes him sudden pain after moving a certain way. I would have this horse checked out by an equine chiropractic or vet that specializes in performance horse problems. Once you have ruled out a physical cause, you’ll have to look to the horse’s training.

Rearing is a behavior caused by one of two things: either a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Regardless of the cause, the solution is always to get the horse moving forward. Most often, rearing behavior is a fear response. From the description you give, it sounds to me like this horse is refusing to move forward. Horses don’t do anything without a reason, particularly when it comes to moving. Are there any common factors when the behavior occurs? Place, time, weather, tack, other horses? Does it happen every time you ride or only occasionally? Does he ever display this kind of behavior from the ground? If he doesn’t, I would want to check his saddle fit carefully to see if there could be some physical cause. It is hard for us to appreciate the level of awareness, the keen senses and the hyper-vigilant state that horses live in as prey animals. Their sight, hearing, smelling and instinctive survival is so much keener than ours that we are often tempted to say that the horse is acting a certain way for no reason. The truth is that they may be sensing something we are totally oblivious to. Horses don’t do anything without a reason. I am inclined to think that this horse has something physical going on or that there is something in his environment or in his experience that is frightening him. I would have him checked out by an equine chiropractor (ask your vet for a referral) and have the saddle fit checked by an expert. Once you have definitively ruled out a physical problem, I would look to the horse’s training history. Has he always been this way or is this something new? Was he given a proper foundation in his training or was he just rushed along by someone that didn’t really know how to put a proper foundation on a horse? Has there been an incident in his experience that may have caused him to get hurt or loose his confidence? Is there something in his environment that could be causing a fear response, such as another animal or object or something he has made an inadvertent association with? When we get horses like this in training, first we will definitively rule out a physical problem, then start the horse over from scratch in his training as if he had never been saddled or ridden. We would do both round pen and lead line work with the horse and take note of any “holes” in his training. We will proceed with saddle training once the horse is solid in his ground work, again taking it one step at a time and taking time whenever necessary to lay a proper foundation on the horse.

You would be surprised how often horses just have a saddle thrown on their back and someone hops up there and starts riding without ever really teaching the horse what is expected of him. Modern horses, for the most part, are so willing and kind that they will let you do just about anything that you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt them. They will gladly go along with you and will try to figure what you want them to do. But when the horse is not systematically taught to respond in a certain way to various cues and if he is not given the time and consistency needed to truly absorb the training and generalize it to different places and situations, his training can unravel in an instant. I am sorry I cannot give you more specific advice. I know from my years of working with horses and riders that sometimes what the rider describes is not at all what I would see, if I were able to watch. But hopefully this will give you some food for thought. Be careful with this horse.

Julie Goodnight

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

Issues From The Saddle: Over-Reactive To Leg Pressure

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: I have a 4-year-old bay breeding stock paint gelding. He is broke for western pleasure and does really well. His only problem is that he completely goes crazy if I put my feet on him for any reason. If I bump him he will just take off running. So there is no way that I can get him to move away from the pressure I put on him w/ my feet. He will trot and canter just by clucking and kissing and he does just fine this way. As soon as I even slightly touch him w/ my feet he will just get flustered and is ready to go. He is not dangerous at all just ready to go. He has lots of energy too, which I like. He would be an excellent barrel prospect, and I have even thought about doing barrels w/ him, but I want him to know the difference between pleasure and barrels. Could you please tell me a way to get him over him going crazy when I put my feet on him and what is the best way to train him so that he knows the difference between western pleasure and barrels?

Thank you so much
Doug

Answer: It sounds like you have a horse that is very forward and sensitive in his sides. These are not necessarily bad qualities, although very forward horses don’t often make good Western Pleasure mounts. Your horse simply needs to be desensitized to leg pressure and you need to use your legs more effectively.

To desensitize your horse to leg pressure, first make sure you keep you leg in contact with the horse’s barrel all of the time, with your legs in correct position, hanging straight down underneath you with your calf in contact with the horse’s sides. It is very tempting when riding a forward or sensitive horse to stiffen your leg and hold it off the horse’s sides. This will always make a sensitive-sided horse worse. Because every time you go to use your leg, it becomes a big movement and because the horse is not used to the feel of your leg against his side so it comes as a shock to the horse when your leg comes in contact. You want to keep what is called a “warm leg,” which means that your calf is very close to the horse’s barrel. To desensitize your horse to leg movement, keep your legs very loose and relaxed and move them slowly and gently back and forth on your horse’s barrel, first at a stand still and later at a walk. If your horse tries to pick up speed when you do this, gently sit back and pick up on the reins to let him know that you don’t want him to go faster.

Once your horse is desensitized to the leg, you’ll have to improve the technique you are using to cue him with your legs; my guess is that you are simply over-cueing him. You shouldn’t have to bump to make him go, you may not even need to use your legs at all. Instead, try cueing him with your weight aid to go and stop, which is probably all you need. There are articles on my website about how to use your aids effectively and my videos do a great job of explaining how to use your aids correctly.

I have ridden thousands of horses in my lifetime, many of them very sensitive and forward horses. I have yet to encounter one that didn’t accept leg cues when they are applied properly. You probably just need to correct your leg position and lighten up on your aids. As for your other question, it is not easy to use a horse for both barrels and pleasure since they are such opposite disciplines and the talent required of the horse for each event is much different. A horse that is good at one, would probably not be that great at the other. However, there is no reason that you can’t try both and there are some horses that can do both disciplines quite well.

When working on your barrel training, make sure that you train at slow speeds a lot, working on flexing and bending the horse and strategic positioning around the turn. Only work at speed on occasion (this is true of training any barrel horse).

Another good idea any time you are training a horse for more than one thing, especially when he may be expected to act very differently in the two things, is to use different training context. For example, use different bridles for the two events and also do your training in two separate areas. That way, the horse will learn that when he has on one bridle he is expected to do one thing and when he goes to a certain area, he will be training only in that discipline. Good luck to you!

Julie Goodnight

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

Issues From The Saddle: Not Wanting To Go Forward

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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!
Ray

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!

JG

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