Help! My Horse Won’t Stay on the Rail

close up of horse in an arena

Close-up of horse in an arena.
Horses are smarter than we give them credit for and any horse that’s been around an arena more than once, has figured out that it’s a much shorter distance around when they cut corners and leak in off the rail. No horse stays glued to the arena fence unless he is well-trained and obedient. All horses feel the pull of “gate gravity” or “barn gravity,” but only the horses that think they can get away with it will act on that feeling.

If you feel like you are constantly steering your horse back to the rail or pulling his nose to the outside as you go around, you’ve got a disobedience problem. Chances are good that your horse is a step or two ahead of you, and while you might not be fully aware of the dynamics of this situation, your horse almost certainly knows exactly what he is doing. Horses are pros at manipulating the behavior of others—and that includes you.

I could write 10,000 words on the mechanics of how to train your horse out of this problem, but it would do little good if you don’t have an understanding of the dynamics happening between you and your horse.

If your horse is cheating you by not staying on the rail, cutting corners, speeding up on the way back or refusing to go over an obstacle, you need to take a deeper look at your role. First, you must understand what the underlying motivations of the horse are and how you got to this point. Then you must figure out a plan for what’s next, how you will change your horse’s behavior and change the way you ride.

Define the Problem
Assuming you are riding a trained horse, you need to realize this is not a steering problem. An obedient horse goes on the exact path dictated by the rider, at a speed chosen by the rider, without argument or micromanagement. A horse that is leaking into the middle from the rail, cutting the corners, pulling toward the gate or stopping at the gate is disobedient to the aids of the rider. The first step in fixing this issue is to recognize it as disobedience—to become aware of your horse’s behavior.

How ever your horse is acting now, there’s a reason why he is acting that way—he has a motivation. To effectively train a horse, it helps to be aware of your horse’s motivations. Why is he coming off the rail? Why is he stopping at the gate? Is he trying to get back to the barn/herd, is he trying to get out of work, or does he simply think he can go wherever he wants, whenever he wants? These types of behaviors are generally motivated by a desire to get back to the herd and/or to get out of work.

Being aware of your horse’s disobedience, and treating it as such, is often enough to stop this kind of behavior. Acknowledge his behavior as disobedience and let him know, you know. Once a horse realizes you are onto his antics, he’ll often stop doing it. Once you are aware, his tricks don’t work so well. Understanding his motivation is important because it dictates how you will respond. If he’s trying to pull toward the barn, you want to make sure that he ends up farther away from his objective as you correct him. Correct him in such a way that he loses territory, doesn’t gain it.

How did we get here?
Horses are masters at subtle disobediences that often go unnoticed by the rider; but the horse knows exactly what he is doing. If you have put him on the rail and he starts pulling toward the middle, on the very first step toward the middle, he became disobedient, whether the rider noticed or not. Often the rider, blissfully ignorant of the horse’s disobedience, simply steers the horse back to the rail, without addressing the disobedience; then the pattern starts again.

Soon, the rider is going all the way around the arena, with the horse’s nose pulled toward the rail, while his body is leaking in to the middle of the arena; he’s counter-bent and still not on the rail. When the rider tries to hold the horse on the rail with the outside rein (or hold the horse in a certain speed), she becomes complicit in the horse’s disobedience—it is a co-dependent relationship. Your horse is constantly threatening disobedience, and instead of addressing the disobedience, you are treating it as if the horse just doesn’t know where he is going. The problem is, the horse knows exactly what he is doing.

The horse that is cutting corners, leaking off the rail or slowing/stopping at the gate, is essentially saying to the rider, “I don’t want to do that; I want to go over here.” Often, the rider is so busy on her own agenda (working on something herself), that she does not hear what the horse is saying and so she simply steers back to the rail. The problem is, that this sets up a compromise with your horse. He cuts the corner, you steer him halfway back (without scolding his disobedience), then you say, “Well, at least I got him halfway back to the corner,” and go on with your ride. In this moment, you have just compromised with your horse, letting him know that he does indeed get a say in the direction you go. This is a bad precedent to set and it will surface every time you ask your horse to go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. Compromising with a horse on direction or speed is a bad idea.

Where do we go from here?
First you must become aware of your horse’s behavior and motivations. Just becoming aware of it will make your horse less successful. Once you are aware of your horse’s manipulations, you will be able to correct him in a timely manner—at the instant he makes his first move. Also, with an understanding of his motivations (Where is he trying to go? Why?), you’ll be able to correct him more effectively, making sure your correction does not inadvertently give him what he wants.

Secondly, don’t treat this as a steering problem and don’t ever hold your horse in a speed or direction. Treat it for what it is, a disobedience problem. Instead of just cueing or steering the horse back to where you asked him to go, scold him for being willingly disobedient. Allow your horse to make the mistake (instead of holding him or preventing it), then correct him when he does. Let him know that you disapprove—often this can be accomplished simply with your voice.

Horses will work hard for your approval, but only if he is occasionally admonished. You should have clear expectations of your horse (go on the path I dictate, at the speed I chose), and never be afraid to let him know when he falls short of your expectations. How much pressure your scolding will require depends on the horse and how egregious his discrepancy—it may be as benign as a harsh word or as sharp as a tap with a crop or spank of the reins.

Finally, scientific research has shown that it is far more effective to use “replacement training” to change a horse’s behavior. Replacing one behavior (an undesirable one) with another more desirable behavior, is far more effective than trying to distinguish the undesirable behavior through punishment. Once you understand your horse’s disobedience and his motivation, it will be easier to know how to replace that behavior with a better one.

For instance, if my horse is coming off the rail, trying to get into the middle of the arena, I will place him on the rail on a clear straight line, then lay my hands on his neck to neutralize the reins (and make sure I am not inadvertently holding him on the path). At the first moment my horse makes a move toward the middle (on the first step), I will sharply pick up the outside rein and turn the horse right into the fence (away from his objective) and proceed on the rail in the opposite direction. After a few times of this—the horse steps off the path and I turn him abruptly into the fence (opposite direction of where he wants to go), every time my horse starts to take a step into the middle, he will immediately think about turning into the fence and he will get prepared for that by taking a step toward the rail. Now every time he thinks about coming into the middle, he takes a step toward the rail. Replacement training is highly effective with horses and it works fast.

Once you understand your horse’s subtle disobediences and the motivations behind his behavior, it’s far easier for you to call him out on it. In many instances, just having that awareness (and letting your horse know you know) is enough to resolve it. Knowing your horse’s motivations in the undesirable behavior will help you devise an effective replacement—if your horse wants to turn right, you’ll turn left; if he wants to get away from something, you’ll turn toward it; if he is trying to get toward something you’ll turn away from it.

Don’t be complicit in your horse’s disobedience by holding him on a path or holding him in a speed. Never be afraid to let your horse make a mistake—it is through correction of the mistake that he learns. When you try to prevent the mistake, he doesn’t learn anything, and you end up in a codependent relationship with your horse. Instead, be aware of your horse’s intentions and recognize the moment he becomes disobedient to your aids. Soon, you will have a well-behaved horse who is responsible for and accountable for, his own behavior.

Enjoy the ride,

Julie