Starting Over With A Fractious Horse

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In the episode of Horse Master that we aptly called “Starting Over,” we worked with Clare and her horse “Lux” at a farm outside of Portland, Oregon. Our shoot site, Tanz-Pferde Dressage Farms (www.tanz-pferde.com, the name means dancing horses) was a beautiful backdrop. We shot in their new outdoor arena and were surrounded by incredible trees—beautiful back drops in 360 degrees. With six really good episodes “in the can,” I think all of the crew would agree that one episode that really stood out was Clare’s. In the episode, you’ll see a dramatic change made in this once-injured and defiant horse.

Clare is an outstanding rider, partly because of Lux’s crazy bucking temper tantrums. Lux is a huge warm blood who hates to move forward and doesn’t mind fighting. But, the great thing about big lazy horses is that they can only buck so hard before they get lazy and quit. The key to riding horses that buck in a refusal to move forward is to ride them forward through the bucks and only let them stop when they are relaxed in the back and moving freely forward (without any pedaling from the rider). Once they figure out that bucking buys them more work and relaxing gets them less work, they’ll never buck again; at least not with the same rider. Clare did an exceptional job of riding Lux through his temper tantrums and it looked as if she knew his every move. But, in spite of all this, riding was not really what this horse’s problem was—it was far more fundamental than that.

Lux’s sordid history includes winning championships in the hunter ring as a five year old, when Clare was only ten; although he was already displaying some naughty behavior then, it wasn’t until he broke his hind leg that his behavior spiraled down. With a long recovery period, Lux was sound within a year, but he had become spooky, fractious and aggressive—with no resemblance of the former show champion. Clare’s parents spent thousands of dollars on vets exams, acupuncture, chiropractic, calming supplements, new saddles, therapeutic pads, bits, shoeing and three years later, the trainers were still stumped at what they could do to resolve Lux’s fractiousness. Now a mature 16 year old, Clare sees that her beloved horse is not getting better so she pulls him out of training, thinking it’s time for a break and she turns him out to pasture in a large herd. In the pasture, Lux immediately takes over as alpha. Now, a year and a half later, six years after Lux’s injury, Clare is ready to try again to resolve his behavior and she has studied natural horsemanship and is certain that’s the answer. And she was right.

It only took a fifteen-minute session in the round pen before Lux was hooked on and followed me around the pen like a puppy. Of course, that was after he threatened to jump out of the pen, bucked, kicked, snorted and tossed his head in defiant gestures. At first, he was very determined not to acknowledge my presence, but being out of shape got the better of him and his head started dropping. Soon he was giving me great head bobs in a deliberate gesture of submission. Again, once lazy horses figure out the path of least resistance, they take it.

I showed Clare how to correct his ground manners and develop a larger perimeter of space around her so that the big Lug, uh, Lux isn’t walking all over her. Clare turned out to be an exceptional student and absorbed what happened as I round-penned the horse and made the necessary changes in her handling of Lux. My assistant trainer, T Cody, did a little more ground work with Lux and watched carefully as Clare work him to make sure Lux maintained his subordinate demeanor and respected his boundaries.

The next day Lux was still a changed horse– respecting Clare’s authority, keeping his focus on her at all times and keeping his head down and relaxed. With a great sense of accomplishment, we wrapped-up Clare’s episode and as I was leaving the round pen to go change into clothes for the next show, I told Clare she should take advantage of the work we’d done in that round pen over last 24 hours and saddle him up and see how he rides. When I came out 10 minutes later, Clare was cantering figure eights in the round pen, doing beautiful flying lead changes with each turn as her mother shouted with glee into her cell phone, sharing the success with Clare’s dad.

I’ve had one update from Clare, in the past three weeks and she asked an astute question and immediately put the answer to work on Lux with great success. I think Clare will do great things with this horse. It takes two to maintain this kind of change in a horse—both the horse and the handler/rider need to change their ways. With horses, it always boils down to the human stepping up to the plate and showing some leadership—either you are the boss of them, or they are the boss of you—that’s the way it works in a horse herd. Horses are much happier when there is a competent leader in charge, so that they can relax and not have to think.

Be sure to watch the “Starting Over” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight
–Julie Goodnight

Trots Down Hill

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Dear Julie:
My horse is generally great on the trails, but has one annoying habit that makes him uncomfortable to ride. Every time we head down a hill, even a small ditch crossing, he trots to the bottom like he was shot out of a cannon. This makes me uncomfortable and nervous and I feel like I have a lack of control. What can I do to make him walk down hills?
Thank you,
Down in the Dumps

Dear Down,
This is an obnoxious and disobedient behavior that your horse is showing and it needs to be corrected right away. This is a bad habit that he has learned because you or someone who rides him has condoned it–and it most certainly needs correcting.

The reason why your horse prefers to trot down hills instead of walk is that he’s lazy and succumbing to the force of gravity. If you have done much hiking yourself, you already know that going down hills actually requires more muscle strength than going uphill—which stresses you aerobically more than muscle strength. If he gives into gravity and trots down the hill it’s actually easier than walking because he does not have to brake his body weight.

But when a horse trots down a hill, he lurches forward and leans into the bridle–which makes him feel heavy on the forehand and out of balance. Furthermore, if your horse breaks into a trot without a cue from you to trot, he’s disobedient and making an unauthorized decision. One unauthorized decision will always lead to another, so it’s a very bad precedence to set.

It’s also bad etiquette when riding with others to allow your horse to break into a trot when going down a hill. It will cause the other horses to want to trot and may catch a rider off guard.

To fix this bad habit, you simply need to think ahead of your horse and be prepared. As you approach the hill—small or large—shorten your reins and shift you weight back to check your horse’s speed. Let him know you are monitoring him closely. Stop him momentarily at the top and let him proceed slowly.

As you maneuver down the hill, do so in a “check and release” fashion, picking up on the reins and shifting your weight back on your seat bones, then releasing momentarily before you check again. Bring him to a complete halt with each step if necessary.

Enforce this rule each and every time you approach a hill. Horses are very good at following rules, if the rules are well-defined and consistently enforced. Be diligent about requiring your horse to walk slowly down embankments and hills and in short order, he will understand this rule and monitor his speed himself.

Your horse seems to think he’s allowed to trot when he wants to, regardless of your directives. This could be an indication that you have given your horse this opinion by not being assertive. Take a broad look at how you interact with your horse. Is he making other unauthorized decisions? Is he walking off when you mount without a cue? Is he veering from the path you have dictated to avoid a puddle or something he doesn’t want to walk through? Is he speeding up and slowing down without a cue? These are all indications that you are not being a consistent leader to your horse and they could be indications that you are eroding your authority with your horse every time you ride him.

Leadership is a very black and white issue to a horse. Either you are in charge of him or he’s in charge of you. Make sure that you exert complete control over your horse at all times and do not compromise in your authority. Once you ask a horse to do something, make sure you reinforce it. He will appreciate your authority much more and come to admire you as a worthy leader.

Issues From The Saddle: Gate Sour Horse And A Tom Thumb Bit

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

You have a similar question presented to you being great on the trail but terrible in the arena that you have already answered. That statement is also mine but a different problem. This seventeen-year-old Fox Trotter gelding is new to me and is being ridden western with a tom thumb. All tack fits but I believe there is a small amount of barn sour in this horse’s mind due to his speed home on the trail (holding him to a walk is constant) and having to push him in the arena at the gate. He does ok at the walk and trot in the arena until you get to the gate and have to apply more pressure. Asking him to turn half way down the arena, I really have to pull his head around and his hindquarters fall to the outside. The big problem starts when you ask for a canter. He acts like he’s never done it. For instance, he will take the correct lead half way around the arena, as he makes the turn toward the gate (even half way across the arena) he will break. When I attempt to correct him, he picks up the incorrect lead. I tried ignoring leads entirely and just tried to get him to complete a circle without breaking and I have been unsuccessful, I even tried spurs. I decided to go back to basics, meaning groundwork. He will longe at the walk and trot but I am not able to get him into a canter at all. I have tried a round pen and I am unable to put enough pressure on him to go into a canter. I have found myself becoming very frustrated. I realize it is hard without seeing the exact situation, however, any helpful advice would be appreciated.

Sincerely,
Charlene

Answer: Charlene,

The problems you describe are certainly very common and while that might not make it less frustrating for you, at least there is some hope in knowing that you are not alone and that you can resolve these issues with your horse.

Your horse is certainly gate sour (or barn sour) and this is simple disobedience that he has learned he can get away with. All horses go through this stage but when a skilled rider is riding them, these problems go away quickly because the horse learns it doesn’t work or it is not worth the effort. Sometimes when we think we have won a certain battle (because we got the horse past the gate, for instance) the horse also thinks he won (because maybe he got to pause momentarily or break gait).

One of the best ways to resolve these types of issues is to simply think ahead of the horse. You know exactly where he is going to cause a problem each time around so instead of waiting for the problem to happen and then taking action, be proactive and do something ahead of time, like make the horse speed up before you get there. Also, make sure you are not reinforcing his behavior by stopping him at the gate or dismounting at the gate or, heaven forbid, riding him out of the gate. I always make sure not only that I dismount as far away from the gate as possible and lead my horse out, but also that I work the horse extra hard when he is near the gate so he comes to associate the gate with a not so pleasant place to be. If your horse is disobedient in these areas, chances are he is disobedient in other areas as well, whether it is leading, standing, staying on the rail, staying at a steady speed, or whatever. This is generally one symptom of a horse that is not subordinate to you and does not think that you are in control of him. So, as always, more groundwork is in order.

I prefer to use a flag to do ground work with a lazy horse. A flag is simply a 4’ long stick with a plastic bag in the end. Often, the lazy horses that do not respond to the physical pressure of while, rope or spur will run off easily with a shake of the flag. There is more info on this in an article on my website called “Understanding Natural Horsemanship.”

One final thought: the Tom Thumb is a very harsh bit and not a very useful training tool. There is a Q&A on my website that explains the Tom Thumb that you may want to take a look at.

JG

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