Building A Better Relationship: My New Horse Is Challenging Me

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Question Category: Building a Better Relationship

Question: Dear Julie,

I just purchased my first horse, Toby, three weeks ago as an adult beginner. He is an 8 year old paint gelding and I moved him to my local riding school. I decided to purchase him (from a well respected natural horse-woman and he wasn’t cheap) after riding him a couple times because of his unflappable temperament. He was advertised as a seasoned trail horse and had some English training (he does fine on the bit) in the arena. However, I am learning he is quite a bit more of a handful than I expected.

We have ridden out in the school pasture with camp drill team and in the arena alone. Both times he was a perfect gentlemen at first then suddenly became fitful and crow hopped or bucked to the point I felt unsafe and had to one-rein stop him. I am trying to keep a level head and give him time to adjust to his new surroundings and me, his fairly timid and somewhat inexperienced new owner.

I am not afraid of him on the ground. He has excellent ground manners when I groom, tack and lead him around the pasture. We have done some round penning where once I get him to move forward (sometimes he goes when I ask, sometimes I have to ask, tell and then promise with the stick!) he sometimes gets more and more wound-up and will start cantering and kicking out. Then he will settle down and when I turn around he will calmly stop and join-up.

I am a little confused that he can be so docile one minute and then go nutty in an instant. I have definitely lost some confidence in riding him, but feel good on the ground. What can I do to provide leadership and build respect with this horse until he mellows out? Do you think he is just testing me or am I going to have to live with his unpredictability?

I can already see signs that he is buddy sour, too. It’s not the romantic walk in the pasture I had envisioned, but I made a decision and won’t give-up as long as he remains “safe.”

Thanks for any advice you can give us!!

Suzanne and Toby

Answer: Dear Suzanne,

Yes, your horse is testing you and apparently, at least some of the time, he is winning. Your horse does not accept your authority and even though he may be well-trained, nothing comes free or automatically with horses. You have to earn your status with each and every horse you have a relationship with.

Sounds like your horse has had lots of training from the ground but he has figured out how to threaten you into submission when riding and undoubtedly, it has worked a time to two. At some point, you asked him to do something he didn’t want to do (leave the barn, trot, etc.) and he resisted and threatened to buck in a refusal to move forward—then you quit asking. It only takes one such reward to engrain a horse’s resistant behavior. With each successive victory for your horse, you are losing authority and credibility.

The problem is that correcting this behavior under saddle requires a pretty good rider, because you’ll have to ride him through his resistant behavior. And the old saying about horse training goes, “It always gets worse before it gets better.” If your horse has had success with these antics, he isn’t likely to just roll over and give in the first time you ride him through it—he’ll likely buck a little harder and try some other dirty tricks. But generally horses like this are just lazy so if you can stick with them they give up their antics pretty quickly, because it’s too hard to resist.

I am sure the trainer you bought this horse from will continue to work with you so that you can improve your authority with this horse and fix any riding problems you have that may be leading him to resistance (like pulling back on the reins all the time). Continue the ground work and practice getting more assertive with him from the ground, where you are confident. As long as your horse is challenging you, that means he sometimes is questioning your authority, so increase your demands with him a little. Instead of “ask, tell, command,” go straight from asking once nicely, then command with authority. If he knows you’ll “count to three” before you get tough with him, he’ll always push his boundaries.

You’ll probably need the help of a more experienced rider to work your horse through the riding issues, in case it gets worse before it gets better. But in the meantime, be aware that every time you ask your horse to do something, you need to reinforce it with the same authority that you show on the ground. Having a more confident rider “school” him through an obstacle, may help you get your horse through it, but avoid asking your horse to do something if you cannot reinforce it.

Also, analyze all of your interactions with your horse and discover the little things that are eroding your authority with your horse. Are you hand feeding treats to him? Are you letting him tug at the lead and eat grass as you walk him? Is he looking all around when you are riding him? Chances are, there are things you are doing that is making your horse question you—to be the leader, you must act accordingly 100% of the time, not just when you are doing groundwork exercises.

My groundwork videos will help you get more systematic with your groundwork, establish more authority with your horse and understand his behavior better. There are numerous articles in my training library that relate to this as well.

Good luck and stay the course! You can do it!

Julie

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