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

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Issues From The Saddle: Kicks Out At Canter

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: I have 3 horses, all of which do the same thing. They walk and trot quietly, but when you cue for lope, they will kick up in the back. I know it’s probably a training issue, but I don’t know what to do next to try to get them into a canter without the kick up. I am a senior and have been riding all my life and showed for years, so it’s not lack of riding ability, but may be related to not riding often enough. I’m sure I could carry on once I got them started loping without getting bucked off.

Answer: Since all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior, you have to consider the common denominator, which is the rider. While you should always rule out a physical problem first, the fact that all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior tends to point to the rider. But don’t feel badly, most “horse problems” are actually rider induced and you’ll be way ahead of the curve just knowing this, because before you can solve a problem, you must identify it.

Without actually seeing you and your horses in action, I cannot really diagnose the problem, but I can tell you that this is a very common problem and I see it all the time in clinics. In fact, we have an upcoming episode of Horse Master on this very problem: over-cueing for canter.

Generally speaking, when you cue a horse for trot or canter and he launches into the gait like he was shot out of a cannon, you over-cued him. In the case of the canter cue, there are compounding issues related to the flight response. When the horse is cued to canter, in a way, you are cueing for the flight response; so if you over-cue him you may get more than you bargained for. It is not uncommon for horses to have an outburst of emotion when cued for canter and kicking out the heels is one such example.

To resolve this issue and get a smooth, relaxed canter departure, you’ll need to get more systematic in your canter cue and tone down the signal, adjusting to each horse’s level of sensitivity. While you are working to improve the canter departure, you’ll want o cue from the slow sitting trot. This gives the horses fewer options to get the right answer; but don’t cue from the long-trot. At the slow collected trot his legs are close enough together to reorganize easily into the canter but as he moves into extended trot and his legs spread farther apart, the canter is more difficult to pick up. If he misses the canter cue and goes into long-trot, bring him back immediately to slow trot by using your seat and reins to check him back. As soon as he comes back to slow trot, you’ll cue him again for the canter right away.

Before you give any cue, always prepare the horse that a cue is coming by shortening the reins slightly and closing your legs on his sides. You’ll know he is ready for a cue and listening to you when his head comes up a little and his ears come back on you; that is your horse’s way of saying, “what do you want me to do?” If you develop a consistent and systematic cue for canter, the horse will understand better and he’ll know what is coming next.

Once he’s ready and listening, you’ll give a cue using all your primary aids in sequence: legs, hands, and then seat. First, use outside leg, slightly back; this sets the horse up for the correct lead and also helps him differentiate from the trot cue, where you use two legs at the same time. Next you’ll slightly lift the inside rein; this is less of a rein cue and more of a repositioning of your body into the canter position for the inside lead, with your inside shoulder lifted and your weight in the outside stirrup. The last part of the cue is a push with your seat in the rhythm of the canter motion—like you are pushing a swing. Leg-rein-seat; in a 1-2-3 rhythm.

If your horse is eager to canter or exuberant in the departure, you’ll want to keep the focus on your seat aid, rather than on your legs. There are many horses that cue to canter just by a simple rocking of the seat in the canter motion. If the horse is over-reactive to the cue, use less and less pressure each time until he accepts the cue quietly.

By sequencing your aids and getting more systematic in your cue, your horse will learn what you want and will not stress over the cue. As you practice your transitions, you should be able to make your cues more and more subtle, using less and less pressure. Start by slowing the rhythm of the cue down so that you are taking longer to cue the horse. This helps him think through what is coming next so he is not surprised. Practice many trot-canter-trot transitions. Each time you make a transition, it should be a little smoother as the horse learns the cue better, thus reducing his anxiety.

When horses kick out at the canter departure, often it is because it seems to him as if you are yelling at him when a whisper would work. As you get more systematic with your cue and your horse comes to understand, you can use less pressure. If he is ready for the cue when it comes and you use less pressure, the kicking should go away.

Good luck!
Julie

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