Issues From The Saddle: Works Well Outside And Poorly Inside

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: I am an intermediate rider at best who purchased a 10 y/o paint gelding a couple months ago. He is from the south and I honestly think is not familiar with indoor arenas. I rode him outside before I bought him and he had a wonderful little jog and nice working trot. He is very tolerant and doesn’t buck, rear, pin ears while being ridden despite my inconsistencies. He is very sweet on the ground. My problem is in the arena he does not want to stay on the wall well, is difficult to slow down at the trot, and his speed at the trot is very inconsistent. He walks fine except his head is going side to side frequently. He has a good transition from trot to walk without difficulty. He is very sensitive to body position and leg cues. He will be a great horse once we can work through these problems. He has been ridden in a western curb bit prior to my purchasing him. I have a Myler triple barrel bit that has side movement and flexible curb for tongue relief. I understand that this is a step up from a snaffle and fairly mild (of course, in the right hands). He pretty much ignored the snaffle bit although I would like to eventually put him in one. I am not sure what problem to address first, and in what order. Perhaps there is an exercise that could address more than one. I feel that I am as much of the problem as he is. I need some confidence that what I am asking him to do is what’s best for the horse.

Thank you,
Carol AND Dixon

Answer: I admire your attitude and your recognition that horse problems are almost always rider induced. You are probably correct in that your horse is simply not accustomed to indoor arenas; many horses are not. There are lots of horses that work great outdoors and terrible indoors and visa versa.

You need to get the horse accustomed to the indoor arena, but first you need to get comfortable, consistent and confident with him outdoors, where he works better. Until you feel very confident and consistent there, don’t even try indoors. In the meantime, take your horse into the indoor in-hand (unsaddled and unmounted) and let him just spend some time there hanging out and getting confidence with you on the ground. You can longe him in there or do ground work or just hang out. You could, if conditions allowed, even feed him in there so he came to think of it as a “happy” place. When he is comfortable in there with you on the ground and when you are comfortable with riding him outdoors, try riding him indoors.

At first, let him stay in the middle or wherever his comfort zone is, but make him keep circling, constantly changing directions. Gradually expand the area you are working in and when he relaxes take him to the rail. If he gets squirrelly, bring him back to the middle but start circling and changing directions again. When he relaxes, take him to the rail.

Gradually he will learn that the rail is a much better place to be because he doesn’t have to work as hard (circling and changing directions is much harder work for a horse than going straight). It will also help if your horse has a good role model in the arena with him; a calm and older horse will work just fine. In time, your horse will work just as well inside as out.

If your horse is moving his nose from side to side while you are riding, that is an indication that he is not paying attention to you and may well be a precursor to spooking or disobedience. Any horse I ride is expected to keep his nose directly in front of his chest, unless I ask it to move elsewhere. I will consistently and immediately correct his nose anytime it moves away from dead center, by simply lifting up on the opposite rein until the horse’s nose comes back to center, then giving an immediate release. There are several Q&As on my website about nose control.

As for the bit, I have found that many horses that people say totally runs right through the snaffle, work just fine in a snaffle for me. Make sure you are using your weight aid and not just your hands and try to avoid pulling on both reins at the same time. There is information on my website and in my videos about using the aids properly. Realize that putting a horse in a stronger bit will almost always make any problems worse because the horse will have added anxiety about his mouth. Although some finished Western horses work better in a curb because they are used to being ridden one-handed, I’ve yet to find a horse that won’t work in a snaffle.

Julie Goodnight

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