Saturday, April 11, 2009


Continuing on the "problem horse" issues...laziness. Keep in mind the following is assuming pain or discomfort is not an issue, and that the horse understands the request to move forward but simply chooses not to obey this request.

A few weeks ago someone was in the arena, raving about their "bomb-proof" 4yo draft mare. Nothing seemed to scare this mare much...but her owner couldn't get her to move out into a canter, never mind the trouble it took to get a trot! Lots of kicking and frustration and a horse deemd "lazy".

"Lazy" horses are labeled as such for one reason: lack of motivation. It is also a sign that you have not adequately earned that horse's respect - you have only earned so much respect as he's willing to dish out at that exact moment. Think about it: when boss horse comes around and pins his ears at your lazy gelding, your gelding most likely gets out of there pretty fast! He's got a high level of respect for that horse. On the other hand, a horse that sloooowly moves off from the more dominant horse, ears pinned, is displaying his displeasure toward having to submit to the other horse. His reaction toward pinned ears from another horse depends upon his respect level for that specific horse; so while he might move off fast when one horse so much as glances in his direction, he might display some resentment with a tail swish, hindquarters in the other horse's face, and ears pinned, as he slowly moves a step or two away, toward another horse. The key then is clear to a) motivate your horse and b) earn your horse's respect.

A lot of lazy horses absolutely love rest - so use it! I'll work on a particular pattern, transitions, etc and when the horse does it well, he is permitted a quick rest break (longer if he does especially well). Ask a lot but accept little at first and increasingly ask for more from your horse before rewarding him. By rewarding with rest, your horse is constantly tuned in to you to see when you're going to ask for that downwards transition and a rest break and as such he'll be more responsive, particularly with downwards transitions. You can also use treats or even scratches to reward a horse for trying for you; just be careful with treats that the horse is always respectful taking that treat (ie. not grabbing it along with your hand). If a horse is disrespectful toward me in regards to taking a treat, I will either take my hand away and not give him the treat until he is calmly submissive (standing quietly outside my space - designated as such by me - and not grabbing at me), or I will remove treats from the program altogether until I have earned a higher level of respect from that horse. Providing motivation for a horse provides him incentive to have impulsion and to try for you. I will also work on patterns that have a definite end to them (such as riding from one point of the arena to another, and continuing on in such a fashion - along "long" lines for the unmotivated horse, say from the long end of the arena to the other side of the long end) - that way my horse responds with a "how far how fast?" because he knows that he has a rest at the end of the pattern to look forward to.

Lack of respect
Respect is not something that can be forced. Often people seem to think that by "showing the horse who is boss" through physical force, they are earning respect. They're not. Physical force is going to do one of two things: create a fearful horse or a resentful one. The fearful one is not going to trust you in a partnership, let alone your leadership out away from the herd or in a challenging situation. The resentful horse is going to be constantly looking for ways to fight you, he's likely going to respond aggressively towards you, and he's certainly not going to do what you ask (or at least not willingly). This is a 1,000lb animal. I don't know about the next person, but I don't want 1,000lbs of pure muscle bunny rabbit exploding one day in fear, or charging at me with pinned ears. It's just not on my bucket list. I've ridden some great horses who were quick on their feet - they seemingly had a load of respect for their rider. But their actions were too quick, they did not trust their rider and were afraid to step wrong for fear of physical force. It wasn't respect but instead it was fear. As soon as they felt they were beyond the reach of that human, they were in pure flight mode to get away as fast as physically possible. I've also been in pens with stallions that had been trained using physical force who you could not trust - I was constantly watching my back. Those stallions were resentful and were just looking for the opportunity for my guard to be down (I represented any human, to them) to get in and dish out what this other trainer had been dishing out to him.

The primary point though is that respect cannot be forced if one wants a true partnership between horse and rider. It must be 100 percent earned. Play games that have that horse moving his feet more than you are moving yours (watch a herd of horses, the more dominant horse always moves his feet less), both under-saddle and on the ground. What you have on the ground is always halved in the saddle, so earn a 10/10 level of respect from your horse on the ground so that you have a 5/10 in the saddle. Think of it as a partnership - you have to prove to your horse that you are deserving of his respect. He has to earn your trust and respect just as you have to earn his. He has to willingly give it to you. Ask everything in phases, providing your horse the chance to respond to a cue at a lower phase of response (ie. to move forward: squeeze with all four cheeks, move that squeeze down your legs, squeeze with your heel, hold, spank yourself then move that rhythmical spank - rhythmical so as to be predictable to your horse - down to the horse and increase the pressure until the horse moves off; stop as soon as you get a response!), always be rhythmical in everything you ask, and be assertive but never aggressive. Frustration begins where savvy ends, so if you find yourself becoming frustrated, the horse will not "win" by you walking away or dismounting and ending the session. Walking away prevents frustration from transforming assertiveness to aggressiveness. Walk away, figure out a different way to approach the problem, and return when you're calm and better prepared (ie, more knowledgeable and/or in a better state of mind). It's discouraging and difficult to walk away from a session on a sour note, but it's important to do sometimes.

The horse is a reflection of its rider. If you act (body language, games with your horse, etc) in a manner that deserves respect, you will earn it. Horses do not naturally want to be the leader, they're prey animals and would prefer the next horse to be leader...but someone has to be Leader. If you are not offering up adequate leadership, your horse is not going to place his trust and respect in you and he's going to take control of the situation to ensure his own safety.

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