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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

"Lazy" horses

We all know those horses who feel like they always have the handbrake on. For most of us our first experience of this was probably at the riding school where we were taught to just keep kicking. Usually ending up with us out of breath, sweating, developing a terrible seat to compensate for the ridiculous kicking movements and through all of this still struggling to get the pony out of a slow trot. Welfare concerns aside, if kicking worked we wouldn’t have to keep kicking.

I don’t care how big and strong you think a horse is, it doesn’t make them numb to pain and discomfort. If you think being booted in the ribs (even by a child) doesn’t hurt a horse, get someone to do it to you and come back to me. When a horse is kicked hard they brace through the body to try and protect themselves, you’ll often even hear them grunt, this is not going to promote relaxed, flowing movement. You’re essentially training the horse to brace when the leg is applied, the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.

I’ve been working with a pony recently who is so shut down from a lifetime of being ridden like this that he braces and grunts as soon as you even think of touching him around the belly. The young rider was struggling to get the pony into canter, was told by the instructor to give him a really big kick and was promptly bucked off. The fact that children are encouraged to “pony club kick” with their entire leg coming away from the saddle, and this is seen as funny, is so harmful to the ponies and also those children that have come into this loving horses. Those children look to you to set an example, be better. Its funny how people would have no qualms about telling a child not to a kick a dog because it hurts them, but a horse is fair game.

I’m sure some of you are reading this thinking “but if I use soft leg aids my horse will just ignore me”. Training a horse to respond to soft cues needs consistent and clear training which starts on the ground. More often than not I find that these horses are the same on the ground in that they don’t respond to light cues from the headcollar, this is where I start. If you are soft in your asks and consistent with your releases this will feed through into everything you do with your horse. This is where self carriage starts. I reward every try, as soon as the horse offers the smallest try in the right direction I stop asking, they will soon offer you more. If you never let up (how many of us are told to constantly keep the leg on so they don’t break the canter) you are training them to ignore cues.

To give a simple example, lets talk about the concept of pressure and release with the leg. You ask your horse to canter, he canters, then you keep asking your horse to canter in case he decides to stop, he’s already cantering, he’s had no release, so why would he understand to keep going, and what is the motivation for him to keep going? Whereas if you ask your horse to canter, he canters, you stop asking with the leg, if he breaks to trot you just ask for canter again, then stop asking with the leg again, rinse and repeat consistently, eventually your horse will understand he is to stay in canter until you ask him to stop.

Now that was all very simplified and from a purely training perspective but these horses often have physical limitations whether that be low grade lameness or so much compensatory posture from the way they’ve been worked in the past that going forward is actually really difficult for them. They do not feel good in their bodies and movement is uncomfortable for them. Add a rider into the equation and its even more difficult. You need to start on the ground and teach the horse how to be soft and show them how to move more comfortably before you add the rider back in. The pony I mentioned earlier actually had arthritis, hoof pain and stomach ulcers but was labelled by several professionals as “cheeky, naughty, stubborn, typical kids pony”, when in reality moving his body was really uncomfortable.

I used to be one of those people who was so arrogant that I would get on and bully anything into jumping off my leg and think I was just so good at horse training because I could get horses to move that nobody else could. I now look at things a little differently, some (most) of those horses weren’t physically ready to be doing what I was asking them to do. If you give horses the time to develop and expect less, you’ll end up with a horse with a much softer attitude towards work. These kinds of horses come into the arena already on the defensive, once they realise you’re not going to hassle them and push too hard, they really can and do change. 🐎

A horse that finds movement difficult and is bracing through their body cannot carry you forwards in a comfortable way. If we can help the horse feel better about movement and be kinder in our training they will develop a more willing attitude towards work.

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