Question: I finally was able to save enough money to buy my first horse, after 12 years of riding. Things went great – found the horse of my dreams , a 16.2 Westphalen tb cross – a cute mover and a great personality. I got him home and started riding him. He was lightly broke so I didnt push things. He was always resistant to the leg, and every now and then he would stop on me but then hesitantly move forward. This escalated into moving forward, slamming on the breaks and backing up…any and all refusal to get out of work. He reared once (I didnt come off). I got him checked for ulcers , lameless ex-rays chiropractor, massages, saddle fitting.. everything! You name it…. I’ve done it… so as I saw the problem getting bigger I went back to ground work, longing every day with side reins, working him evenly on both sides and going after his “go” button by his flank. My trainer and I decided that after great progress on the ground, I could get on him again… well today we walked three steps then the backing refusal to go and the defiance started… I am so lost ….any help or advice would be a great help!
Answer from April Reeves: Although I don’t know exactly what you are doing or not doing during his ‘episodes’, there were several huge clues as to this problem escalating into what you now have.
First, the horse was green broke, and although you did not want to push things, it’s important to understand what you can and what you can’t push on a green horse.
I’m glad you went through all the above, but I do have one question regarding saddle fitting. How wide is the channel that runs from the front to the back of your saddle? TB’s and Warmbloods need a very wide channel in an English saddle, or they tend to do exactly what your horse is doing. Yes, the saddle may appear to fit well, but the padding on the saddle needs to clear the spine much more so than a smaller breed horse. That channel must be the same width from front to back, and the padding must roll up into the front of the saddle, not stop abruptly with an edge, like a close contact saddle will do. Just check and get back to me on that.
Secondly, when a horse resists, he is telling you that something is wrong. He’s not being bad, he’s just saying that he’s uncomfortable or hurting, in his language, and if we don’t listen, he will start to yell in his language (rearing, excellerating the problem). We need to be able to read him, as this gives us clues to what and where the problem is.
However, for your horse I’m going to assume that it is a training issue and advise you from there.
My first clue is that the horse came to you with the problem, so it originated from the previous owner. Any green horse that’s hesitant to the leg has not been started properly, so it is your job to rebuild him. This goes right back to foundation work, and it’s the same for any breed or discipline. Perhaps he did not have a good fitting saddle and still carries the memory of this. Or you are doing a similar habit, movement or aid that the original trainer did to cause him to become resistant, and now the ‘training’ process of resistance has set in. Everything we do is training, so we can train our horses to be really nasty animals if we are not careful. I see it daily.
When you first start any horse, the most important and fundamental thing you teach are the ‘whoa’ and ‘go’ buttons. Nothing else. I stress this, as it is important to remember: always, when training, remember what the single lesson is. Less is more when teaching horses to remember and absorb (soak).
Somewhere in your horse’s past, this simple thing was missed, so you are going to go back to the very beginning.
Get rid of all the equipment, side reins and nosebands. These items only compound your problem, as you are seeing. Try to see your horse as very green, as we are going to build him slowly, one step at a time.
If you don’t need to lunge him I would prefer you don’t, but if you do, please don’t hook the lunge line to the bit. I never do this, as I believe the mouth is a sacred place that should be treated with respect and care, and most horses who are lunged by the bit never have the degree of sensitivity they need. I use a rope halter under the bridle and attach the line to the bottom. Horses tend to listen to rope halters as they deliver the message quicker and easier.
Once he is calm and you are comfortable with him, it’s time to mount up and go to work. This will be very simple work but you must do this properly with timing and confidence. Because he has escalated into rearing, I am a little hesitant to have you on him, so please get off if you get scared or intimidated. It’s not worth getting hurt over. But it is a great learning curve, and one that every rider should learn to work through. Your trainer or someone should be present while you ride.
I personally use a western saddle to rehab big horses, as you have a fighting chance of staying seated on the horse.
Your bridle should be a simple snaffle without the noseband. We need to get rid of all equipment that has any pressure or restriction what so ever, so that we know we are starting with a clean slate. You can add it later once he is moving forward consistently – although I never use one in training, during any discipline, even jumping (and I never have open mouths on horses).
You will start with the walk. Ask him to walk forward, keeping your back straight, no leaning forward, back or side to side. Ask him to halt, using a soft pressure, and instead of pulling both reins, take up one rein first, then the other, with only a split second delay. When you pick up and pull two reins at the same time you teach resistance, but if you pick up one first and then the other right behind, it tends to ‘shake’ up the horse laterally. This is very subtle for humans to feel, but it’s a big deal to the horse. At the same time you do this, sit slightly back, dropping your weight down and through your heels (keep your knees light; don’t pinch them to the saddle). If he does not stop right away, take up one rein and softly, following a feel, bring his face half way in to your leg, keeping your legs away from his sides, and hold him there firmly (don’t let your hand move at all). Once he stops and is light in your hand release him. Stand for a few seconds, and walk forward. If he does not walk forward from your cue instantly, tell him a second time (within one second from the first aid) and if he still does not respond, deliver your aid and do it with intention. Use a small bat on his hindquarters, and start small (but not soft), as you do not know what type of result you will get. Be prepared to have him move forward quickly. When he does, do not restrict him for about 5 seconds, then softly bring him back to a walk.
Some horses will jump into the canter, some will trot when you ‘deliver’. It is important that you do not try to stop the horse at this point. You MUST let the horse move forward in the way he wants and needs to try, as he is doing what is asked, and if you start this exercise expecting a walk, you are missing the point. Always remember, when training, what the single lesson is you are trying to accomplish, especially with green horses or horses being rehabbed. When teaching something, do not micro-manage your horse. The single lesson here is that you want him to move forward. It does not matter at this time how he does that, as long as he does that. As he begins to understand this cue, you can refine HOW he does that, but in the beginning, get the single lesson across. We need to communicate to our horses very clearly, and adding any other conflicting message will destroy the lesson and confuse our horse, compounding the problem.
This may seem like a very ‘baby’ step, but it is important to do this and repeat it until he understands it. If he gets this at the walk he will have a better chance of getting this at other gaits. Also, this horse needs to learn to walk forward with the softest of aids, and do it with obedience, every time, regardless of what he thinks he should be doing (remember, he was trained to be resistant, he wasn’t being bad). You are reprogramming him.
You will need to stay at this at the walk until he gets it. Don’t wait for him to become resistant. Ask him to halt when he is walking forward, and ask him to go when he is standing quietly. Break the pattern of resistance and replace it with obedience.
You may be doing this for up to 2 weeks straight, so find the patience within yourself or you run the risk of going back to where you were. Hopefully it takes less time, but it depends on how deep it is and how long it has been going on. You can teach resistance in one hour if you are consistent with poor hands and cues, or you can teach resistance over the course of time, by not being consistent with proper aids. The first one is easy to fix, the latter can take months.
If he is responding well, even in the first lesson, and you haven’t seen the resistance crop up yet, ask for the trot. The minute he resists, you must get after him, and this is where timing is crucial. Don’t let him even take two steps of resistance without responding. The very first step of resistance, you need to ‘deliver’ with your little bat, on the hindquarters. If he continues (and they usually do fight at this point, be warned) you must stay square and straight in the saddle and deliver the bat again until the very second he moves forward. Be listening and waiting for that moment, as it is all about timing. The second he moves forward, release all your pressure and soften. Even if it is the smallest forward, release, and if he gets resistant again, go back to the little bat and deliver until he moves forward again. Remember – don’t micro-manage the forward, just get it.
It takes a great deal of ‘feel’ to do this well, as you have to be keenly aware of what is happening underneath you. Timing is everything.
Your communication with horses must be clear and simple. When you use ‘ask, tell, deliver’, you begin with the ‘ask’, which is a human being respectful and trusting that his horse will do what’s asked. When you tell, you are reminding him of what was just asked, and could he please not be late again on the response. The ‘deliver’ sends the message home that the first 2 lack of responses was not adequate, and that he had better move it or else.
When you are riding, all you are doing is simply herding your horse from the saddle. Any boss mare of stallion would us this approach. It is the language of the horse.
Since you made headway on the lunge line, there is another exercise you can do. Ride him on the lunge line with your instructor or any confident horse handler. Time it so that the person on the ground delivers the same ‘move forward’ cue (voice and whip) that you do with your legs. Keep hold of the reins (for safety) but carry them at the buckle; don’t hang on to his face. You need to give him the freedom to stretch but not get his nose low enough to buck. Ride him through walk, trot and halt transitions. If he gets resistant, you need to tell and deliver, and have the ground handler time this with you. You need to be the one who corrects the horse more so than your ground handler, as you need to establish this as the rider. The ground person is backup.
Keep your horse moving forward on the line, working each transition, and stay no longer than 2 circles on each gait. Mix it up and keep it interesting, so that the horse has to think. Move him into obedience.
You should find some level of progress with either or both methods within 2 weeks if you work on him 5 days a week. You need to put the time in. Many people fail because they don’t ride long enough to get through the problem. I never put a horse away on a bad ride. If it takes me twice as long as I figured, I will spend the time and make sure I walk away saying “that was a good ride”. Last week my half hour ride took 2 hours. I ended with a good horse. The next day I started with a good horse. They remember.
You don’t need to move into faster gaits or clever moves right away. Keep it simple until he gets this and you are safe. Don’t be in a hurry to do something else or change the plan. You either pay the price at the front end or pay it double at the back end.
16.2 is not a small horse, and can be intimidating. Add Thoroughbred to the blood and you can have a very big, athletic horse with attitude. Be careful through these exercises and don’t stay on if you feel you are in danger.
One thing I will guarantee you, that when you have broken through and your horse is no longer resistant, you will feel so enthused and proud because you accomplished something that was very difficult to do. This is not an easy thing for any rider, even a professional to do, so when you come out the other side, you should be happy with yourself.