Question: My mare whom I’ve had about 3 yrs, she is 8, was abused, was flipped over because of being backed up aggressively by some asshole trainer, among other things, well when I try to take her down the road, she stops and refuses to go forward when she gets around the corner. I thought it was because she didn’t want to leave my gelding. So we took them both and she still kept stopping. But we did get to the end of the road. So if I take her by herself, she refuses to go forward, she will back up even into shrubs and trees. What should I do?
Answer from April Reeves: I worked on a mare that did exactly the same thing. I’ll explain how I worked with her.
It’s About Moving Forward
First, we addressed the backing up. After taking this mare out for the first time and almost landing in the ditch, we went back home to the outdoor ring and had a lesson on how to move forward the instant I asked. Doing more backing is not the cure for this style of behavior.
I’m hoping you have somewhere to practice this, as without this next lesson it will be very tough to fix your mare. Not impossible, just tougher.
If you have a ring use it; if not, secure a smaller field with no other horses in it.
Your mare is going to learn to go forward under any condition. Although she may be good at it when she is at home, this lesson is to explain to her that it also applies when she is in a place where she is not comfortable, and she must listen to your guidance to see her through.
You will need either a longer crop or long ends on western reins. I use a rope halter under the bridle and a long lead line tied mecate style to the horn, so the end is about 4 feet long. I use the end of the lead line to ’spank’ the horse. I prefer the rein ends or mecate end to a crop, as you may drop the crop at the moment you need it, and lose the lesson.
Start in your arena or field by just walking. Gently ask the mare to halt and release her when she does. Ask her to walk forward when you softly use leg pressure – I like to call it “whispering the aid” to the horse. If she does not respond with immediate intention, I ask with a more demanding aid. Ask, then tell. If she jumps into forward gear, let her go; do not check her back if she trots off. Let her trot for about 10 strides then back to a walk.
If she won’t halt easily, take her head gently to one side (not quite to your knee) and keep it there until she stops moving her feet, then instantly release her. The release is important, as if you keep her head cranked around she will miss the lesson. If she walks off again take her head to the other side until she quits moving her feet. I have found that they get this real quick. Once you release her and stand, stay quiet, keep your legs off her sides. Then gently ask for the walk. Always keep the head around until they stop moving their feet. I often let them fail, as this is where the learning begins. they need to fail and learn the lesson again, time after time, as this is the foundation you are laying.
If she pulls the rein or gets jiggy, keep her head there, until she stops. Once she stops moving let her go. If she pulls do not let her move your hand. You are a brick wall until she stands. You may have to stop the forward lesson to work on this one. Once she starts to get this, you can combine the two lessons.
Keep The Lesson Singular
This is very important, and one of the training techniques that most people mess up. When working with a horse on anything, always keep in mind what the single purpose of the lesson is. In this case it’s moving forward with respect and action the instant you ask. If she trots off, do not stop her or you will lose the lesson. The lesson is not move forward into the walk. The lesson is go forward. Period. Simple. If you are in the ‘halt’ lesson, the mare is to stand quietly and not move until your legs move to her side with pressure.
If she does not respond with respect and immediate action, ask the third time. This is where you ‘deliver’ the message. It is also the moment that may require some timing and courage, as often horses will jump forward or run off. As a professional trainer I can handle the bolt and run, as I can ride a lot longer than they can run, but for some it may be a bit scary.
If you are uncomfortable with this next step, start off softly, but be firm about the aid. If she does not jump on the second try, the third try (deliver) will be the crop or the reins. I use my legs at the same time I use a crop or the reins. Ask softly with your legs and use the crop or rein ends back behind the flank. If she kicks out, do nothing. If she trots off, let her trot for about 10 steps, then ask her ’softly’ to walk again. Do not attempt to hold her in or take up on the reins. If all she does is kick, do it again. She will likely kick again and again for about 5-10 times, but eventually she will move forward. Once she gets the ‘move forward’ part, the kicking will fix itself.
Most riders know just how far they can push their horse before the horse becomes too much for them to handle. Find that spot where you get the desired response without any dangerous moves like bucking, bolting or rearing.
Then ask for the halt again, stay for about 30 seconds, and ask for the walk (ask). Again, if you don’t get her almost jumping forward, ask a second time with your legs (tell) and if that isn’t sufficient, ask with the crop or reins (deliver). Again, let her move forward into the trot if she does, about 20 steps, then back into the walk.
Repeat this until that mare responds with immediate reaction. As she gets better at responding, you get softer with the request, until you ‘whisper’ forward and she moves into action. It may take 20 to 30 requests from you, but stay with it. This is where the lesson becomes habit, and horses are habitual.
Then move the lesson into the trot. Start your walk, whisper a trot aid, and test the response. As with the walk, if she does not respond immediately with respect, move into the ‘tell’ then the ‘deliver’, and let her canter if she wants to, for about 10 strides, back to a trot, and a walk.
Between each lesson, let her walk on a loose rein, to give her a chance to think about it. When she responds the way you want let her know by lots of rubs to the neck, telling her she’s good. I get so much from my horses with praise.
This lesson may be done over the course of 2-3 days, as it’s important to really cement this into their brain.
Another important thing to remember is that this is not a form of punishment. It is NOT performed in anger, nor any voice command what so ever. Just deliver and soften. When a dominant horse delivers a message to another horse who may not be responding, the dominant horse will always use just enough force necessary to get the sleepy one to wake up and ’stick with the tour’. He does not stay angry after, and neither should a human delivering the same message.
Also, remember that the single message is move forward, and any way that happens is the right way. You can refine it once the message is firmly in place.
And keep repeating the lesson until you get on one day and the response is there, instantly and respectively (about 3-5 days if you keep repeating the process with results).
Once she is respecting and behaving the way you need her to, now is the time when you test it away from the ring or field. I start the horse down the driveway on the way out to the road or trail. Take the mare out, and walk about 10 steps, then halt. Stay for 30 seconds, then move into a trot instantly. Trot for about 6 steps, then halt. Turn around. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Keep the horse at this until the mare puts her head down and lets out a big sigh, and she stands quietly with her head low, licking her lips. This is where she surrenders to the lesson.
Then move out a bit further, repeating the same. Do not go to the ‘corner’ where you had problems for a few more days. Just stay in the ’safe’ zone, repeating the lesson.
This is where patience kicks in, as the results need time to cement. This is your foundation, the place that will always be there when you need it IF you take the time and do it over and over. Remember to not get angry if it takes a long time, or you will undo everything you began. One day of anger can set a horse back for months. Remember what the ‘asshole’ did to her earlier.
You will likely ‘feel’ the mare beginning to bond with your responses, trusting you more and becoming more of a partner than a ride. I call this the ‘magic’ place, where you become a team, trusting each other to keep you out of trouble. It is achieved by patience, respect, honor and repetition. You will get to a place where all your aids are a whisper, and all her responses are a YES! This is the world where my horses and I live. Harmony.
Now the test. The corner. The place where, if the work has been performed well and you are a team, should deliver different results than the past. You may not find that she simply walks through it, although I find this is often the case. But you may get tested, in which case you begin the lesson again.
In training for anything, you will often go back to kindergarten and retrain. If the lesson has a foundation, you will find the horse responding like: “oh, I’m sorry, I just forgot for a second. I’ll pick it up next time”. Horses never really become fully dependable 100% of their lives. You will always be retraining and desensitizing your entire life together. It just gets more of a surprise than the norm.
So if you get into trouble again, and she backs up, DELIVER the first time, as by now she should behave with respect. If you need to retrain at the corner for a few days, so be it. This is what happens if you are to move past the corner and into the place where you ride off into the sunset together. Anywhere.
If she is too much, go back to kindergarten, starting in the field or ring, test there, then to the road, test there, then to the corner.
I’m hoping it’s a short time. I have taken most horses ‘around the corner’ in one day, but my delivery is quick and swift. Again, I can ride longer than they can run. For you, this is a good solid foundation process that will take you into other areas of riding.