Question: Hi April, I have a quarter horse that is 7 years old (gelding) that walks, trots and canters. Turns on the forehand, sidepasses. For the last 4 weeks he has been doing the strangest direction change at a canter. He will all of sudden decides he doesn’t want to go that way and will change without any notice. Only tends to do it in one direction. He also has started around the same time running into the corners of the arena. We have no idea why he is doing this. I have started lunging him more then usual since this began and he is fine when I do it. I walk with him up and down the center of the arena when lunging and he doesn’t do the sudden change at all. But as soon as I ride him he does it. I have tried putting alot of leg on him at the same point in the arena and pulled on the rein but he manages somehow to do it anyway. There is no other reasons we can think of why he has started this. He does it with our trainer as well. I was wondering if there is anything else we can do to control this sudden turns and running into the corner. Thank you.
Answer from April Reeves: Hi Cindy, That is one of the strangest things I have ever heard, but I may have an explanation.
Years ago, my friend’s Champion Morgan gelding at the time took to climbing walls and diving into corners. Just out of the blue one day! So she got after him, and the horse lost it. It seems that he just had enough of whatever they did day after day, and he broke down mentally. Yes, it appears that horses can break mentally, and before they do, they send us a few “warning signs” much like your horse is doing, with unusual behaviors. Should we choose to ignore those signs, or take the horse’s confidence away with aggressive behavior or getting after them, we may get to witness a horse having a nervous breakdown. It wasn’t pretty.
There is a great deal of information that I am missing, such as how much work do you do in the arena, what else you do with him and what your training schedule is like, but from the little you have told me, it has an eerie similarity to the above gelding.
If your gelding changes direction in the same place, you could conclude it had something to do with that particular spot, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, so cancel that out.
Is there some riding “habit” you have formed that may signal this change, and that he is simply doing something you are asking (unconsciously)? Something even your trainer can’t pick up? I’m just throwing these suggestions out to you. This is a tough one to diagnose without being able to be there.
My gut instinct, from years of watching all forms of unusual behavior, is that your gelding has had enough of whatever you are doing, and he’s playing it out in a form of behavior that appears unusual (to you but not for a horse). Since they can’t speak English, they use their own language to say “Hey, let’s mix it up once in a while”. I use to say “horses don’t get bored – people get bored” but through my life I have altered that. There are the odd horses (and I just lost one) that need a change in their routines daily. If I attempted to do the same thing with my past horse, Max, he would take to halting whenever and wherever he wanted. It was his way of saying “enough is enough”. Not every horse can handle daily repetition.
How to test for this? Change what you are doing and where. Take him out for a ride every third day. Change arenas every day. Mix it up. Add new things. Go back to foundation work and keep it simple. One thing that really stresses almost any horse out, is to get on and immediately demand things from them. I see this daily: in fact, it keeps me in business! I have 2 things I do when I ride and I do this with EVERY horse: When I start my ride, I trot varying sized circles with “hands to the buckle” and allow the horse to stretch longitudinally and warm up those muscle sets, and to show, at the beginning, that I will not put that horse in any form of pain or harm. I build up trust this way and get a horse that, eventually, could be a “routine” horse if need be. Another thing I always do is allow a horse to “soak” in new things, or something he has done well. I will do this 20-30 times a ride. I usually let them walk “hands to the buckle” or stand quietly, and I never wind a horse when I ride. I use to years ago, but found a much better way to get through to them.
While training is all about progression, I often take a day now and then and just go back to basics. Real baby foundation work. It kind of gives them this added boost of confidence, since this is work that’s easy and they don’t have to think too much. I believe we put our horses into all kinds of situations that put huge amounts of stress on them: the kind of stress a horse will avoid “at all costs” should he be on his own in the wild. Then we lack the tolerance and patience needed to help him through those situations, and our horses pay the price.
Should you do all the above, then all I can suggest is that he has learned something from you that you will have to fix. You need to be keenly aware of what you are doing when he does this. What are your hands doing? Your body language? Legs?
The next step is to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. This is an idea that’s as old as the hills, but people forget it all the time. Keep it in your memory and you will solve 99% of all your riding problems.
The second he turns one way, shut him down the opposite way with a one rein stop, then once he has stopped, immediately move back into the original gait you were in. If he suddenly turns to the left, shut him down to the right. You will have to teach him the basics of this exercise first if he doesn’t know it. And if he doesn’t know this foundation, you are missing valuable work that may now be presenting itself in his behavior. I can always tell if a horse is missing work. It shows in many ways. That’s usually why problems come up: the horse does not have the tools to be able to deal with what you are asking him to do.
If you need to know how to use the One Rein Stop, you can read about it on this blog. There are great foundation exercises there as well. Otherwise, short of seeing this myself, the above is all I can offer you right now Cindy. I hope this works, and that you and your gelding go back to having fun again.
Blog link for foundation work:
Link for advanced work: