HEY RAY! I sent my 5 yr old Thoroughbred gelding to a local trainer for 30 days to put some leg aids on him. Before he left, he didn’t know his leads but I could canter him in both directions with no problems. When I got him back I saw the trainer do leg yields and canter him on the correct leads but he seemed a little on the muscle and worried. I’ve had him at home for a month now and even though he doesn’t ﬁght, he seems to lose his mind anytime I think of using my legs for anything. What happened? Can you help me? —Lisa Martinez, Scottsdale, Ariz
HEY LISA: The good news is you saw your horse do what you sent him out to learn. The bad news is he probably didn’t get a chance to practice what he learned long enough to settle him and stick.
When hot-blooded horses become insecure and confused, they do what all horses do, except in a bigger way. This can be a problem if a horse is worried of the outcome because he lacks trust and clarity. The way to give him conﬁdence is to go back to the beginning with an approach that says, “You should do this because…” instead of “You will do this or else…”
This will be helpful with a horse that is spirited and worried because it will keep him, as you stated before, “from blowing his mind.” You have to go into this with the attitude that you won’t punish for wrong answers; you’ll just reward for right answers. We’re dealing with a horse that is more than likely scared, worried and reactive. It diﬀers from one that may be aggressive and calculating, or lazy and dull. Therefore, if you simply begin by applying pressure with your leg to a simple turn on the forehand or leg-yield down a fence line, keep the leg pressure on—not to make him move oﬀ of it so much as to having something to take oﬀ when he does. This means when you apply pressure, if he doesn’t move where you want him to, don’t worry. Just keep the pressure on regardless of the direction until he moves where you want him to go, then release. This will do two things:
1. Your horse will recognize that the only consequence of not moving oﬀ the leg is the pressure of the leg itself, nothing more. No punishing, no worries, no problems. This will help him sett le. This is important because right now he thinks that doing the wrong thing will be the end of the world for him. It doesn’t matter why or how he came to that conclusion, that’s just the way it is with some horses.
2. When he ﬁnally ﬁgures out what door or path of least resistance to take, he will immediately recognize what he needed to do to have that leg pressure go away. You see the pressure that we use to communicate with horses is not there to make horses do things. It is there to have something to take oﬀ immediately at the moment when they get the right answer. So, it’s not the pressure that creates the light bulb in the horses mind, but the release of it that brings clarity.
If you understand this, then you should understand that when your horse is doing what you want him to do, there should be no pressure. The lack of pressure tells him he’s doing the right thing. If he moves oﬀ your leg, that means your leg no longer needs to push or peddle up hill in order to keep him going unless he stops. Think of your aids as nothing more than the cranking/starting mechanism in your car. When you crank your car to start, once it turns over you stop cranking and allow the car to idle on its own. If your car shows signs of stalling, you don’t re-start until it dies. Then, and only then, do you restart. It’s no diﬀerent with your horse. If you don’t want to burn out your aids, allow your horse to stall out completely before re-starting or cueing. This will help your horse understand the system. Focus on getting your horse to simply idle in his lateral work before you put the pedal to the metal.
Anytime you’re applying pressure, you are, in essence, posing a question to your horse. Can you remember what that felt like when you were sitting at your desk at school and the teacher that didn’t like anybody including you singled you out in front of the whole class and asked you a question you did not know the answer to? Think about that for a minute.
Now, let’s make a couple of simple but crucial changes in order to improve the outcome. You’re still sitting at your desk, but this time it’s with your favorite teacher. Someone who thinks you can do no wrong. He calls on you and asks you a question he knows you know the answer to because he told you the answer. How do you feel now? You need to do this with your horse over and over, all the time, and forever. Let the “pressure” / “question” bring on any answer and be okay with it, but keep asking until eventually the right answer comes up and then simply stop questioning/pressuring.
Eventually you will begin to see a calmer, more relaxed horse. Once this happens, you can begin to move on. Now ask your horse to gradually canter down the fence-line, and don’t put too much emphasis on the correct lead or headset. Focus more on his emotional state of mind for awhile. Once he begins to strike oﬀ into the canter worry free, you can begin to start thinking about lateral work and leads again. A great exercise that works well for me with horses with this challenge is trotting them in a big circle and spiraling in and leg-yielding out of the circle. This allows me to expose them to diﬀerent functions of the leg without having to be overly critical about promptness or precision. Once they can move individually oﬀ each leg with ease, I will ask for a transition into canter from the spiral while leg-yielding outward from the center by simply bringing my outside leg back and squeezing it into my inside leg. This should help him feel less confusion between cantering and leg yielding. Preparing your horse to deal with his fears and doubts is key.
Lisa, “preparation” to your horse equals “answers”. Think of it as giving your horse all the right answers he will ever need before you ever ask a single question and then allowing all answers but accepting only the best. This way he won’t be afraid to make a mistake and eventually arrive at the right one with conﬁ dence. Trust your instincts through this and think safe,
Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horse-and-human each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com.