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Dear Dana: How do you keep cool with a resistant horse?

By DANA HOKANA / Horsetrader columnist - June 16th, 2010 - Q&A Dear Dana

We have all felt the challenge: “How can I keep my cool on this horse?!”

We all have the potential to lose our temper. The problem with losing your temper is it magnifies the problem, making the horse even more resistant to the task. Horses respond best to clear messages. When they are wrong, show them clearly and correctly. When they are right, clearly reward. I like to spend a lot of time showing my horse a maneuver and working on his acceptance to that specific maneuver. There comes a time when I have to demand it. Maintaining acceptance is crucial. If I feel that he has honestly learned and knows what is expected, then he needs to be willing. I should not have to beg for obedience.

Everyone’s personality is different so is their patience level. The goal is to stay within that level while riding. Be firm (without anger) when appropriate and soft when needed. I will give tips and strategies to enhance your understanding of your horse and how to work through difficult times.

Tip #1 – Consider all factors that may affect your horse’s attitude
Let’s start by considering factors that make it hard for your horse to focus on you while training or riding. It may be he has to just deal with it, but these factors still play a part. It is good to be mindful and know what can affect your horse.

Factor #1 – Your horse’s energy level
This is so important! A fresh horse reminds me of a kid that ate a bunch of candy. They are uptight, ready to go and have trouble focusing. If your horse is too fresh to focus, consider lounging or turning him out to expel unwanted energy. Then start your workout. If your horse has a lot of energy and you cannot wear him down, consider what you are feeding him. High carbohydrate, high sugar feed may provide more energy than he needs. Adjust his feed to fit his work level and event you show him in. Too much high energy feed can make it hard for the horse to focus.

Factor #2 – Hormones or heat cycles
If you are riding a mare, be observant of her behavior when she is in heat. Almost all mares change when they are cycling. Some get excessive energy, others become dull and sticky or mad at your legs. Certain mares get angry at other horses. If you are riding a mare that becomes very difficult you may try putting them on Regumate. Some of our show mares are on Regumate to keep their attitude consistent during show season. The most common situation I find is that my mares have a lot more energy when they are in heat. Stallions are also greatly affected by hormones. 

Factor #3 – Young or green horse
Another factor to consider is the age of your horse. Young horses have a shorter attention span than older horses. They also don’t have the self discipline and patience that older horses acquire. Young horses require repetition. They learn by consistency. It takes hundreds of times to perform a maneuver before it is ingrained in their mind for them to become broke. I teach my young horses self discipline by leaving them tied for periods of time. I might also ride them at different times of the day and constantly change their routine. I may ride them at a meal time or in the evening. I try not to get them dependant on a routine. Shows are unpredictable and I may have to compete during a meal time. A horse can become very upset by this. They must realize that they still have to behave no matter what the time of day or what the circumstance is.

Factor #4 – Poor Attention Span or a spooky horse
Some horses have a poor attention span. Often they are horses that spook or ones that want to look at things. This personality type may be genetic; some of it could also be a learned behavior. You can teach your horse to be spooky. This happens through body language and subtle signals through your body that there is something to worry about as you approach a scary or challenging object. If your horse feels your fear, this tells him that it is a big deal and he may react or spook, which causes you to react even more. You may be unconsciously causing a pattern of learned behavior. Become aware of your signals. Breathe and relax while approaching intimidating obstacles. When he reacts, act as if it is no big deal. Keep going back and forth by the object until he can relax. Stop your horse by the scary spot, stand there until you hear him breathe and relax. Do not overreact! If you are able, tie them out in different places and leave them there until they can relax can stand quietly.

Factor #5 – Negative past experiences
This is a really important factor, because if you have a horse that you did not own during all of his training he may have some negative reactions to your cues or pressure, it might be because of his past training. As an example, if he overreacts when you pick him up in the face and he becomes unreasonable, it may be that someone who rode him jerked him or scared him. You can undo negative past experiences with time and patience, but the first step is diagnosing the problem. To repair damage you must turn the bad experience in to a good one or in the least an okay experience.

Factor #6 – Soreness
If your horse is sore somewhere he will have trouble focusing. If something just doesn’t feel right, seek the help of a professional. An uncomfortable horse can not be expected to give you his best.

Tip #2 – Do not get emotional
I have a saying, “stay out emotionally.” This can be very difficult and I know that all too well. Most people show or ride because they enjoy their horses and it means a great deal to them. When you are riding a horse and you can not figure out what is going wrong or he is fighting you, it is easy to get upset. This can turn into anger, which your horse can feel. Your emotions truly come out in your cues in how you communicate with your horse. If your horses is unwilling or refusing you, try to approach it like it is his problem, not yours. Separate yourself emotionally. Your horse is making his choices and he can have the consequences. If you feel that your horse has bad past experiences, does not understand, or is confused, then take your time. Isolate the problem or refusal and deal with that one thing until you break through. I have been on horses for long periods of time until I had a break through and started to get to the other side of my problem. Sometimes breaking through in a small area paves the way and builds the relationship (or respect), until he goes ahead and gives up the fight.

Tip #3 – Isolate and work on the body part that is refusing you
This goes back to understanding and diagnosing the problem. I often see people label a horse as ‘bad’ or being a ‘jerk’. That tends to promote you to a state of anger leading to jerking or spurring the horse to solve the problem. I want to isolate what part of their body said “no” and then correct that body part rather than the whole horse. Ride intelligently and be mindful. Be smarter than the horse! For example, if he is refusing to give his face, then work on getting his face and focus on that until you conquer it. Often, I find horses that are angry at or resisting my leg or spur. I will put my leg on them and perform exercises or maneuvers to get them to say “yes” to me until I get on the winning side of the argument. Attacking and fighting the whole horse often snowballs into a bigger problem. Many horses are angry because someone mistakenly diagnosed the problem and then attacked the whole horse instead the body part that refused.

Your horse can not control his circumstance but you can. Create an environment where he can learn. Where he can receive what you’re giving him. Evaluate yourself and how you are asking and teaching, “your delivery” so to speak. As you work as a team you slowly build a relationship and you will create enough authority in the relationship that you can take him into difficult places. He will still listen to you and obey your cues. Keep your emotions in check and you will go farther with your horse.


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