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Training focus helps get past those ‘crazy’ moments

By RAY ARISS - Horsetrader columnist - June 5th, 2014 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY!: I am a professional, training a 10-year-old Arabian gelding that has, with dressage training, turned into quite an impressive athlete. But, I can work him under saddle IF it is a warm day and IF there is absolutely NOTHING in or around the arena that is moving — and even then, we might be working beautifully when out of nowhere he “sees” something (a leaf moving), drops his shoulder, turns and bolts. It finally occurred to me that he’s making the choice to act this way because he “can,” and something in my training has allowed it. As his trainer, the buck has to start and stop with me – HELP!
–Gay McCall

HEY GAY: What you are experiencing is more common than you think. Many horses in training will exhibit at one time or another some of what you are dealing with. These horses might be sweet, nervous, smart, athletic, good moving, lazy, over-reactive, insecure, strong, explosive, hormonal, aggressive, calculating, stubborn and last but not least — stupid or crazy. Your horse is all of the above, except for stupid or crazy.

Many horses may act stupid or crazy, but they are far from it. I believe your horse does all of what he does simply because those things work for him. Just understand it’s nothing personal, even if it personally affects you. I like your question not so much because of the issue or challenge it presents, but because the answer is in your question. I know if you try to confront anything he does, there’s a good chance things may get worse. I know he is not crazy or stupid.

Let’s start there, at the part where you feel that if you ignore it, it won’t get worse. It may seem that way, but in reality, it just gets worse at a slower pace. On the other hand, if you don’t address it, it will never get better. So this is one of many ways to handle your challenge — recommended for trainers only:

Every time you think, feel, or know he is going to flip his switch that takes him “SOUTH” on you, consider this:

If he’s young and just starting, a direct rein flexion into a circle or a turn on the forehand works well. If the horse has more advanced training, moving from a one- track to a two-track / lateral exercise will work as well. The key here is, regardless of the exercise you choose, it’s important to apply pressure with one spur the moment you feel a change in attitude. Of course, the horse must understand and accept spurs, otherwise do not use this approach.

It doesn’t matter what side you push the spur into unless he actually chooses a side to turn and bolt on. In that case, have him meet the spur on that side and follow through with flexion on that side as well. Next, move the horse away or around that spur leg and don’t release it until the horse abandons the attitude and becomes soft once again. Once this happens, fade away the spur.

This allows you to apply or release any and all other aids that you may need in order to get your horse under control and back on track. Sometimes when a horse bolts, while in the process of controlling, correcting, guiding, supporting and basically trying not to crash-and-burn, we find ourselves releasing pressure. It’s important to remember that RELEASE IS RELIEF, AND RELIEF IS REWARD, so you need to be careful what you reward for. The last thing we want is for the horse to think that when we released a rein in order to turn and not crash into a fence, that he actually ended up winning some sort of tug-of-war or something.

This likely is what has caused your horse to escalate to the level that he has. When it comes to the pressure of the single spur, simply remember to “hang in tight, ‘til it’s right, before you go light.” The stitch in your horse’s side will be his guide of whether he is on the right track or not. Just know that the pressure of the spur, in this case, is not asking him to do anything physical — it’s more about having something to release when his intentions are good. We know that your horse is going to bolt whether he has a spur in his side or not. But if he associates the stitch in his side with bad thoughts — and more importantly — the relief with good thoughts, then the slight touch of the spur soon becomes his conscience. Look at the spur as something for him to focus on when his mind drifts from what he should be thinking about.

There’s no question whether your horse CAN do dressage, it’s more a matter of WILL he? You need to establish a basic foundation that includes boundaries, trust, a clear language, and an understanding that there is something in it for him when he doesn’t cheat.

Gay, as a professional, you should know it’s a good idea to seek out a colleague for help if your safety is at risk, and remember to always trust your instincts 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 twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco CA, at his bustling StarBrite Riding Academy. Does your “horse-human” relationship leave you with a question for Ray? Just go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Hey Ray!” section, then submit it!

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