Play or Power- Horses are people too!

20140617-203709-74229211.jpgPsychology, persistence, patience and control?

I believe that there are two main types of horses; the ones that always want to know where the PEOPLE are, and the ones that always want to know where the other HORSES are.

One will let you ride right along side the other horses in the warmup ring, and will march up to you in the paddock and demand attention.

The other will neigh out when you take him just two steps away from his four legged neighbor, and will search constantly for another mate no matter how much he is engaged in the training.

This also applies during the work, as one of these type of horses will shy at SOMETHING in particular, while the other horse will spook at INVISIBLE or PRETEND objects.

But my question is not why a horse shies or takes over, does a kick- up, a buck, or simply stops and refuses to move!

My question is how to deal with this when it inevitably occurs?

The reason I mentioned the personality types of horses is because this question can only be addressed according to the mental attitude and overall TYPE of horse you are riding.

Some horses need to be disciplined when they play up, and will respond best to either mental or physical aids that reaffirm the correct behavior.

Just as with child phycology, a horse will learn better by reinforcing the good behavior, and also making them repeat whatever it was they where trying to SHY away from.

Typically, a smart horse will not shy for no reason, and it is no coincidence that every time you ask for that bit more from your horse, that suddenly the chair that has been there everyday seems like a good reason to take off up the arena!

I have seen strong forceful riders that react to this behavior by kicking and whipping the horse into line, and perhaps with a submissive horse this may work, but for most horses, it is more about training their mind!

When I have the days of FLYING up the arena, it is usually when I have moved on to the next phase of training, i.e….more collection, asking the half pass, more sit in the collected canter… There is usually a new movement which has triggered my horses decision to spook.

Of course there are exceptions, and when a tractor drives at you front on, or a dog jumps out from behind the bushes, it may genuinely give your horse a fright.

However, if it is just an excuse to get out of work, the mental way to solve the problem, is to make him do it MORE.

For example, if a horse does not want to engage himself in the canter on a ten metre circle, you make it a 5 metre mini vault with his quarters to the inside, until he can learn to except he must use his hind legs in the canter.

If you repeat this exercise, until he accepts it willingly, he will say to himself the next time you ask, “mmmm, is better just to do it, because otherwise I’ll have to do it LOTS MORE and to a greater extend!”

A rider you uses harsh disciplinary techniques instead, forgets that they have also stopped asking the exercise the horse was trying to avoid, so he has actually had a major win!

The first type of horse, that spooks at NOTHING, typically gives us warning that he is in a mood likely to spook. There will usually be tension from the beginning of the lesson and he will be constantly trying to take control of the rhythm, and basically CHARGE around.

In this case it is important to always remain READY! If you know he is in a MOOD, and he feels electric, take a little more contact, and ENSURE you always have the bend to the inside! This way if he goes to take off, you can immediately disengage the hindquarters and use inside leg into outside rein to put his focus back on the circle!

When the competition career begins on a young horse, you must also factor this in to how you discipline him.

When a horse is very young, and still just learning the basics, small circles can help to gain control, and allow you to keep the bend if he goes to take off.

BUT, once you begin test training, turning a horse in a small circle when he goes to spook, is not the best idea, as the horse will learn that if he goes to take off, you will turn him, and may go into an unwanted small circle in the middle of a test.

Once you have competition in mind, you must use other methods to gain control, ensuring that the technique can be applied in a test with the MINIMUM amount of disruption.

The best is the to work on the STOP button.

Once a horse is past the stage of being really young and boisterous, it is important that you teach him not only to STOP but to WAIT.

Now if he goes to take off, or take over, STOP. AND STAY STOPPED until you can drop the reins and have him remain standing!

Once you have this technique perfected, when he goes to spook, you won’t even need to actually stop, as the minute you apply the aids, he will come back, and WAIT for the next command! (PS- You have established a working half-halt!)

The next step is just to RE-ESTABLISH rhythm…

When Batialo was a fresh 5 year old, I first taught him to come back into submission using small circles and bending, but now I use the STOP button, and the waiting tool!

When he goes to take charge, I put my aids on more firmly, pretend to ask the stop, and then resume the RHYTHM as quickly as possible.

Eventually, the disciplinary technique will just become a strong half-halt, and the horse will be listening, cause he is WAITING for you!

If you find yourself saying…

“This is not possible, the only way to stop my horse flying off is to turn a small circle, if I try to stop he pulls harder…”


Until your horse has a STOP command, he will never be WAITING for your aids or listening to your seat!

TEST THIS: walk out at the start of the lesson and HALT, in the centre of the arena, and wait, if you cannot drop the reins, without him moving off, he is NOT waiting for you…

And waiting is the fundamental key to the half-halt, as effectively you are saying, wait for me, come back to me, balance underneath me…

When the horse is not waiting, you pull, and that is why so many riders need to pull the horses head off as they charge around the arena, HE IS NOT WAITING!

Instead of then going back to basics, and establishing the STOP and WAIT command, they just increase the intensity of their HOLDING aids, and force the horse to become more and more heavy on the contact.

The more they pull, the more he pulls, creating tension in the rider’s arms, and the horses back and eventually leading to the complete ineffectiveness of the aids.

Jody Hartstone told me that a horse should come to a stop with a simple rein aid, within three beats of the aid being given….


Without this, how can you expect him to do a half stop to rebalance, aka a HALF-HALT…

And if you can ride a Grand Prix test without an effective half-halt, then somethings not right!

My other horse is of the shy AT something variety, and worse, he will not just stop, but actually canter sideways in the opposite direction.

This type of horse needs a very different type of discipline! On these horses, firming the aids,  will only exacerbate the situation, and cause more tension in the horses mind and body.

Small circles, will again create more upset, as these horses will not disengage the hindquarters, but takeover with them, and do a sort of spin of the forehand in an exhibition of stress and fright.

In addition there are sub-categories of the SHY AT SOMETHING horses.

Some shy through genuine terror, because they are honestly afraid of whatever it is they have been affronted with.

This type of shy can be detected by the sudden onset of rapid breathing and often you can actually feel the horses heart rate rising underneath you.

The other version of the shy at somethings, comes as a result of inattentiveness/boredom/arrogance/insubmission/or “getting out of having to work”.

And the final subsection, where the horse began to shy in genuine fright, but the rider allowed him to get away with it, so he has now adopted an attitude of “shy because I CAN!”

In any case, the shy at something horses will not be remedied through the above techniques, by reaffirming the STOP button or gaining control through small circles and bending…

These solutions address a lack of control, but in this case the horse is not trying to take over, he is trying to AVOID altogether.

Stopping him will only highlight his inattentiveness, and gaining control won’t solve the problem.

This horse demands one major technical piece of skill from the rider, and as in the case above it is not effective use of the aids, nor is it discipline…


Typically a horse like this has developed a fright tendency due to exposure to human stress at some point during his early training or handling.

The most important thing to establish with this horse, is CONFIDENCE!

Confidence in you, confidence in himself, and above all trust that you will not let him be harmed by the outside world.

Work him in hand, PAT HIM, talk to him, walk on him. And when he sees something that he does not like, DON’T force it immediately, if you try patiently and he gets more and more upset, walk away from the object and try again the next day.

Also pick your days….

If you know the horse HATES the tractor…. don’t try to ride near it on a windy day, when you are already in a bad mood, and have been flying around for twenty minutes in utter frustration.

Approach it at the end of a standout lesson, when his work that day showed balance and relaxation.

Most of all, BE SMART….

If a kid is scared of the dark, you don’t lock him in the basement. You gradually adjust the light until he is comfortable being alone, and you soothe him with reassurance and understanding!

With either type of horse, the aim should never be to punish him, or to increase his distress, and the only way to truly prevent this is by KNOWING YOUR HORSE….

If you know your horse you will know, terrified breathing or not, whether he is genuinely frightened, or is just having you on.

You will know if you need to take charge, using your seat and leg aids to bring him back into submission and engage his hindquarters through work on small circles, or whether you need to simply adjust the work until he trusts you.

But beyond that, if you know your horse…he will know you, and he will trust you when you say the scary tractor, the instructor’s chair, or the roar of applause (hopefully!) is nothing to be afraid of!

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