Getting a slow horse to move forward happily - The Horse Forum
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Old 02-14-2020, 08:36 AM Thread Starter
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Getting a slow horse to move forward happily

I'm probably opening a can of worms here since I will be getting a lot of different opinions on this. But perhaps they will help me find a solution. This will be long, but before you give suggestions, please read through to get the whole picture.

Rusty is a 7 year old Appy who has very little training. He was lightly started when I bought him at age 6 (about ten rides, mostly on trails, no cantering or very little). I never thought I'd buy a green horse, but he's awesome. Safe, solid, and a really affectionate and playful personality. Loves people. Will follow me around like a dog rather than hang out with his horse friends. But also quite stubborn. I have had to teach him about personal space. He gets bored easily so I have to keep things moving. I've done liberty training and some ground work with him. He's receptive to training, but sessions work better when they're short. Moving away from pressure was difficult for him because he'd rather move into it. He has finally learned to move away when I ask him. Mostly. He learns fast, especially when there are treats involved (we've done clicker training). Under saddle, he was initially good on trails, but has a tendency to take off. I cannot take my attention off him for any amount of time or he will drift off like a 4 year old child with ADHD. But he is happy on trails, moves in a forward manner, will go anywhere and do anything, never refuses to move forward. If anything, he's a little too energetic on trails, but the longer we ride, the more he settles down. He never rushes home, preferring to stay on trails for hours if he can.

In the arena he's a different horse. Walks like he's about to collapse. I have finally taught him the cues for trotting and cantering, and he is much more responsive to my reins. When we first got him, he'd just be all over the place and it was really hard to get him to follow a specific path. Now I can keep him on the rail with my leg, do figure 8s, trot over poles, etc. He will trot for me for a while (maybe 15-20 minutes), but after that, is clearly tired and wants to quit. I keep him going a while longer to build his endurance. I try to keep it interesting by using poles and cones, and varying the exercises. He likes that. Cantering is a challenge. I can only get him to canter a few strides, though my daughter has managed to canter him all around the arena, but it's hard work to keep him going. He is not in good shape, clearly, so we've been working him slowly up to be able to take more work.

We've been working with a trainer once a week, and I usually ride him at least once more, and do some ground work between rides. The trainer says he's lazy and stubborn and is being a jerk. She has me using a crop (she's actually lending me a dressage whip so it's longer) if he doesn't want to trot anymore or won't canter immediately. I have to say, I always rode him with a crop before too, so it's not just her, he does need a little reminder sometimes. But lately, the crop results in Rusty kicking up his hind feet in a half-buck. It's not bad, I don't feel like he'd unseat me, but this is not a habit I want to reinforce. So our lessons go like this: we walk, then trot a pattern using poles, etc., then do a bit of canter work. The first two canters or so are fine (we'll canter a long side and bring him back to a trot), but then it falls apart. He's just done. I use the dressage whip and he bucks. I am working my guts out with my legs and body to keep him going, but eventually, I'm exhausted and getting nowhere, so the trainer hops on. He'll canter for her once or twice, then the same thing happens. She has to work really hard, hit him with the whip, put up with his bucks (his front knees even buckled in the middle of a buck last night, and he nearly went down), yell and swear at him until he maybe gives her a couple of strides of the canter. Then I cool him down and his legs are wobbly and he feels like he might just fall over.

I feel we should stop cantering before we get to that point. I'd be happy with the one or two good canters. But the trainer always wants to see if she can squeeze out just one more, and then we've crossed the line of how much he will happily give. I know the trainer thinks I'm just too soft with him, but I don't see the point of ending each lesson in frustration for both of us. If we had stopped just two minutes sooner, we'd both be happier. It's not like I plan on showing him, we're not on a schedule. So what if he doesn't canter for very long? I guess I'm left wondering what's in it for him if he gives me a couple of good canters, then gets hit with a crop for not giving me more. I understand compliance, but I feel it should be built up slowly. He's surprisingly compliant for a horse that has little training, and is in the hands of someone who doesn't know much about training. I know I can't let him win, but I'd rather not pick a battle with him when he's done really well because I feel like I'm punishing him for his efforts. 80% of the lesson is great, then we ruin it in those last 10 minutes.

Thoughts? Trails are off-limits right now because of snow and ice so the arena is the only place I can ride him.
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Old 02-14-2020, 08:41 AM Thread Starter
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Just want to add a couple of things: 1 - I know my position in the canter isn't great. It's ok, but I need work. I'm not balanced. Hard to get balanced though, when I don't get much practice. 2 - I don't want to send him away for training. I can ride him as he is now, and he suits my needs quite well. We're not trying to make him into a show horse. And I want to be involved in his training so sending him away is not something that appeals to me. I also can't afford to sink a lot of money into him since most of my horse money goes to my daughter and her show jumper since they compete.
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Old 02-14-2020, 08:44 AM
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Accept him for what he enjoys and enjoy that with him. Build him up when the weather is nice and see if he goes into winter better next winter. He is saying no, loud and clear, and that is where compromise comes in. He should understand that when you ask he needs to comply and if you get to that point and make the reward instantaneous and attractive enough perhaps he'll give more effort but I would not expect him to love what he sees as pointless. I also don't know how small a space you are in but that could have an effect.


ETA cross post - That could be a part of it and perhaps putting something to absorb all concussion could help until you learn to move with him better but if I am reading and not missing anything - he does the same for your instructor. She has to get after him in the arena?
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Some horse people change their horse, they change their tack and discipline, they change their instructor; they never change themselves.
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Old 02-14-2020, 08:52 AM Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by QtrBel View Post
Accept him for what he enjoys and enjoy that with him. Build him up when the weather is nice and see if he goes into winter better next winter. He is saying no, loud and clear, and that is where compromise comes in. He should understand that when you ask he needs to comply and if you get to that point and make the reward instantaneous and attractive enough perhaps he'll give more effort but I would not expect him to love what he sees as pointless. I also don't know how small a space you are in but that could have an effect.


ETA cross post - That could be a part of it and perhaps putting something to absorb all concussion could help until you learn to move with him better but if I am reading and not missing anything - he does the same for your instructor. She has to get after him in the arena?
Yes, the instructor has to get after him hard to keep him going as well. Initially, he will give her a canter, but after that first one, nope. She can barely get him to do a few strides. Same when my daughter rides him (who is also a much better rider than me, thanks to the 9 years of lessons I've paid for - this is what moms do). Good idea to add something to absorb my movement. Are you thinking a seat cover or a saddle pad? I do use a Thinline pad under the saddle (I ride him in a dressage saddle).
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Old 02-14-2020, 08:53 AM
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Ooof. That's a tough one. And you truly have my sympathy.

A horse with a poor work ethic can be very aggravating. Kind of like watching a teenager who exists playing video games being told to mow the yard.

The few times I've gotten one in, owners hoping I can get them in some sort of shape, and hoping that will help, I put them on cow work. Or even checking fences. Fairly long days.

But I don't see that as a possibility for you. I'll be interested in what others suggest.
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Old 02-14-2020, 08:57 AM Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by boots View Post
Ooof. That's a tough one. And you truly have my sympathy.

A horse with a poor work ethic can be very aggravating. Kind of like watching a teenager who exists playing video games being told to mow the yard.

The few times I've gotten one in, owners hoping I can get them in some sort of shape, and hoping that will help, I put them on cow work. Or even checking fences. Fairly long days.
Not right now, but my hopes are to do some longer trail rides with him. Like full days eventually. I've contemplated endurance riding, but not necessarily to compete, just because I love being out on trails all day and feel he'd like that too. I rode him for 3 hours once, and that was great. Obviously I can't do that in the winter - not without riding him on the road extensively, and that's a bad idea where we live because of the big trucks flying by at breakneck speed and lack of shoulder.

In the summer, it's also difficult to do long trail rides because my daughter is training and conditioning her horse. We do half hour trail rides mostly. I could probably extend that to an hour or so which would be better than nothing.
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Old 02-14-2020, 09:58 AM
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So, you may not like my answer...but I don't think what you have been doing is working, and is only making things worse and teaching him to buck.

IMO, some horses prefer different things. Some horses love arena work, some hate it. Some love the trails, some hate it.

My RMHA gelding Chivas hates arena work. At home, in my pasture, I can ride around for 30 minutes to an hour and we are good. But it is not a real arena, just a flatish area in my pasture. I have tried riding him in real arenas, and he is willing for maybe 15 minutes.

Contrast that with the trails, where controlling his speed is the issue. I have to start out behind other horses to keep him to a slower gait. After 2 miles or so, especially with some hills, he gets his brain back and listens better. We love to fly through the trails.

Rusty hates arena work, and forcing him with a crop/whip is only going to sour him more. I am not sure that this is strictly a condition issue, I think more he hates the work and is bored.


Obviously you are trying to change things up, but ending everything with the bucking is not really a good thing. Btw, I think his exhaustion is more due to the fight between him and the rider than it is due to lack of ability.

Next post, a possible way to change this bad spiral.
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Old 02-14-2020, 10:08 AM
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I'm suspicious when you say he's knees end up shaking and he feels like he's going to fall over at the end of a lesson. Doesn't sound like you are working all that hard to necessitate that kind of reaction. What's the difference in footing between the arena and trails? Does he try to avoid staying on the rail in the arena?



Putting that aside for the moment, you ask with your leg, he ignores you. You follow up with the crop and he gives you a kick. Then what? Do you back off? Take 5 minutes to get organized before asking again? He's basically flipping you off. You need to have the follow through to make him go forward when you ask for it. He doesn't respect the leg. That means you need to be able to sit well enough not to pull his face if he jumps forward.


Make sure when you are connecting with the crop, you are connecting behind your leg, not the hip or croup. They are more inclined to kick out if you are hitting the butt. An alternative to a single hit is to to use a rapid series of lighter taps behind the leg, continuing and increasing in intensity until you get that forward reaction. Some find this less offensive.


If you lunge him, what's his reaction to the whip? If it's the same there, fix it there first. Or even just go back to the lunge and reinforce it there. In the same vein, you can have someone on the ground when you ride carry a lunge whip and when he kicks out, they will be your backup. This does mean you, again, will need to be able to sit whatever he reacts with, as the reaction from a ground person will likely be more than just from you. Use a neck strap if needed. Just don't catch his mouth.


When you do canter, try a light seat where your seat won't be interfering with his back.
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Old 02-14-2020, 10:13 AM
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This horse had little training, and you need to back track a bit. He is a mostly gentle, agreeable sort, so the holes in his training are not so obvious. All that wiggly stuff, is normal baby stuff. But it is easy to turn a sweet horse sour if one does not take a gentle, sensible approach to teaching a horse that he needs to work.

As I see it, you have two goals that need addressing:

1) More energy, increase condition
2) Increase in willingness for ringwork


Fortunately, these two goals will work together!

Goal 1) More energy and condition.

I have always used interval training to work on these issues. Instead of repeating circles at the same gait, one switches back and forth to increase lung and heart capacity.

Begin on the lunge line. vary between walk and trot, working on the transitions. The goal is quick, energetic transitions, which will occur as he gets fitter. Do not worry about canter yet.

For the next two weeks, work two days, one day off. Repeat. Remember the goal is in the quick, energetic transitions, Not repetitive circles.


So for example, 4 strides walk, 4 strides trot, 5 of each, 3 of each, 8 of each, 4 of each. I can't tell you exactly how many strides to do at each gait, you have to get a feel for that.


You will know when his condition has improved because he will be so energized, he will start to offer canter. That is the point you can return to under saddle work.


Under saddle, you will do the same. Focus on energetic transitions. Reward heavily! Atta boy! I can not emphasize enough how important it is to tell him when you are pleased with him.
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Old 02-14-2020, 10:19 AM
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Goal 2) willingness to do ringwork .

Some of this will already be better r/t the lunge work you have been doing. The other part is related to how well the one rewards the horse for his efforts.

The goal here is to increase his willingness, by praise and minimal correction. Tell him he is the greatest horse in the world for doing a circle at canter, and he will soon want to do more.

He does want to please you, but he doesn't know how happy it makes you to do all those circles. To him it seems silly and pointless. So give him a reason.

Let your liberty work carry over into ridden work. Treat heavily at the beginning, then as time goes on change to more subtle rewards.


Let your arena "work" be a time for sharing and growing, not forcing and demanding.
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