Horse Problem? Avoid Insanity—Try Something *New*

When you’re having a horse problem, avoid insanity by thinking creatively. Try something new instead of just drilling the same old maneuver.

As far as I know, Albert Einstein never owned a horse. But he surely could’ve been speaking for horsemen when he said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Have you ever made this mistake this with your horse? It’s not uncommon.

Top horsewoman Laurel Denton says when you have a horse problem, it’s your job to sort things out and find a solution that works. Photo for mock cover by Jennifer Paulson

“Riders get stuck because that’s human nature,” says Laurel Denton, the outstanding Arizona horsewoman I profiled in the July 2017 issue. “We tend to cook the same things, go to the same restaurants, get in a routine with everything,” she adds.

With our horses, that can mean trying the same solution to a problem over and over, hoping it will work when clearly it isn’t working.

I remember being frustrated with my daughter’s pony, Diamond. Sophie was just 10 at the time, and she couldn’t get that little mare to pick up her right lead. Finally, after repeated attempts, I stopped to think. The pony was new to us; maybe it had gotten a little one-sided with her prior child owner?

I took Sophie and Diamond out of our arena and down the trail to a place where they could trot up a slight rise, then pick up a lope as they turned onto a track that led up a hill to the right. And when they did that, presto! The right lead came naturally.

We practiced that several times over several days, and before long Diamond’s right lead was “reactivated,” plus Sophie had the feel of how to ask for it properly.

Problem solved–but not by the “same old” drilling that we’d been doing.

Laurel, who last November won the senior ranch riding at the Quarter Horse World Show, has similar stories.

Aboard Light N Lucky, Laurel beat 105 others to claim the 2017 AQHA World Show title in senior ranch riding. Photo by K.C. Montgomery, courtesy of Laurel Denton

“I love to teach a horse to change leads,” she says. “I have a certain progression I use, but when a horse is having trouble with it, I change up the steps, slow them down, or even try something completely new. I don’t just drill endlessly, and I never give up or get mad.”

The reward, she adds, “is the day I feel in my hands, ‘Wow. He understands!’”

Sometimes that wow of understanding comes for the rider, which then opens a new door for the horse. This happened for me and my Paint mare, Falcon. My goal was to be able to sit easily in the saddle and lope and lope and lope on a loose rein, the way the helpers do when warming up cutting horses before a show.

I felt timid about it, however, which meant I kept checking the mare without even realizing it. I wanted her to lope relaxed—not fast—so I was keeping too much hold of the reins in the lope depart. This just caused her to tense up, which made her want to go faster. Vicious circle, and it was making me crazy.

Finally, I enlisted the help of a more experienced friend. I asked her to lope my mare on a loose rein, and she did exactly that. Sitting up straight and relaxed in the saddle, she pitched the reins and loped around and around.

Seeing was finally believing. Suddenly I was able to put into practice exactly what my riding coach had been telling me to do all along: sit back, don’t grip with my legs, give Falcon her head. And when I did, she loped just as nicely for me as she had for my friend. Problem solved, and insanity avoided. (For a terrific how-to on loping exactly like this, see Madison Shambaugh’s “Let Him Lope!” in the Confident Rider department of the January 2018 H&R, out soon.)

Laurel sums it up nicely. “It takes a lot of work to overcome the tendency to do what’s familiar, over and over. But remember: It’s your job as the rider to sort things out and find an answer that works.”


Exercises to help you develop that elusive feel.

Extend your horse’s walking stride–without breaking gait.

Master true gait extension (not just speeding up). 

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