Is your horse “jiggy” and tense on the trail? Does he trot anxiously in place, refusing to move forward slowly and calmly? If so, you’re likely tense and worried that he’ll take off if you don’t hold him back with constant rein pressure. He has a high headset and looks as though he could burst forward with catapulting energy—a dangerous scenario on the trail.
You want your horse to move forward slowly, but your horse receives mixed signals and wants to escape the tension he feels in your body and rein cues. He’s learned that tight reins mean he should be worried and anxious. Instead, he must learn what you really want — for him to walk forward quietly on a loose rein.
Here, top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight teaches you how your body and rein cues can send the wrong message to your horse and teach him to be tense. She then gives you a step-by-step sequence to train your jiggy horse to relax and move forward slowly on a loose rein.
Goodnight often sees jiggy horses on the trail and in her clinics. She says jiggy behavior is the result of a cycle of tension — the horsefeels tense and wants to speed up, then therider feels the horse speed up and becomes tense as she uses her muscles to pull back in an attempt to slow the horse’s speed.
Goodnight notes that the jiggy horse has a tense and worried rider who isn’t in control of her horse’s speed and direction. If your horse is jiggy, he isn’t staying at the speed you want, and becomes too tense and confused to follow your direction.
Note that the jiggy gray horse in the photo has a high headset and an open mouth, and is ready to jump forward. His rider is pulling back with fairly tight rein aids and is squeezing with her legs. While she thinks that she’s telling the horse to slow down with her rein aids, her tight legs are telling him to zoom ahead. These mixed signals cause him to be anxious and jiggy.
Note that you shouldn’t have to constantly rate your horse’s speed. If you tell him to pick up a particular gait, he should stay in that gait, at the speed you dictate, until you give a new cue and command.
To help your jiggy horse understand your speed commands, you’ll need to teach him a new set of cues. Here’s how to teach him to associate slow, relaxed movement with loose reins and your relaxed body position.
Horsemanship lesson:You’ll learn how to stop your horse’s jiggy behavior by stopping him abruptly and loosening your reins. The dramatic change will help your horse associate relaxation and a loose rein with moving slowly.
Why you need it on the trail: You should be able to relax and enjoy the scenery on the trail. You won’t be able to do this if you have to rate your horse’s speed with every stride. Plus you’re your horse continually jigs, he’ll not only be stressed, but also he’ll develop musculature that will keep his back arched and his head high.
You’ll abruptly stop your jigging horse and immediately loosen the reins. By doing so, you’ll show him that stopping and moving slowly should be associated with a loose rein. The release of bit pressure is his reward for doing the right thing.
What you’ll need: Your saddled horse and long rope reins that are easy to collect and handle.
Skills your horse will need: Your horse should accept a rider, and respond to a voice and rein cue to whoa.
Step #1: Whoa!
Your jiggy horse is so used to your pulling on the reins that he doesn’t understand that bit pressure is a cue to stop. To end the jiggy behavior, you’ll need to stop in a dramatic fashion so that he can feel the difference in your cue and stand still. You’ll need to escalate your stop cue so your jiggy horse obeys and listens during his new training session.
To stop with gusto, say “whoa,” then sit deep onto your pockets and grab the reins. In Photo 1A, Goodnight grabs both reins in her left hand and anchors her hand into her horse’s mane. With her right hand, she pulls back even more until her horse stops completely (Photo 1B).
Note that Goodnight’s hips are tucked under and her upper body is canted back to give her horse a firm seat aid in addition to her rein cue.
With her long rope reins, Goodnight is able to easily handle the reins and slide her hands into position.
Note that if this “whoa” command isn’t more dramatic than your usual slow-down and whoa cues, your horse won’t understand that this training session is different — and will continue his jiggy behavior. The command needs to be different and abrupt enough to inspire a complete stop and signal a change to him.
Immediately after your horse stops, be ready for the next step: the dramatic release.
Step #2: Release and Relax
As soon as you stop, give your horse a quick, dramatic release: immediately relax your body position, place one rein at the end of the loop reins, and drop your hand down to his neck to show him that he can relax his head.
This release shows your horse that he won’t feel pressure from the reins if he’s relaxed, so he learns that that staying relaxed is the desired behavior. This association teaches him that he’ll get the loose rein he craves when he’s stopped or moving slowly.
Your horse doesn’t want you to pull on the reins. He also has likely learned that when the reins are relaxed, and he feels your knuckles on this neck, it probably means that you’re relaxed and taking a break (Photo 2A). He doesn’t want to move with tension and doesn’t want to work harder than he has to.
As you stand still with your knuckles on your horse’s neck, you’ll remind your horse of other relaxed times when he doesn’t have to work. He’ll associate your loose rein with relaxation and will begin to understand that you don’t want him to be tense. Stand still, and keep your body relaxed for a few moments. Don’t hurry on to the next step.
Step #3: Walk On
Now it’s time to ask your horse to move forward with the same relaxation he feels as he’s standing still. With your reins still long and loose, hold on with two hands, and ask your horse to step forward. To do so, use your usual voice cue; gently tap your legs on his side, if necessary.
Sit back, and breathe deeply to show your horse that you’re just as relaxed as you were when you were standing still. Concentrate on keeping your weight back and your body moving slowly in the walk rhythm.
If your horse begins to jig or speed up, repeat Steps #1 and #2. Keep repeating these steps as necessary. Your goal is to gradually gain more and more calm and relaxed steps before needing to repeat the stop-release-relax-walk process. You’ll break the cycle of tension and clearly show your horse that you’re the leader of the herd. You’re the one deciding that the herd will be relaxed andmove ahead slowly.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Melocco (www.wholepicture.org) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.