On the trail, you need your horse to willingly place his hooves where you ask, whether it’s over a log, onto rustling leaves, or across a bridge or stream. If he steps to the side, leaps in the air, backs away, or just doesn’t like the obstacle, he’s making the choices. You’re just along for the ride.
“When your horse won’t step where you want him to, it tells me that he’s in charge,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. “You’ve allowed him to get away with small-but-frequent behavior infractions that make him feel like he’s won the right to choose.
"When you let your horse be the herd leader, he’ll test you in difficult situations on the trail.”
Here, Goodnight will first explain why your horse challenges you. Then she’ll go over how dangerous this behavior can be using a bridge-balker as an example. Next, she’ll give you her expert, three-step fix. As a safety bonus, she’ll provide helmet-fit tips just for young kids.
Inside the Behavior
Horses often balk because their survival instincts tell them to take great care where they step. In the wild, and even on the trail, a misstep can mean the difference between life or death.
“Think about your horse’s instincts,” Goodnight says. “In the wild, horses become prey if their feet are trapped in a bog or uncertain footing. They’re very worried about their feet.” Your horse must trust you and be fully obedient to place his feet on something new. It’s your job to make sure you don’t condone his worries and cave into his defiance. He’ll then learn to disobey not out of fear, but to assert himself.
“If your horse thinks he can choose where to go, you’ll have a problem moving forward across obstacles,” Goodnight notes. “If he thinks he has an option, he thinks he’s in charge.”
A balking problem stems from a lack of basic obedience and control — if you tell your horse to move forward, he should move forward. If you tell him to move backward, he should move backward. When you ask your horse to do something, and he balks, assert yourself as your horse’s leader. If you allow him to turn or even look away, you’ve rewarded him for making his own decisions. Circling also rewards him, as you’ve allowed him to turn away from your goal.
These rewards will reinforce the behavior and, before you know it, you’ve trained your horse to refuse and balk. Instead, correct his disobedience in the moment. Keep his nose pointed in the direction you want to go.
Start by changing your own ingrained behavioral problems of giving into your horse’s choices. Redefine your relationship with him.
Be aware that, no matter how long it took for your horse to learn his disobedient. Tara’s gelding tried all types of dangerous antics to get out of having to step cautiously over the bridge. He jumped and used up a lot of energy doing the wrong thing. behavior, you’ll be training him to be obedient all at once. You’ll ask him to go cold turkey. You’ll show him that, as of this moment, his past antics will no longer work. You’ll change his idea of success.
Make up your mind that you’ll no longer allow disobedience. Remind your horse obedience is the only acceptable answer.
When Goodnight was asked to help a horse-and-rider team in Lynnville, Tennessee, she was told the horse “didn’t like” to put his feet on platforms and obstacles. The rider, Tara, wanted to trail ride and compete in trail challenges, but her once-well-trained, former show horse had decided that he couldn’t place his feet on obstacles of any sort.
Tara reported that bridge obstacles or any type of platform seemed to bring out her horse’s most defiant behaviors. Her horse didn’t spook or bolt away from the obstacles in fear. Instead, he had an arsenal of antics to try.
Sometimes, the horse simply planted his feet and refused to step up. Other times, he’d step around it— or leap over the obstacle like a deer. He’d do anything to avoid touching the obstacle with his feet.
“A rider may manage to cross a creek, but then the horse leaps into the air in terrifying twists and turns,” notes Goodnight. “That’s the result of the rider allowing the horse’s disobedience to continue for too long, and it can be dangerous.”
Fortunately, Tara was an experienced rider with a good seat who could handle most any riding situation. She stayed with her horse as he leapt, turned, balked, and dug in with his feet.
However, Tara had inadvertently rewarded her horse every time she allowed him to turn away from an obstacle. Her horse’s successes wore away her leadership, and balking became an ingrained pattern.
“The very first time her horse balked, Tara should have corrected him, keeping his nose pointed toward the obstacle,” says Goodnight.
Goodnight worked with this horse for about an hour. “With Tara, it was a process to get the horse to place his feet — slowly and calmly — on something he could otherwise easily run around or jump over,” she says.
“That’s exactly the kind of problem many riders have when it comes to crossing bridges, bogs, as well as manmade obstacles, such as tarps and tires.
When the gelding learned to follow Goodnight’s lead, he walked calmly and obediently. water, bridges, bogs, as well as manmade obstacles, such as tarps and tires.
Goodnight worked from the ground, waiting out the horse. She let him know she was the leader; he needed to be respectful. When he realized this, he quickly changed his attitude. He found it was easier for him to follow her directions and willingly crossed any obstacle.
Here’s how you can achieve this kind of success with your balky trail horse.
Before You Begin
First, set attainable goals. Your horse responds to immediate reward and consequence. A goal of “have my horse step up on anything I ask” is too vague. To reassert yourself as your horse’s leader, start with a small training goal. This will show your horse you’re in charge and will reward him for obeying one small task.
Your first goal is to teach your horse you won’t allow him to turn to the right or left, he needs to look straight ahead and place his foot on the obstacle. That’s what it takes to be obedient.
Be patient. Your horse is completely tuned in to your level of determination. Go in with the attitude that you’re prepared to wait. If you go in thinking you have to get your horse across the obstacle right away, you likely won’t achieve success.
After teaching the gelding obedience on the ground, Julie Goodnight mounted up and rode him over the bridge without a balk. "Once your horse is respectful on the ground, the training will carry over to the saddle," she notes. with the attitude that you’re prepared to wait. If you go in thinking you have to get your horse across the obstacle right away, you likely won’t achieve success.
In the moment, show your horse you have all day; you aren’t going anywhere until he crosses the obstacle. Patiently rule out all options except looking forward and stepping in the requested direction.
You’ll start on the ground, for safety and control. From the ground, you can also set an example for your horse, showing him that the behavior you’re asking of him is safe.
Wear gloves and boots for safety. Find an enclosed work area with good footing. Set up an obstacle your horse will avoid. Outfit him in a rope training halter and a training lead rope that’s at least 12 feet long.
Step 1: Start on the Ground
Lead your horse to the obstacle as though you expect him to cross it. Keep his nose pointed toward the obstacle. If he stops or turns away, apply pressure on the lead to point his nose back to the obstacle.
A respectful and obedient horse doesn’t move into your space. Keep him out of your space by keeping his nose pointed at the obstacle. Where his nose goes, his body usually follows. And if he invades your space, he controls your feet.
“With Tara’s horse, he didn’t have a problem going over the bridge — he’d jump it,” Goodnight says. “At first, if I didn’t let him jump it or turn away from me, he was willing to run over me. I had to teach him that neither of these choices was acceptable, especially not running over the top of me.”
Teach your horse to step up to the obstacle slowly and with precision. Ask him to step one foot at a time and stop between each step.
When your horse moves forward and stops on your cue, praise him. If he disobeys, apply appropriate pressure to the lead rope, and wait him out.
Bump, rather than pull on, the lead rope. A pull is easier for your horse to ignore, so you’ll need to keep applying more pressure to get his attention. Pulling will also lead to a tug-of-war, one you’ll never win. Bumping the rope is irritating to him and helps you avoid the tug-of-war.
Step 2: Mount Up
After your horse learns obedience on the ground, mount up, and approach the obstacle with the same patient determination. When your horse understands your intent and determination on the ground, he’ll also recognize your leadership in the saddle.
Outfit your horse in his normal tack; make sure to use a bit that you can ride two-handed. Don your helmet. Warm up your horse, check the cinch, and remount.
your hands forward, and keep your horse’s nose pointed straight ahead. If he turns his nose or even glances to the side, bump the opposite rein to keep him pointed at the obstacle.
If you took your time with the ground work, the corrections needed from the saddle should be few. Your horse now knows his antics no longer work. You’re the leader. His job is to be an obedient and willing partner. You’re teaching him that it’s easier to do what you ask than it is to keep up his antics.
A horse with ingrained patterns of behavior just turns into a different horse when he finally changes his mind and realizes his strategy doesn’t work anymore.
“Tara’s horse realized I’d carry my leadership attitude to mounted work,” Goodnight says.
“Walking over the bridge wasn’t nearly as hard as all the other things he was doing. When he made up his mind to be obedient, he also went over a large tire obstacle and crossed a challenging narrow bridge with running water underneath.
“That this horse was willing to cross other obstacles so soon further showed me he wasn’t afraid of the bridge. He’d just had so much success getting his way in the past that he wasn’t going to step across unless there was a reason for him to tune in and be obedient.”
Step 3: Branch Out
When your horse is responding well to the practice obstacle, set up other obstacles around the barnyard. Ask him to cross each obstacle obediently.
Now you’re ready to venture onto the trail. You horse should cross any obstacle you come upon, thanks to your patient efforts to successfully reestablish your position as herd leader.
For more training tips from Julie Goodnight, and to access her online video library, go to http://tv.juliegoodnight.com.
For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from http://www.equinenetworkstore.com/.
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.whole-picture.com) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado