They’re the kind of problems that bug you…and can make you lose your temper. Your horse won’t stand still after you stop him. Or he’s begun taking over when you ride, trying to dictate direction, speed, and more. Perhaps it’s the classic drift toward the gate. Or, he keeps lifting his head to look outside the ring and tune you out.
I know it’s tempting to try to muscle through such issues. But that’d be likely to escalate into a fight that you can’t win. Instead, I’m going to give you four simple solutions that’ll enable you to use your brain (rather than your brawn) to fix four common problems.
1. Won’t Stand Still After a Stop
The problem: You stop your horse, and he immediately wants to walk forward (or fidget), rather than stand still.
Why it happens: If you’re like 98 percent of riders, you ask your horse to stop, then immediately give him a pat and let him walk off, as a reward. Guess what? You’ve inadvertently trained him that a stop isn’t truly a stop (meaning a total cessation of forward motion), but rather a slight pause.
Regardless of whether you’re on pattern in the show ring or trying to stop on the trail, your horse needs to learn that stop means “stop!” until you say otherwise. Not only will this prevent points off when you show, but it’s also a matter of everyday safety. If your horse comes to believe that standing still after a stop is optional, it’ll make even such basics as mounting and dismounting unsafe.
The fix: Never walk forward out of a stop (unless it’s called for on pattern in the show pen). After I stop a horse, I’ll drape the reins and see what happens. If he takes a step forward, I’ll instantly stop him and back him up 10 steps (see inset on photo above).
I’ll repeat that back-up fix every time the horse tries to step forward, until he learns that he’s not allowed to go forward unless I say so. To maintain that message without confusing him, I never walk forward after a stop. Instead, I’ll turn him around five times before walking off. Or do a 180-degree turn before walking off in the opposite direction. That way he’s not walking out of the stop, but rather out of a turn or other maneuver. And, he’s only doing so after I cue him.
The problem: Your horse is starting to make his own decisions, such as which way to go when you walk into the arena. It’s snowballing into a problem with speed and anticipation on maneuvers, as well.
Why it happens: The late, great horseman Guy Stoops called it “dummy riding.” You’re on the cell phone, talking to a friend, watching the clouds, thinking about work…doing anything but focusing on your horse.
As a result, you zone out and automatically head the same direction when you walk into the arena, day in and day out. Then you do the exact same walk-jog-lope routine before heading in the opposite direction. Your horse figures out that you’re in “cruise control,” and starts to take over and make decisions for himself. That’s how a lot of anticipatory problems begin.
The fix: Avoid zoning out when you ride. I know that’s hard—I can find my mind drifting to the next horse I have to ride or the customer that’s due to show up or…. But I’ve learned to stop that drift and dial in to my horse.
That way, when I walk into the ring or work area, or even onto a trail, I can feel for any sign that he wants to take over. For instance, if he wants to go left, I’ll take him to the right, and may ask him to circle several times in that direction to reinforce the fact that I’m calling the shots. (See photo above.) If he wants to go right, I’ll take him left.
If he wants to go fast, I’ll ask him to go slow, or I’ll make him go even faster until I say he can slow down. In short, I ride him every single stride for the entire time we’re working, constantly changing things up to keep him guessing—and listening to me.
That’s what gets a horse broke, and it does so without fights or drama. If you discipline yourself to do the same, you’ll find your horse’s responsiveness soar.
3. Gate Drift
The problem: Your horse tends to drift (or try to drag you!) toward the gate whenever he gets near it.
Why it happens: Chances are, after every ride he gets to go through that gate and back to the barn. There, he gets groomed and fussed over, and then put in his “house,” where he gets to see his buddies, eat, and rest. I don’t blame him for wanting to be there. After a hard day, my house can pull me like a magnet for the same reasons.
That gate represents the exit ramp to his happy place.
The fix: If your arena has two gates, alternate using them, even if the second gate is less convenient for you. Regardless, take some of the appeal out of going through any gate by making your horse work by it and/or when he gets outside it.
For instance, I’ll have my reiners perform 10 or more turnarounds by the “exit ramp.” (We don’t have an actual gate at my arena, but the opening to the barn still has a magnetic pull; see photo above.) I’ll then ride right back into the ring and go to the center (or the rail, if I have a rail horse), step off, loosen the cinch, and let the horse stand and relax before leading him back to the barn. That helps make the ring his happy place.
You can also alternate backing out of the ring, rather than walking out. Get creative by using your greatest training tool: your brain.
4. Looking Outside the Arena (A K A Lack of Focus)
The problem: As you’re schooling your horse, he keeps lifting his head to look out of the arena at the birds, the dogs, other horses, the barn, or pretty much anything. (See photo above.)
Why it happens: His focus is on everything but you.
The fix: I know it’s tempting to try to wrestle his head straight in front of him by pulling on the reins. But that won’t do anything but aggravate him. Instead, dial him back into you by asking him to do something. When he lifts his head and looks rightward, immediately turn him around to the left and ride off.
If he looks leftward, turn him toward the right. Then ride circles, stops, back-ups—any maneuver that’ll get his attention back to the work at hand.