When your horse hits a roadblock during a training session and starts to unravel, it’s important to refocus his mind before you attempt to go back to what caused him confusion or frustration. If you don’t, you run the risk of a complete blowup and an unproductive ride. It can also cause long-term resentment toward maneuvers and demolish your horse’s confidence.
When you find yourself in this situation, stop what you’re doing, and switch to an exercise or drill that your horse knows. He’ll revitalize his confidence and calm his mind by doing a simple exercise that he knows he can do and is comfortable performing.
Here I’ll offer a few of those go-to exercises to bring his mind back to you and the task at hand. Be sure to keep your hands and legs slow but deliberate, and don’t let your own frustration get the best of you. If you can’t keep your emotions in check, dismount and take a break.
1. In each of these refocusing exercises, keep your hands low and forward unless you need to pick them up for a correction. Then immediately return your hands to a low position. By staying off your horse’s face, he’s allowed to relax and find his confidence again. It’s much more productive (and enjoyable) to go back to work with a relaxed, confident horse than one that’s frazzled and fractious. A distracted, upset horse (and rider) is in no frame of mind for a gratifying riding session.
2. When your horse nears his breaking point, one fundamental you can always return to is steering and guiding. On a draped rein, lope your horse around the arena, down the fences as well as across the diagonals, through the middle, and on smaller circles along the fence and in the middle of the arena. The draped rein keeps your horse from feeling confined and pressured, but you can keep his mind engaged by changing your path.
3. While loping quietly, move your legs forward and back, and put pressure on and take it off to ensure that your horse isn’t leaning in either direction and that you can move him off your legs. Even though the point is to relax and get his mind back, you still want your horse to maintain correctness. Otherwise, you’ll have more obstacles to overcome when you return to the work that caused him to lose focus.
4. Quiet, relaxed spins or turns on the hindquarters can help your horse return to a responsive frame of mind. The key is to keep him correct without asking too much, or you might find yourself back in the state of frustration/confusion you’re trying to remedy. Really think about the steps and keep it slow. Be sure your horse knows what you’re asking. Be slow and correct, and then find a good place to stop—don’t keep going for perfection. When you’re salvaging a ride after a blowup, you don’t want to keep pushing until you have another one.
5. Make relaxed, loping passes down the long sides of the arena and on the diagonal, and then ask your horse for an easy stop. After a nice stop on the hindquarters, let your horse catch his air, or roll him back and ask for a soft lope departure in the other direction. Stop, turn over your horse’s hocks, and then lope off on one lead; repeat for the other lead; and then take a break.
6. Another basic to revisit is giving at the poll and bending to the inside and outside. Drive your horse up into the bridle with your legs and seat, and lift with your hand to get him to flex at his poll, and then release. This helps round his back and improve collection, something that can be lost in the process of a horse getting overwhelmed.
7. Lope departures are another foundation skill that are helpful to refocus your horse’s mind and build his confidence. Furthermore, setting up his body for a correct lope departure helps with his straightness, keeps him from leaning on your legs, and makes him drive from behind—all necessary skills for just about any maneuver. For more about my lope-departure tips, see the June issue of H&R for “Trot-Free Takeoff” in the Problem Solvers department.
8. Going back to any of these foundation-type maneuvers can bolster your horse’s confidence. Pair that with your quiet, slow hands and patience, and you have the recipe to calm your horse down after a blowup and bring his attention back to the lesson of the day. Then you can both end the lesson feeling satisfied and ready for the next ride instead of anxious, upset, and frustrated.
Crystal McNutt trains reining horses and coaches amateur riders in Scottsdale, Arizona. She’s had especially notable success showing Arabians and Half-Arabians in NRHA and Arabian Horse Association events, but she also shows stock breeds. In 2011, she was inducted into the Arabian Professional and Amateur Horseman’s Association Working Western Trainer Hall of Fame and named the Horsewoman of the Year for that group. Learn more at crystalmcnutt.com.