Q: I have a 6 yr old horse who never was really in front of the leg, but now she gets sticky, refuses to go into trot, will spook, and will stop and rear if I escalate things. Someone on the ground with a lunge whip helps, but I can't do that forever! On line she will also stop and rear, but then settles in. When she IS going, she can be great. She will trot and canter from the slightest squeeze, does lateral work, will stretch and can be ridden on a long rein or in soft connection. I have tried her with different saddles and different riders of different weights, and have had her checked by a vet, and all is OK. What can I do? Please help!
A: It sounds like you have investigated the things that first pop in my mind (pain, saddle, the human that is on top of her... etc)
I actually have met three horses this year that have had a similar issue, and we were able to break the pattern in each one. One was a very dominant mare who would get fixated on a particular place in the arena, or with her buddy in the pasture and want to go there and stop and would rear/explode if pushed. Another was a gelding who was sometimes lovely, but would start to spook (at familiar objects), then get stuck, and another was a young horse just getting started, who has a genetic predisposition for this kind of behavior and would get stuck (no rearing, but some threat to rear).
The solution is two-fold
1. Communication In The Moment. Rearing is not good behavior and we need to be able to interrupt it... Think of what a boss mare would do if she asked a herd member to move out of her way and they just reared instead... If you can't get her going forward, get her moving somewhere.... A hind quarter yield anytime anywhere is helpful as it takes away their ability to be on their back feet if you are moving them... In the beginning with one horse that was all we did, checking them on each side until the horse said: "Can I please walk forward?!"
Of course this comes from having them super-respectful in the easier moments... Up your game and expectation as far as general respect and communication in the good moments.... Set the theme. If it is a respect issue, you might solve much of it between the pasture and the grooming stall... Look for clues or hints of the same behavior everywhere and solve them there.
2. Make it Good For Them. Pay attention to what you ask them to do when they ARE going. Don't make them regret going... They will just try harder to get out of it next time. What does this horse like? Does she feel safer in the arena, or out in the open? With another horse? Doing some jumping? Make the priority that when you ask, she goes... Then make it a big payoff... As if you are asking: "Would you go?" and when she does you say: "Oh, OK, thanks, I was just checking".
It is tempting with these types to keep going once they are going... But I would tempt you to get her going, then stop, maybe even get off, then start again and see. So in one session instead of addressing it only once, you will have multiple opportunities (of course always stop when you get a significant improvement for that day... Don't keep pestering if it is better than the last day)
I recently helped a dressage rider with a horse who would just shut down like that and it drove her crazy to stop once she got going, but it really paid off. I rode with her and we took turns... she would ride and I would watch and help her, then she would hangout on her horse and watch me and help me with one of mine... if the horse even thought about rearing we did a HQ yield... she knew we would persist and she would change her mind.
With the baby who had the genetic pre-disposition for this behavior I was careful not to get too strong with her... I was more persistent rather than harder phases of aids.... I just hate showing horses how big a fight could get when they are so young... that did work with her... With the other horses (5 and 6 years old) they unfortunately had had some more practice at their pattern and we had to get a little stronger, but still not too bad... it is more about intention, persistence, and timing. The rider was very accomplished, but was a little fearful of them when they stopped, so it was more about deciding to be non-negotiable, than about hitting them harder.
The spooking I think can be a distraction and a result of her emotions coming up.... Demand her attention be on YOU!
Good news is these three horses I mentioned as examples are going really well... My young one just spent 2 months riding out and about learning that life is so easy and interesting when you cooperate and now she is allowing me to talk to her about things in the arena and she is forward nicely. The other 2 horses are also going really well. One is now jumping and he really loves that and has been a star! The other is going very well, but the rider must be super attentive on a daily basis that her attention is on her in all those little 'inbetween moments'. If she has her attention and respect then she is also a star, but it takes a lot of focus
So gain the respect, and make it worth their while and fun for them when they say yes!
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Karen Rohlf, author and creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She is well known for doing dressage with a priority of partnership, her student-empowering approach to teaching, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view.