By Laura Crum
So today I’m going to ask you all for a little horse training advice. Here’s the problem:
I’ve written before about my son’s horse, Henry, a twenty-one year old QH gelding, who was a good team roping horse in his day and who is an excellent babysitter now. Henry is steady and reliable, and has taken my kid on many, many trail rides. We have not had one truly difficult or dangerous experience—knock on wood. But Henry, like all horses, has his faults. A former owner allowed the horse to graze under saddle, and Henry has never forgotten this. Same owner fed Henry treats by hand, and Henry hasn’t forgotten this, either. These things haven’t caused much trouble—we don’t make a practice of feeding him treats by hand and my son is able to be forceful enough with his bridle and crop to forestall the grabbing at vegetation. But there is one more problem. Henry is lazy.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Part of the reason I bought Henry is because he is lazy. My number one priority is to keep my kid safe, and Henry being lazy is a good thing. Henry does not run off—ever. Henry doesn’t jig or prance, almost never spooks. Henry is laid back at virtually all times—he is both reasonably well broke and lazy enough not to want to exert any effort he doesn’t have to.
The problem is that Henry does not want to lope as many circles as my son likes to lope. The older my kid gets the more competent he gets and the more he likes to lope along, rather than walk or trot. And though Henry is fit and sound and believe me, is never worked past a very light sweat, he is getting more and more adamant about not loping.
Because my son is gaining in competence, he has worked through this issue several times, developing a different way of applying his crop, becoming more focused on getting a good depart from the walk rather than letting the horse trot…etc. And he can lope Henry quite successfully….until the horse decides he’s had enough. At which point, on our last two arena rides, Henry came up with a new behavior. And this behavior was so frustrating for my kid that both times I climbed on the horse and gave Henry an “adjustment”, something I haven’t had to do in six months.
I rode in my son’s saddle, I wore the same soft boots with no spurs that he rides in, used the same mechanical hackamore and English riding crop. And I learned something. Henry was being a royal pain in the ass. I had to use a lot of force, with both bridle and crop, to correct him. I got it done and Henry minded his p’s and q’s (for me) quite sweetly, and loped exactly when told. But as soon as I put my son back on him he reverted. And I could see that my son wasn’t going to be able to work through this problem very easily.
What is Henry doing? Once he’s decided he’s done loping, he ignores the cue, puts his head down between his knees, bulls into the bridle, and just trots faster. He also uses this device to go where he wants to go…back to the other horses, to the gate, to the barn..etc. So, something has to change.
Now, here are the parameters. My son is cuing Henry correctly. Until Henry is done with loping, they get along fine. Henry is being flagrantly disobedient because he doesn’t want to continue loping circles. When I “fixed” him, I merely punished him effectively between bridle and crop and he quit defying me…and went back to doing what he was told. I need to find a way for my son to effectively discipline Henry and still stay safe.
That last phrase is why I don’t want to go to the obvious—put spurs on him. Henry minds very well with spurs. He’s been ridden with spurs his whole life, like many rope horses. But spurs can be truly dangerous. An old man of my acquaintance died last month…partly because of spurs. While making a team roping head run, he missed his dally, lost his balance, spurred the horse by accident, and the horse dumped him. A broken neck, and death, resulted. It is just too easy for a little kid to panic and grab a horse with the spurs, or lose his balance and gig a horse hard without meaning to. I’m not ready to put spurs on my kid.
I could get him a more deadly whip. But I don’t think I want to go there either. What I plan to try is putting a bridle back on the horse. I think Henry will be unable to bull into a bit the way he is currently bulling into the hackamore. Lets face it, Henry was ridden in a proper bridle with a bit his whole life until I got him. I put the mechanical hackamore on him for two reasons. First, many horses are more relaxed and comfortable in this, and this was true of Henry. Second, my kid, like many kids, would sometimes pull on the horse when he didn’t mean to, and this can be easier for a horse to tolerate in the mechanical hack. Overall, I just wanted Henry to let down and forget about being a ropehorse and pup around for my son.
Well, I got it done. And now I’m faced with wanting Henry to step up a little more and lope when he is asked to lope, even if he doesn’t feel like it. So, I’m going to put a bit back on him, and possibly a tie down, we’ll see. It sounds counter intuitive, but many horses, like Henry, who have worn a tie-down their whole lives, will raise their heads when one is put on them, as if they are feeling for that steadying restraint. I will have to try the horse in various headgear and see what works. But I have to find something in the way of a bridle that Henry can’t bull into and defy the signal to bring his head up.
The other thing I’m going to do is already happening. In the past, I have gotten past Henry’s “lazy” issues by giving the horse time off from arena work and doing trail riding, which he enjoys. Then when we go back to the arena, he’s more willing to lope. Its been raining for awhile, so Henry is getting some rest. And I have to admit, the two “lazy” episodes happened at the end of a week in which Henry had been ridden five times. And I have some sympathy for the old horse getting sick of loping circles.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Henry is not being asked to do anything that is beyond him, not even close. He is merely being asked to do something he doesn’t want to do. And he needs to learn to obey my kid under all circumstances. When he puts his head down and refuses to bring it up, he is essentially out of control and he clearly knows it and is taking advantage of it. And this is not OK.
So there you have it. That’s the problem I’m currently working on. Anybody have any thoughts?
Oh, and also, we at equestrianink would love to get to know you all better. We were thinking of a “reader’s write” Saturday, where we could put up posts you have written about you and your horses and writing about horses. So if anyone is interested in writing a post for equestrianink, send it to Jami at firstname.lastname@example.org and she will post it on the next open Saturday.