4 Easy Ways to Make Your Horse Miserable

There are many ways to make your horse unhappy. Here are four specifically to avoid. | H&R file photo

Ordinarily in this blog I share ideas for understanding your horse better in order to influence him more effectively. This can make the experience of riding and training more enjoyable for both of you.

If, however, you’re dead set on simply making your horse unhappy, here are four sure ways to go about it.

1. Nag, nag, nag. I don’t mean him, I mean you. When you ride your horse, keep pick-pick-picking at him over something. Be like the mother who constantly yells “stop bickering!” at her kids, but never does anything to actually stop the squabbling. If, for example, your horse is lazy and tends not to move out willingly, just keep up a steady bump-bump-bump with your heel or spur. Don’t accelerate the pressure; that might get a response that would enable you to reward him by stopping the bumping altogether. Remember, the goal is to make your aid an irritant your horse can’t get away from or learn by, rather than an effective tool of communication.

2. Correct mindlessly. If your horse misbehaves or fails to do what you ask, get after him instantly with a swat or some other penalty. Don’t stop to consider whether you’ve inadvertently asked for the behavior yourself (by botching or mistiming a cue). Or whether your horse is responding to a related pain or discomfort issue that should be resolved before you continue training. You’re the boss; he’s the horse. When he displeases you, smack him.

3. Drill, baby, drill. If you’ve just made a breakthrough and taught your horse something new, practice-practice-practice. Horses learn by repetition, right? So keep sidepassing over that pole until the cows come home. Or ask for that lead change 20 times in a row. Don’t worry about boredom, or soreness, or your horse coming to hate his job. If it’s fun for you, have at it.

4. Go for ‘bigger.’ If you’re having a communication problem of any sort with your horse, solve it by switching to a more severe bit. No need to know the finer points of how various bits work and when one might be indicated. If you don’t like how he stops, or if he roots in your hand, or if his head’s too high—heck, if there’s anything you dislike!–get a “bigger” bit. It’s quick, it’s easy, and you’ll feel as if you’ve solved the problem. (Whether you actually have solved it or just made it worse—that’s not our worry today.)

OK, there you go: four easy ways to make your horse miserable.

Now, if making your horse unhappy is not your goal (and, let’s be serious…I know it’s not), then here are links to ideas for training him a better way: how horses learn; ride-smart secrets; the bit gallery.

Horses: Subtle Hornswogglers?

Your horse is by nature a generous, cooperative soul. But he does prefer to have his own way, and he’ll use subtlety to get it—if you let him. | H&R photo by Cappy Jackson

One of my favorite books on basic horsemanship is Mary Wanless’ 1987 classic The Natural Rider. My copy–worn, annotated, festooned with sticky-notes—is beginning to fall apart. Perhaps my favorite insight from it is this:

“Although [the horse] is remarkably generous, cooperative, and forgiving, he still likes to have his own way; he uses subtlety to get what he wants, and he wins most battles by ignoring the rider rather than fighting her.”

I love this quote because it gives horses credit where they genuinely deserve it—they are incredibly generous and willing—but it also warns us about one of their craftiest moves: working to get their way, a fraction at a time, if we don’t pay attention and keep them honest.

It’s kind of funny, actually, when you think of it. Horses attempt to train us exactly the way we should be training them: gradually, incrementally, in small bits. Almost so you don’t know it’s happening.

For example, your horse might start to lean into your hand, just a little, when you ask him to soften through the jaw. You let it go; he continues to up the ante. Eventually, he’s pulling on the bit—nosediving, even—every time he doesn’t want to do something you’ve asked.

And you’re thinking, How did this happen?

Now it’s a problem you have to deal with. Before it would have been a simple oh-no-you-don’t.

The bottom line is to stay tuned in as you ride. Be aware and keep your horse honest in all his responses, large and small. That’s easier on both of you than having to correct an out-and-out disobedience—or cure a chronic problem–later on.

(Note: If cutting corners in the arena is your horse’s favorite “cheat,” be sure to see “No More Cheating” by trainer Pete Kyle in the March issue of H&R. And for more of Mary Wanless’ horsemanship wisdom, see her latest book, The New Ride With Your Mind Clinic.)

10 Tips for Safe Trail Rides

Trail rides go better (and are safer!) when horses are adequately prepared for them. Plan now for best success. | H&R photo by Alana Harrison

This polar-vortex winter can’t last forever, and when it’s gone you’ll be itching to get out for some glorious trail rides. That’s only natural, but…don’t rush into things. Every spring, countless well-meaning riders wind up getting dumped on their first trail ride of the season. Here are 10 tips to help ensure that doesn’t happen to you:

1. Ride in advance. If weather has kept you off your horse for weeks (or even months), don’t let a trail ride be your first return to the saddle. Horses learn and remember well, but they do get rusty just as we do when we haven’t done something in a while. Get a regular riding routine going to tune up your horse’s responses and respectfulness before you go out on the trail, where additional distractions (especially other horses, if you go in a group), will test your control of your mount. (For a good schooling exercise, check out the simple sidepass.)

2. Deal with any issues. If, in your pre-trail-season schooling rides, you run into specific problems, deal with them in the arena before you go out on a trail. Is your horse being resistant or bullying you? Take steps to correct his behavior–don’t make excuses for him.

3. Practice easy trails. Before you accept that invitation for a group ride in the high country, take a few low-key spins around your own area first, with a single trusted companion or two. Let your horse get used to being next to another horse, in front of him, behind him–and even a few horse-lengths behind him (this is the tough one). Cross water. Step over logs. Go up and down hills. Work out any glitches in a controlled environment before you venture out into unfamiliar territory.

4. Be realistic. Is your horse truly ready for the type of ride you’re considering? If not, you’re better off staying home and continuing your schooling in the arena and on practice rides until he is. (For fun, try our terrific arena exercises.)

5. Gear up. A breast collar and a back cinch can help prevent saddle slippage that might alarm your horse or unseat you. A well-adjusted running martingale will help keep your reins in place during the odd fractious moment. A mecate-rein setup or a longe line tucked into your saddle bag can provide a way to work the sillies out should your horse (despite all your prep work—it happens) start to unhinge during the ride.

6. Pick good pals. Ride only with friends who know and practice proper trail manners and can control their own horses.

7. Mind the weather. A calm, sunny day is ideal. Frigid or especially windy weather can make even clam, well-mannered horses flighty. (Cold air is bracing, and wind makes it hard for prey animals to tell where scents are coming from, causing them to feel extra-vulnerable and jittery.)

8. Prep right before the ride. Before you head out, work your horse in a round pen, put him through some groundwork exercises (longeing for respect is ideal), or ride him in an arena to work the fresh out and get him dialed in to you.

9. Then…ride. Don’t just be a passenger out on on the trail. Keep your horse’s attention focused on you by asking for small adjustments—speed up a bit here, collect yourself there, sidepass to avoid that rock. Keep your connection with him live at all times and you’ll resolve most problems before they start.

10. And…breathe! Keep alert, but also stay loose. Don’t hang on the reins defensively; that just makes your horse tense. Sit deep in the saddle, shrug your shoulders back, relax your muscles downward, and keep breathing. To ease any nervousness you feel at any point, hum or even talk reassuringly to yourself.

These 10 tips will get you off on the right foot. If your horse still acts up out on a trail ride, our January 2014 feature, “Control Your Trail Horse,” gives you a step-by-step strategy for dealing with it.

Happy trails!

Having Info? Good. Using It? Better!

What you learn in a lesson will stay with you if you write it down and remind yourself to practice it until it becomes second nature. | H&R photo by Alana Harrison

You take lessons and attend clinics. You read books and magazines and watch training DVDs. You scan blogs (like this one!), Web sites, and newsletters, and you even pick the brains of your fellow horse enthusiasts at the barn and online in chat rooms and forums. You’re always on the alert for information that will help you become a better rider and more knowledgeable horse owner. And, in this cyber-driven Information Age, you’re getting plenty of good input.

But—and this is a big but–are you putting that knowledge to its best possible use? Just knowing something, after all, doesn’t cut it. You must use information—routinely—in order for it to change you as a rider and make a difference to your horse. Good advice does no good unless you find a way to make following it habitual.

That’s what the little list below is for. These small but powerful strategies will enable you to keep the best information in the forefront of your mind long enough for you to internalize it and make it your own.

These are techniques that have worked for me in my horse life and beyond. To make them work for you, follow these steps whenever you find a useful bit of information or instruction you want to hang on to.

Write it down. Yes, it’s mundane, but simply writing something down does two powerful things for you. First, it enables you to retain the information and keep it in front of you (more on that in a moment). Also, the mere act of writing it (especially if you do it manually, although keyboarding works, too) helps to program the information into your brain more permanently. So if that DVD you’re watching shows you the perfect way to deal with, say, your horse’s reluctance to pick up his left lead, write down that information so you can begin make it your own.

Keep it visible. Here’s the clever part. Group two or three key bits of information onto card stock or colored paper (using markers and stars or arrows or whatever will grab your attention) and post them where you’ll see them every day. Consider the bathroom, the front of the fridge, the entry to your tack room. Also post them where you can ride up and check them, to remind yourself, when you’re practicing in your arena. Then, once you’ve gotten one of the tips firmly planted in your brain (for example, you always remember to warm your horse up in that great sequence you learned at the clinic), then replace that bit of advice with a new one you’re trying to imbed. Keep the postings fluid, and you won’t stop “seeing” them—they’ll continue to grab your attention.

Put it in a journal. A riding journal is a great way to track your progress over time and to integrate all the improvements you’re working on at any given moment. Use a spiral notebook or one of those blank books available wherever regular books are sold. Or keep your journal in a file on your computer or your smart phone—whatever’s most natural for you. You can even use your journal as the first place to write down the great tips you’re accumulating, then copy/paste out the ones you want to work on immediately, printing them out together on a single sheet that then becomes your little poster on your bathroom mirror and in your arena.

Once you’ve got your system in place, use it to keep from ever losing a good tip or suggestion. Read a good book? Don’t just recommend it to your friends; also write down and post the strategies you plan to try yourself. Have a great lesson? Don’t rely on your memory—write down the techniques you learned so you can practice them all week…and amaze your instructor with your progress at your next lesson.

Do the same with all the good info that comes your way, and you’ll be amazed at how much faster you’ll progress. Here are some training secrets to get you started.

Let Learning Sink In

Sometimes quiet, unpressured time with your horse will give you the insight to overcome a particular riding challenge. | © nancymccurdyphotography.com

Sometimes a riding lesson is just what you need. Your trainer pinpoints what you’re missing to pick up a lead or master a pattern, and it’s mission accomplished.

Sometimes, though, what you really need is just “quiet time” with your horse–a little leeway to work something through on your own. After the insights such work can bring, you’re able to return to your lessons and surprise your trainer with a quantum leap forward.

I experienced this effect when I first learned to ride Western, years ago. I was 15 then and had been riding since the age of 8. Though reasonably accomplished in my equitation, I’d ridden only hunt seat. The vast expanse of a Western saddle was foreign territory to me and my Thoroughbred mare, Tigress.

Now, however, my good friend Teresa, an expert rider and the savviest horse person in our local “junior riders” club, was going to teach me how to ride Western. She liked my big-bodied mare and thought we could be competitive in the Western division of our club’s little horse shows.

She cinched her Western show saddle onto Tigress, gave me a leg up, and began a running commentary that lasted about 20 minutes.

“Sit up straight. Straighter! No more leaning forward. Relax your shoulders, though. Don’t be so stiff! Keep your seat in the saddle—no posting. Relax your lower back…follow the motion.

“Don’t lift your rein hand! Keep it over the horn. Other hand on your leg. Heels down! Don’t let your legs swing—keep them quiet.

“And for Pete’s sake, sit down, Jennifer!”

Twenty minutes’ worth. As my friend drilled me, Tigress expressed her disapproval of the unfamiliar saddle by bunching her muscles and crow hopping now and then.

“Just ride through those,” Teresa directed.

I did my best.

Eventually, Teresa called me to the center of our club’s arena, where this lesson was taking place.

“That’s enough for now,” she said. “Go on home and take the saddle with you. For the next week, ride your mare wherever you want around home and forget about what I’ve been telling you. Just relax and get used to the feel of the saddle. Get in sync with your mare. Then we’ll see where you are at your next lesson.”

I did as she told me. Of course, I couldn’t completely forget her equitation tips—they still rang in my head—but her parting words gave me permission not to obsess over them. So I didn’t. I just relaxed and approached my trail rides as I normally did, and discovered something interesting. My mare still moved the same as she ever had. Surprisingly, I could indeed keep my fanny in the saddle by using the same following motion I’d always used, even though my posture was now more upright and the saddle itself felt so different under me.

Almost magically, what I’d been unable to do in my first Western riding lesson—“Just sit <i>down</i>, darn it!”—was now effortless.

“Much better!” Teresa called out at my next lesson. She continued to coach me, and Tigress and I made good progress. At the end of that year, 1970, I was the El Dorado Junior Horseman’s Association Champion Western Equitation Rider, 14-17. (I still have the little wood-and-brass plaque up on my wall.)

The turning point leading to that success came during a quiet, get-it-together trail ride, and I never forgot that concept.

Neither should you. Always listen to your trainer or riding coach, of course. But don’t ignore the progress you can make by dialing back the pressure and working something out on your own. When you’re up against a riding challenge, give yourself some space to digest your trainer’s instructions and to let your body—and your horse, too, for that matter–figure things out.

You won’t regret it.

(Want more riding tips? Review discussions on “aha moments” and the magic of good timing.)

Thanks to Nancy McCurdy for the use of her lovely photo.