Working with a “stubborn” horse

I sometimes get asked training questions via e-mail. Although nothing can replace hands-on individual training, I appreciate the chance to help people working with their own horses to find a kinder, gentler, and more effective approach to developing a true partnership. I will be posting some of these questions and answers on this blog. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see covered, please comment or email!

QUESTION: I was looking over your website and was convinced in writing this email hoping maybe you could help me with our horse Cyber.

We bought Cyber this Feb and he was untouched, untrained at the age of eight years old. He is a Belgian/thoroughbred cross and stands at 17.1. I bought him because he had a teddy bear personality and hoped he would make a good trail horse for my husband. We brought him to the farm where we board, gave him a couple of days to get settled in and then began working with him, first with leading because he wanted to run you over while leading… it was bad, but we got that fixed and he now does perfect.

We then started his lunging, he does good but sometimes he will try to kick at your face and I’m not sure how to fix that. After we got him turning well and his paces were good, we started with introducing the bridle. I started him off in a full cheek copper snaffle. He takes it well, but he has a very hard mouth and I’ll get to that in a minute.

To make a long story short, we have been riding him in a western saddle and he does well for the most part, but is SO stubborn. He will not turn well at all. This horse does not know how to walk in a straight line and will not listen to you. He will walk and trot, but if you ask for any more, he begins crow-hopping, or he will kick out with one leg and then freezes up and will not go any further. I have taken him out on one trail ride following two other riders, and he did really well for his first trail ride. We did not push him at all, but he will not go on any more. Me and my husband tried, and we got a little up the road before he bucked my husband off.

So we have been working him back in the arena, but he just does not listen no matter what we try to do. He will walk straight into the fence with you, he will not turn, and it takes a lot to stop him. We have to do a one rein stop, and we end up going in a bunch of wide circles before we can stop him.

We have had a vet and a farrier come out and look for any problems and they didn’t see anything. I don’t know if I’m using the wrong bit or what. I don’t know what to do, I’ve never owned a horse like this before. When you are on the ground with him, he wants all the attention he can get. He is so sweet that I trust my little girls around him and he will lick you to death.

I cannot afford training these days, but I feel like I’m doing a very bad job doing it myself, so I put him up for sale. But everyone that comes out and gets on his back leaves right away, because he is so stubborn you can’t do anything with him – you’re just up there and he does what he wants. You pull on the right rein to go right, but he will side pass and take you left until you’re up against the fence, leg crushed.

I don’t want to sell him, Sandi, but I’m lost and frustrated. I hope you can give me any advice on what I can do for this big boy of mine. Thank you for your time.

ANSWER: Hello! I am struck by your desire to work things out with Cyber. Your open-minded attitude and willingness to learn is a great combination for success! Acquiring a new horse is only the beginning of the process in becoming partners. Both your role in training, as well as learning what Cyber is trying to communicate to you, require a clear understanding of body language. I am pleased that you had him vetted for potential physical discomfort. Did you also have his teeth examined? Have you checked his tack? Improper fitting saddles can pinch and cause pain.

The type of bit you’re using sounds fine. Is it the correct size? Is it placed correctly in his mouth? I do not believe in the theory of hard mouths. I do believe an uneducated mouth can cause a horse to protect himself by bracing against pressure. Horses’ instinctive behavior is to brace against whatever is causing them discomfort. The bit should not be used for control, but for communication. Cyber must learn to focus on you through the bit and give to gentle pressure in all aids.

First, understanding horses’ natural instincts, behavior, and language can help clarify so many issues. Horses are herd animals. In the herd they have a leader, and they look for direction and security in that horse. When horses interact with humans, they still need a leader. If you are not that leader, they will become yours! You can definitely be a friend to your horse, but one must have both trust and respect first. At eight years of age, Cyber is a mature horse. Without any early training, he may not understand the “pecking order” involved with humans. In nature, horses establish this pecking order in their own herd. The leader should be both trusted and respected.

In relating to humans, horses will react as though you are another horse in the herd. You must first establish a leadership with him in order to gain his cooperation. A 17.1 hand horse can be an imposing figure when unwilling. Since you’ve been to my website you already know I do not believe in being a bully to gain respect. I chuckle to think of those that would try intimidation on such a large horse to accomplish this! A frightened horse will instinctively want to run from his fear. If unable to run, he will fight. I like to think of training as placing the horse in a position that will cause him, not force him, to do the right thing. Aggressive training is designed to bully the horse into submission, but this does not result in the bully being appreciated or trusted. I would much prefer a horse that enjoys his work and time with me, rather than one that responds out of fear. If given a choice, the majority of horses will seek the gentle leader. It sounds as though you have already gained his trust, and now in order to gain his respect, ground work — lots of ground work — will be necessary.

I advise starting with relationship development in a round pen. It appears you may have done some, however, according to your description of Cyber and the difficulties you state, I believe you may need to take this further. You cannot have respect under saddle without first establishing it in hand. Round pens are wonderful aids in helping to keep a horse focused. When we are able to take the “wide open space” away, the instinct to run away is quickly discouraged. It becomes you and the horse. Regardless of whether Cyber is kicking out in playfulness, or as an attempt to control you, it is a dangerous expression and one that must be corrected. I’ve seen too many people chase horses around a pen to exhaustion, thinking that’s what you do. This can lead to disaster, potentially harming your horse either physically or mentally. One must know the difference between correction and abuse. Asking the horse to move forward in the round pen the instant he shows himself in this fashion will make him realize his behavior did not intimidate you, but instead to focus on your continued request for him to move on. It will also allow you the opportunity to reward him when he does move forward. Round pen or ground work done properly will cause the horse to look at you and focus. Studying body language and understanding the signs of leadership acceptance will clarify to you where the horse’s mind is.

I advise you look for a professional that is versed in natural horsemanship to teach you lessons in ground work. If there is not someone in your area that you are comfortable with, there are some wonderful videos by Monte Roberts on partnering with horses. Mark Rashid is also an excellent example of passive leadership. He has several wonderfully written books based on horse behavior. Two of my favorites are Horses Never Lie and Considering the Horse. There are numerous other books and videos written on this topic, but many “natural horseman” use methods that can hardly be termed as natural or kind. I would ask any prospective trainer to allow you to watch some training sessions. If this is not allowed, I would not recommend him/her to work with your or your horse. I always insist in working with both horse and rider together. You will ultimately be his trainer and need to understand the process. You must not hesitate to protect Cyber in any situation where you are not in agreement with his treatment in training. Remember, he is your horse, and ultimately it is your obligation to be certain he is in good hands at all times.

Once your leadership role is established, I would recommend you move forward on rider education. One must be able to sit properly on a horse, using body language through your position and aids to communicate to the horse what you are asking. Just developing the basics of correct use of aids and body language will be tremendous help to you. A rider who does not sit balanced can easily cause discomfort to a horse by both gripping and bouncing. Cyber may be a substantial horse, but he still will feel any pain inflicted. Again, I feel seeking a competent trainer that will assist you in accomplishing would be a tremendous help to you. Horses do not automatically understand our language. Training with kindness is a process. Learning the order of training steps, and not moving forward until each step is solid, will build a foundation that you can rely on and continue to develop.

As a guideline for the use of any aid, I always ask with as gentle pressure as I possibly can, i.e. leg pressure to move the horse forward. If the horse does not respond, I will instantly release that pressure and quickly clarify the request by asking again with a bit stronger leg aid. I will continue this process until the horse takes just one step in the right direction and immediately release the pressure. This will clarify to the horse what you were asking for. Think of it as “an open door” for him to walk through. Teach him to seek those open doors by clearly showing him the direction you are seeking. Put him in a position that will cause him to take the right step, not force the right step and you will soon have a willing partner that enjoys his work with you. Your use of a circle to stop Cyber is quite clever. A horse being quietly asked to walk in a circle gets focused more easily as well as it’s boring to walk on a circle. He will eventually realize it’s to his advantage to stop. As you are circling continue using your body aids (seat) and voice commands to clarify your request.

In summary, I believe you, your husband, and Cyber would benefit greatly from some lessons. With the right help I doubt you’ll still want to sell him. I very rarely suggest selling a horse, if the rider has the determination and willingness to learn. Training can become complicated, and someone who uses a positive approach to training is of the utmost importance. I always feel we should downplay the negative and focus on the positive. Reward quickly for effort not just for correctness. A tiny step into the right direction will lead you to your goal.

Remember, Cyber is only capable to doing what you the rider/handler are telling him, or it can also be what you’re not telling him. The process of developing that wonderful connection with a horse can take some time and effort, but in the end it is an amazing feeling to have such a wonderful and noble creature as your friend. I wish you success and would love to hear of your progress.

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