This post over at Horse Listening got me thinking. I have had my share of naughty horses, and the one thing that I can take away from my cumulative experience is that what works for one horse may not work for another.
I have a zero tolerance for actual naughtiness (bucking, kicking out, getting light in front) but when one of my horses is “naughty”, I try to put it in context:
First I ask, why is my horse being naughty? Is it because they are confused? Stubborn? In pain? Overexcited?
Then I think about how my horse is being naughty. Is it behavior that I need to stop in it’s tracks because it’s dangerous? Or something that would escalate if challenged?
Putting the behavior in these contexts helps me decide how to respond.
If the answer is confused, then you must look long and hard at your riding/training. Often a horse misbehaves when it doesn’t understand what it’s rider is asking it to do, so “getting after it” is only going to ratchet up their confusion and potentially lead to a more explosive response. I ask myself if my commands are clear, my expectations are reasonable and my requests are appropriate to the horse’s level of training. This is a good time to take a step back and ask the horse for something less demanding. I try to end every ride on a positive note.
If the answer is stubborn, then maybe you need to ride through an issue. But you also need to be smart about it. I’ve had two horses that could be enormously stubborn, but fighting them over it didn’t get you anywhere. Those were horses where you had to either change the question . . . or wait them out. Of course, if you have a horse like Zelda, who likes to test you, you need to be firm and patient. “Make me,” she says. “Prove you really want it. Because if you’re not serious, I won’t do it.” This is a horse for whom spurs were invented. I’m not talking about big spurs; just spurs that are enough to reinforce the seriousness of the request. Some horses respond well to a crop; you have to see what works for you. Another approach that works when Zelda tries to buck or when she just stops and doesn’t want to move, is to spin her in a small circle. She doesn’t like to to that so it makes “regular” work less effort.
If your horse is in pain, then discipline is not going to change their behavior. An ill fitting saddle can cause your horse to buck, shorten its stride, hollow it’s neck or just act pissy. You’d be annoyed too if the tree points of a saddle were digging into your back or pinching a nerve or the saddle was rocking on your back. The wrong style bit can also make a horse “misbehave”. It’s important to understand saddle fit (or saddle mis-fit) and ensure that your horse is comfortable enough to do its job. I see many ill fitting saddles on horses owned by people who’ve never thought about saddle fit and know plenty of people who tell me their saddle was professionally fitted . . . two years ago! Horses’ backs change over time with work, age, and with weight gain or loss, so it’s important to regularly check that your saddle (still) fits. I know, some people tell me that because their saddle has foam panels it will adjust itself to changes in their horse’s back. That’s only true up until a point, a foam saddle will accommodate minor changes but it still will get to the point where it doesn’t fit.
If your horse is just too wound up to listen to you (think Freedom), then disciplining them is only going to make it worse. Freedom is a horse that has reinforced for me the need to ignore certain behaviors (such as bouncing), because they sort themselves out over time. Bouncing or jigging is a behavior that I can live with — as opposed to bucking. If he’s really distracted and won’t listen, I will put him in a “time out” using a one-rein stop while halted. I bring his nose to my foot and have him stand still until he refocuses. The other approach for the horse that won’t stand still or walk, is to make them work harder. Generally, that involves a bit of lateral work. “Sure you can jig, but you have to move sideways at the same time.”
How do you deal with your horse’s naughtiness? Any tips that you’d like to share?