Problems under saddle often come from confusion on the ground
I seem to get runs of horses with the same issue in my training yard. For example, I will get a succession of horses that rear or a few stables full of horses that are traffic shy. Recently I have had a group of horses with tension issues. These have all been competition horses where their inability to relax has led to poor scores in the dressage arena or poles down show jumping, not to mention the development of dangerous behaviours such as spinning, planting and rearing.
I like to find out all I can about the horses I train from the owners. What does the horse do? What situations make them worse? How is the rider managing the problem? What level does the rider want to be working at in the future? In chatting with all of the owners with these ‘tense’ horses it is only at the end of the conversation when they have added, “Oh, and watch out when you are leading him / her to the field. He / she will just take off and you can’t hold him / her. We always turn him / her out in the closest field!”
The first thing I try to understand with each horse is why they are tense. Is the horse feeling threatened by humans? Horses will naturally become tense around humans that mistreat or harm them. The owners of all the horses that had come to me were delightful, experienced owners who loved their horses, so I could cross that off the list. Is this horse in pain? Again, experienced horse owners will have their horses checked over to make sure any problems aren’t being caused by injuries or ill-fitting tack. These horses had the physical all clear. Is the horse unsure or confused? This is the most common cause of tension and the one that had led to the problem in these horses.
In ridden work, it becomes clear if the horse does not understand your aids. They won’t perform the movements you want and over time this will manifest itself in two ways; either the horse will become unresponsive or they will become increasingly nervous and tense, which can lead to dangerous behaviours such as rearing or bolting.
However, problems are not always one big thing. They tend to be a series of issues that culminate into a behaviour that the horse chooses as their ‘get out’ trick. What is rarely taken into account is the relationship between how your horse behaves on the ground and problems in their ridden work. Horses that seem ‘bloshy’ and ‘difficult’ on the ground are often insecure due to a lack of leadership from their handler. They take matters into their own hooves in order to protect themselves. Why should this horse then trust and respond without tension to the same person riding them?
I start the retraining process by working on the ground and remaining calm, consistent and decisive when dealing with the horse’s instincts. I am chipping away at the idea that they should rely on their survival instincts and start to look at me as a leader, someone that can offer a solution and keep them safe. As this happens, tension will start to leave the horse and we can start to look at the ridden work. Of course, long term success with horses like this will also depend on the owner and their ability to learn how to (and, just as importantly, believe that they can) offer the horse the same leadership and security.
Sign up and check out the Re-Education series for some tips for establishing leadership on the ground with tense horses.