Have you ever felt more tired than your horse at the end of a ride? Horses who have lost forward impulsion are typically seen as lazy and dull. Maybe some are---and sluggishness can also be a sign of illness or another physical problem---but in most cases, horses lose the “go button” because of two issues.
The first is mostly caused by boring, repetitive activity in an arena. Have you ever seen a path worn into an arena surface by horses going round and round, day in and day out? Even if you don’t see that sort of evidence, the horses feel the effects of excessive repetition. For most horses, being locked into the same daily routine for weeks and months on end is like staying in kindergarten forever!
The second reason is the rider. Many people make the mistake of working too hard to get these sluggish horses to pick up the pace: kicking, squeezing and swatting them to try to get them going. Unfortunately, this only makes these horses duller, less motivated and less willing to go forward. That’s because from the horse’s point of view, this rider is irritating and unrelenting. If the horse could speak he would likely tell his rider, “No matter how much I speed up, you keep grinding your leg aid leg against me. It just never lets up!”
To which, the rider might reply, “If I don’t use my aids, you stop moving!” There is the dilemma. So what to do?
The key is to sensitize the horse and at the same time learn to avoid micromanaging, which ultimately means letting the horse take responsibility for going forward. Think of it this way: If you squeeze your legs to get your horse going, then you need to release that cue once he responds. If you don’t, a horse who is quieter by nature will quickly dull to the leg because the motivation to move out seeking a release in pressure is gone.
Here are some things that can help you get your horse moving forward again:
• First, get the horse out of the arena and go somewhere to stimulate his mind and find purpose. This doesn’t require a grand plan but can be something simple like doing a long trot across a pasture, then resting for a moment or two and trotting back across. To me a “purpose” is something you can describe: It starts here, you do “this,” then you’re done. It has these three parts. When training turns into too many repetitions and drudgery, you lose purpose---a clear beginning, middle and end.
• Go in simple, straight lines. For sluggish horses, traveling on long, straight lines is better than tight turns and circles. You can do good straight lines even if you don’t have a large pasture---just go between the two farthest points in your arena.
• Review your basic cues. Start by practicing halt-to-walk transitions then build up all the way to the lope/canter. You want to sensitize your horse to your seat and leg cues, so you will likely need a riding crop to support or back up your aids. But the crop comes last---after you’ve gotten no response from your seat or leg. The key is to use the crop consistently to apply pressure directed at achieving your goal, rather than all at once: A big swat with the crop may get the horse moving out for a few strides or even a lap, but he will only dull down a bit later and become even less responsive. Instead, use the crop to build pressure incrementally; tap the horse lightly with it on the hindquarters until he complies. (I will go into more detail on this later.) He will figure out that when he responds to your seat and leg cues to move forward, the tapping stops; soon he will move forward when you ask without you having to even lift the crop. The goal is to achieve the almost invisible cues that the best riders attain.
• Practice good crop management. If your horse is sluggish, don’t squeeze harder but lift your crop out to the side slightly, so he can see it. Wave it a time or two, and then if that doesn’t work, start a light and progressive tap on the hindquarters until you feel a slight surge forward. When you get some forward movement, immediately stop tapping. If the horse balks or kicks up a bit when you apply your aids, try to keep slight pressure going until this resistance stops and the forward thought occurs to him. Then immediately release. If only a few strides later your horse slows down, repeat these steps. I will slightly intensify this whole process so the horse puts in more “try” as I move in a long, straight line and then rest. I’m looking for improvement and sensitivity to my leg cue before I move on to anything else. Without a keen forward response, any other activity is pretty much dead in the water.
• Seek outside help if necessary. Sometimes a resistant horse will kick up or buck when you try to get him going forward. If you have trouble keeping your seat when your horse acts up and he knows it, you may need to get a more experienced rider to help work out the problem. Another option is to get through the worst of it with a review of ground training that helps teach forward responses, then try again while riding.
• Pay attention to your speed. One last point: Watch for your horse to slip just below your desired speed once you are going. This can be hard to notice---some horses are masters at doing less while the rider does more. So don’t fall into the trap of squeezing harder to make your horse go faster. Instead, continue to seek that sensitivity and responsiveness to your seat and leg---applying pressure to get your horse to move forward and easing up when the horse complies.
This is a time-tested method of getting horses to go. I have helped many hundreds of people with horses who have become so slow and dull that they actually drag their feet and wear down their toes. This technique has worked over and over, and if kept up will create the freely forward horse who is a joy to ride.
To Deal with a Sluggish Horse
Don’t kick to go. If kicking was a good forward cue jockeys would do it.
Don’t work to go or maintain the gait—you don’t want to take responsibility for forward motion.
Don’t use a crop with one big tap; instead use it to build pressure and release when the horse complies.
Go in long, straight lines rather than circles.
Ask only for a short burst of speed, then let the horse alone for a minute.
Get purpose! Do something that opens your horse’s mind up and causes him to look where he is going and engage in an activity. Go out on a trail, follow a cow or add some fun challenges in your arena.
About the author: Jonathan Field is a trainer and clinician from Abbotsford, British Columbia. His program, Jonathan Field Horsemanship: Inspired by Horses, teaches the skills necessary to build a relationship with horses. Field grew up riding both English and Western and worked as a cowboy on one of the largest cattle ranches in Canada. Field regularly does presentations at events like the Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento, California.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #472, January 2017.