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Why does my horse re­ject my driv­ing aids?

My Lip­iz­zan mare is not go­ing for­ward well—the walk and trot are quite slow and feel la­bored—so I started to ride with spurs. The re­sult is that she now re­sents my legs and kicks out with one of her hind legs when I ap­ply the spurs. Plus, she still won’t go. How can I get her to ac­cept my driv­ing aids? She is com­ing 5. I had a scintig­ra­phy done on her, but the vets said there is noth­ing wrong, med­i­cally. I have rid­den dres­sage for decades but have no ex­pe­ri­ence with young horses.

Name with­held by re­quest


There are sev­eral pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions for your horse’s re­sis­tance to for­ward­ness. By ex­plor­ing each po­ten­tial is­sue, you should be able to even­tu­ally solve the prob­lem in one of the fol­low­ing ways.

A good first step for this kind of prob­lem is to have a com­pre­hen­sive ve­teri­nary check. Health is­sues like equine ane­mia and Lyme dis­ease can greatly af­fect a horse’s nat­u­ral for­ward-think­ing process and re­veal them­selves as re­sis­tance to for­ward­ness. Make sure you con­sult with your vet­eri­nar­ian to ex­plore other pos­si­ble phys­i­cal is­sues that may ren­der a horse less for­ward think­ing.

Sec­ondly, a young horse can change in her body as a re­sult of work. I of­ten find that re­sis­tance to for­ward­ness can be the re­sult of poor sad­dle fit, par­tic­u­larly in the shoul­der area. I of­ten rec­om­mend that rid­ers work­ing with a young horse’s chang­ing body work closely with a rep­utable sad­dle fit­ter who can rou­tinely as­sess the fit. Quar­terly checks are ad­e­quate to en­sure that the sad­dle is speak­ing to the mor­ph­ing body.

Of­ten much of the re­sis­tance can be re­solved through ground­work. It is well worth your time to ed­u­cate your­self in ad­vanced ground­work meth­ods. Ground­work is not only the art of con­nect­ing deeply with a horse, but al­lows you to work with the horse’s bal­ance and sup­ple­ness and es­tab­lish com­mu­ni­ca­tion with­out the weight of the rider. Ground-based ex­er­cises that as­sess the horse’s phys­i­cal com­fort are es­pe­cially im­por­tant.

Longe­ing to es­tab­lish voice cues can be a good place to start with your horse. It is also a good place to start tun­ing in to her men­tal readi­ness. Be­fore ev­ery ride, a brief longe­ing ses­sion can also re­mind your horse that a cluck means “for­ward.” Once you are in the sad­dle, you can use the cluck and pair it with a sub­tle tap of your legs. Even­tu­ally, you would not re­quire a cluck but sim­ply a mild touch with your legs for for­ward.

The caveat to this is that your mind must be for­ward-think­ing. For­ward en­ergy is not only a phys­i­cal thing, but also needs to be matched by a men­tal state. Of­ten I find peo­ple ask­ing their horses for for­ward en­ergy from a me­chan­i­cal place (i.e., spurs), but may lack men­tal en­ergy and com­mit­ment. When we fail to match our leg re­quest with men­tal aware­ness and en­gage­ment, our mus­cles may tighten with­out us be­ing aware, which would give the horse the op­po­site in­di­ca­tion we in­tend.

A young horse may ques­tion a re­quest if she senses us brac­ing in our bod­ies,

be­cause that in­di­cates to her that we are hes­i­tant or fear­ful. If we seem to be hes­i­tant or have an un­der­ly­ing fear to do what we are ask­ing, our horse will cer­tainly re­sist as well.

It is im­por­tant to be­come aware of the sig­nals we are con­stantly send­ing to our horse through our own body lan­guage and men­tal en­ergy. Of­ten we may un­wit­tingly give the horse a mixed mes­sage by in­ten­tion­ally re­quest­ing one thing with an aid while our un­in­ten­tional body lan­guage and en­ergy com­mu­ni­cate some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent. For ex­am­ple, if we re­quest for­ward­ness with a cluck, tap or spurs, but lack suf­fi­cient open­ness in our body and/or men­tal en­gage­ment, our horse may be­come con­fused, dull or even surly, un­sure of how to cor­rectly re­spond.

Re­mem­ber, the horse is by nature a for­ward-think­ing crea­ture. He has one of the largest amyg­dala of any mam­mal, which is the part of the brain as­so­ci­ated with the flight re­sponse. There­fore, when there is re­sis­tance to for­ward mo­tion, one must al­ways look at what might be pre­vent­ing him from want­ing to move.

An­other pos­si­ble cul­prit for lack of for­ward­ness can be an un­e­d­u­cated hand. Young horses are just be­gin­ning to learn how to trust the rider’s hand and reach into the bit. This re­quires a very giv­ing

hand—one whose tim­ing is cor­rect and con­sis­tent. When work­ing with a rider who has lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence rid­ing young horses, I have of­ten found that her hands may be send­ing the horse con­flict­ing mes­sages. For ex­am­ple, she may be bal­anc­ing on the horse with her hands, which pre­vents a light rein in the front to en­sure that the horse’s en­ergy pro­pels her from the back of her body for­ward.

A young horse may need to be rid­den in a more open frame than an older, ex­pe­ri­enced horse—slightly in front of the ver­ti­cal and thus al­lowed to move more freely. Even a sub­tle clos­ing of the fingers or tight­en­ing of the fore­arm can dis­cour­age for­ward­ness. This is like press­ing the gas pedal and brake at the same time: The car will go nowhere. It is of­ten help­ful to work along­side a pro­fes­sional trainer ex­pe­ri­enced in start­ing young horses to serve as a pe­ri­odic guide on the ground to en­sure that you are pro­gress­ing along.

Ul­ti­mately, we must come to our horse be­liev­ing deeply that she wishes to please us and spend time with us. There­fore, any re­sis­tance a horse may ex­hibit is sim­ply the horse ex­press­ing some de­gree of phys­i­cal or men­tal dis­com­fort. It is up to us to de­ter­mine what that is and con­tinue to build a re­la­tion­ship where the horse en­joys her time with us in all we do to­gether.

Of­ten a rider will ask her horse for for­ward en­ergy from a me­chan­i­cal place (i.e., spurs), but may lack men­tal en­ergy and com­mit­ment. When you fail to match your leg re­quest with men­tal aware­ness and en­gage­ment, your mus­cles may tighten with­out you...

Maria Katsamanis, PhD, holds a doc­toral de­gree in clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy and main­tains an ap­point­ment as clin­i­cal as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Rut­gers Med­i­cal School in New Jersey. In 2016, she es­tab­lished The Pe­ga­sus Foun­da­tion with the mis­sion of...

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