TBT… Change a WON’T to a WILL!

Published in the Aiken Horse Magazine in 2013.

A horse is so sensitive that he can feel a fly land on a single hair. So when a horse refuses to obey a rider’s aids, it is never because he didn’t feel the request. It is for one of the following reasons:

1.) He doesn’t understand the request

2.) He understands, but he can’t respond because he is afraid

3.) He doesn’t think the request is high priority, and he’s got more important things to do

How the educated rider responds to a horse’s disobedience will depend on how she “reads” the horse’s behavior. If the horse doesn’t understand, the rider needs to explain the request more clearly. If the horse is afraid, he needs the rider to help him feel safe. And if he is blowing the rider off, he needs a greater incentive to pay attention and do as asked.

He Doesn’t Understand

A rider is finishing up her third ride on her new horse. He has been calm and willing in the arena, and she decides to take him out on the trail. She brings him up to the gate to open it, but he refuses to line up with the gate and stand still for her to reach the latch. His ears are on her listening as she tries to get him into position, but he keeps backing up and moving one end or the other away from the gate.

Here’s where it’s important for the rider not to assume that the horse knows what she wants. It may seem obvious to a person, but maybe not to the horse. The old owner may have dismounted to open gates, or perhaps used different aids. So breaking it down into pieces and explaining the task more clearly to the horse is the key. In this example, the pieces might be making sure the horse understands how to move his front end over, move his hind end over, and stand still parallel to the gate while the rider leans over and rattles the gate latch. Practice each piece separately, and then put them back together. A clear understanding of the job will fix this type of WON’T.

He is Afraid

The rider leaves the arena and heads into the woods. As the horse gets further from the barn, his walk quickens, his body tightens and his head comes up. Suddenly he stops, breathing hard. He seems fixated on a point up ahead. The rider nudges him forward with her legs, but the horse refuses to go. He stands stock still as if rooted to the ground.

When horses are afraid, they generally have one of two responses: they flee and ask questions later, or they freeze to assess the situation and then flee if they detect a threat. A “freezer” can be harder to read as afraid… often people think that the horse is being stubborn or that he’s not really frightened since he isn’t freaking out. But a horse that becomes unresponsive when he’s anxious can be dangerous, because if he decides there’s a threat, he will unfreeze and want to get away.

The best thing to do is to notice early when your horse is getting worried. The rider in the example had some clues: her horse sped up, his body got tight, and his head carriage changed as they left the area where he felt safe. Stopping or turning back before the horse shuts down, letting the horse relax, and then heading out again will help to gradually build the horse’s confidence in his environment and trust that his rider will not overface him.

Once the horse is at the point where he has shut down and refuses to go forward, the rider should gently “unstick” the horse’s feet by turning using just one rein. When the horse’s feet are moving, the rider directs the horse’s motion in a small circle or figure 8 until the horse offers no resistance. This reminds the horse that the rider has a plan and will keep him safe, not shove him in the direction of his fears. Once the horse is softly accepting directions, offer him the choice of continuing down the trail. If the horse still balks, return to the pattern. Once the horse is confident enough to continue, try to turn back for home while he’s still feeling brave and willing. If he trusts his rider to keep him safe, he will be able to offer more and more each outing and over several rides his self-preservation instinct will subside and the WON’T becomes a WILL.

He is Unmotivated

Horse and rider come to a field where other horses are being ridden. She wants to trot around but her horse has other plans. His focus is everywhere but on her; he wants to visit with the other horses. When she asks him to move up into trot he ignores her leg and stays in the walk looking all around.

The horse that blows off his rider’s request finds something else higher priority. The rider should see this not as rudeness, but instead as a challenge of how to be more engaging for him! To recapture the horse’s attention, pick a simple request that he knows, such as flexing him to the left. Start with the softest pressure possible, then gradually increase pressure until he responds. When he gives slightly, immediately release pressure. Then slowly start again. Stay with the same request until he is giving you an ear at the softest pressure, and responding consistently softly every time. Once you have that, you have his attention and you’ll need to do something interesting with it so you don’t lose it again! Transitions and changes of direction are a great way to keep a horse on his toes. Don’t forget to reward your horse with a rest when he starts to keep an ear on you and responds softly and consistently to your requests. You are rewarding him for keeping his mind on you just as much as for the transitions.

Once you understand the reason behind the WON’T, one of the above strategies can help you shape it into a WILL. Willingness is a habit, not a permanent condition. It can be lost, it can be developed, it should be practiced like a skill and rewarded like the gift that it is!

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