Working a horse in the arena is a necessity for most horse owners… either we are working the horse for training purposes, or sometimes just for exercise. This can be because the horse has a lot of energy and needs to work, or the horse may be lazy- but still needs to work. The best way to stave off arthritis is to keep your horse moving, and to keep his muscle tone up to prevent extra pressure on his joints.
I will go into specifics of exercising the horses in future blog posts, but one of the issues I see a lot is either when the horse either refuses to stop, or refuses to move forward. Refusing to stop is actually easier to deal with than a horse refusing to move forward- you can change a horse’s direction to slow him down, but how do you make a 1,000 pound animal move forward if he doesn’t want to?
I see a number of makeshift ways for people to try to get their horse to move forward. Some of them involve tying a plastic bag to the end of the whip. Seriously- we spend so much of our time trying to desensitize our horses to bags, and you PURPOSELY try to scare him with one? Really? I’ve also seen people fill soda cans and fill them with rocks and shake them in order to get the horse to move. Before I knew better, someone told me to do this, and I tried it. I succeeded in doing nothing other than making my horse annoyed. She wasn’t scared of it, and I just ended up being more frustrated because she still wasn’t listening to me.
But that was the issue- our relationship wasn’t solidified, so she had no reason to listen to me. If you’re relying on gimmicks like plastic bags or rock-filled soda cans in order to try to get your horse to move, your horse is not going to move because you ask, but because of that gimmick. Take the gimmick away, and your horse is going to revert to ignoring you.
I’ve included a video below of one of our volunteers, Molly, trying to get Quixote to move in the round pen. You can see her energy is up (she’s been trying for over five minutes to get him to trot), she’s moving the whip around (it actually broke right before this video was taken), but Quixote is completely ignoring her. This was her first time working with him, so they don’t have a relationship, and he doesn’t understand why he should be bothered listening to her, especially since she’s asking him to do something he doesn’t want to do.
You’ll notice that once I ask him to trot, even though I have the phone up, so my shoulders are a little off, and I’m not paying attention to him in the way I should, he immediately starts trotting. I use my voice and energy to help get him to trot, but the main reason why I can get him to trot and many of the other volunteers can’t is not because I’m any better at working with the horses than they are, or because I have some creepy horse whisperer vibe- rather, it’s just because I have a relationship with him.
So what do you do when the horse won’t listen to you? First of all, you need to establish that relationship, which means you need to toss your agenda of “I must get this horse to trot/canter/run” and focus instead on “I would like my horse to pay attention to me and do what I ask.”
One way to do this is to move your horse- not just in a circle, but make him change directions. He’s not going to want to, and if you don’t have much of a relationship with him, you’re going to need to put a halter and rope on him and ask him to change directions by leading him. Make him walk around the round pen in one direction for one circle, then stop him and make him go around in the other direction. Tell him he is good and say, “Walk on, good, good walk,” etc. over and over and over again. Make it seem like this is all your idea. You don’t want him to trot… you want him to walk. Do this a few times, then allow him to circle twice around before stopping him and turning him around. Then increase the number of circles to four or five before you turn him around. Then STOP. Your natural inclination is going to be “now I can make him trot and he’ll listen to me! I win!” NO. That’s not how building a relationship works. Building a relationship takes several days and several sessions.
You may want to work on just getting your horse to listen to you in the round pen and turning directions when you ask. You may notice he may even start trotting… I usually ignore this, and when he walks again, I tell him he is good and say something like, “Good walking, good boy, walk on,” etc. Again, you are making it seem like the walking is your idea, not his. If you feel like your relationship has developed wherein when you ask for the trot that he will actually listen to you, you can ask him to trot on, but don’t get greedy- the goal again, is a long-term relationship. I’m not saying you have to do this for months, but it may take a few weeks of just walking if your horse is completely ignoring you in the round pen. Remember, you are building a relationship, and the work that you put into it will come back to you. If you resort to shortcuts, you will never get a horse who truly trusts or respects you.
I’ll post more about the common issues I see with people working with horses, but if you have a specific question you would like me to address, please feel free to contact me!