by Mitzi Summers
In my chosen line of work, I quite frequently am asked for help from someone who is having a problem with their horse.
This particular call came from the owner’s husband. He called to tell me about the problem his wife was having with her three year old Pinto-Paint mare. She had not been riding this horse (Domino) very long, but had been making very little progress. He was not a horseman, but he said that his wife (Sally) complained that mostly Domino was just not going forward any more. No matter what she tried, it just seemed to be getting worse and that the filly was so bad that Sally was ready to get rid of her. He asked me if I would come out to help and I of course agreed.
First session
When I arrived at the farm I made myself as unobtrusive as possible and just watched from the far side of the ring. The filly had good conformation and fairly good muscling. She seemed sound. She was ridden western and had a snaffle bit. I did not even check the tack fit at first as I wanted to influence Sally as little as possible so that I could see what she had been dealing with on a regular basis.
Sally mounted Domino without doing any ground work, and started walking her around in large circles in the indoor ring. The filly moved forward fairly freely and had a nice walk. She had a natural head carriage, with the neck telescoping out straight from the withers with her nose slightly in front of the vertical. Sally then stopped the mare and pulled on one rein first and then the other, causing Domino to hold her neck in an unnatural position with her nose almost touching Sally’s knee.
I did not ask her to stop as I really wanted to observe the progression of her training session. After doing this about five times on each side, Sally then backed Domino up (incorrectly, she used her hands instead of an active leg and passive hands) and then proceeded to walk her and to ask for a jog in her small circle.
The filly refused to jog. Sally became frustrated, kicking the mare harder and harder with her legs.  When Domino refused to move forward Sally then kept asking the mare to back up. The session denigrated into Domino being kicked to go forward, when she did not go forward, she was made to back up, or to turn her head to one side. When Sally became angry and started slapping Domino on her shoulders with the reins, I stepped in and stopped the session.
It is so important to be positive when working with horses and their people. Even though Sally has been doing the incorrect things, they were things she had been told to do. Since she thought they were supposed to work, she blamed her horse when Domino did not fit into the “mold”.
My first responsibility was to change the negative energy that both horse and rider were feeling. Stroking the filly, checking the tack fit, and commenting positively on the conformation of the horse and Sally’s position in the saddle (which was fairly good), helped Sally to start to look for the positives about her filly. This was important for the horse also. As prey animals, they are very sensitive to the moods and reactions of their handlers.
The fit of the tack was all right, but the bit was too high in Domino’s mouth. Sally also had the throatlatch too tight. She was using a French link smooth Eggbutt snaffle, so I did not change the bit.
Domino had not been in training for very long. Sally had not lunged her much before getting on her. She had just chased her around in a small circle on a line shorter than a lunge line and did not use a whip, just swung the end of the rope at her. I asked her why she turned Domino’s head to the side and she said it was to supple her. I asked her why she backed her up so much and Sally said it was to punish Domino when she did not go forward.
Since the filly had been punished in her mouth, I used a Bitless bridle for the first few training sessions until Domino could again trust Sally’s hands and not be afraid of being pulled in the mouth. I showed Sally how to correctly lunge Domino…not to tire her out, but to get her used to the idea of going happily forward on a large circle mainly by voice commands, with the lunge whip not used ever as punishment, just to use it as an extension of Sally’s leg and voice.
Sally had been told that Domino was not going forward because she was stubborn. Once I explained my reasons behind how we would reclaim Domino, and the theory behind it, it all made sense to Sally and she approached her training sessions with much enthusiasm.
Domino had never correctly been taught that the rider’s leg meant for her to go forward. Horses are not born with this knowledge — it has to be acquired by positive reinforcement. Domino learned correct lungeing quite easily. I lunged her so she recognized my positive voice in asking her to move forward at the walk, trot, and, later, canter. Then Sally got on Domino. I explained that she would ask Domino to move off her leg (a “hug” with her lower leg, NO KICKS!). She would also say “walk”, or “trot”. If the horse did not move forward from her leg she would say “now” to me and I would reinforce the command with my verbal command and the use of the whip as a gentle touch on Domino’s haunches. As soon as Domino moved forward she would be praised.
It is using the leg and voice aids to positively reinforce to the horse that a touch with the legs on her sides meant “go forward”. Keep it simple..Just go forward. It will become a reflex. All Sally had to do was keep this exercise consistent and not confuse the horse by pulling on her mouth.
In one training session Domino got much, much better…lighter to the leg. When Sally discovered that the false “suppling” was only detrimental to her horse, it all started to make more sense to both of them.
I also explained that backing a horse for punishment for not going forward was probably the most incorrect thing she could have done. Horses do not reason like that. When in doubt…does it make sense to the horse? Besides, the reasoning is all wrong, a horse is NEVER punished for something he does not know…something he does not understand. It only took a few training sessions and Domino was going happily forward because she now understood what she was supposed to be doing.
To summarize…not going forward is a big deal. It can lead to rearing and bucking. The answer is not to whip more or put on spurs. The answer is to go back and make sure that the horse understands. Of course a lazy horse or pony who UNDERSTANDS the use of the rider’s legs, can be “popped” occasionally with a whip to reinforce the leg aids.
It is almost always the fault of bad riding or training that results in a horse not going forward. If a whip is used and the horse sulks and hangs back even more, then a giant red flag should announce to you that the horse needs to be retrained in a thoughtful way. Remember that “Calm. Forward, and Straight” are the three golden training goals for your horse.