Amani jumps confidently around cross-country courses because she knows I’m in command—and because I’ve taught her how to answer the questions she’ll face.
My nearly 45 years of experience with horses has taught me that, generally speaking, horses don’t do what you want them to do for one or more of these six reasons. So the way to solve that resistance or disobedience is to address the problems that result from these six issues as part of your training.
I see these resistances happen most dramatically when jumping, especially when a horse refuses a jump, either occasionally or regularly. But these resistances can all certainly apply to everyday life—things like bringing the horse in from the field, loading in a trailer or even standing for the farrier to do his job.
The six major causes of disobedience in equines are:
1. You’re not in charge. You’re not actually giving the horse a command or direction; you’re asking him if he’d like to do something—and, predictably, the answer the horse usually gives is “No.” Your attitude must be, “Now we’re going to jump/walk past the barn/load in the trailer,” but instead you’re meekly asking, “Could we jump/walk past the barn/load in the trailer?” It is imperative when dealing with horses (or any animal) to remember this: You are the boss, the drill sergeant, the coach or the teacher. Be any of these—but be in charge! When you properly give a command, your horse should snap to attention, salute and respond, “Yes, sir/ma’am! As you wish.”
2. Your aids aren’t correct, clear or understandable. For instance, you think you’re telling the horse to canter or to jump, but you’re really preventing him from doing either. Perhaps you’re using your leg aids correctly, but you’re pulling back on the reins when he starts to canter or jump. Some horses are willing to ignore the rider’s aids to do the job they know they’re supposed to do (like canter or jump, despite the rider), but others are either more sensitive, more demanding of correct aids or just lazy, so they won’t do whatever it is you want unless you tell them correctly.
3. The horse doesn’t understand what you want him to do. This mostly applies to jumping or negotiating some kind of obstacle on the trail, and it’s very much a training issue. Often it’s the result of what someone did, or did not do, before the horse came to you, and now you have to deduce or guess what that something was, kind of like a CSI investigator. You need to ask yourself if you’ve prepared the horse to answer the question, both in previous training sessions and in today’s session. Ask yourself, “What does he not understand?” and break down the question into smaller pieces, if possible, to help him solve it.
4. The horse is genuinely frightened. He doesn’t like jumps in certain shapes or colors. He doesn’t like to go into dark or narrow places (such as forested paths or indoor arenas). The noise and motion of streams unnerves him. I’ve written two recent blogs about the eyesight issue we’ve discovered one of my competition horses has, and I believe more and more strongly that “spooky,” easily frightened horses, and horses who aren’t brave behave that way because they don’t see certain things in their environment well. To overcome their anxiety, you need to develop their confidence in you. You need to convince them that if you say they can jump that jump or go past that object that they’ll be OK. They need to believe that you’re correct when your aids tell them that whatever they can’t see perfectly won’t hurt them.
5. The horse doesn’t have confidence in you. Horses behave and perform for us because they trust us, because we make them feel safe and confident by commanding them and by teaching them how to solve questions like jumping. They develop confidence in us through our own confident attitude and by our repetitive success in helping them answer questions that life or we present to them. Problems 1 through 4 are all reasons for horses to lose or gain confidence in their riders. If you’ve repeatedly demonstrated to your horse that you’re not a leader, that you’re even weaker or more timid than he is, he’s going to resist going most places with you. Why? Because he doesn’t feel safe with you and he doesn’t want to be separated from the friends or environment where he does feel safe. Horses want you to be their strong leader, not their mild companion. Don’t believe me? Watch a group of three or four horses in a field.
6. The horse has a physical problem. He could be lame or sore, for any of hundreds of reasons. He could have a shoeing problem (as simple as needing to be on a regular six-week shoeing schedule, or needing a properly balanced trim, which probably means you need to change farriers). Perhaps he has ulcers or other gastro-intestinal issues. Perhaps the saddle doesn’t fit, slightly or at all. Perhaps he has an eyesight issue (see #4). I’ve just barely scratched the surface of possible physical issues that could cause resistance.
The bottom line, as we like to say at the Horse Journal, is that, if your horse is resisting your aids, your commands, you have to figure out why. Then you have to change it; you have to fix the problem, and you may have to change you. And, often, that change or fix will require serious effort and serious money.