Q: My horse is great at the walk and jog on the trail. However, when we are loping in a group, he bucks and shakes his head. I try to keep him at a slow lope, but he wants to take off and go to the front of the group. What else can I do?
Horses, just like all prey animals, feel the safest in a herd. Prey animals rely on “safety in numbers”—the more bodies there are, the greater the chance they have of surviving. And the faster they’re moving, the more of a tendency they have to race one another.
While no amount of training can completely wipe away your horse’s natural instincts, you can teach him to use the thinking side of his brain, relax and trust you when he feels threatened. Any time you need to get your horse’s attention and get him to use the thinking side of his brain, move his feet forward, backward, left and right, and reward the slightest try. The more you move his feet and change directions, the more he has to pay attention to you. He can only think about one thing at a time; he’s either listening to you or worrying about getting ahead of the other horses.
When your horse shakes his head, kicks out or tries to race ahead, pick up on one rein and bend him in a circle around your leg. Then, change directions and bend him the other way. More than likely, it’ll take several minutes of bending him before he relaxes and focuses back on you instead of the other horses. Once he’s working well (i.e. he’s calm and paying attention to you), put him back on a loose rein and continue your ride. Give him the opportunity to speed up again and commit to the mistake.
If you constantly try to hold your horse back, you’ll always have to baby-sit him. If he starts to build speed and heads after the horses in front of him, bend him around again. With repetition, he’ll learn to relax and stay at the pace you set—not getting any faster or slower. If he speeds up, he knows you’ll put him to work. Horses are creatures of habit and are basically lazy; they’ll always choose the option with the least amount of work involved. After a few repetitions of bending and hustling his feet, your horse will realize it’s far easier to stay at the gait you set and go down the trail on a loose rein.
Set Him Up for Success
Before expecting your horse to calmly lope out on the trail with a group of horses, be sure that he can lope on a loose rein in a controlled environment without shaking his head or kicking up his heels. If he can’t calmly lope around the arena or pasture on a loose rein without misbehaving or maintaining the gait you put him in, then you’re just setting him up to fail on the trail with other horses.
Everyone dreams of having a horse that lopes in a relaxed manner, but very few people are willing to put in the time necessary to teach their horse to lope slowly. It takes a lot of time and concentrated training in order for a horse to develop rhythm and cadence at the lope. If you want your horse to lope slowly with rhythm, you have to let him practice loping until he learns to get comfortable in the gait and relax. Always set your horse up for success.
Clinician Clinton Anderson owns and operates Downunder Horsemanship in Stephenville, Texas, where his method of horsemanship has helped to transform the relationship between thousands of horses and riders. He also hosts two inspirational training programs that air weekly on Fox Sports Net and RFD-TV. www.downunderhorsemanship.com.
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.