Have you ever found yourself riding a hot horse where the slightest touch of your leg sends them shooting forward with the speed of a snake strike? Even worse, once they start on that forward trajectory, they get heavier and heavier on your hand.
It becomes more and more unbalanced until, eventually, there is an epic tug of war happening. Horse and rider pitted against each other, often at speeds, which for the space you are currently occupying, are breakneck
Think ‘Increase Relaxation’ rather than ‘Slow Down’
Horses become like this as the result of many different factors and influences. It may be that they experienced pain or anxiety in a similar past situation. Some horses are just a naturally more anxious or sensitive by nature.
What’s important to remember is that rather than slow your horse down, you are instead looking for more relaxation. This is both when he is being ridden and when he responds to your aids, particularly your leg and seat.
Understanding Excess Tension
Often when horses run away from the leg, they become tense all over. They hollow their back, they raise their head, their muscles become stiff and taunt. They also invite you to ride really badly… which is why the first part of retraining your horse is to make sure you are asking the correct questions in the correct, timely manner. Also, that you are responding to your horse correctly.
This takes consistent ongoing effort and rewiring if your horse is to accept your leg and seat aids. Ongoing meaning months, if not years. However, the effort is always worthwhile, for both you as the rider and the horse.
Ruling Out the Obvious Culprits
The first part of this is making sure your horse is not running away from anything causing him discomfort or pain. This means checking him thoroughly for any medical or health issues as well as back or muscular problems. Then ask a professional to check your tack and of course, have his teeth seen to on a regular basis.
Correcting Your Position and Leg Aids
Once you have covered all possible outside influences, we can begin to look at what you can actively do to retrain your horse to happily accept your leg. To do this, I think it bears mentioning that you must have an independent seat and knowledge of how your legs must be correctly applied and the correct result or outcome to this application.
So, once you are clear that your position in the saddle is correct and you have a sound knowledge of how to apply your leg and seat aids, I suggest investing some time developing your often overlooked voice aid. I really believe for horses like this, the voice is a tool you can use to begin reprogramming their reactions in a calm controlled way.
Spend Time with Groundwork
You can begin doing this by lunging your horse and observing their behaviour and their way of going. Notice things that trigger a reaction. Then, slowly, using your voice along with your other lunging equipment begin to ask more demanding questions of your horse. Of course, all the while backing every question and response up with your voice.
This time spent working correctly on the lunge will also allow your horse to experience how comfortable and enjoyable things can be if he relaxes and uses himself correctly… Without the interference of the rider. Remember, often our horses are running away from us, whether we like it or not and sometimes the key to retraining is by taking us out of the equation initially!
Training to the voice first on the lunge gives you a ‘back up’ for your legs as you are riding. It allows your horse to begin understand when he has indeed taken a step in the correct direction. This is especially true when used in conjunction with an ‘offering’ of the inside rein to reward while riding.
Your Actions Affect Your Horses Relaxation
Talking also keeps you breathing while in the saddle. This simply means you are less likely to tense up and become stiff, which your horse will inevitably pick up on and perhaps be affected by. Your voice also focuses your horse on you and calms them.
As I mentioned, the other great advantage of lunging is the fact that you can spot other influences that are causing certain reactions. We had a particularly ‘sensitive & hot’ mare here a few years ago. She was an OTTB and quite ‘goey’ as well as ticklish. We noticed that when she was wearing a square saddle pad, rather than a shaped numnah, the her attitude changed and she became more difficult to work with. We figured out that this was due to the corner of the pad ‘tickling’ her close to her sensitive flank areas. We changed the saddle pad and while she was not ‘cured’, she was certainly easier to work with afterwards.
Changing Things Up and Getting Out of the Arena
The second suggestion I have is getting out of the arena. Often sensitive horses over think things a little and begin to anticipate. We then, in response to this anticipation, begin to tense up and a vicious cycle is born. In these cases riding on roads, lanes or trails works well to relax a sensitive or hot horse. It also demonstrates what you are actually looking for when you do venture back into the arena and how you are going to ask for that in future.
You can begin this by focusing on regulating the tempo in trot while on the trail. You are initially looking for a long, relaxed and low, if necessary, shape to begin setting a new ‘normal’ which you can work on improving in the arena. Regulating the tempo has a calming effect and being out, perhaps with a friend, often relaxes horses and allows them to be more open to suggestions.
I have to stress the importance here of consistent use of your leg. Your horse has to begin to realize that you leg on their side is normal and not something to run away from and often the trail is a good place to start this due to the more relaxed feel of the ride.
The Importance of Understanding How To Use your Leg Aids
Remember keeping your legs off and only using when absolutely necessary, while initially will seem like it’s helping, will only prolong an already irritating situation. He may initially rush or run away, however by keeping your legs there, quietly he will begin to relax and the tempo may slow, while the stride becomes longer.
All the while I urge you to keep your leg on, gently.. Not gripping, not nagging, just there and asking questions when needed, such as inside leg for impulsion, outside leg to balance and straighten etc. Once you have mastered this on the trail, you can then begin to look for similar results in the arena, using your voice in a similar manner to when being lunged and the same leg and seat aids from the trail.
Ignoring the Invitation to ‘Ride Badly’!
When you do begin working in the arena, or an enclosed space you may find that your horse will again speed up, fall onto the forehand and lose balance… In order to end this tug of war, it is extremely tempting to take your leg off, however only reinforces in the horse that the leg means go and only go.
You must essentially ignore all his invitations asking you to join in to that tug of war and rather stick with consistently applying your leg aids in a correct and also using the half halt to balance and regain his attention. When you get a positive reaction, no matter how small, be sure to acknowledge it by rewarding with inside rein and allowing him to move forward again
Do not allow him to rush, pull on your reins or lean on your reins and also do not stop using your leg. Rather gently insist with half halt, remembering that so much of the half halt is your legs and seat, that he comes back and when he does so, rewarding with voice and a softening of the inside rein.
Focus on Consistent Rhythm and Tempo
When in the arena, work on regulating tempo but be careful of horse becoming stiff and tense though their back. They sometimes lock against the rider, resulting in a horse that is noticeably ‘slower’ but that is stiff throughout their body and not using themselves to their full potential.
Keep you leg in contact with the horse at all times, not gripping, but in contact. If you need to desensitise him you can, beginning at walk, gently ‘rub’ or ‘swing’ your legs against your horse’s side. Each time he tries to run forward, use your half halt, again including your leg, to let him know that it does not always mean rush forward. However, I must caution you that I personally think desensitising him will open another can of worms later down the line, but I do know of people who have had success with this so it bears mentioning.
The final point I want to make is that very often being sensitive to the leg means being sensitive all over, and horses like this pick up on the rider being tense and stiff. I mentioned earlier the benefit of the voice, and from this point I believe it works both ways.
Retraining a horse that runs away from your leg takes months of consistent work; paying attention to asking correctly and then rewarding when small progress is made. Keep in mind that there is a big difference between allowing him to go forward and asking him to go forward; meaning that you must be prepared for the response to the questions you ask.
- Relaxation when Riding a Hot or Sensitive Horse
- How to Use Your Legs While Riding
- Learning to Stop Driving with Your Seat
- Free Half Halt Training
- Lunging for Horse and Rider