What to Do When Nothing Works.

WMeyeintheskyWe all have those rides where the simplest thing, the thing we do all the time, becomes impossible. The horse is resisting the aid, he just won’t do it. Now what? What do you do when nothing works?

First, get really mad. Swearing is preferred, and then find a stronger bit. It can be hard to find a twisted barb-wire bit sometimes, so take the grinder and cut some sharp edges into the fattest, jointed snaffle you can find. If your horse’s saliva isn’t a nice deep pink color, keep grinding away. And then mount up, take a death grip on the reins, and show him who’s boss.

What? He won’t go forward? Inconceivable! Get a whip, thrash him good. But if that wreaks havoc with his rhythm, and you know that rhythm is the very foundation of riding, then try spurs and only thrash him when he shuts down really badly. The spurs that work best have rowels with a sharp serrated edge. They’re made by the folks who make that Miracle Blade knife.

Still no luck? I’m not sure… is now the time you get out your electric cattle-prod saddle pad? Or is it time to start your testosterone shots?

Snap out of it! Are you nuts? Avoid this is horrible, abusive training! There are lots of things in the world that deserve your rage, but your horse isn’t one of them!

It’s a crazy world that I would even need to make that disclaimer. Still, I bet you’ve seen something close?? And yes, I’m preaching to the choir. I don’t think my blog readers are capable of anything close to this level of vicious riding.

Still, most of us started riding with some version of the Make ’em Method, hopefully not this extreme. We were taught to face the horse at the thing he’s afraid of and pick a fight, escalate the fight until the horse submits. Never mind that horses have side vision and his forehead is a bit of a blind spot, make him march up and ‘look’ at it anyway. Is our blind spot bigger than the horse’s?

Here’s the truth, you don’t have to win every fight. Sometimes stopping the fight is a win. From that position, you can negotiate a better cue. It will get done, it will take some time, and your communication skills will benefit. In the best scenario, the rider finds a million times to say ‘good boy’ in the process, and the horse gains confidence and pride. Best of all, there’s a sweet peace a rider gets that comes from slowing time down, rather than letting time have a runaway, dragging us along. Horses love this brand of leadership.

Sometimes we have to escalate a cue to make a correction, but immediately after that, drop your cue back to small and quiet. Change the tone of the conversation, forget the grudge, and congratulate yourself on your patience. Then start over happy.

“There is one principle that should never be abandoned when training a horse, namely, that the rider must learn to control himself before he can control his horse. This is the basic, most important principle to be preserved in equitation.” (Alois Podhajsky, 1965)

What if you are not quite happy yet? Take a breath. And no, that isn’t a figure of speech. Literally take a breath, bring air down into the very corners of your lungs and let that inhale inflate the time and space you share with your horse. Take several more deep breaths, and maybe your horse will join you. Either way, let go of frustration and ego, think of it as a human half-halt. Because your horse’s behavior begins with you, a good rider should be as responsive as she wants her horse to be.

Science and common sense tell us that a horse resists from either fear or confusion, emotions that are never resolved by aggression. We are always training, both ourselves and our horses, working a tendency towards lightness and release, or heaviness and resistance. Your choice…

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

P.S. I saw something that burned my eyes this week. I was leaving a therapeutic riding center, passing a roping arena. I pulled over to use my phone and saw such an extreme fit of horse abuse that I had to look away. The arena was full of riders, they did nothing to help the poor horse and neither did I. Shame on me.


This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

11 thoughts on “What to Do When Nothing Works.”

  1. Don’t stop writing posts like this. Yes, you feel shame for not stopping a bad situation, but you can’t possibly know all the many ways that reading something like this has helped a rider keep it together when things go badly. I had one of “those” moments on a ride this week. I was infuriated and irked (at myself and my horse) and then SO depressed the rest of the day because we failed to do what I wanted to accomplish. And no, I didn’t do anything drastic in response to her refusal because one of your posts kept playing over and over my mind: If you can’t do the thing you want the horse to do, then ask for something you know it CAN do. Well sometimes out on the trail there isn’t a lot of opportunity to do something you know the horse can do well. No room to do circles or move off the leg or even back up a few steps. So I gave up the battle by asking her to walk along a path that I knew she was a bit spooked about, but didn’t pose any great challenge other than her initial trepidation. And after a few seconds she did it beautifully. And bravely. OK, so she wouldn’t step into the river. I chose to lose that battle. Instead we conquered a different, a smaller fear and hopefully it was a confidence builder and a win-win … for us both. 😉

    • Thanks for this comment, and yes, this is exactly what I mean. Avoiding a fight and finding a ‘good girl’ is the best. And the river next time.

  2. Ugh visions of the past being asked to repeatedly turn a horse back around and around and around toward a jump that seemed to grow taller and grew teeth and flames and got scarier for both of us each time we turned around with mounting frustration, crops, greater speed, ducking shoulders, swishing tails. Not the least bit helpful even when eventually successful, that stuff doesn’t build teamwork. Such a relief to just stop adding tension to the tension. And I love what you said the other day about the miracle of ignoring something until it goes away! .

    • Ignoring works best when replacing with something better… that’s what we all did with Andante. I had lessons like yours in the past and agree with you… tension plus tension=

  3. This applies to horses and children alike. They feed off of your emotions, good or bad. I have this written on the mirror in my bedroom to remind me of that fact: ‘Your mood transfers directly to the kids. Try to be happy so they can be, too.’
    Great post, as always!

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