Why “Ride ’em Through It” Is a Bad Idea

“Sure, your horse is tossing his head and wringing his tail, but you push him on. More leg. Ride ’em through it. More leg!” Or “Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.” Or maybe something simple like, “Ask your horse to walk out.” It could be a trainer saying it, maybe it’s advice from a friend, or maybe it’s your own voice in your head, but things are sticky. “What’s wrong with me, why won’t my horse do this?” Oh, that’s definitely your voice, just an octave higher than it should be.

It’s easy to parrot out a quote but what did they mean? It all feels hard with nothing easy in sight. You’d rather not pick a fight, but the horse is ignoring you, as if that were even possible. You’re in a daze, flipping coffee-stained mental notes and partly-remembered videos in your mind, but now you’ve been throat-breathing and talking to yourself long enough that your horse thinks you’re ignoring him. Arguably right but still nothing works. He refuses to walk on, braced in his neck and pawing the ground. Sometimes he swings his head around to your foot with sour ears.

The worst part, and get ready for one more over-used but totally exasperating adage, “If you’re in the saddle, you’re training the horse.” Sadly true, if every time you ask for a canter, your horse tosses his head and lifts his front end in a tiny rear, doing it for another hundred times to “ride him through it” will create a habit rather than correct a behavior. What might have started as a one-off thing, but eventually what is happening is what you are training. Swell. So now it’s all your fault? Have you ruined your horse?

Add this: Some loudmouth smarty-pants is always spouting off about Affirmative Training. “Just say yes,” she says. You’re so frustrated that your teeth have dried to your lips and you can’t spit it out. Whose bright idea was it to give the horse a chance to volunteer? “A partnership means two voices,” she chirps. Well, now my horse has a voice and his training is like confetti in the air. A dictatorship never sounded better.

This is the point where the decent work you’ve done is about to get clobbered by cynicism and despair. And really, those are profane words around a horse. It doesn’t matter who got confused first, you or your horse. No instant in time is worth destroying trust and that is exactly what happens if we think being affirmative is fine on a sunny day but when things are challenging, aggression is not only needed but deserved. Escalation is always the easy path, even as it makes us unreliable to our horses. Why do we love punishment so much?

First and immediately, take a breath. Whatever you’re doing, just stop. Ease yourself back from the brink and let your horse do the same. Sometimes the most courageous thing to do is to back down from a fight.

Besides, it probably isn’t a training issue at all. If a horse, a flight animal(!), doesn’t want to move forward, it’s almost always about pain. It could be a pulled muscle, a sore back, or a sour stomach. It’s spring and a horse doesn’t need to have full-blown laminitis to feel some sensitivity in his hooves. Just because you thought your saddle fit last fall, doesn’t mean that it does now. Don’t make an assumption that it’s a bad attitude, give your good horse the benefit of a doubt.

One thing is certain. Spring grass must smell like the equine equivalent of cookies in the oven.

If his behavior changes, that’s communication. Resistance isn’t personal; it isn’t about you at all. It isn’t a master plan to humiliate you or a stubborn response to learning something new. Horses don’t think that way. If you pay lip service to listening to horses, now is the perfect time to prove it. What looks like disobedience is your horse trying to tell you something about himself. Are they confused by a barrage of cues? Does something hurt? Is that thing scary? A horse’s default position is defensive, focused on his own welfare and safety.

So, you might ask the loudmouth smarty-pants, now what? Finally, a use for all those years of reading mysteries and watching police procedural TV shows. You begin a process of elimination that will take some time. The Law and Order theme plays in the background.

Your horse has left clues for you. The tense poll and the sour ears are messages. That head toss points in a direction. Is it pain or a lack of balance? Is he cranky about your hands? That’s about pain, too. Calming signals have meaning and if we don’t listen to the small ones, bigger ones will follow. At the same time, if we can’t locate the pain, it will increase until it’s unavoidable. Isn’t that the story we tell in hindsight? That the unruly behavior was about ulcers? That the resistance was the beginning of an abscess?

What if we asked horses, “Who are you today?” and then actually listened. In my training, I do a lot of leading from behind. It’s an exercise to give the horse a chance to tell me about their confidence, how they were trained, and who they are on that particular day. Their owners are quick to tell me who their horse is, as if they are always the same person in every environment.

When we first start leading from behind, it’s easy to see it as a pass-fail test. We want to succeed; we want our horses to get it right so badly that we miss the conversation. Horses are eloquent in their silence; their resistance tells their story and reveals the path forward. We must ask questions that bring more questions. Obedience isn’t the gold standard and it’s well past time that we evolve our training beyond throwing temper tantrums. Where do you think horses learn that?

“Ride ’em through it” is more likely to create chronic issues and a bad attitude than train any work worthy of praise. It’s a way of saying, “I want it my way, and who cares about your pain or fear.” Most of us have been taught this domination approach. How does it leave you feeling?

Do you ever think about all those horses standing in pastures that no one rides? How many of them evolved from a bad ride into an unpredictable partner? Did their rider’s inconsistency, flipping from kind to cruel in each ride, make them lose confidence and become an unsafe mount? Do we quit them when we don’t get what we want?

I notice many rescue horses seem to have gotten there under suspicious circumstances. It’s a mystery that doesn’t take a genius to solve.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.

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31 thoughts on “Why “Ride ’em Through It” Is a Bad Idea”

  1. When my daughter’s pony became suddenly sour to jumps many years ago, and her trainer said she needed to start using a crop, my daughter refused, saying something was not right with him in his body. So we hired a brilliant vet who specialized in lameness issues of various kinds and also was certified in acupuncture. The vet spent two hours with us and the pony just asking him to do various things on the long line and when he balked, said that’s fine, we don’t need to push him, this is all about gathering info. She taught us how to use his hoof prints to assess things and gauge the level of work he was being asked to do, she felt something was off in his hind end and that his hocks were sore. She recommended 6 acupuncture sessions but she also wanted the pony to know that we understood where he was hurting, so she had my daughter gently wrap his hocks with moist heat for 20 minutes a day after an easy relaxed ride so he knew were trying to help him! She told us that day – ALWAYS assume a horse’s “misbehavior” is a result of pain. I felt like we owed her a million dollars for that statement alone. It’s guided everything we’ve done since. Needless to say, no crop was ever used. After the 6 weeks of treatment he resumed his work and my daughter knew how to use his foot falls to guide the warm up and the ride.

    • I love reading this comment; you got good training advice from a vet. That’s not common in my area. Having good pros to back us is so important. Listening to footfalls is huge, but not many teach it. Thanks, Billie. Your daughter deserves to have good horses forever, but she’ll also do her part to help it happen.

  2. Not just listening to the footfalls- looking at them on the arena footing! But I agree with the listening – we have rubber mats in the barn aisle and you can instantly hear if a horse is off by having them walk or even trot through there. 🙂 I became obsessed with looking at the hoof prints every single ride at all the gaits after this vet showed us what they can tell us about the horse’s body and how it’s working. Said pony is now 22 years old, and preparing for a new young rider (my grandson). I’ve been doing ground work in the arena with the pony for the past month or so and he is moving so well. He is my most responsive equine with free lunging – he loves showing off and also expressing himself with head/neck. As usual the other five line up at the gate and bang to be let in. Even Keil who is totally retired now at 33 insisted on having a turn. I have a newly-formed fantasy of living in a remote area with wide trails where we could take the ground work on the road, so to speak. Me + the five of them. What a time that would be. :)))

    • Your “five” sure have landed in a wonderful place and they know it! I would love to see the “ground work on the road”! Your vet is absolutely a keeper!!

  3. “First and immediately, take a breath. Whatever you’re doing, just stop. Ease yourself back from the brink and let your horse do the same. Sometimes the most courageous thing to do is to back down from a fight.”
    Some of the most valuable advice given to me as a rider. It is my trained response now because it works every time.
    It’s not about winning or losing to me or to the horse because it’s not a contest. I thank you for that Anna!

  4. Sage words, and although compared to lifelong riders I am a relative ‘newbie’, the concept of “a conversation, not a lecture” and mutual respect, has seen me disagree with more than one instructor. My horse, my perspective, the advantage of age is saying no, and staying with it. Your knowledgeable and professional insight reinforces what my instincts have been telling me.

    • I think that line between a foolishly challenging and inching toward more confidence of you and your horse is hard to define… but you sound like you’re negotiating that. Thanks Jan

  5. I love this so much.

    I am not a “ride through it” type of gal. My reader fear stops me every time. If I can tell the horse is not into what we are doing, and I get that sick, scared feeling in my stomach, then I just get off.

    • Better to not get into a corner, but I’ll always negotiate that line between being okay and being afraid. Just a small bit to find more information. Thanks Michelle

  6. Anna, you’re such a brilliant writer. All those mysteries we’ve watched and read…..should I channel Poirot or Vera? Vera feels a lot like she would have had the coffee-stained pile of notes. Poirot and horses, not so much. Dang, I wish I had been learning with you while I was going through all the things you made me laugh about today.

  7. Couldn’t agree more with your article! It is so sad so many think the horse is behaving ill or on purpose when it is just simply explained by pain or discomfort. The link between the body and the mind is so strong.

  8. We just can’t hear this message too many times; it is so essential. I honestly can’t remember ride ’em through it ever turning out well, but sure can remember many times when it did not. I was riding out with a trainer I was working with years ago when I was still very ignorant on horse matters. He was riding a friend’s horse who always ‘resisted’ crossing the creek we had to navigate. The trainer said something along the lines of he was gonna teach that horse a lesson, and the more the horse resisted, the more pressure he put on the horse to cross the creek. My horse Jackson and I were just waiting. The other horse escalated to bucking, and MY horse decided he better get back to the barn and I had a bit of a runaway back . Scary !! . So the ride ’em through it mentality scared BOTH horses and me too.

    I especially like your comments on how we can be both kind and cruel and no wonder our horse might not trust us if we flip-flop around that way. We sure wouldn’t trust a human who did that with us !

    • That kind of chain reaction train wreck is the worst. What a contagious mess. On the other hand, we hear about consistency all the time; this is what that means. Thanks, Sarah

  9. As usual I completely agree with you. Especially about the part where trying to force the same problematic canter depart a couple hundred more times is training a new unwanted behavior. I also had to think about this for a few days, and I wasn’t sure why, what with completely agreeing and all. There is one issue I see people back away from that I wish, if THEY have the ability, they would ride through. It’s tricky, best suited to those with the ability to be an absolute rock for their horse. New things. Old things seen out of a different eye. A stiff breeze. Whatever makes your horse anxious. If they are (this is very important) still in their body and available, not trapped in flight mode), I’d like to see the rider they trust the most take a deep breath, relax their thighs, loosen the reins, and stop and look at the scary thing. When the horse is breathing again and lowers his head, ask for a step. They may give you full on walking on, or it may be a step, relax, step, process, but as long and the horse has a say and you don’t force them into a situation YOU can’t handle with them, it usually works. You may even decide to turn around and go the other way. I think the important thing to ride through is “I got you”, staying far away from “I’m going to terrorize you”. There are some good horses at our barn who have become afraid of normal things they didn’t care about when they first arrived. It makes me sad. It’s so easy to see how it happens: I’ve been guilty of tensing up when a tarp suddenly gets blown in front of us, or the wind makes the barn door bang. I’m thankful for second chances!

    • I know what you mean; we don’t want to make problems, but confidence in a horse or rider is a fluid thing. My mentor had this glorious way of saying “goody-goody” and engaging curiosity in a horse. It was beautiful to see, that woman’s “I got you” strength was palpable when she walked into the barn. Like you, I’ve been on both sides. Thanks, Jane.

  10. Riders would benefit by having a saddle strapped to their back and a bit placed in their mouth and then popped with a whip, tugged by the reins and poked by spurs.

  11. Thank you for this. I think back to the days when I was a kid and what the command “ride it out,” looked and felt like to both me and the horses I was blessed to ride at the barn. I’m grateful there’s another way…Thanks Anna.

  12. Gosh, I needed to read this! It confirmed what I have been doing. I’ve always been a “ride it out” person. In dealing with everything, not just my horses. This changed after I got my Mare. She is sensitive to certain pressures. I’ve taken off the spurs. I put a gentler bit in her mouth. My hands are softer with her. She started her life in the feedlots of NM and TX, along with everything a “ Ranch” horse entails. At 5 I suppose she was feeling done. Her cowboy needed a better horse? I don’t know. Her body scared by spurs, 2 foals by the time she was 4. She was solid in training, broke to the dirt, and distant. Did her job without qualms, but not connected to me or her pasture mates. She looked past me instead of at me. Not scared, not fearful, yet not present.
    Now, some will say, animals do not have the capacity for love or affection. If this is the case, my mare would be a shining example.
    She has been my trail partner for almost 2 years now. We’ve worked hard to gain trust. Trust my hands will be kind, trust there will be no blood from spur wounds, trust there will be no crop or whip.
    We are getting there. Slow hands around her face, calm approach for the catch, a quiet voice and love….lots and lots of love.
    Can you rope off her? Yes. Can you barrel race on her? Yes She will do whatever I ask of her. I do know when she is fearful. We don’t “ride it out.” We might look at it, stand still and watch, or I might allow her to move to what she deems as a safe distance. Her past life has made these “boogers.” Together she and I will work through them with positivity, assurance, and listening to each other.
    Thank you writing this piece. Your words meant more than you will ever know.

    Highest Regards,
    L and Poppy


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