CALMING THE OVERANXIOUS HORSE IN SPEED EVENTS by Clinton Anderson
Photos courtesy of Darrell Dodds
A horse that’s anticipating the run ahead is using the reactive side of his brain, which means he has an excess of energy and isn’t focused on you. The biggest mistake I see people make with horses that are using the reactive side of their brains is trying to stop them from moving by pulling back on two reins. The more you try to make a reactive horse stand still, the more upset he’ll get, which is when he starts rearing, head tossing, kicking out, etc. Rather than trying to stop the horse from moving, use the alleyway as a training tool to get him to use the thinking side of his brain and put his attention on you. You’ll do that by using only one rein to move his feet forwards, backwards, left and right. The more changes of direction you have the horse do, the quicker he’ll focus on you and use the thinking side of his brain.
If you’re in the alley and your horse starts to fidget, put his feet to work by doing a series of rollbacks along the fence. Rollbacks work great because not only do they get the horse’s feet moving with energy and changing directions, but they’ll also help the horse soften to the bit, rate your seat and work off his hindquarters – all important aspects of a good run.
Canter the horse and only use one rein to roll him back. When you’re ready to turn, sit back in the saddle, direct his nose through the turn with your inside rein and press your outside leg up near the girth to ask him to turn. As soon as the horse is turned, hustle him out of the rollback and find another spot along the fence to turn into. The more you ask the horse to stop, turn and rollback, the more he’ll be forced to think about where he’s placing his feet and focus his attention on you.
Practice rollbacks until you can feel the horse relax and listening to you. Then bring him to a stop and practice flexing his head from side to side using one rein. This is his chance to get his air back and relax. If he moves, go right back to hustling his feet. Then ask him to stand still again and practice flexing. You want him to realize that standing still and flexing his head is a lot easier than hustling his feet and sweating. But don’t try to stop him from making the mistake of moving. Instead, actually dare him to. Put him on a big loose rein and wave your feet in the stirrups, lean forward and rub him, throw the reins up his neck, etc. If he moves, put his feet to work. Don’t sit on him like a closed pocketknife afraid to move.
When you get the horse to the point that he’s standing quietly and not wanting to move in the alleyway, do the one thing he’s least expecting – get off and take him back to the barn. Remember, he’s keyed up because he’s anticipating the run ahead. Show him that just because he’s in the alleyway, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to go run the pattern.
Taking your horse through this drill once isn’t going to fix his problem, especially if it’s a longstanding habit. You might have to do it five days in a row before he doesn’t overreact in the alley. That’s fine. What you don’t want to do is go through the drill and then take him in the arena and run him hard because then you’ve just wasted your time. It’s like the horse says to himself, “I knew that’s what you were going to do all along!”
And, even when you do have the horse’s problem fixed, after a few competitions, it will likely start to sneak back up. Then you’ll have to come back to the drill again and remind him that he needs to be relaxed and focused in the alley, not using the reactive side of his brain. Just remember that horses are nothing but maintenance with legs, you have to constantly keep them in check.
Author note: Clinton Anderson is a clinician, horse trainer and competitor. He’s dedicated his life to helping others realize their horsemanship dreams. Learn more about the Downunder Horsemanship Method at www.downunderhorsemanship.com.
This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 1
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