Dealing with the Lazy Horse
Why is it that some horses just naturally act like they're full of energy while other horses seem low on their get-up-and-go?
There are many reasons why a horse acts lazy, and Texas trainer Buddy Fisher, Taylor Farm Quarter Horses, has probably seen most of them. Fisher has trained several top ten world finalists and superior horses in many disciplines – halter, western pleasure, reining, futurities and all-around. He also has handled problems with youth, amateur and novice horses.
Before you try to retrain the loafing equine make sure your horse's reluctance to work is not due to health problems. Some common troubles include viral illness, muscle soreness, anemia, parasitism, overheating, heart disease, inappropriate nutrition, poor fitness, over-training and obesity. Your veterinarian can do a complete physical, blood work, fecals and a soundness exam to eliminate these problems as the cause of the equine's laziness.
Rule Out the Rider
Make sure rider errors aren't contributing to laziness. Young or novice equestrians often give incorrect signals to the horse. "Often the experience level of the rider doesn't match up with the horse in order to keep the horse light and responsive," Fisher notes. "If the horse starts to become more and more dull, the rider ends up using more leg pressure until they're squeezing the horse with all their might just to get them to move. In a sense, the rider has desensitized the horse."
To reverse that, put the horse through a basic exercise program to lighten up the animal. "Start using much lighter cues but make sure they understand what you're asking," Fisher suggests. "The first day or two use light pressure with your legs and if the horse doesn't respond, reinforce with a crop or roll the spur a little bit.
"If the horse is pulling on the bridle, bit them up to get them to back off the bridle. We usually work in a snaffle bit, depending on what they need and how much they are pulling and pushing on the bridle. Work them in a round pen until you see them start to soften a little bit in the poll and bridle," Fisher says.
Riders can foster laziness by concentrating too much on particular elements of a sport and forgetting about the physical conditioning. "For example, a lot of riders will ask a pleasure horse to drop his neck and lope off along a wall. Day in and day out: 'Walk, trot, lope. Walk, trot, lope. Go slow, go slow.' They don't think about the body-strengthening exercises that it takes to keep them fit to do their job," Fisher says.
In addition to working on specific elements of a discipline, do plenty of conditioning exercises – counter-bending, counter-cantering, roll backs, half-passes, turns on the forehand, turns on the hind end, moving the shoulders, moving the hips, lots of trotting, driving them up into the bridle, picking them up. A variety of conditioning exercises not only keeps the horse in good physical shape so he can do his job more easily, but it also helps prevent boredom.
Attempting to maintain a peak for too long can lead to reduced performance and burnout and resistance. "Even the really great horses are built up to peak at certain events," Fisher says. "Plan out your season and when you'd like your horse to peak, and back off a bit in between the really important shows."
Blame It On the Horse
If health, nutrition, or rider miscues are not the problems, it could be your horse really is just a low-energy, laid-back kind of critter. "This is a horse that has more talent than 'want-to,'" Fisher says.
To get him going at full steam try backing off your exercise routine for a couple of weeks and then raising the horse back up to the desired level. Do this by going back to the basics, working the horse beneath the desired level of the performance and working very lightly on elements specific to the sport.
"For example, if I'm working on turnarounds with a reining horse, I'll back off and just do mostly loping and galloping around," he says. "When I do work on stops it will be at a slower speed, working on functional corrections. When I turn around some it will just be working on the cadence of the turn."
During this two-week reduction in training spend a lot of time riding the horse in the pasture, just straight lines and redirection to keep the horse going forward and to relax his mind. After two weeks at a reduced level step up to the desired level once again. If you meet with less resistance than before, and the horse starts adapting better to this higher level, keep the horse refreshed through an alternating schedule of backing off a little bit every couple of weeks and working at the desired level for a couple of weeks.
Sometimes, though, the horse just won't step back up to the level that you know he can perform at, even after several tries of backing off. "If you try to push these lazier individuals toward the top of what they can do and maintain them there you're going to get mental problems," warns Fisher. "They're going to fight this because they don't want to be performing at that level. For some reason, they're just not comfortable there."
Instead, figure out where your horse is most comfortable performing and how much he can give before he starts having problems with resentment and lack of interest. "If your horse is mentally and physically comfortable at a 60 percent level, then you have to listen to that," says Fisher. "They're just not going to be capable of doing higher level work on a consistent basis, and pushing them to do so is just going to produce a lot of problems."
In this situation, Fisher says you have to make a choice: You can switch to a different equine discipline, compete at a lower, more comfortable level, or get another horse.
"We've had some reining horses, for example, that didn't have the want-to, that didn't like to go fast or turn around. But we turned them into real nice all-around horses, and they liked that better," Fisher says. "Maybe it was the variety they liked, or that it wasn't so physically demanding. Alternatively, some of these horses make real good novice, youth, and amateur horses."
If you really need a horse capable of consistent work at higher levels, then selling or leasing your lazy horse and acquiring a more competitive horse may be the best thing for both of you. After all, if your training sessions with your horse become exercises in frustration neither you nor your horse will enjoy the relationship, and that serves no one. If competition is important to you, then you'll ultimately be happier working with a horse that can perform at the level you desire.