Understanding and motivating the slower horse

Ready, set, go!

It is not uncommon for riders to describe
their horses as ‘lazy’ or ‘disinterested’. They will say that their horses are
‘not wanting to go forwards’, ‘ignoring the leg aids’, ‘switching off’ or
‘refusing’ to do what is asked. But are these horses really ‘lazy’ in the true
sense of the word? Or is there just a misunderstanding between human and horse
that needs addressing? Before you invest in a longer stick or bigger spurs, it
is worth considering what may be underlying your horse’s lack of desire to
‘perform’ as you require him to.

The term ‘lazy’

Using the word ‘lazy’ to describe a horse suggests that there is something that a horse ‘should’ be doing. We would argue that in reality these horses are not lazy but simply of ‘low energy’. Naturally there is nothing that a horse ‘has’ to do. We have imposed our demands on these animals, so it is possible that they may not meet our expectations, but this does not make them lazy. They fulfil all that is required of them naturally, they simply do not respond to our artificial demands for ‘more’.

Beware of constantly applying leg to the ‘slower’ horse. Ensure that you ask for ‘forwards’ and then relieve the pressure when he/she responds.

What is energy?

Before beginning to discuss the
lower-energy horse, it is worth defining exactly what energy means in terms of
the horse. Energy is essentially a horse’s willingness to ‘try’. It is his
willingness to respond to aids and to do what is asked of him. Energy has
nothing to do with the speed or spook-ability of a horse. A fast or spooky
horse can be just as low-energy as a slower, calmer horse – it all just depends
how much energy they put in to doing everything that is asked of them.

Reasons horses may appear to be ‘lazy’

There are several reasons a horse may be
described as lazy. These include:

  • A horse who is sore and thus
    reluctant to go forwards.
  • A horse who has been poorly
    schooled and does not correctly understand the aids.
  • A horse who is bored and
    unmotivated by the tasks required of him.
  • A horse who has previously been
    overworked and has thus learned to be economical with his energy investment.
  • Poor schooling, which has
    created a horse who has become desensitised to the aids and no longer pays
    attention to them.
  • Poor schooling that gives the
    horse conflicting aids, for example to go forwards and slow down at the same
    time.
  • A horse responding to fear in
    the rider by slowing down.
  • A horse who resists the
    requests of humans, normally due to something that occurred in the past. These
    defensive and resistant horses are normally not low-energy, but instead are
    putting a lot of energy into fighting against their trainer.
  • A horse who is ‘shut-down’ due
    to abuse or trauma, which has created a state of ‘learned helplessness’.
  • A horse who is naturally of low
    energy.

How to tackle the issue

If a horse is sore, this is obviously
something that needs addressing by a veterinarian. In cases where a horse has experienced
a change in energy levels or you have just purchased a new horse, it is
certainly worth checking out veterinary causes first. However, in all other
cases, the answer to this ‘laziness’ lies in retraining and motivating the
horse so that he is able and willing to perform the tasks required of him by our
training. It is a case of creating curiosity and a problem-solving mindset in
your horse, rather than becoming increasingly frustrated and demanding of him.
Remember that he does not ‘have’ to perform these tasks – these are things that
we require of him. It is therefore
our job to make him ‘want’ to participate.  

Remember that sometimes ‘getting after’ a low-energy horse may seem to have an effect, as eventually most horses, fulfilling their role as prey animals, will just attempt to get away or release more energy when the stimulus becomes severe enough. This, however, is not a long-term solution, and in many cases creates more problems for the future.

Praise your horse for even the smallest try in the right direction.

Creating defined goals

One of the few
constants with all of these types of horses is that they find comfort in their
low energy. Therefore, once you have achieved your goal for that day’s training
session, ensure that you give your horse a proper break, with plenty of time to
rest, relax and process.
This should ideally be in
your company so that your horse learns that you will give him the opportunity
to rest during his work with you. A good break may be getting off for five
minutes before walking him to cool him down.

Creating these opportunities for rest does,
however, rely upon having a set goal in mind. Training with no view to an
end-point is incredibly frustrating for any horse, as they are never sure what
the ‘point’ of the session is. With a low-energy horse it is absolutely
necessary to go out to ride with a defined plan. If it becomes rapidly apparent
that your plan is not going to be achievable that day, you must adapt your goal
to reward your horse’s smallest try towards the defined end-point.

It is also worthwhile creating easily
achievable end-points with these horses, so that they regularly experience a
sense of satisfaction and achievement. Over time your horse will achieve more
and more in each training session and be more and more willing to try. Pushing
these horses for prolonged periods for minimal reward is a futile exercise.

Surprise your horse

Sometimes, to surprise your horse, it is worth putting the tack on and then leading them out simply to graze.

The next thing to try is to ‘surprise’ your
horse with the ease of a particular training session. Some days it can even be
beneficial to tack your horse up but simply take him to graze. This can reduce
some of the sourness that can become associated with ‘work’ in the arena.
Horses who are used to tack being put on followed by a hard session in the
arena naturally become unhappy about being tacked up. Spicing things up by
putting the tack on and giving them a very easy or brief session or even, as
mentioned, a grazing session, can really help to shift their mindset.

Another trick is to spend more time ‘resting’
and less time ‘doing’ during a training session. This also helps to ‘reset’
these sour horses, as they realise that training sessions are not necessarily
always taxing and exhausting. Asking horses to stop when they are going
forwards and are responsive can also surprise these horses and make them
realise that more effort results in more rest, rather than the common situation
where horses feel that the more they give, the more they are asked for. With
these horses you must never become greedy – it can be tempting when they are
going forwards to ask for all of the things you have been wanting to practise,
but this is the worst possible course of action. When your horse offers
something desirable, stop and allow him to relax. Don’t keep pushing, or he
will regret giving anything in the first place, and your problem will have
become far worse!

Re-training

The re-training of aids and the re-sensitisation
to these aids can seem to be a long process and does involve going right back
to basics (often with a large element of groundwork). However, many people end
up surprised at how quickly their horses progress once they have started to
understand the basic training aids. It may seem frustrating to have to go right
back to the beginning when you have a competitive horse on your hands, but, at
least in our opinion, the results will be worth it and you will have to endure
far less frustration in the long run. This ultimately ensures a far happier
partnership for you and your horse.

Relaxation

Relaxation is vital in situations where your horse is expressing low energy because he is defensive, resistant or has experienced trauma previously. You need to be able to apply aids without tensing, and without becoming frustrated. It is important to try and keep emotion out of the aids when you ask these kinds of horses to perform, as most of them will have negative connotations with emotion, and are likely to respond negatively and brace. Karen Rohlf, the author of the best-seller Dressage Naturally, gives the analogy of being like a horse-walker in these scenarios: just like a horse-walker, you ask a horse to go forwards, but you do not become emotional about it. You are consistent in asking, but you do not let frustration get the better of you and you do not allow your body to display tension. These horses cannot cope with being pushed and forced, so the second you feel that you are pushing them to do something, you need to stop and relax. You will get better results this way than if you continue to hound them, which ultimately only leads to brace and fear.

Make it worthwhile

We need to remember that all horses have to do is graze and avoid predators.
We therefore need to give them a reason to make them want to do what we are
asking. Is your horse particularly food oriented? Reward even the smallest try
with food, or hide tubs of food around the property and encourage him forwards
to go and find them. Alternatively, make exercises into games so that your
horse enjoys spending time training with you.

Final thoughts

Initially with these horses it is essential
to prioritise willingness over correctness in performance. Over time
performance will improve, but willingness must always be prioritised and
rewarded. These low-energy horses can change, and often become the most amazing
partners in the long run. They just require a bit more effort in the beginning
to get the partnership established and the lines of communication clear.

Understanding and motivating the slower horse

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