Riding the Middle: My Horse is Lazy.

My horse is lazy. He won’t go forward. He doesn’t listen to my legs no matter what. Do I need spurs?

Warning: Predictable answer ahead.

(First and always, is your horse sound? Ulcers maybe? Don’t assume he’s okay, check.)

When I hear this human question, I wonder what the horse would ask in the same situation. Is the word lazy even in their vocabulary? I mention this because understanding how horses think is much more important than getting our way.

If I had to guess, I’d think the horse was shut down. Here’s my equine CSI logic: The horse is a stoic horse. I know this because a more reactive horse would have bucked his rider off by now. Excessive kicking doesn’t go over well with a horse who gets aggravated easily.

Stoic horses are every bit as intelligent and sensitive as a reactive horse. They’re just quiet, keeping their own best council. Think introvert, in human terms. Stoic horses are conflict avoidant, retreating inside and trying to be invisible. Like me around enthusiastic football fans.

Humans tend to think horses can’t hear them, even knowing that each one of his senses is more acute than ours. So, we cue again, louder this time. Or we just nag on with our legs banging their sides each stride. But the more you cue a stoic horse, the more he crouches inside of himself. *Light bulb moment in understanding horses: Less is more.*

If your horse has a problem, look for a resolution in yourself.

I don’t mean some esoteric theory about soulmates or an obscure psychological reasoning from possible experiences in his past or even a dispassionate reciting of training aids as described on any of two million articles online. Those are intellectual activities.

Your horse lives in the moment and to help him, you must escape your over-thinking intellectual mind and join him in the NOW. Tune in to your senses. What do you literally feel?

If you are timid in the saddle or if you’re not warmed up yet, your thighs might be tight. That means that you are suspended above the saddle. Breathe, imagine an egg under your knee, and let your sit-bones settle. A deep seat makes for a connected ride. Not to mention, mounted thigh-master exercises are frowned on by horses.

While you’re at it, if his poll is tight, do a slow side-to-side neck roll. If he is clamped on the bit, relax your jaw. Once your body is looser see how your horse has changed. Then walk a while longer and let what you thought was relaxed… relax some more.

Next, feel your energy level. The rule of thumb is that if your brain is working, your body has gone still, most notably your seat. And that is, after all, the cue to halt. A busy brain can shut a horse down. Too much mental chatter scrutinizing what’s happening is not the same thing as feeling it.

See how easy it was to distract you from your energy? I just chattered about brains and your brain couldn’t resist hearing its own name. This what your brain does when you ride. Intellect isn’t energy. It distracts you from feeling. Intellect is the enemy of art.  Brains think the only worthwhile activity is thinking. Refuse to engage.

Energy is something separate from intellect. It’s tuning into your body and listening. It’s cultivating an awareness of your muscles and joints, and even your arthritis and old injuries, and then empowering yourself to go beyond. Riding well requires not just an awareness of your body position but also the ability to communicate eloquence in its movement. It’s the same thing that makes you gasp when you see a horse gallop in slow motion.

Think of your energy level as a dial that you can adjust. If your horse doesn’t have much energy, turns yours up. Do more than breathe, actually smell the air. If you’re on the ground, pick up your step, get happy. If you’re mounted, fill your lungs and feel your shoulders go broad. Let the sun warm your chest.

Now feel where your body resists the movement of your horse. The worst-case example of this would be a rider who braces their legs stiff at the trot, riding like a bundle of two-by-four lumber. No, you don’t ride that way, but can you feel small places where you could be resisting your horse’s forward motion?

Does your lower back release to the movement of your horse’s back? If not, you’re giving a constant cue to slow down. If your thighs are tense that counts as a half halt. Are your hands giving or do they drag like a parking brake? And most common, if your intellect kicks in when you notice that your horse isn’t doing what you want, does your seat stop following your horse entirely?

Yes, it’s natural for us but also not fair to complain that your horse is lazy if you’re unable to maintain your energy consistently… your horse would like you to know.

Step one is to notice when it happens. You can’t change things that you aren’t aware of. To begin, go inside your body and feel the ride. In dressage, we ride the inside of the horse and we do that from deep inside of ourselves. We work to train ourselves not lose our rhythm to external distractions, even those we make up in our own mind. Rhythm is the foundation of all good with horses.

The challenge of improving your riding, if you are a long-term novice who wants to progress, is that there are usually fairly small things working against you that you might not be aware of. This is where having a coach is really helpful but you will need to develop an awareness of your own energy and internal movements.

The horse world is a place of extremes. Extreme training, extreme abuse, and extreme love, swinging like a pendulum. Learning isn’t a linear path but more of a spherical realization.

Finding balance for you and your horse in the middle of this chaos is an extraordinary feat. Riding the Middle is the path from over-cued but under-inspired to relaxed and forward brilliance.

Kick less, dance more.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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35 thoughts on “Riding the Middle: My Horse is Lazy.

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I’m not the best or most experienced rider, but am trying to learn. I inherently know kicking and kicking a horse that won’t go is wrong, but don’t necessarily have the knowledge of what to do. This article is so, so helpful. Thank you.

  2. Suzanne in NC

    Perfect timing once again. I’m printing out snippets for my bathroom mirror too!! Thanks so much.

      1. Sharon Odneal

        Thank you for this today.. I’ll be dancing more with my horses and through the rest of my life as well.💞

  3. Cadence Farm

    My horse, Max, has a habit of going slow. Slooooooow. We probably went slow his first ride, nearly two decades ago. At the time, I was thinking “survive” rather than “establish a good habit.” Each short, measured step was, on our first ride of no more than half a dozen steps, volcanic, galvanizing and thrilling beyond belief. I will never forget that ride. I love to relive it, in my mind and in telling the story. Since then, Max has taught me well: Everything we do, we will repeat!

  4. Valarie

    ‘There is a reason Dressage rhymes with Massage’. This idea stuck with me from the clinic at Andrea’s. Since then, I am imagining myself as my horse’s yoga personal trainer. I would hate a yoga instructor who wore spurs or forced me to do splits. I would love an instructor who encourages a litttle gain in strength and flexibility every session. Even when I’m not feeling it and I head to the yoga studio anyways, a positive, energetic, encouraging instructor would leave me feeling wonderful. I aim to be this instructor for my horse.

  5. Lauren

    Sooo much to process from this wonderful post!! Process with my body, feel it with my body. No doubt my ‘lazy’ horse is part shut-down and part matching my energy. Will play with your suggestions. Love ‘riding the inside of the horse’

  6. Barbara Dailey

    “DO YOU LOVE DANCING?
    THE HORSE IS A DANCER IN YOUR HAND,
    A DANCER HEADED FOR
    INFINITY.
    ITS GLIDING LIGHTNESS
    SPRINGS FROM THE
    THE ELAN THAT YOU IMPART
    TO IT AS YOU FEEL
    GATHERING UNDER YOUR
    SADDLE
    ITS ENTIRE STRENGTH.
    THE LAND RECEDES,
    THE WORLD
    FLOWS BY YOU,
    YOUR DANCER
    CARRIES YOU AWAY”

    by Rudolph G. Binding
    (translated by Lili Froissard in 1978)

  7. Guilty. For years, no one’s method worked more than the number of times it took him to learn to resist it. One day, in desperation, I said, “Okay, Dodger. You don’t have to trot. But I’m gonna.” So I started without him, and two steps later, he decided to join me. Just upped his energy to match. Either he liked being invited to my happy party…or he felt the need to cover for my inane posting at the walk.

    1. Well, good boy either way… but it sounds like the anxiety of the ask might have been harder than the trot. I’ve seen that before… I think he likes the happy party.

  8. Joan Spence

    I’m inspired to comment after reading Michelle Twohig’s post, I’m still giggling. I can tell how well I’m riding by how much energy my horses are showing. I can’t even come close to describing how gracious they are carting me around. I too relieve each ride and imagine how I can transform it to ride with them rather than simply on them. Michelle, there is no doubt your horse considers you a partner and helpmate just as my horses do me. It is such an incredible honor and privilege, isn’t it, can never take that for granted … although I do have light years of learning to pay them a fraction of what they’ve given me

  9. Haruko Oda

    Thank you so much as I have been stuck in Energy thing for such a long time. Your explanation has cleared my mind. I am still in the middle of reading, though I could not help telling you this!

    1. Thank you, and good luck. It’s a challenge for find the right energy place to be… I think it’s the place horses can feel the most threatened, though that is never our intention. Thanks, Haruko.

  10. As an owner of a responsive but definitely stoic horse, I thank you for this post! I used to think he was lazy too but we are learning to dance with subtle communication. A shift of hip speaks louder than kicking or spurs. I’ve found it is more about me and how my body moves…….

      1. Lauren

        The more I learn, the less I feel like I know what I’m doing. And the less my horses seem to tolerate from me. The good side is they’re teaching me, albeit slowly, to change and BE the energy they need.

        Makes me wonder how on earth I had such amazing experiences with my
        Horses as a kid. I spent hours on end with them, so
        That helped. Trying to WIN didn’t really work, I was too small. Hmmmm…. probably didn’t have a racing mind full of stuff either…

      2. Oh Lauren… I do know that feeling. I think as kids we just didn’t care. It was horses and that was enough. It’s a pay-later process. Thanks, great comment.

  11. Lovely blog Anna! I call these type of horses Caretakers – they are sooo trying to look after their people that they go inside and shut down rather than buck them off or run away. I think they’re the most misunderstood horses on the planet and it makes me bristle when I see them kicked or god forbid, even spurred when the answer is always in the rider’s awareness or actions.

  12. Dena Ross

    As a new rider your words make so much sense! If I think about my body and my breath and whether I’m as relaxed as I pretend, I realize how often I wait for my Chevy to do the right thing first so I can follow …. but he’s new too and we are learning together. Some say it’s a bad combination, green with green, but we have a great coach and lots of support so our partnership is growing and I can’t imagine riding without him. He has never offered even a little buck or bolt, but he has, on occasion parked and refused to move – mostly when heading off property for a ride.

    Does this mean whenever he ‘parks’ and won’t move further, he’s telling me I’m not ready? Or is he telling me he’s not ready and it’s my turn to lead but he’s not confident enough in me to keep going …..lots to think about…..but now I will remember your words, try to resist less, breathe more, relax deeper, let the noise go….he’s trusted me this far, it’s time I return the favour…..thank you.

    1. Dena, what a great comment. And I’m happy that you and Chevy have good help… as for what it all means… well, it’s a day in time. That’s all, just a day. Thanks for commenting.

  13. Pingback: There Can Be No Doubt | Integrative Horsemanship

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