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.