Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

As riders, we need to decipher between which response should be most beneficial in the various situations we find ourselves. Ideally, we would train both ourselves and our horses to create conditions where problems never happen in the first place.

However, we know that especially in horse riding, unforeseeable events occur. We need to be prepared with several different tools, so that we are prepared for most scenarios.

Please note: the assumption here is that there are no tack or otherwise physical or mental discomfort producing the unwanted behavior. 

* Safety first! As per John Lyons, here are three rules to live by to keep you and your horse safe through any training session:

- You can't get hurt.

- Your horse can't get hurt.

- The horse is better at the end of the training session than at the beginning.

Assuming all those parameters are in place, here are some suggestions on how to train your horse through the rough times:

1. Stay On

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It's often tempting to bail when your horse starts bouncing around and disregarding your aids. Assuming you are safe enough, do your best to stick through it. Get someone to help you out, if possible. You could have a ground person walk near your horse to calm him down, or put you on a lunge line to help make better conditions for you to work through any problems. Getting off reinforces your horse's behavior. Instead, ride through his exuberance to let him know that you are still there at the end of it. As soon as you have good enough balance, go right back to what you were doing, without any indication of emotional upheaval on your part. 

2. Stay Cool

Nothing screams 'not leader' more than losing control of your emotions. Assuming that the horse is already in a mental conundrum, getting mad/even/scared/tense will only feed his confusion and result in more of the same. Be calm, ride it out and then get back to the topic at hand.

3. Ask Again

Some horses are over-eager to the point of getting worked up when something new or challenging is presented to them. In this case, it is wise to just quiet your aids until the horse settles down. When you think the horse can respond to you, simply ask again. Stay on topic and don't waver when your horse spots the horse-eating monster in the corner of the arena. Wait through the next confusions and then ask again. Staying calm and consistent can help many a horse become more reliant on you as the herd leader.

4. Change the Topic

Sometimes it is easier to completely change the topic. If you are asking for more throughness and you meet even more resistance, skip the forward and go to a  lateral exercise. Asking for something different often gives the horse a different feel and something new to focus on.

5. Go Forward

Bucking/rearing/side stepping... they all start with a lack of 'forward'. If you allow the horse to stop his legs (even momentarily), you will effectively be asking for him to get creative. If at all possible, teach your horse to respond to moving his legs when you ask him to, so that when you're in a bind, the muscle memory is already in place and will overtake the mind. Just move. It may resolve many situations before they even have a chance to develop.

6. Focus on Straightness

When things start falling apart, the first thing to go is the horse's straightness. Although it seems that the horse loses straightness as an avoidance strategy, the resulting imbalance is often disconcerting for horses. Do your best to encourage the horse to step underneath his body, staying straight even if on a turn. Keep the shoulders in the body and the hips in line with the shoulders.

7. Be Prepared to Stay For the Long Haul

This is when stubborness is useful. Sometimes, you have to demonstrate to the horse that you will stick with the program regardless of how many obstacles he throws your way.

8. Finish As Soon As You Get A "Yes"

Other times, quitting while you're ahead may be just the ticket. Be sure to always finish on a good note - when the horse is calm and after even one step in the right direction.

There is no one-size-fits-all in riding. Though we'd love to have that perfectly compliant horse all the time, the reality is that even the sweetest horse finds something to say once in a while. If you know your horse well enough, you can get through the dicey situations in a way that helps you reach your training goals sooner than later.

Your turn: What do you do when your ride isn't going exactly as planned?

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  1. I have a song I go to – helps me focus and maintain a rhythm – it goes like this…
    I could wile away the hours
    Conferrin’ with the flowers
    Consultin’ with the rain
    And my head I’d be scratchin’
    While my thoughts were busy hatchin’
    If I only had a brain

  2. Really great tips. My favorite is “changing the topic.” I have to do this with Ngugi to engage her mind and avoid boredom–always keeping it fresh. It works almost every time when she gets “stuck.” 🙂

  3. Fabulous tips, thanks! I also like the song, it’s a good one for keeping with your rhythm.

    A trick I’ve personally found useful and want to mention for people (like me!) who may not have the best “stickability” but have ended up with a more challenging horse to ride than they bargained on is if you absolutely must get off, try to learn some in-hand exercises or have your longe line and whip close by so you can make sure that your horse learns that you getting off doesn’t necessarily mean she’s getting a break. Obviously staying on is the best solution, but if you’re not going to be effective in the saddle or really feel like you’re risking life and limb, a brisk longeing session with lots of transitions or some shoulder-in is a good fall-back plan.

    Another thing I always come back to when my horse is acting up is transitions, even if they’re just walk – stop – walk (we’re not good enough for me to consider it a “halt” ;}). In one of Carl Hester’s books he says he tries to ride 100 transitions in each session – I’m sure this is an exaggeration but it IS something which I find gets my horse much more focussed on me without pissing her off.

    1. I would think Carl does ride AT LEAST 100 transitions in a traing session as he uses transitions in the pace e.g. lengthening and shortening the stride and lateral work, as well as transitions from one pace to another e.g. walk- canter- walk

  4. Well actually could you stop and consider WHY the horse is being NAUGHTY? Maybe he is trying to communicate that : 1 his saddle does not fit. 2 you are out of balance.3. Your aids are inappropriate and too harsh. !

    1. A horse is not always naughty because he’s hurting or you’re doing something wrong. Perhaps he feels good or is just ornery as my horse is frequently. This article was written in the assumption that he was not hurting etc… (See “please note”).

  5. Stay on, stay cool, go forward. I’m working with my Quarter Horse through some of his very bad habits and my staying on him when he has bucked and shimmied and twirled makes a huge difference as we progress through the session. I suspect his previous owners just got off.

    My mantra is also always baby steps. If you’re having a bad day (and we all have them), break whatever you’re trying to do down into smaller, bite-sized pieces and definitely quit on a high note. My QH is very bad

    And don’t be a task-master. Even if my horse is not having a “perfect” day I give lots of love and petting and use my inside voice. Ideally it’s supposed to be fun for both of us, and ultimately a bonding exercise.

  6. I am a fan of circles if you absolutely cannot get anywhere, or in a bucking/rearing/bolting situation. I have even had a trainer teach that the rider draw the horse’s nose almost all the way over to your leg with one rein (lengthening the other completely) and waiting until he gives and stops pulling on the bit/trying to move. This involves removing all aids asking for movement, of course 🙂 That has saved me from flying off a few times. Certainly not the only options, as explained above, but they will do the trick!

  7. I have a youngster…just started under saddle…I find doing groundwork before I get into the saddle helps me determine what we may accomplish under saddle….some days he needs a “free lunge” session with ground poles and a few jumps before I see him licking and chewing and paying attention….sometimes only a few minutes on a lunge line. Once in the saddle always trying to find the place to finish while we are ahead..

  8. I have to say I have a probably unhealthy reaction to “naughty” as I started leasing my horse after approx. a year of riding and she was a bucker. It was at the point where I would be asked if she bucked and HONESTLY not even remember. Anyway lots of good points here. the best thing you can do is just keep moving on and try again.

  9. I m pleased to say i have been doing most of the things mentioned here..i have an ottb mare off the track about 2/12 years..gone bitless with her so my aids are really needing to be used with the seat and leg aids first and the reins are back up..when she does get a bee in her bonnet i ride it out and if she is scared of something..i let her look for a moment and urge her onward before she has a chance to think she needs to turn tail and bolt for it..she has responded very well to the lightrider nose band i got for her bridle..it gives me goid communication with her head! 🙂

  10. How about finding the cause of the overreaction? I don’t like first bit of this as it makes people believe they have to be dominant. Leadership in herds is fluid – more like followership. We need to be partners with oour horses. Trust is a 2 way thing, they need to trust us as much as we need to trust them. Don’t resort to force or whips for ground work either. This is a good description of trigger stacking and learned emotional responses. https://issuu.com/petprofessionalguild/docs/bftg_jan_2017_online_edition_lores/58