A reader asks EQUUS for advice on solving a horse's fussiness on the trail.
By Matthew Mackay-Smith, DVM
Question: I have a gentle 12-year-old Paint mare. She is great to ride, except for two things. First, we ride on many gravel roads with steep ditches and my horse has a habit of walking very close to the side of the road near the ditch. I am afraid that someday she will trip and fall in, so I ask her to move closer to the center of the road. When I do this, however, she puts up a fuss. The other problem is that when we turn into my 1/4-mile long driveway to go home, my horse doesn't budge. I have tried everything I can think of, from using a whip to sitting in place for hours on end. Usually I just end up leading her back home. Any ideas?
Answer: You have two unrelated problems that you'll need to address separately.
When describing your mare's tendency to walk close to the edge of the road, you do not mention what you are doing to ask your mare to move closer to the center. I suspect that you are turning her head in the direction you would like her to go, and you may actually be twisting your body slightly in this direction too. Believe it or not, turning her head in one direction will push her body the other way, in your case, towards the ditch, and that may be why she is putting up a fuss.
Instead of turning her head, move her away from the ditch with leg yield-pressure from a single leg to cue her to move sideways. This will actually require you to turn her head slightly toward the ditch as you use your leg on the ditch side--positioned just behind the girth--to push her body in the opposite direction. As counterintuitive as it may seem, by turning the horse's head towards the edge, you are bending her body away from it. Use your leg fairly actively to really push her, and praise her by letting her straighten out the instant you feel her respond by stepping sideways and underneath herself with the hind leg on the ditch side. Before trying this on the road, you may want to practice your leg yields in your riding ring.
Your second problem, your mare's refusal to turn down the driveway for home, will probably be harder to fix. I have a few suggestions, but I must warn you that if they don't work, persisting with them will only make things worse.
I would start by building on what you already know is successful, which is getting off and leading her home. This method will require several sessions in which you get off and lead your mare just before she stops and won't go any further. In each successive session, try to get just a little bit further before getting down. For instance, the first day go to the end of the driveway, get off and lead her home (don't make a fuss, just do what you know she will do). The next time, take one step around the corner, get off and lead her home. The next ride, take three steps around the corner and so on.
Two things are important to making this work. The first is to avoid pressuring her if she starts to resist. And the second is to look for progress in little stages, always realizing that it is better to get off and lead her before she starts to resist. So even if you think she might make it all the way down the driveway after you have gotten halfway down, get off and lead her anyway. As I said, this might not work. It might have the effect of having your mare stop further and further from home. If this is the case, there are a few other things you can try.
- Back the mare down the driveway, until she figures out that going forward is more desirable.
- Have her follow another horse all the way home.
- Turn her around and ride her back toward home at the start of your ride before you have even gotten to the end of the driveway, going a little bit further away each time.
When working with horses, especially out on the trail in an environment where there are so many variables and external stimuli, I've found that it's counterproductive to follow the maxim: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." It is far better to give the maxim a twist: "If at first you don't succeed, try something else."
- Three Runs Plantation Equestrian Blog. Re-published article from EQUUS Magazine.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in EQUUS Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.