Remember those stubborn ponies of your past whose fat bellies deflected your thumping heels like a bug guard on the front of a pickup truck? I can recall more than one incident when “Misty,” “Sweetpea,” or “Katrina” just decided they would do no more (and really, looking back, who could blame them?) Most of us are a long way from ponies now and a child’s willingness to spend an hour or two negotiating three steps forward. But still, if you ride at all, you’re likely to face a balk or two in your time in the saddle, and having the techniques to negotiate the issue quickly and peacefully is key.
Note: Many horses balk when approaching something strange or “scary.” This is a different issue and can be successfully dealt with in a layered, progressive fashion using desensitization. According to lifelong rancher, horse trainer, and author Heather Smith Thomas, horses that stop or balk for no apparent reason are the hardest challenge. Here are tips from her book GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS to help fix the horse that just plain refuses to go forward.
How to Change This Habit
1 On occasion a horse has some kind of physical problem that causes pain or discomfort when saddled and ridden. The horse may not be lame, per se: He may move out freely without a saddle or any weight on his back, yet be reluctant to move when someone is riding him. If the horse is balky and stubborn when first starting a ride and then seems to “warm out of it,” you should suspect a physical problem as the cause, such as a sore back or arthritic joints. Contact your veterinarian to discuss the possible causes of pain or discomfort.
2 When the horse refuses to move because he doesn’t want to do something—such as go through a gate—the easiest way to get him moving is to convince him that he’s not being made to do the thing he doesn’t want to do—in other words, change his focus. For example, you can turn the horse in another direction and reapproach the gate, or back him up through it. This solves the immediate problem, and then you can work on the larger issue with progressive training to teach him to go through gates over many training sessions.
3 The horse that halts for no apparent reason (there isn’t an object or obstacle that seems to be the cause) and refuses to move in spite of coercion is harder to deal with. It’s often as if he suddenly decides he’s had enough (of whatever you’ve been asking him to do while being ridden) and his mind shuts down. Kicking him or using spurs or a whip is not the answer here as he will likely still refuse to budge. Punishment is usually counterproductive in this scenario and makes the horse’s mind shut down even more. The best way to get him to move is to make him take a step to the side by getting him a little off balance.
• Pull his head abruptly around toward you and use your leg strongly on the opposite side.
• Lean into the turn you are asking the horse to make to encourage him to move away from the leg pressure and to rebalance himself—he will have to take a step or two with his front feet.
• Using this technique, spin him around one way and then the other. This usually breaks his mindset and you can get him moving forward again.
4 Some horses that stop and refuse to go forward will still back up when asked. If this is the case, back the horse until he gets his mind off balking, and he will then be likely to go forward again when you request it. Note: This solution should only be used when you are riding in an arena free of hazards. In addition, it is important to recognize that the last thing you want is for the horse to develop a habit of rushing backward blindly whenever he doesn’t want to go forward—someday he could back right off a mountain or into a ditch. It is best to use the back-up tactic when you can back him into a safe but solid object, such as the arena wall or board fence. The “bump” from the wall or fence will make him want to go forward again.
For solutions to more than 130 common behavior and training problems, check out GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS by Heather Smith Thomas, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of horse books and DVDs, is a small, privately owned company based on a farm in rural Vermont.