Katy Campbell from Alaska Asks: How do you ride a sluggish horse without looking like you are killing him?
There are many different personality types of horses. Some are overachievers, some are hot, and certainly some are lazier or more sluggish by nature than others. These horses can make you feel like you are working yourself to death just to keep them loping. They are slow to respond to cues, hard to get quick responses out of, and you can struggle with having proper drive and forward motion. Along with these seemingly negative traits, come a number of positives. These horses are usually less spooky, they rarely are running off with you, and if you can get them going, they often are good stoppers. I have a couple of horses that are this way. My roan stallion, Laddie, is a prime example. He a gorgeous loper, huge stopper and has a generally cool demeanor. For maneuvers like a spin, though, teaching him to add speed was challenging. He was willing to be kicked on rather than to speed up. I cannot spin him using my leg for acceleration. I have to start him in his spin, put a lot of life in my body, and then always quit him when he has stepped it up a gear. If I kick him for that, he will simply stiffen up and take my kick. I cluck to him, and if he doesn’t gear up, I use my rein on his shoulder. Now, he is quite willing to step it up just from a subtle cluck.
I have learned a valuable piece of information over the years. When you are riding or training a numb horse, it can be easy to fall into the habit of taking ahold of them, or kicking them harder because they feel numb. In those moments we tend to forget that the heaviness or softness in a horse is not a physical trait, but a mental trait. Even though it feels right to handle those numb horses harder, the truth is, lightness is more important in these horses than in a more reactionary horse. With this type of horse you must always ask with the lightest of cues and enforce with a quicker and harder correction. They are often willing to take that grey area amount of pressure rather than do what you are asking of them. For example, if I am asking my horse to accelerate, I will cluck to him and gently squeeze my legs. I give him a moment to respond, and then I will more aggressively over and under him with my reins. The next time I ask, I will go back to the very lightest of cues. I graduate my pressure faster with this horse, but I am more careful to preserve the initial cue. I won’t bother with the in between steps with him because they are ineffectual to this type of horse. I will focus harder on him understanding what I am asking, more than physically dragging him there. Horses like this can actually be easier to train for most people for the simple reason that their lazy nature makes them seek the relief more than another horse. They are the perfect horse for making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy. Always give these horses the opportunity to do the right thing and get that release, but be very clear about making the wrong thing more meaningful. Make your training of this horse very black and white and you will find that he becomes lighter and more agreeable with each ride.