No, not the popeyed, wire-skeletoned mount of Gumby, but the horse who doesn’t move forward. You know who I’m talking about.
Gumby’s Poky actually seems quite perky. As if you could hop on and tour cartoonland at a frisky trot. Maybe even hold an animated (forgive the pun) conversation at the same time. The benefits of riding Poky would be great: no grooming (OK, maybe just wipe him down with a damp cloth), no trimming or shoeing, his mane and tail always perfect. That perpetual smile leads me to believe he’s always in the mood to go round and round the ring without complaint. Too bad we can’t push a button and transfer some of those characteristics to our pokier equine friends.
The real version of riding Poky goes something like this: You do it the way you’ve been taught. Gentle pressure with your legs. What happens? Nada. Remember to give plenty of rein. More leg pressure. Zip. Dig in your heels so the horse knows you mean it. Oh, he knows. Still nothing. The horse moves forward at a pace guaranteed to outstrip only the drying of glue. Even as the rest of the pack moves forward as a healthy pace, you bring up the rear as long as your legs hold out. Your time in the ring becomes a battle. You expend all your energy moving your horse forward off your leg. There’s no energy left to work on your riding or the horse’s skills. You dismount exhausted and disappointed, time and again.
I have been there. I lived in PokyLand for four years. Though my Percheron mare Millie was the safest, sweetest ride on the planet, she had other ideas about moving out when not foxhunting. “Catch the guy in the red coat” was her favorite game to play an always landed me in hot water with the propriety police. Holding back that much horse is a challenge when you are accustomed to urging her on. The ring, however, was anathema to her. Given the fact that Millie was as broad as a beamy boat and stood 16.2 hands high, I was already at a distinct disadvantage at only 5 feet tall. No way to get a good leg around her. Riding her presented an opportunity to learn to use my legs and seat to their most economical advantage. But it was frustrating and tiring. Never one to enjoy using a crop, whip, or spurs, I always managed to “forget” the thing. Our lessons stalled. Hacks were no fun.
Though I love her beyond measure for the fun we had and what she taught me, I sold her to a long-legged gentleman novice who by virtue of his size and enthusiasm for hunting is enjoying a beneficial partnership with Millie in the hunt field. He loves her as much as I do. I see Millie quite often, and have to choke back a tear from time to time. Now that I have the benefit of space and time, I can look back and see ways I might have changed her Poky nature.
It pays to observe closely and examine the reasons a horse might not be as forward as you’d like. Often the owner/rider will say things like “She’s just lazy,” or “This horse likes to fool around,” or “If I get after him, he just sucks back.” There are many reasons for a horse to move slowly, to slow down when asked to speed up. They may even buck or kick when the pressure is on. But rest assured, most of the time, these behaviors can be changed. Sometimes, however, there are good solid reasons when they can’t. That’s why Millie and I parted ways.
First, check the obvious health issues that may contribute to such behavior:
1. Diet. Is the horse on a balanced feed with enough free forage? Does the horse get enough clean fresh water? Have you had a nutritional panel run recently? Sweet feed and an excess of carbohydrates in the diet can cause a horse to feel sluggish, just like humans. It is possible that a switch to lower-carb complete feed will help.
2. Check your hands and seat. In the working walk, you should have soft, following hands and seat. That means not holding the front end back with the reins as you urge forward with the seat and legs. This kind of riding can exhaust and sour a horse quickly. If you suspect yourself of this, try riding in the ring on a bareback pad (not stirrups!) with a rope halter or a loose ring snaffle on the buckle a few times a week and see if there is any difference in the horse’s willingness to move forward.
3. Level of Work. If these changes make no difference in the horse’s willingness to move forward, consider the level of work you are asking for. Heavy work produces sour, tired horses. Substitute an hour of hand grazing for a lesson or a ring session once a week, or allow a day off without human contact at all. You’d be amazed at how glad to see you they can be if allowed to be “just horses” even for a short time.
4. Saddle Fit. A saddle that pinches anywhere or impedes movement of the shoulder or back will render any horse reluctant to move forward. When having a saddle checked for fit, remember to ask the fitter to examine it while you are sitting in the saddle. It also pays to have the fitter observe you ride. No one can tell a thing about a saddle just sitting there on top of a horse.
5. Teeth. If the horse has dental problems, carrying a bit may be painful.
6. Bit. Check your bit. Too severe? Too constrictive? A simple snaffle may encourage forward movement.
7. Development. Lastly, consider the possibility that the horse has not been taught to move forward properly. This isn’t the catastrophe is sounds like, because the horse can be retrained from the ground up in short order.
Working with any of the elements above can influence the horse’s behavior. But there are some factors of the equation that will not change no matter how much work we put into our horses.
Consider conformation: A Percheron horse like Millie is built to pull, not come through from behind. Action and speed are completely different and must be accepted from the outset. Attempts to change them are both futile and cruel. I felt no worries about asking her to move faster than a slow amble, but I was never going to demand that she carry herself in a beautiful dressage frame for extended periods. That’s not to say that we didn’t have some battles moving downhill fast while foxhunting, when I feared for my life. A horse heavy on the forehand can be lethal in a situation like that. We worked hard at self-carriage in situations like that. And part of self-carriage is moving forward with some speed.
Other conformational issues can contribute to lack of willingness to move forward. For example, a ewe-necked horse may tend to be unbalanced and act flighty if asked to move forward out of his comfort zone due to discomfort in his neck and back.
Consider Age: It doesn’t hurt to point it out.
Next up: How to get Poky Moving!
¹ Linda Tellington-Jones with Roberta Jo Lieberman. The Ultimate Horse Training and Behavior Book. North Pomfret, Vermont: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2006, p.99.