Have you ever been so surprised by a sudden change in your horse’s behavior that you’re heart races, you feel shaky and you don’t know what to do? What if your normally well-behaved horse’s behavior became so unpredictable that it was putting you at risk of being hurt? What if this behavior made you doubt your own abilities as a rider, lose trust in your horse and stopped you from enjoying riding your horse, (and actually made you nervous about getting on any horse)?
When a horse’s behavior changes for the worse, you need to do some detective work to get to the root cause of the problem. Only when you know what the cause is can you apply the appropriate solution.
Following these tips can help you find the cause and the best solution to your horse’s performance problem.
1. Check for a physical problem. Horses can be sore without showing lameness or other noticeable signs. It’s natural for them as prey animals to hide any sign of weakness which would make them a more appealing target for predators. So horses can be very good at hiding muscle soreness or chiropractic misalignment. Other areas that are often overlooked are dental problems, TMJ issues, and digestive disorders such as gastric ulcers.
2. Check saddle fit. That saddle you bought when you got your horse (or was it your previous horse’s saddle?) may have fit him ok. But, horses’ muscles change with age and exercise. Saddles also change with wear. The padding can pack or break down. Wrinkles can develop in the leather causing pressure points. Check the condition of your saddle and how well it fits your horse. Just because it fit 6 months ago (you do check the fit twice a year, right?) doesn’t mean it’s still good. If you’re not sure, get help from a qualified saddle fitter.
3. Go Back to Basics with Your Horse. Training problems happen when the horse is moved along more quickly than he is physically or mentally ready to handle. Slow down and spend more time focusing on straightness, suppleness and balance to build the healthy, strong and long muscles your horse needs to do his job confidently, well, and without resistance. Don’t run (well, ok, canter or lope) before you can walk really, really well. (Walk is the most underrated gait in riding, but is the foundation of everything else.) Use hill work, poles, and lateral exercises to develop your horse’s core, back and hindquarter muscles.
Work with a qualified horse trainer who does not offer quick fixes, but truly cares about the horse’s mental and physical well-being for the long term.
Bonus Tip – Go Back to Basics with Your Riding. If your trust and confidence has been damaged then do yourself and your horse a huge favor. Focus on developing a truly independent seat in the saddle so that you are supple, soft and balanced. The physical tension that comes with feeling nervous puts you (and therefore your horse) off balance; makes your aids unclear and inconsistent (which confuses your horse); and, creates the vicious cycle of your nervousness causing resistance in your horse, which continues to damage your confidence and your partnership.
When you are balanced in the saddle, you feel more secure and therefore less nervous. I highly recommend taking lunge lessons on a well schooled horse regardless of how much riding experience you have.
The bottom line: Your horse’s behavior is his communication. When he has been performing consistently well and then suddenly changes, there is something getting in his way. Figure out what the cause is and then you can work on the most beneficial solution.