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Horse protests upward
gait transitions in the arena

Hi Ed,
I have a little issue with my horse Sunny that I hope you'll give some tips on. I only get to ride 1-2 times a week. I make sure he's turned out lots of the time with other horses.  In the 5 years I've had him I mostly rode out in the woods, fields and mountains. The problems start if I try to work him in the arena.  He just doesn't seem to understand the point of riding around the arena at anything faster than walk. I have no problems steering, riding him in circles or in any other shape around the arena, it's just that he can be reluctant to trot and extremely reluctant to canter, to the point he sometimes throws his ears back in protest. Now, it could seem he's in pain, but then when I ride him out and about he's more than willing to move. One of the things that seem to help is getting him to change gaits often to get his attention and energy up. I would appreciate some suggestions as to how to encourage him to move forward in a gentle way.

Hi Masha,
Sounds like Sunny is protesting the idea of riding in the arena and wants to see how little he can do to get by and to let you know he does not enjoy riding in the arena.  Life is not all play.  Sometimes we have to work even when we would rather not.  Sunny will respect your leadership more if you insist that he trot or canter in the arena when you ask.  I like my horse to be a friend and a partner but I also like them to be somewhat like a good soldier in that when the leader tells them to do something they do it immediately without question or protest.  

In order to have him obey your cue to trot or canter, the gait transitions you are already doing will help build up his energy but then also keep him on big open patterns, not small circles so he feels like there is somewhere to go.  

When you ask for the trot or canter, ask by closing your fingers on the reins and touching with both lower legs momentarily then open your fingers and legs and expect him to move up to the next gait.  Your holding is his cue of preparation letting him know you are about to release him to go faster.  If he does not immediately move faster up to the next gait whether it is walk to trot or trot to canter, then use your dressage whip once firmly on the top center of his rump.  

We use the whip on top of the rump because in that location the horse has no doubt that you are asking him to go forward.  Remember, pressure on one side always means "move this part of your body sideways", therefore if you use the whip on the side of his hip or ribs it means move over instead of move forward.  Sometimes the surprise of the application of the whip on the top of the rump can cause a protesting horse to hump up or kick out behind before they move up to the next speed.  Be prepared for this reaction with a good, solid seat or holding the horn.  Make sure you do not allow him to kick out and continue to go at a walk or you will be teaching him to kick out instead of the desired result of moving forward with more speed.  Keep asking until he speeds up.  Be firm and insistent.

I know you may not like to use the whip but, you may only have to do it once so he knows you are serious about increasing speed.  Next time you ask lightly with the release of your fingers and legs he will know you are serious and he will immediately speed up.  It is ok to be assertive and firm when necessary and when it is fair.  You are not being mean or rough with this method.  You always offer him the good deal of responding to your light request.  If he chooses to ignore your light request then he brings the consequences on himself and he knows that.  He is not upset and does not blame you or loose trust in you, because you have been fair.  In fact he respects you more.  Just as with children, it is correct and beneficial to them to use fair discipline when necessary.  I like for a horse to have a "Yes, I will" attitude, not an "I don't want to" attitude.

Ed Dabney is an internationally acclaimed clinician, presenting horsemanship and riding clinics all over the US and in Europe.  In 2007, Ed was named Champion of the East Coast Trainer Challenge Series by Equine Extravaganza.  Ed was honored to have been selected by the University of Georgia to teach their senior level Young Horse Training course.

His training articles have appeared in many major national magazines.  Ed produces instructional videos and the “Gentle Horsemanship” TV program which has been seen on RFD-TV.

Ed's blending of natural horsemanship and classical equitation has made an indelible mark with students all across the United States and now also in Europe, drawing the attention of serious riders searching for the lightest touch and the deepest connection with their horses irrespective of breed or discipline.