Ask an Expert

Going Forward

Tips to help a young horse find his “forward” gears.

Journal photo.

Question:

I would appreciate a tip on how to keep a horse moving forward. I have a young horse that wants to stop and freeze up. I don’t use spurs and am not sure if a crop is the way to go.

-- Patti Jo Runyan

Answer:

We sought the wisdom of Patrick Hooks of Texhoma, Oklahoma, a clinician, horse trainer and longtime colt starter:

Don’t feel alone. I’ve been in the same boat many times. I will offer some solutions, rather than quick fixes. Keep in mind that my suggestions will take a lot of hard work and patience on your part.

Any time I help with a problem, whether I’m present or not, I evaluate a horse according to four separate categories: physical, mental, emotional and mechanical. Each category is self-explanatory except for the mechanical, and by that, I mean the mechanical aspects of horsemanship that a rider must keep track of, including the horse’s footfall and movements. Here is how I’d go through the categories:

Physical

I don’t know anything about the physical condition of this animal. Without being able to see the horse first-hand or visit with the owner, I would wonder about the horse’s sense of self-preservation and overall soundness. I don’t believe in looking for excuses, but I do recognize and respect true physical science. For example, I have had several mares through the years give me fits due to issues with their reproductive tracks.

On this colt, I would first be sure there was nothing physically wrong with him before any training starts. Everybody and their brother at the boarding barn has a quick fix for you. Always look for facts, not fiction. Be certain your horse is sound. A horse doesn’t know how to lie. If he is telling you something is wrong, write it down in stone. The word “lie” isn’t in a horse’s vocabulary.

Mental

This horse isn’t dumb, but we need to determine if the horse has been ridden into the ground and is stopping due to self-preservation, if it’s truly trained, or if it’s lazy. Many people have it in their head that just because you kick or spur a horse, he automatically knows to go, and that’s not true.

Besides the colts that my son, Zach, and I have started over the past many years, I have also been in several colt-starting challenges. Some of the most frustrating moments I have experienced in public have involved problems getting an unstarted colt to move. Giving me the benefit of the doubt, there are rules to follow in these competitions and using the old “over and under” in order to get movement isn’t one of them. In a California challenge, I had a heck of a time getting the colt to lope. Finally, the open space of the arena rather than the round pen allowed the colt to find the lope. At another challenge in Canada, I couldn’t get a newly saddled colt to untrack. The horse has to be taught to move off the life of your body. Some horses take to it like a duck to water, others you will work your butt off just to get in a ride. It simply takes time. Your legs become their legs. Your goal is to ride as one.

So Patti Jo’s horse is smart enough to stop and protect what it feels is important to its own being. The real question is, “Why?”

Emotional

Evidently, there is a little trouble in this area or the horse wouldn’t be shutting down on the owner. I have no knowledge of the horse’s history, environment or its free time. If a boarding facility or a box stall is in the picture, that can turn an apple cart upside down. A prison cell or prison yard comes to mind. “All work and no play” when out of the cell can cause sourness very quick.

Unless there is an element of barn or buddy sourness that I’m not aware of, I wouldn’t think fear or a lack of self confidence is causing this horse to not move off. A lack of education or possibly a tendency toward laziness comes to mind.

Mechanical


I’m here to learn and share, not criticize. I noticed the owner mentioned no use of spurs. Spurs are an extension of the foot; they’re not for jabbing to get movement. A lot of times, I notice folks asking the horse to go with their feet, but their hands are saying whoa. It has to either be “whoa” or “go,” not both. Due to the statement about the spurs, I suspect that the owner’s horsemanship level at this time does not cover the footfall of the horse. Understanding the horse’s footfall and the balance of horse and rider is very important, especially for gait transitions and getting the reins connected to the feet, so to speak.

Like all of us from time to time, Patti Jo just needs a little help sorting out her horsemanship. She is in a jam with a very challenging problem. The horse I mentioned before in Canada? If someone had roweled his flanks or come “over and under” him with a quirt to get those first few steps, it would have been a bronc ride. I wasn’t at the colt-starting for an eight-second ride, I was there to share what the grandkids could do on this horse in the future. With that being said, I don’t think Patti Jo is interested in an eight-second ride, either. Would a good swift kick or a quirt help this horse? Maybe, if he is soured or spoiled. The question is, can Patti Jo ride him after that request?

The Solution

After the veterinarian and farrier give me a clean bill of health on this horse, I would first check out his emotions. I would go to a round pen or corral, and move the horse off. Without adding a bunch of pressure, I would see if the horse moves off at liberty. Next, I would add the saddle and do the same. This will tell the owner if the horse has a problem with the saddle, rider or both.

If all that checked out, next I might add a friend to ride alongside and “draft” my young horse. This is the same principle as a person working alone using a snubbing horse to pony young colts. Once I felt my horse was moving out freely under those conditions, I would concentrate heavily on my horsemanship. I would concentrate on gait transitions. Accomplish a lively walk at first, ride with alternating leg movements. Add life to your body to raise the life of the horse. Next, build up to a trot and carry that for a few strides, then transition back to the walk, then stop. Allow stopping to be a good thing and idea. Continue with your long trot and build up to a lope. As simple as this next statement might seem, it’s vital: Let the horse find the lope on his own. After the horse finds the lope, go for a few strides then transition back to a trot, walk, and stop. You might find your horse will leave you a nice set of 11’s (a sliding stop) if you will take advantage of the horse wanting to stop. Allow the horse to build on these ideas and gain confidence and enjoy riding. Fix things up so moving off is the horse’s idea. Fix things up so stopping is a good thing.

This horse must love to stop. I know folks that would pay good money for that type of horse under the proper circumstances. It brings to mind a slogan Ray Hunt shared with all of us: “Working for you, you can’t beat it; working against you, you don’t need it.”

-- Horseman Patrick Hooks

*AQHA and the provider of this information are not liable for the inherent risks of equine activities. We always recommend consulting a qualified veterinarian and/or an AQHA Professional Horseman.