Ask yourself this – what’s your default response like when faced with a challenge?
When it comes to problem solving (in any area of life), I’ve personally found changing my perspective to be highly effective.
Take my verrry laid back gelding, Pistol, for example…
On one hand, I appreciate his easy going tendencies. He’s confident, comfortable and content in nearly all situations, and I can haul all over the country without him becoming overly stressed, losing weight, etc. He handles the pressure of speed event competition like a champ.
Of course, I’d like to take a little credit for him being so solid, however I have to admit it has a lot to do with how he’s wired by nature.
It’s probably accurate to say that the majority of barrel racers don’t have a problem with “lazy” horses, but yet perhaps you’ve had moments when you’ve needed more electric energy and quickness from your horse.
There’s no doubt having a burst of energy available in the split second you need it most can dramatically affect your success!
It actually took me quite a while to effectively and authentically motivate Pistol.
You see, he’s not really “lazy.”
He was just unmotivated, in large part because I wasn’t very interesting.
How’s that for a change in perspective?
While horses like my husband’s gelding, Dot Com (who is Pistol’s polar opposite), are comforted by routine, and desperate for leadership, Pistol isn’t as insecure and he gets bored more easily.
Looking back on the times the perfectionist in me drilled Pistol over and over and over, I can imagine he was screaming on the inside – “What is the POINT of all this – I’d rather cut my suspensories with a hoof rasp than trot one more circle!”
Bless his heart. Although he didn’t show a lot of enthusiasm, Pistol never argued either. Perhaps if he’d been less tolerant, I would have gotten a clue sooner?
What I’m getting to, is that there are some super effective techniques for “building a fire” in a horse. Unfortunately however, the majority of the horse world neglects to consider the state of a horse’s MIND in addition to their body. That’s what I missed with Pistol for so long.
Below I’ve shared understandings and techniques for “building a fire in your horse’s feet” that a very small percentage of the horse population understands, but I’m here to tell you from experience – they WORK.
Although sometimes our horses need more refinement in their understanding of “go and whoa,” what an unmotivated horse needs is NOT what you might think…
What these horses really benefit from is a rider that challenges them MENTALLY – one that presents them with fascinating and riveting things to do (or WAYS of doing things) that get the wheels in their head turning FIRST, before expecting their physical wheels (feet) to move with quality, precision and speed.
It’s much the opposite effect of how we get through to a horse mentally (one that is distracted, can’t focus, etc.) by moving their feet first – which you may already be familiar with.
We simply turn that idea around to motivate the FEET and build genuine desire by “moving” the mind.
Do I have YOUR mental wheels turning yet?
You might wonder what this looks like, so here are some tips…
First off, I try to start my rides with Pistol by doing something fun and different that will keep him guessing, and capture his interest and attention.
Instead of leading him in from the pasture the same way each day, I might back him to the gate, or even ask him to trot in half circles in front of me as we make our way to the barn.
After saddling up, we might go for a short ride around the pasture first, which naturally motivates him since we’re getting out of the arena and into the wide open spaces. This alone frees him up immensely.
Think about it – would you rather jog repetitive small circles, or head out down an open road? How long would your motivation last in either case? Small circles in an arena “shorten” a horse, straight lines and wide open spaces “lengthen” or free up an unmotivated horse.
I also do my best to think of creative ways to give Pistol a purpose in the work he does. He LOVES working cattle because it’s an actual job that engages him mentally. Even riding to the end of the driveway to get the mail can be your purpose.
Last winter my husband and I worked several weekends in a row to cut down and clean up 12 large, dead trees in our pastures. Guess who was super enthusiastic about dragging the heavy logs all over the property to use for jumps and cavelettis?
Performing a “point to point” exercise where you go in straight lines to a certain point, then stop and rest actually has purpose to it as well – even if that purpose is to just go somewhere, arrive there and rest – that alone is motivating to a “lazy” horse.
I also like to challenge Pistol mentally by asking him to touch things with his nose or feet. We sometimes play a little game on the ground before we ride where I direct him to an object. When he touches the target I have in mind, I bring him back to me and give him a scratch, a rest or maybe a treat (“lazy” horses LOVE food!).
It gets him thinking, asking me questions and wanting to please me. If you could only see the priceless expression on his face when we do this!
Teaching tricks is another excellent way to challenge a horse mentally. Pistol gives hugs, kisses and bows – it’s just another way to mix things up and challenge him MENTALLY to build the “fire” I’ll want to have during my rides and runs.
It’s not that Pistol refuses or hesitates to go when I ask, but I was finding that he seemed to need regular tune-ups to keep him really responsive. These little exercises lessen the need for them. Sounds silly I know, but if you’ve ever had a hard time building and keeping the “fire & desire” burning in a certain horse, like me, you’ve probably been ready to try about anything!
Now I certainly don’t do ALL these things every day – that would get predictable, repetitive, borning, AND take a lot of time! The key is to mix it up and do the unexpected. Again, I don’t typically use these strategies with a horse like Dot Com, who has plenty of motivation to move his feet already, AND who is actually comforted by repetition and routine.
At the same time, always remember to “ride the horse that shows up” – which can change day to day (even if it’s the same horse)!
When you use these strategies you’ll tend to notice a subtle difference in your horse right away, and then you’ll continue noticing an increase in their motivation the more you do these things on a regular basis.
Just be careful you don’t allow the pendulum to swing too far the other direction – because that happened to me and before I knew it, my horse that always had more “whoa” than “go” had much more “go” than “whoa,” even without directly working on it.
Before I made this connection, I used to feel as though I had to give Pistol what my team roping husband calls a “nylon massage” pretty regularly. He would respond and GO, but his motivation wasn’t genuine, consistent, and lasting.
It was a little bit like starting over every day. There were always very subtle delays in his response times. Any chance to stand still would put him in a deep sleep. He would make assumptions and go through the motions rather than stay mentally engaged and truly connected to me and ready to do anything in an instant.
He always seemed willing, but under the surface he thinking resistant thoughts and not truly dialed in to me. Although he had the illusion of a perfectly obedient horse, I knew that those microscopic delays had to be eliminated, but I have been particular about HOW I went about it.
When it comes to balancing our “whoa and go,” both our horse’s education AND emotional state plays a BIG part. However, once a horse fully KNOWS and is capable of “whoaing and going,” yet still get off balance toward one extreme or the other, then we must take a deeper look at specifically WHY they don’t WANT to “go” or “whoa” and take intentional action for turning that around – which often takes us back to their MENTAL/EMOTIONAL state.
Pistol has a high level of education and any lag time in his response was very subtle. By no means was I EVER kick, kick, kicking and not going anywhere. His hesitation was barely noticeable.
However, quality movement is crucial to training barrel horses and genuine impulsion is crucial to quality movement! As you know, in our sport there is NO room at the top for even the tiniest delays, and there’s no room at the very top for a horse who’s not putting his heart and soul into his job.
As you’re employing these techniques, also consider that the “fire” our horses display on the barrel pattern CAN have a lot to do with their feeding program, as well as degree of “fire” within the rider.
The bottom line is that I want Pistol (and ALL the horses I ride) to have plenty of connection, positive energy and LIFE in their body – it’s necessary for collection, high level barrel racing, and any athletic equine endeavor.
The difference is that now days I am more choosy about the SOURCE of that energy and HOW I go about creating it.
I want it to be generated out of DESIRE rather than AVOIDANCE (as in “OK, I’ll DO it to avoid another ‘nylon massage'”).
Although it may not be obvious to the untrained eye, there IS a difference, and it WILL separate the WINNERS (and happy horses) from the rest of the pack.
I hope these “outside the box” understandings and strategies will help YOU create the same TRUE enthusiasm in your horses, as they have for mine – and ultimately help you achieve “out of this world” RESULTS as well!
Now I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts and experiences with “lazy” horses in the comments below!
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