I've recently acquired a 5 1/2-year-old, 15.2-hand mare. The horse is very kind and capable, but I am getting quite frustrated because she's resistant when I ask her to go freely forward. I have tried Kyra Kyrklund's ABCs (featured in the Feb. 1999 issue of Dressage Today). I have gone on trails and worked on transitions and on leg yields. When I ride a slow rhythm for relaxing, it is impossible to keep forward momentum. Using driving aids makes her stop dead, even with whip reinforcement.
I am not a timid rider and have several decades of riding under my belt, but this obviously is not the solution to this problem. The horse is getting stronger and gaining needed weight. Her energy level is fine in the pasture. My saddle fits her well. I'm willing to concede some of my goals, but it would be nice to be able to get on her and just go forward freely.
Training can become perplexing and frustrating when we are faced with this type of issue. It would be quite easy if we could just ask our equine friends to let us in on the problem so we could solve it together. Unfortunately, we have to go by clues and surmise the cause of a horse's learned responses.
Your horse is a mare, and though I love the mare I now own, mare owners have to ask themselves if problems are occurring because a horse is "mare-ish" or, for example, touchy to and negative to any leg and seat procedure, along with even a minimal amount of contact. A mare-ish horse often considers even the slightest aid just too much constraint. Mares, in general, tend to have a more definite attitude or strong will about life. When more driving aids are applied to horses that get resistant and annoyed with pressure, the most common resistance is either to shut down and go slower, with a sense of having the "brakes" on, or they just simply stop and refuse to go forward. These horses, whatever their gender - some stallions and geldings also have this attitude - will do several things when reprimanded for not moving forward. The least negative reaction when "popped" forward is for the horse to freeze and appear either to have leather skin or not to have felt a thing. The next initial reaction is one of outrage and belligerence, where the horse instantly reacts to the discipline either by kicking at the whip or at the rider's legs. Then the horse might resist by kicking or bucking with no forward movement, trying to threaten the rider into stopping her demands. Your mare sounds like she may have these mare-ish traits.
Since your mare is in good health with a correct feeding program, her resistance has no relation to being weak or tired. No matter what her past training may have taught her, I suggest approaching this problem in a fresh manner.
Begin at a halt with your reins just short enough for control but not establishing contact with her mouth, so she doesn't have an excuse to resist your hand. Next, think of your seat as the director of the forward movement and your legs as the impulsion givers. Note: Your back and seat control the gaits and the range of motion within the gaits. Your legs control the impulsion and give signals that become the learned leg aids. Your reins are the connectors between the horse's mouth and your back.
Now ask your mare to go forward brightly and quickly from a positive but light squeeze of your legs; at the same time, give direction to this squeeze with a thrust of your seat. Make sure you push down and forward with your hips. Be careful not to push backward with your seat. This happens when you are leaning too far forward with your shoulders.
If your mare does not instantly go forward - without the braking feeling - then quickly sting her with your leg, three to six times in a row, until she jumps or runs forward. Let her go freely forward, then bring her back quietly to a halt.
Repeat the same initial correct signal. If there is no response, add the whip behind your leg. When you use the whip, don't kick at the same time. Squeeze with your legs, and if there is no response, be strong with the whip. Use it for quick, repeated "pops" until she respects and accepts the signal that originally was given from your back and legs.
Make any and all corrections quickly so they are directly associated with the resistance. Otherwise, your mare will not associate the two and could become more confused and/or afraid. When she responds correctly, praise her immediately using your voice, and give her a pat on the neck or on the area behind your leg.
If this technique starts to work, then next try it in the forward gaits. Do not try rein-back for a while, because that is a backward influence and should not be used much with a horse that is already stuck and not forward-thinking.
Once these aids are learned, pick up the reins at the halt and try to establish contact with your mare's mouth. Work with jaw-suppling exercises so that chewing begins. This should be a positive beginning to her training. This technique can be the basis for the rest of the disciplinary aids you might need when going on to teach her more exercises.
Linda Oliver is a United States Dressage Federation (USDF) bronze, silver and gold medalist. She has been short-listed for two Olympic Games and has earned numerous USDF Horse of the Year awards. She competes her stallion Trond at Grand Prix, while teaching and training from her Green Bank Farm in Waterford, Virginia.
This article originally appeared in the October 2000 issue of Dressage Today magazine.