At one time or another, you’re likely to encounter a horse who just can’t seem to contain himself. He pulls against the reins, dances in place, tries to push ahead, and generally seems unwilling or unable to settle down. Maybe it happens when you start out on a ride. Or maybe it happens all day long, turning into a constant struggle to hold your horse back as he fishtails down the trail. A lot of the time, it happens when he knows he’s close to home.
Whenever it occurs, riding a horse who’s wound up like that can be uncomfortable, nerve-wracking and scary. But being a horse who’s wound up like that is probably even worse. He’s not being willful or uncooperative for the fun of it. A jigging horse has some real concerns, and we can’t improve the situation unless we approach things from his perspective.
Why is He Jigging?
Generally speaking, a horse jigs because he wants to go and he can’t. But there can be various reasons that precipitate his urge to surge:
• He wants to escape or find relief from some physical discomfort or pain. (Poorly fitted tack is often the culprit here, or a painful bit.)
• Perhaps you’re keeping a tight hold on the reins and the horse is seeking a break from the pressure. (If you’re maintaining a death grip on your reins, it may mean that you’re nervous yourself, which can further increase your horse’s anxiety and the impulse to jig.)
• Your horse is anxious to stay close to other horses and gets worried when you hold him back from them.
• Your horse may be insecure about being away from familiar surroundings and wants to get home or back to the trailer as soon as possible.
• He needs to establish his position in the herd (the other horses on your ride) and is trying to push to the front, find a safe spot somewhere in the middle, or crowd the other horses to assert his dominance.
If Something Hurts
Since one potential cause of jigging is physical pain, you’ll want to rule that possibility out right away. All kinds of behaviors are triggered simply because a horse is trying to avoid discomfort.
Make sure your horse is healthy and sound-and don’t forget about his teeth. If his mouth aches, even gentle rein pressure can cause pain and distraction. He may also compensate by holding his jaw unnaturally, which could affect his balance and, eventually, his confidence.
Be sure that his tack is comfortable and that it fits. Pay special attention to the way your bridle is adjusted, and be considerate when choosing your bit. The bridle should allow you to communicate effectively with your horse without causing pain or anxiety. An excellent option is a full-cheek snaffle because it allows you to send clear, direct instructions, instead of relying on leverage and restraint to force him to respond.
Calm Those Nerves
• Make sure your horse isn’t jigging because of pain or discomfort.
• Use the calm-down cue or hips over technique to relax and slow a jigging horse.
• Remember that keeping steady pressure on both reins is not going to slow your horse and may actually cause him to start jigging from anxiety and frustration.
• Practice the essential cues at home in a no-pressure environment so your horse will be able to respond to them in a more exciting situation, like on the trail.
• Be an active rider and give your horse lots of small tasks to focus on to keep him engaged and confident rather than fretful or insecure.
When You’re the Culprit
Once you’ve determined that there are no underlying physical concerns that could be creating the jigging problem, you should turn the spotlight on yourself. It’s very natural for riders to pull back on the reins when a horse is jumping around or trying to surge ahead. It’s also common to try to hold a horse back by not letting go. Often, even if the horse does try to relax, we may be too preoccupied or insecure to loosen the reins, so doing the right thing provides no relief for the horse.
If you think about it, it’s not hard to see how this all makes the situation worse. For starters, it’s uncomfortable for your horse to have constant pressure on his mouth, so he’s going to try whatever he can think of to get some slack in the reins. Like jig. He may also grow claustrophobic with his head movement so restricted. Another invitation to jig.
In many cases, constant pulling turns into a vicious circle: We grow tense and lock down on the reins; the horse senses that tension, gets nervous, starts to panic from the rein pressure, and jigs harder; we get more frightened and tighten up even more, and so on. Throughout it all, communication comes to a screeching halt. The reins have turned into constantly applied brakes that are useless because the horse is using his own-far stronger-gas pedal.
A Matter of Instinct
Our remaining three jigging triggers-the desire to stay close to other horses, being anxious to return to a familiar setting, and the need to establish position within the herd-sound different from each other, but they have something in common: They’re all instinct-driven. It’s your horse’s nature to want security, and that’s really what these needs are all about.
It’s important to keep that in mind, especially if you find yourself growing frustrated or losing your temper. He’s just trying to do what his instinct tells him will keep him safe.
Does that mean you should let him ignore your cues, fight his way to the spot he wants, or hightail it back to the barn? Of course not. We’re rechanneling our horses’ instincts every minute we’re around them, and maintaining control on the trail is no exception. But once you understand that your horse is jigging because he wants to hurry home where he can feel secure, or he’s scared of being left behind by the horses up ahead, or he needs to establish himself as a member of this new herd he’s suddenly found himself in, you can deal with those specific causes instead of just tackling the general symptom of jigging.
So let’s return to the trail for a minute and see how you can get a jigging horse under control.
Sidestep Around a Common Trap
One all-too-common response to “fixing” a jigging horse is to assume that better control will come from using stronger hardware. For many riders, this means going to a harsher bit, which is almost guaranteed to backfire.
For one thing, if the horse is jigging because he’s feeling trapped, using a bit that’s designed to make him feel more trapped is not going to improve matters. If the problem arises from a rider keeping constant or excessive pressure on the reins, the horse is still going to fight to escape that pressure, regardless of the severity of bit.
In addition, introducing a strange, new-and potentially painful-device isn’t going to help a horse’s confidence or understanding of what the rider wants him to do. At best, it may be another distraction for the horse. At worst, it could give him an even more compelling reason to jig.
Your horse is prancing around like crazy, dancing and pulling against the reins, and you feel like you’re about to lose what little control you might have over him. What should you do?
First, remember that you need to use one rein rather than two. Ease up on both reins for a minute, even if your horse seems poised to jump out from under you. Then, take a firm hold of one rein (but don’t jerk) and prepare to ask him to relax and slow down. In this situation, you have two especially good ways to accomplish this: the calm down cue and the hips over technique.
The calm down cue is a request to have your horse lower his head. (We review the basics of how to teach this on page 52.) When your horse understands this cue, you can apply pressure to just one rein and have him lower his head. That head position will help him settle down.
A lowered head is innately relaxing to a horse, and it doesn’t lend itself to prancing and jigging. In fact, the calm down cue is an excellent way to keep your horse from jigging in the first place, since it promotes relaxation and gives him (and you) something positive to concentrate on.
The hips over technique also works to preempt problems and bring your horse under control if he starts to jig or get too quick. Again, apply firm pressure to one rein, but in this case, you’re thinking about having him take a big step to the side. If you pick up the left rein, for instance, you want him to step his hindquarters over to the right. (Make sure that the instant you feel that big step to the side, you release the rein.) Your horse’s feet will be busy turning him, so he’ll have to stop dancing around.
If this is enough to steady him, you can go back to moving forward, now on a looser rein. But if he begins to jig again, repeat the exercise on the other side. You can keep this up, alternating sides, until he understands that going quietly is much less work and earns him a loose rein. This technique is also great training for you as a rider because you’re practicing a specific, effective response instead of instinctively pulling back on both reins.
Working Through the Urge to Jig
When you ride your horse, you probably have a pretty good idea of where he may start to jig – or you can sense when he’s getting a little wound up and might begin to dance around. So the name of the game is to ride him actively. Don’t just wait until his nerves are starting to fray or you get to that spot on the trail where he wants to run.
Give him plenty of little jobs to do as you ride along the way. They don’t have to be monumental tasks. In fact, they can be as small as circling a tree or moving his shoulders over for two steps and then back again. Always make sure you give him a release the moment he does what you ask. He needs to be assured that the release will be there so that he doesn’t get worried or defensive.
If your horse jigs because he’s trying to push to the front of the line, go ahead and let him ride in front. But while he’s there, keep him busy. Have him ride around rocks, trees and flowers at the trot, and ask for lots of changes in speed and direction.
When he seems ready to take a break, have someone ride up beside you or in front of you. If he starts getting charged up again, put him in front and go back to work. Give him another chance to rest in second place, and continue in this vein until he gets comfortable in the number two spot.
Teaching the Calm Down Cue
The calm down (or head down) cue teaches a horse to relax when he’s excited, such as on the trail, where he may be a little too jazzed up to listen to your requests.
To teach the cue, hold light pressure on one rein until your horse drops his head just a tiny bit-a fraction of an inch is plenty. Focus on the tip of his ear, and the instant you see it drop, release the rein. Wait just a few seconds and do it again.
With a little practice, he’ll figure out what you want, and you can work on getting his head lower and lower. Before long, you’ll need only the barest amount of rein pressure to get him to drop his head.
Remember, that this is an exercise, not punishment. You’re working him hard so that he can direct his thoughts and his energy toward something positive instead of getting into a battle of wills with you.
If your horse jigs because he’s determined to crowd the pack or run up on the horse in front of you, focus on setting and maintaining an even speed. Keep several horse lengths between you and the next horse. If he settles down, leave him alone. If he starts jigging and trying to speed up, circle various trail obstacles to widen the distance again.
Keep yourself focused as well. You don’t want to get distracted and wait until you’re 3 feet from the horse in front of you.
Back home, work on speed control and stopping. Add lots of transitions to your routine so that you can adjust your horse’s gaits and speed easily. He needs to realize that the horses in front of him aren’t going to leave him behind, so practice where other horses are working, if possible. Ride behind them part of the time, and then go your own way for a minute or two. This will help him build confidence and independence.
What about the horse who wants to kick it into high gear the minute he knows he’s on the home stretch? You don’t want to let him run back to the barn or the trailer and arrive hot and sweaty. But neither do you want to end your ride with 20 minutes of jigging or playing tug of war (which, come to think of it, is likely to make him hot and sweaty, too).
In this situation, as in the others, it’s important to engage the horse in lots of exercises that occupy him, keep you in control, and slow his progress. These exercises should include the calm down cue, hips over, shoulders over, and executing maneuvers like heading a few steps in a different direction, or doing serpentines for a while before getting back on course.
Needless to say, you’ll be able to teach him to head home more quietly if he’s not dealing with any additional challenges, such as other horses running off ahead of him. So you may want to enlist the help of your fellow riders as you work through the problem.
Calm and Steady
A jigging horse can turn a relaxing trail ride into a stressful experience for you, your horse, and other riders, and resolving the problem may take some time. But if you use techniques such as the calm down cue and hips over to bring him under control instead of pulling back on both reins, you’ll be well on the way to improving the situation.
Riding actively and keeping him occupied with small requests-which earn lots of reassuring releases-will help him develop confidence. And practicing various control measures back home will further strengthen his ability to respond to your cues even when his instincts are telling him to dance his way down the trail.